The Contemporary Human Being

The Contemporary Human Being

At a recent party, a sharp young man told me what he thought being human meant: "a human being is not a human being when it is a human acting, not a human being." This profound, yet circular statement, reminds me of another adage: "it is not what a person does that is important, but who they are." Both of these statements reflect one of the greatest concerns of humanity and religion: what it means to be human. Each of us has a personal and shared public understanding of what it means to be a human. That is, every cosmology during every period of history is in part concerned about how humans fit into the (divine) scheme of things. In 20th century psychological parlance such debates are centered around the idea of the Self, while religions variously discuss such concepts as soul, atman, anima, spirit, and a whole slew of other terms. Today, as our world views are altering, so are our concepts of what it means to be human.

The last great change in conceptions of selfhood occurred as a result of Descartes' mystical experience in a war zone which summarized the recent developments in Modern thought as: "I think, therefore I am." Many different contemporary thinkers, artists, and spiritual practitioners now contest the theologizing resulting from Descartes' proclamation. The Modern style of thought, briefly, has determined that the mind is more pure than the body, that the mind is separate from the body, that we all autonomous and separated from one another, we can only know what it real and rational - everything else is pathological, and so on, ad nauseam. It doesn't take much to realize that this is still the way many people talk about what it means to be human, and it doesn't take much to realize that this is a rather limited way of seeing humanity.

The Modern ideal of the autonomous, separated, purely rational human being is one that claims that all of our minds are separated from one another and from our bodies like islands in the sea; and, if you pay too much attention to your dreams, imagination, or non-rational experiences, then you're likely to branded a heretic and burnt at the stake or, in a more 'compassionate' era, you're ready for the 'loony-bin.' Many of us know that there is no such thing as this pure rationality that Modern thinkers idolized. We have all sorts of mental experiences during the day which are all located in a community of other minds which are all, in turn, located in a physical biosphere.

Today you can pick up any book on feminist spirituality, depth psychology, biology, popular physics and find an implicit, if not out right, argument against the modern vision of the separated self. In many different fields of contemporary thought and in contemporary art starting with Impressionism through Dada and Surrealism on up to Expressionism and beyond, you can find a different understanding of what it means to be a human interacting with the world. Today physics is returning to a conception of the universe which sees the connectedness of all things, including the human mind; biology now perceives of all individuals as being in-divisible of each other and themselves. A critical view of the history of science denies the reality of the great modern god, Objectivity; certain types of theology and psychology note that we are not separate and autonomous, we are not purely rational but also very imaginative, and the non-rational is just as valid as any other mental/emotional state.

All of these points, found in so many various fields of thought suggest one thing to me: we are developing a new myth or paradigm about what it means to be human. Because so many people are finding the old understanding of humanity to be more and more limiting, thoughtful people are still asking themselves who they are. The Modern way of seeing the world is best epitomized by the question: "What to you do for a living?" This yuppified expression has little to do with understanding who a person is, rather it's all about classifying people into neat, little categories. It is a way of narrowing a person's presence and self of him or her self; it is a means of institutionalizing the individual. It is an expression of humans acting, not humans being.

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Last updated: Nov. 21, 1995.