What does it mean to be human?

Awe and wonder

This evening, a few days into 2010, I walked out into our little garden just before we shared our evening meal as a family. I looked up at the northern sky and saw towering thunderhead clouds glowing brightly white at their upper edges with dark silvery-grey undersides. They looked majestic and awe-inspiring.

When I thought too that they are masses of water vapour, and that the colours, which caused me so much pleasure, are the result of light, the bright sunlight that we in Africa are so blessed with, I did not feel any less wonder at the beauty of it all.

And I felt a sense of joy, a sense of the delight of being a human being who is able to see and reflect on such wonders as nature, as the whole of, for want of a better word, creation. For we are a remarkable species, a fantastic product of millennia of slow development from very simple life forms to the highly complex, relational beings we are now. What an incredible story that is, a story of the grandeur and munificence of nature. Whether or not we are at the peak of the evolutionary process is difficult to determine, but my guess is not. How the evolution of our species will continue, or whether we will maybe become extinct in the next many millennia, to be replaced by a more successfully adapted species only the future will be able to tell.

What makes us as humans so different from the species who share our world is mainly that we are able to reflect on these things and to relate to others in ways other than simply to reproduce to ensure the continuation of our species. We can relate to others in terms of how we see ourselves in the world, and indeed, in the universe. We can be overcome by the beauty of clouds in the sky, a newly-bloomed rose or the cry of a new-born baby. We can be overcome by sorrow bordering on despair at the capricious way nature behaves at times, to be rather anthropomorphic about it. We can rail against injustice and work for peace and freedom, not only for ourselves, but for others. We have within us the possibility of altruism, of selflessness, of caring for the next person more than we do for ourselves.

Struben Dam, Pretoria, South Africa
Struben Dam, Pretoria, South Africa
A waterfall at the Hogsback, Eastern Cape, South Africa.
A waterfall at the Hogsback, Eastern Cape, South Africa.

Science and ambivalence

As science probes ever deeper into life and its origins we become more and more aware of the incredible complexity and beauty of life. This happens on the psychological level as psychology and psychiatry find out more and more about our minds, the role of consciousness and emotions, so that we can have more and more awareness of the processes that go on in each one of us, processes that produce great ideas, great music, great art, but also love and caring, sadness at loss and joy in new life.

Of course, that same science has produced factories belching suffocating clouds of pollution, the means of bringing death to thousands and even millions in ways completely unthought of in previous centuries. The same science devised the means to turn killing into a conveyor-belt process, and to put weapons of incredible efficiency into the hands of anyone who wanted to have one.

Science, like almost everything else in human life, is morally ambivalent Beauty without cruelty is almost a pipe-dream, a chimera.

And this ambivalence touches on every aspect of human life. The lovely gold ring placed so reverentially on a person's finger in the marriage ceremony is made of material dug in appallingly dangerous conditions by underpaid men (and now, increasingly, women) who hour by hour, day by day, risk their very lives to blast out the gold-bearing ore from kilometres underground.

The wine we use to toast the newly-weds at the wedding has been made from grapes grown on a farm where the farm workers are paid a pittance and often only find relief in drinking the produce of their labour so that their children are born with foetal alcohol syndrome, with no possibility of a future any better than that of their parents.

The simple fact that we can write and read this article is made possible by millions toiling in unrewarded ways to make the paper we might print this out on, or the electricity that powers the computer we read this on, that drives the air-conditioning unit that keeps us comfortable, and so one can go on.

"I have tried to emphasise that these people ... have dug the earth with those very hands..." Vincent's comment on his great painting "The Potato Eaters"
"I have tried to emphasise that these people ... have dug the earth with those very hands..." Vincent's comment on his great painting "The Potato Eaters"

Executioner or victim?

As great writer Albert Camus once said, we are all faced with the choice, moment by moment, of choosing to side either with the executioner or the victim. To be human is to choose to side with the victim. However, as he also pointed out, it is not always that clear who the executioner is or who the victim is. But we have to choose. That is what defines our humanity.

Artist Vincent van Gogh was also acutely aware of the moral dilemma of being human, and especially of practising something like painting in the face of the hardship faced by the ordinary people. In one of his many letters to his brother Theo he wrote, “I want to do drawings which touch some people.... In either figure or landscape I should wish to express, not sentimental melancholy, but serious sorrow....I want to progress so far that people will say of my work, he feels deeply, he feels tenderly...”

He did indeed feel deeply and tenderly. So much so that he in the end could not face the ugly reality of the world, a world of exploitation and poverty.

Now his paintings are bought and sold for millions. What else could those millions do other than decorate a rich person's house? Vincent I am sure would be distraught.

A musical example can be found in the blues. The blues arose in the deep south of the United States among the black slaves working the cotton plantations. They expressed some of their agony in their “field hollers” and these in turn evolved into the 12 or 16 bar musical form we now know as the blues. The blues were expressions of the hardship of slave life by largely untaught people who really had no other way of expressing their agony. What happened next was that white musicians took up the blues forms, dressed them up pretty, and made millions!

