On Friday night, we had a dance party.
That is, my two daughters had a dance party. Their birthdays are within a week of each other, so in six days our house will be overrun by girls under four feet tall with the explicit goal of dancing and consuming copious amounts of sugar. Friday, I suppose, was a rehearsal. The older, who is five and ready to go on six, seems to think that dangling her arms while swaying her body around is an especially graceful dance, and neither my wife nor I have the honesty to tell her she looks, unsurprisingly, like a zombie. The younger, who is two and ready to turn three, believes that throwing her body on the floor with abandon is the one necessary ingredient to great dancing.
They both quickly develop one goal: to get dad to follow their moves, swaying his arms, acting like a ballerina, somersaulting on the floor, whatever they are doing.
I’ve been thinking, lately, about what it is to be human. I know that in the 21st century we’re conflicted about this term: the previous 150 years have thrown our old conceptions into disarray. On one hand, concepts of evolution have called our uniqueness into question. We seem simply the most evolved of the many species on earth, and have been able to teach our closest relatives–chimps–some aspects of sign language. We no longer seem quite so singular. This is coupled with the inverse idea, not simply that some animals have capabilities we have, but that we might not have such capabilities at all. Increased understanding of the brain and hormones often reduces us to little more than our urges and drives, formed over thousands of generations of roving homo sapiens in central Africa.
Yet, humans–homo sapiens–are a unique species at least in the way mice are a unique species from cats. But there is more. Humans, as opposed to other animals, make art. Sure, you’ve seen the drawing an elephant or chimp did at the zoo, but the little-known secret is that the zookeeper removes the drawing at the appropriate time, before the elephant simply covers the entire paper in red and blue and yellow and creates a muddy brown, signifying nothing. Elephants or chimps may manipulate their environments, but they do not create beauty and meaning visually. Only humans do this.
And a monkey will never draw another sad monkey and have others reflect on the meaning and common monkeyness in it.
That’s not to touch on novels or movies or epic poems. The spoken art of humanity goes far beyond spoken art in other species. Ours is not merely a song to get better sex (at least, not all the time). Our stories and songs are much less immediate: tales about murder and vice, about the senselessness or sense of the world (depending on your position), about familial relationships, hopes for the future.
We are unique in our storytelling, in our desire to create meaning and significance out of events, to say this thing happened for this reason and it means something.
The movement of postmodernism was largely about difference (or differance). This awareness brought excluded groups to the center, and, though there is still great work to do, excluded groups have unprecedented access to the thought life of society.
We have forgotten that on this ball of carbon and water, we are the outsiders. We are the ones inherently different. We are the ones who question why we are here and whether our lives have any meaning. We are the ones who make cave drawings or tag bridges; we are the ones who go through religious exercises, who listen to the same song again and again after a girl breaks up with us, who write novels and watch movies, who debate utilitarian ethics, who know that the scribbles TREE actually signify sounds, and that combination of phonemes signifies a living organism with a trunk and green leaves.
I may be little more than my hormones and urges, than the thousands of generations roving the central African plains and the enculturation over my life. But the great hope of humanity is that we are something more than these things, that our self awareness allows us to step outside our urges and reflect, desire, explore, change.
Our unique humanity is found in these moments where we step outside the ritual hunting and gathering and experience that which no other species experiences. Art. Story. Beauty. Meaning.
If I’m honest, my urges and drives fight against these things. My urges and drives argue that I should find one more article on the Internet that supports my point of view, that tells the latest football news, that distracts and entertains me. My urges and drives combined with culture insist that I should produce effectively from 9 to 5 and consume voraciously the rest of the time.
But being uniquely human is not primarily about producing or consuming. Yes, we find meaning in work. Even that, however, is meaning-based rather than work based: we find meaning because our work helps people in some way. Work divorced from bettering others is not meaningful work. That’s why janitors don’t commit suicide for a lack of meaning, but stockbrokers–if they are in it purely for profit and comfort–do.
Beyond our work, we find our humanity not in consuming–not in buying or the next YouTube video, but in connecting. We must, first of all and always, connect to ourselves. This means we allow ourselves to feel joy or pain rather than riding the flatline of modern life: rather than seeing ourselves as producers and consumers whose most important decisions are how to make and then how to spend money, we must understand our most important decisions, much more often, have to do with whether we will allow ourselves to feel the joy or sadness, the hilarity or banality of this world.
It is our duty to go after such experiences–not in a titillating, Bud Light commercial sort of way that is a mere exercise in looking for the next high–but in a deliberate, intentional way that demands our presence with ourselves. We must listen to sad songs when we are heartbroken and read novels or watch movies to exercise our own feelings of fear and hope. We are walking around with these neuroses, and if we were honest with ourselves we would have two options: to run up to the next tree and laugh at the wonderful strangeness of it, to kiss the next stranger at his or her simple beauty; or, to break down, here and now, crying at the savagery of this world and the sorrow inherent in it.
These, more than any others, seem to me the most logical options given our experiences on earth. And the less we allow ourselves to move toward either end of the spectrum, the more we live on the flatline–even the flatline of looking for the next adrenaline high, because we’ve only allowed ourselves to seek excitement to break the tedium of this producing-consuming life.
I suppose that this, by now, reads somewhat like a manifesto. So, rather than the previous 15 paragraphs, let me simply say: to be human, we must constantly and intentionally seek those things that make us human, that separate us from the urges and drives of animals. We must break out of what is required and find ways to say: I hurt, I love, I hope, I feel. We must daily do this, or we risk moving ever closer to the flatline that our consumerist society so much desires for us: to produce and consume and repeat.
For me, for us, I was reminded of this on Friday night, as my two little girls laughed at me trying to copy their dance moves. The youngest swung her arms and then her body and fell down, and when I did it, too, all of us could not stop from laughing at the wonderful absurdity of this very human life we get to experience.