What it Means to be Human

What it Means to be Human

I have devoted my past five platform addresses to the political maelstrom that lies ahead. As powerful as the impulse to speak again about the political circumstances we are in and the dangers we face, I want to temporarily turn away from that theme and devote my February talk to a topic closer to the center of Ethical Culture and the values it embraces.

My turn in direction is not an escape, however. Rather, in these times, I think it is perhaps more necessary than ever to reaffirm what we stand for, to answer the dark moment with the ideals that the tide of Trumpism is happy to disregard and readily sweep away like a tsunami raging across the shore.

Humans at the center of humanism

At the center of our Ethical Culture, our humanism, is the human person. It is the person that is so readily washed away and trampled down by the forces of the modern world, by the crudeness of Trump and his small-minded bigotry, by mass society, by the frenetic culture of busyness that robs of us of moments of tranquility and opportunities for quiet reflection.

Related here is what seems to me to be a mass obsession with the wizardry of digital technologies. To disavow the benefit of contemporary electronic communication—the Internet, cellular devices and the like—would be foolish, as foolish as trying to stop the wheel of progress. And I don’t. I use them. But, like virtually all technological contrivances, they come with their downsides. We all have heard of people who are literally addicted to their cell phones. This doesn’t seem to me to be a good thing. And it is also apparent to me that in the use and overuse of electronic communications the richness of what, by my values system, I construe as more authentic human relations, is being lost.

One may say that my values are rooted in my distinctive temperament (and we all have our own temperaments) but I must confess that I tire of the time I spend at the computer and I long for something other, something more. True, there are many people, who, by virtue of professional mandate, and by choice, spend far more time computing and emailing than I do. But often, as my eyes glaze over from scanning pixels on a screen, I simply have to turn away and pick up the phone out of the need to hear a real human voice (albeit conveyed through electronic cables) in real time.

But beyond the phone, what I cherish most is being in the direct company and engaged with another person whom I care about and who cares about me, and sharing our feelings, thoughts, laughter and concerns. I value and cherish these experiences; they are precious to me because they seem so achingly rare, and no doubt because I have recently lost the loving intimacy of my life partner.

Relating to one another as subjects, not objects

But such encounters, I believe, imply more than they are. They open a door to the center of what it means to be human and to provide the experiences around which our humanistic worldview revolves.

It was the philosopher, Martin Buber, who observed that we can relate to other people as objects. We can use them instrumentally in order to meet our own needs. Indeed, if we are to survive, to a great extent we must do so. Those who perform the labors which keep our society running are by necessity so treated. In this manner, we relate to other people as objects, as they do us.

But the higher form of relationship, the one that manifests and enables us to realize our humanity, is when we encounter the other not instrumentally, not as an object, but as a subject, just as I am a subject.

To engage another person in this way is to get beyond the surface of relationships; it is to engage and experience the interiority of the other. It is furthermore to recognize and appreciate that without this experience of relation, without this meeting, I have failed to fully touch my own humanity. Perhaps in this experience of the deepest indwelling personhood of the other (if I may be forgiven a moment of mysticizing) we come to sense sparks of the transcendent. It is certainly a wellspring, as humanists, of our highest values.

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