No easy walk

"When differences of belief and religion-based culture are the ultimate source of conflict, the real war that needs to be fought is the war of ideas. Believed-in faeries should be kept at home as an entirely private matter, and their votaries encouraged to cease taking themselves so seriously that, when irritated by those who differ, they resort to Kalashnikovs. Apart from anything else, such reactions speak little confidence in their own violently-held certainties." - A.C. Greyling, The Reason of Things, 2002.

Even religion, which one would have thought, logically, would be less morally ambivalent, turns out to have some serious issues too. Saints were involved in the massacres of thousands. Hindus killed Moslems, Moslems killed Christians, Christians killed Jews, Catholics killed Protestants and Protestants killed Catholics, and so it has gone on down the centuries. So much so that the real message of the religious founders have become distorted into grotesque Halloween masks of the original. No-one captured this more beautifully, more movingly, than Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky in his 1879 novel The Brothers Karamazov, in the famous story of “The Grand Inquisitor”, contained in Chapter 5. In this story Jesus comes back to earth: “He came down to the 'hot pavements' of the southern town in which on the day before almost a hundred heretics had, ad majorem gloriam Dei , been burnt by the cardinal, the Grand Inquisitor, in a magnificent auto da fe , in the presence of the king, the court, the knights, the cardinals, the most charming ladies of the court, and the whole population of Seville.” But the Grand Inquisitor does not welcome Jesus. Instead he sees Jesus as a threat because the message of Jesus would upset the people. So Jesus is brought before the cardinal, the Grand Inquisitor, who makes a long speech to Jesus, ending with these ominous words: “I repeat, to-morrow Thou shalt see that obedient flock who at a sign from me will hasten to heap up the hot cinders about the pile on which I shall burn Thee for coming to hinder us. For if anyone has ever deserved our fires, it is Thou. To-morrow I shall burn Thee. Dixi.”

So Jesus is to be burnt at the stake like a “heretic.” The story ends like this: “When the Inquisitor ceased speaking he waited some time for his Prisoner to answer him. His silence weighed down upon him. He saw that the Prisoner had listened intently all the time, looking gently in his face and evidently not wishing to reply. The old man longed for him to say something, however bitter and terrible. But He suddenly approached the old man in silence and softly kissed him on his bloodless aged lips. That was all his answer.”

What a profoundly human action – to kiss someone, and even that is not without irony. In the Bible story Jesus was betrayed by a kiss. Here he saves by a kiss.

For me the meaning of being human is being open to beauty and love and joy while being intensely aware of the ambivalence, and accepting that ambivalence will always be there. It's not an easy way to live, being aware all the time, living in the provisional, living with uncertainty. But it is authentic and real. Nelson Mandela said it so well: “There is no easy walk to freedom.”

Copyright Note

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2010

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Comments 46 comments

Russ Baleson profile image

Russ Baleson 6 years ago from Sandhurst, United Kingdom

Hi Tony, "When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace". Jimi Hendrix


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Hi Russ - I have always loved that quote by Hendrix, it is so true. Thanks for dropping by.

Love and peace

Tony


ethel smith profile image

ethel smith 6 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

Love that Hendrix quote. A hard subject to write about but you did so very well. True humans have heart


liswilliams profile image

liswilliams 6 years ago from South Africa

awesome read, Tony, beautifully written, love the photos


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Ethel and Lis - thanks for dropping by and commenting. I really appreciate it.

Love and peace

Tony


nextstopjupiter profile image

nextstopjupiter 6 years ago from here, there and everywhere

When more people on this planet would spend more time on these beautiful things you write about, the quote by Jimi Hendrix could become reality, but there is still a long way to go. Thank you for this hub!


amillar profile image

amillar 6 years ago from Scotland, UK

Tony, you write brilliant hubs.


lorlie6 profile image

lorlie6 6 years ago from Bishop, Ca

Extraordinary hub, tonymac-thanks for simply going outside!


jayjay40 profile image

jayjay40 6 years ago from Bristol England

Lovely writing Tony, thanks for a great read


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

NSJ, amilar, lorlie and jayjay - I appreciate your comments so much, thank you. I feel so privileged to be able to share my humble thoughts with people like you. Bless you all.

Love and peace

Tony


Nancy's Niche profile image

Nancy's Niche 6 years ago from USA

"Those who seek absolute power, even though they seek it to do what they regard as good, are simply demanding the right to enforce their own version of heaven on earth. And let me remind you, they are the very ones who always create the most hellish tyrannies. Absolute power does corrupt, and those who seek it must be suspect and must be opposed.~~Barry Goldwater


franciaonline profile image

franciaonline 6 years ago from Philippines

Enlightening reflections! Thanks for this hub, Tony!


Mit Kroy profile image

Mit Kroy 6 years ago from Georgia,USA

Very good Tony, G-d is probably thinking, every now and then, somebody notices.

Keep on hubbing!


Storytellersrus profile image

Storytellersrus 6 years ago from Stepping past clutter

Yes. Good one.


