What does it mean to be truly human?

LH Pastor, MD, September 2023

When was the last time you asked yourself, “Why am I here, and what is my place in the Universe?  What shall I do with myself before I am returned to cosmic dust?”

Good for you, clicking on the intriguing title of this month’s blog post!  After all, Curiosity is a quintessential resiliency strength!  Curiosity leads us to discover new and often remarkable things! Notwithstanding, I hope you weren’t expecting the ultimate, definitive answer to this question in a blog, but it is beyond dispute that the question is worth asking.  What does it mean to be truly human, to experience our full humanity?  Based upon decades of my fellow human beings sharing their profound life journeys with me, my thesis is that to be human means that we all must grapple with the following topics of profound significance and uniqueness to our life on this earth:

Grief and loss. We’re human.  We become attached to other people.  To things (that blue Jeep wrangler), to phases of our life (that varsity basketball team you played guard on, that god-awful internship year you survived), to places (that little town in the foothills of the Rockies you lived in when you first got married).  To our loving and loyal animal companions.  But all life is change and nothing lasts forever.  And therefore, if we are to experience life to the fullest, then we must grieve.  Navigating grief and loss is the inevitable price of attachment, of love, of striving, of aging, of life on earth.  What we encounter along our path we must ultimately, often sadly and sometimes brutally, let go of.  The toughest task of being human is navigating our way through grief and loss. 

Purpose.  Why are we here?  What shall you do, to cite poet Mary Oliver, “with your one wild and precious life?”  Or as Nietzsche wrote, the only thing worse than suffering, is suffering without purpose.  No one can tell us what the meaning of our life is or what our purpose should be; that’s up to each of us to determine!  Where shall we deploy our talents and energy and toward what end(s)?  Self-development or altruism?  Change the world or change ourselves?  Beauty, truth, love, courage, respect, authenticity, creativity, faith; what shall be our guiding principles through life?  Is life tragedy or comedy?  What is your moral compass?  For much of human history, mere survival was the imperative.  No one had the leisure, or the crushing burden, of wondering about why we were put here.  Now that human progress has elevated us above the subsistence level, we feel the full heat of the existential imperative to figure out what we shall do with our lives and, see next section, who are we and what are we made of?

Self-concept.  To be human means to struggle mightily to figure out who we are and what we are made of.  Much of our psychological lives are an exercise in exploring our metaphysical self-concept, self-definition and re-definition as experiences (promotion, divorce, illness, etc.) challenge previously complacent self-beliefs about who we are or who we were.  We wonder, am I good enough? Am I smart enough?  Am I tough, funny, tenacious, good-looking, talented, hard-working, or creative enough?  We are all a collection of self-beliefs, some accurate and helpful, and others less so.  The martial artists among us recognize that the toughest battle of all is the struggle within.  Depression is most often due to one or more distorted or overemphasized negative self-beliefs.  These dysfunctional self-beliefs are typically one of just three recurring themes: worthlessness, undesirability, or inefficacy (where inefficacy is defined as: weakness, incompetence, vulnerability, or helplessness).  Because these recurring, negative self-beliefs are nearly always untrue, overemphasized, or obsolete beliefs internalized during adverse childhood events, they often succumb readily to cognitive-behavioral therapy for depression, or sometimes just Prozac.  To be human means to continually at various stages of life, particularly during adolescence, mid-life, and old age, engage in a fervid quest for self-understanding and self-definition. 

Resiliency: resilience doesn’t depend on how many times we get knocked down by life, but by how many times we get back up again.  Like a tree whose roots grow toward water or whose branches develop to seek the sun and to bend but not break with the prevailing winds, our lives are shaped by the challenges and opportunities we encounter and how we survive and recover from adversity.  There is no life that is without adversity and therefore there is no life that is without heroism.  To be human means to find and invoke our own, signature resiliency strengths, habits, beliefs, and role models to surmount challenges and setbacks. 

Relationships:  as one of my patients, a professional groom, observed, we are like horses: herd animals, au fond.  As problematic as they often are, we all want, need, and seek relationships with others.  It is in our DNA and it is a major path for growth, security, and gratification in our life’s journey.  Indeed, a major theory of mental health (“self-determination theory”), posits that there are only three major measures of mental wellness: how well we achieve (1) Competence, (2) Autonomy, and (3) Relatedness.  How we initiate, develop, maintain, repair, or disengage from relationships is a major dimension of being fully human.

So there you have it.  To be fully human means to encounter with all our heart, mind, and soul the enduring themes of grief, purpose, self, resilience, and relationships