On Humanness

The concept of humanness juxtaposes the concept of human nature. Human nature is used as foundational justification for the social contract, which (in theory) legitimatizes government through consent, and for economic policy and theory related to capitalism. Humanness goes beyond the human nature debate and, to some degree, makes the debate irrelevant. This is because humanness includes human nature no matter what human nature is. It considers what it means to be a human being living in Earth regardless of whether certain behaviors of ours are ingrained in our DNA or social constructs—it simply acknowledges how we are.So how are we?

Well, the easiest way to boil this down is to say we are diverse. People have the capacity to act and be every different kind of person one could imagine. Unfortunately, most theories and policies in social science focus on an extremely narrow view of human beings that considers them rational, selfish, and competitive. But people are much more than that.

Consider for a moment what we hold most dear.  Most of us desire and value our freedom because we want to express ourselves without reservation. We want to be ourselves, do what makes us happy, and feel the invigoration of life experiences. More importantly, we want what is best for our families. We want to raise them, teach them, learn from them, care for them, and be cared for by them. We want to have the capability of ensuring that those we love will experience the best possible life. This is what makes such freedom essential.

Being a human today may be very different than two hundred years ago, yet similar in some ways too. Humans in America will have a very different experience from humans in Kazakhstan but there will be many similarities as well.

We are physical beings. We are part of a physical world of air, water, and earth that we interact with to nourish and maintain our own bodies. Our bodies are limited in the short term so we are active and work but need rest. Our bodies are also limited in the long term where we are vulnerable to disease and death. We often hear the phrase “I’m only human” when someone makes a mistake or meets a limitation.

We are dependent beings. No matter how independent we want to be, we all rely on other people for our well-being. We are surrounded by family and friends throughout our lives, we require doctors to care for us, teachers to educate us, farmers to grow food to nourish us, and on and on. Beyond being dependent on other people, we are dependent on the earth for health, nourishment, and resources for our survival.

We always hear that humans are rational beings. We are curious. We think. We solve problems. Humans are also irrational. We are full of a variety of emotions that impact the way we think and act. Emotional experiences such as love, admiration, or joy, make us feel good; and others such as hate, envy, or sorrow, make us feel terrible; but all are part of humanness. Emotions drive motivation and motivation causes human action. Some people act more on emotions than others, but emotions affect all of us. We often make mistakes based on not thinking things through before we act. Even when we are not acting on our emotions, emotions are a significant part of what we are. Sometimes we make mistakes by thinking through things too much—sometimes we should “follow our hearts.” To deny either the rational or the irrational elements of humanness is to deny something vital to what it means to be human.

We are moral. We all have different morals but most of us have a general idea about right and wrong and have compassion toward others. Beyond morality, we are spiritual. Certainly, we are not all religious but humanness includes a connectedness beyond the self, which is ones’ spirituality. For many, spirituality manifests in religious beliefs. For others, it is simply a consciousness of something greater than themselves, perhaps a being, perhaps something like energy. Some interpret spirituality as a connection to nature, humanity, or the depths of the inner-self, among many other interpretations of spirituality.

We also work. Sigmund Freud said, “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” We are servants. We all serve others, whether it is caring for our family, showing an act of kindness by helping a stranger, volunteering, or something else. Service is the giving of self. In a world dominated by profit motives and mass consumption, serving others is an exchange that has human value outside of monetary measurements. Serving others helps shift our mindset away from selfishness toward selflessness and helps foster communities.

We are social creatures. As humans, we are continuously interacting with others. Of course there are those that prefer isolation, and all of us need it at times, but over the course of a lifetime, we immerse ourselves in the lives of others. Interactions occur at many different levels and with advancements in technology, the amount of interactions and the levels of interaction are continually expanding. Telephones, cell phones, Internet, emails, social media, and video calls allow us to create and maintain interactions over great distances. Part of being human is having intimate interactions. While technology allows us to interact and connect at great distances, it does not replace the need for face-to-face interactions and intimate relationships.

Humans are communal beings. Beyond simple interactions with others, we use various methods of communication to express ourselves, exchange ideas, and build and navigate complex social structures. As communities form, people become free to interact with others to exchange, share, and co-exist, creating a sense of commonality and connectedness. Human societies develop cultures made up of stories, histories, myths, legends, rituals, ceremonies, celebrations, rules, norms, ethical codes, values, beliefs, and habits. We identify with these communities and cultures. We say things like “I am Mexican,” “I am Jewish,” “I am Black,” “I am American.” Those identities have value to us.

We are also creative, both in our work and for self-expression. We make things and we express ourselves in abstracts. We write poems, books, and business plans. We paint replicas and abstracts. We draw pictures and blueprints. We build sculptures and skyscrapers. We sing, dance, and play instruments, which we created. In our work, service, art, community, and family, we want to feel valued. We want to know, on some level, that we matter.

Every human is different. Aspects of humanness vary to different degrees from person to person. Any system of social organization that fosters freedom must account for the vast differences in and among people. Humanness necessitates flexible and inclusive political and economic practices if humans are to be truly free in a society with other people. By participating in a truly democratic process that actually allows us to contribute freely to our fullest potential to the societal decisions that affect us, we are participating in the continual creation of the society in which we exist. As a result, the society reflects and reciprocates our humanness to the extent we participate and have an impact.

So the next time someone tells you “This is the only way because it is human nature” you can confidently reply “It doesn’t have to be this way. We can do better. Our humanness allows us to be whatever we want to be.”

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