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 6 years ago from East Coast, United States

Tony - how beautiful, joyous and heart breaking. It ain't easy being human, is it. You've said it all so well. Is peace just a dream, just a kind wish to pass around, or a reality just out of reach. Wonderful hub. Peace out!


myawn profile image

myawn 6 years ago from Florida

Truly brillant writing very well said and heartfelt. I love this, Peace


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Thanks good people for all the comments. I loved writing this Hub and it is great to know that others have appreciated it.

Love and peace

Tony


Peter Kirstein 6 years ago

Excellent read, great hub Tony.


myownworld profile image

myownworld 6 years ago from uk

I just love the way you write, more so the thoughts that flow with your words. Just left in awe reading this....esp. at that last paragraph. Just puts everything is perspective so nicely! Never stop sharing your thoughts with us....


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Pete - thanks so much for reading and commenting. I appreciate it.

MOW - your visit and words mean a lot to me. Thanks so much.

Love and peace

Tony


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore

Hello tony,

This is such a well-written hub. As an atheist[well, agnostic] I am sometimes accused of lacking a spiritual sense, yet I do feel an incredible sense of awe and wonder in nature and human existence...and in the impenetrable mystery that is the universe. If spirituality can be defined then that's how I would describe it.

Cheers


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Jane - thanks for the thoughful comment. I appreciate it very much.

Love and peace

Tony


Mystique1957 profile image

Mystique1957 6 years ago from Caracas-Venezuela

My Brother Tony, I have just bookmarked and Stumbled this hub! Beautiful! It is that need of conscientiousness that I spoke of while answering your comment on my latest hub! We are the disease and the cure. What side to choose rests in every individual´s responsibility! Too bad that a lot people thrive on vanity, materialism and so much lack of Universal love, that it hurts thinking about it!

I loved it, Brother!

Thanks for sharing it!

Warmest regards and infinite heavenly blessings,

Al


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

My brother Al - thank you so much for your most wonderful comment! You are very kind and it is much appreciated.

Love and peace

Tony


mathewjose2008 6 years ago

Your power of writing brings to me love and peace.

You share really great thoughts.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Mathew - thanks so much for dropping by and for your kind words.

Love and peace

Tony


kaltopsyd profile image

kaltopsyd 6 years ago from Trinidad originally, but now in the USA

Good read and good pictures. I also like the imagery you created through your writing.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Kaltopsyd - thanks for dropping by and commenting. I really do appreciate it.

Love and peace

Tony


mulberry1 profile image

mulberry1 6 years ago

Enlightening and thought provoking as always. You're obviously a good human being and a very good writer as well.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Christine - thanks so much for the compliment. Not so sure about the good human being part, but I try!

Thanks again.

Love and peace

Tony


Micky Dee profile image

Micky Dee 6 years ago

You're such a great writer Tony! Thank you for this inspiration!


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Micky - thanks for the very kind words. Much appreciated indeed!

Love and peace

Tony


catherine74 profile image

catherine74 6 years ago from London

Inspirational material.Thanks


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Catherine - thanks so much and I'm really glad you found it inspirational!

Love and pece

Tony


catherine74 profile image

catherine74 6 years ago from London


onegoodwoman profile image

onegoodwoman 5 years ago from A small southern town

Awesome, and thought provoking.

So is, in the accounts that we have, during the trials, mockery and crucifiction, Jesus, never once, uttered a defense.

If He cannot, how then can we?


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Onegoodwoman - thanks for stopping by and commenting. I appreciate it.

Love and peace

Tony


scriber1 5 years ago

TonyMac......To seek rationality from the thoat of fear is a laudable but vainglorious labor. Merely continue to, and I do, stay the course..........and someone will pick up and carry forward the stave of sanity Be well, and thanks


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Scriber - thank you!

Love and peace

Tony


ellacor profile image

ellacor 5 years ago

Food for thought here, brilliant.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Ellacor - thanks so myuch for stopping by and commenting. Your kind words are appreciated.

Love and peace

Tony


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 5 years ago from Houston, Texas

Your words flow like honey. Too bad the human race has not evolved further and can exist in peace and harmony. It may be a dream but one in which to keep aspiring and hopefully attaining one day. As Micky Dee would say...doing the button dance and will also twitter this. Thanks!


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Peggy - thank yo so very much for all the kind words. I am humbled by them, thank you.

Love and peace

Tony


William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 5 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

I'd say we need humanity today more than ever, tonymac04. We live in constant conflict on every level. Your commentary offers a welcome respite from the all too present political strife of our time.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

William - thanks for stopping by. I really appreciate your comment and I agree - we do need humanity more than ever.

Love and peace

Tony


ThompsonPen profile image

ThompsonPen 5 years ago from Bellingham, WA

I really enjoy that you looked at it from every angle - the angle of mind, body, and spirit (the mind is the artist, body representing science, and spirit is the religious aspect). And I too have been humbled by the feeling of thunder approaching. the knowledge that yes! science and pressure and profound energy is occurring around me!

I really enjoyed this. thank you :)

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