By Dr. Joseph Chuman
We all wear social masks. In public we always want to present our best selves. This is perfectly understandable and probably necessary for society to function. But peer beneath the surface and one encounters a very different picture of the human condition. My nearly half-century as an Ethical leader has given me a privileged view into the realities that lie behind the personalities we present to the outer world. Few and fortunate are the families that go un-beset by great tragedy—children with severe mental illnesses, the struggle with chronic diseases and pain, addictions of many types, criminality—not passing discomforts, but deep-rooted challenges that claim continual attention, and even serve to define a major portion of one’s life. Life for many, most, is not a bed of roses.
Multiply my anecdotal experience innumerable times and we are forced to countenance the nature of the human condition. There are those who sustain a rosy view of that condition. Perhaps they are so disposed because good fortune has enabled them to sidestep hardship, or perhaps they are just possessed of an upbeat temperament that does not see and shunts aside the reality of human misfortune and suffering. Or perhaps, refusing to look with eyes wide open, they are committed to denying it altogether.
“I believe in the tragic view of life,” declared Ethical Culture’s founder, Felix Adler, and I understand what he meant. Humanist that I am, I, too, do not believe in a sunny view of the human condition.
All that we love is fated to slip away
An appreciation for the tragic dimension of life has been espoused by the great religions and wisdom traditions. For example, in Buddhism, the original position of human beings is the pain brought on by desire and what Buddhists refer to as “attachment.” Hinduism, while not denying pleasure, at the same time recognizes its transience. All things that we love and give us pleasure are fated in time to slip away. Gratification is fleeting and leaves us with frustration. For the Christian, the human being is prone to sin and is alienated from the Creator, the source of his being; a condition to be overcome, if at all, through faith and divine grace.
What the religions recognize is that life is hard and is serious business. We are beset by disease, frustration, and suffering. Yes, there is also great joy and happiness in life, to be sure. But, as noted, happiness is often episodic, fragile and transient. And in the end nature will always have the last word.
So if there is glory in the human experience, where is it to be found? Where do we witness greatness in the human spirit? I contend that it is not to be found primarily in triumph over adversity. So often, our best efforts end in failure. Rather, the greatness of the human spirit, I believe, lies in the sheer persistence, in the doggedness, in the refusal to accede to those forces threatening to do us in. It lies in the unyielding commitment to seek something better and to affirm life no matter what misfortune throws at us, no matter how great the challenges we are forced to endure, whether we succeed or fail. I have seen this endurance of the human spirit in parents who give their lives to care for chronically ill children. I see it in men and women who have everything going against them and refuse to give up. I see it in people who struggle everyday against continuous pain or severe disabilities and yet strive to find joy in a life that conspires against them. And so many of them—us—do so in silence and virtually alone, with our struggles unknown to the wider world.
Humanism without tragedy is shallow
In short, the greatness of humanity is revealed most profoundly in the persistent struggle to claim a better day in the face of tragic conditions. Philosophically, a humanism that fails or refuses to incorporate the tragic dimension, I believe, is shallow and naive. It chooses to buy its cheeriness at the expense of a hard and truthful look at reality.
I will speak of this deeper understanding of humanism and the human condition in my talk of Dec. 3, “Tragedy and the Triumph of the Human Spirit.” I look forward to seeing you then.
Dr. Joseph Chuman is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.