On Being Human

by Patricia Allen-Garrett

So what does it mean to be human?  Wilber calls this “one of the most vexing of all human questions” (Wilber, 2003).  The concise Oxford English Dictionary defines “human” as: “belonging to the genus Homo, distinguished from animals by superior mental development, power of articulate speech, and upright posture”.  Locke’s rather functional definition is that “a person is a moral agent, a being responsible for its actions. It is constituted by the continuity of its mental states accessible to introspection.” (Locke quoted in Vaknin, 2003)

Although they include some elements of the human state, they sound quite austere and don’t capture the beauty and mystery of what it is to be human. In this article I hope to come to some understanding of what it is and to bring to life in some way the miracle and pain of what the meaning of human/personhood is to me.  In the spirit of eclecticism, I will adopt a multi-dimensional approach in my exploration of the subject in the hope that drawing on a broad range of perspectives will help me to do justice to this most precious and complicated of topics. I hope that by drawing on the biological, psychological/emotional, developmental, societal/relational, existential, and the spiritual, I will be able to capture some part of the essence of what it is to be human.

Had I been looking at this topic one hundred years ago, my view of what it is to be human/a person would be very different, indeed if I were writing about this issue today but belonged to a different culture my beliefs would also be different. There is no escaping the fact that it is impossible to reflect on what it is to be human without considering the influence of my social circumstances – culture, ideology, even where we are in terms of being at the beginning of this new millennium, etc.   Although we are not passive victims of these circumstances, neither do we exist in a social vacuum and my social context does influence my view of what it is to be human.  The representations and images I use, as the raw material from which I shape my identity and beliefs about myself, are strongly part of the ideologies and belief systems of the culture I live in.  Taking this into account, I must accept therefore that my experience and view of what it is to be human, living at this particular stage in time in the society that I do, has been and is shaped by social and cultural forces.  It strikes me that my view of ‘on being human’ is an intricate interaction between the processes of social and personal interplay.

So what can society/culture/ideology tell me about ‘being human’?  Perhaps one of the strongest influencers on our Western concept of the person was the mind-body-dualist Descartes.  The Cartesian legacy is one of rationalism; our mind and bodies are separate and human beings are bound up with nothing more, or less, than our capacity for consciousness – summed up by his famous argument “cogito ergo sum.” In this view ‘selves’ are in essence private, intangible things who are separate from the social and natural world. It has been this mechanistic, individualistic and separatist view of personhood, which has held fast for many centuries and perpetuated a sort of mind-body split. Slowly, however, a new model is emerging, a more holistic one which rejects reductionism and embraces the interrelationship of the many aspects of our self, our humanity. The aspects of spirit, emotion, cognition, etc, are finally being recognized as being bound up with, influenced by and influencing the more physical aspects of our being. Quantum physicists like Bohr, Heisenberg and Planck are showing we can no longer talk with such certainly about separateness or things being in isolation, rather they are demonstrating the basic oneness of the universe:

‘the material world according to contemporary physics is not a mechanistic system made up of separate objects but rather appears as a complex web of relationships.  All such objects are patterns in an inseparable cosmic process and these patterns are intrinsically dynamic’.

Is it possible then that being human involves a huge paradox – being both separate and connected?  Perhaps an obvious starting point in terms of answering this question is my physical body.  Personally as an identical twin I am probably as close as it gets to being part of another person in that both my sister and I were conceived from one fertilized egg which split – and yet we are physically separate in our bodies, as separate as I am from every other living person, no matter how emotionally or spiritually connected I may be to them.

I feel the physiological aspect of our humanity is one of its most fundamental aspects.  I have a body, I am embodied, it is central to being human.  It is on our body that our very existence as persons depends. The way it functions (or fails to) can change the very grounds of our experience and often we take the facilitation and influence of the body for granted. I have a friend who is teteraplegic, his experience of what it is to be human is hugely bound up with his experience of having very little physical movement from the chest down, his body affects his experience of his humanness to a very large degree.

Our biology does govern how we experience and relate to the world – e.g.

  • genes play an inarguably important part in our development – i.e. the hand that   emerges in the embryonic child is still recognizably the same hand at five and ten years old;
  • being able to think and perceive is only possible because we have a brain;
  •  emotions very often have a biological base – e.g. one of the principal hormones involved in the emotion of fear is adrenaline which is released into the bloodstream from the adrenal gland at times of high emotion;
  • Eysenck claims that our very personality has a biological basis; and
  • consciousness depends on the integrity of certain brain regions and if their state is altered, as in sleep or under a general anesthetic, the person’s state of consciousness changes profoundly and brain damage can render a person permanently unconscious.

To deny the role that biology plays in any consideration of what it is to be human is naïve, our physicality is intricately bound up with our experience of what it is to be human and indeed some of the core experiences of our personhood are experienced most profoundly at the physical level.  When two people become lovers, it is through their bodies, their hands, and their lips that they express and discover their togetherness, the beauty of sexuality, the wonder of conception and the very act of childbirth, the movement towards death (and indeed death itself), although also experienced at the emotional, thinking, spiritual and societal level are at their most raw, their most experiential in their embodiment and our human experience would be much impoverished without this essential element.

Whether it is a biological category of ‘sex’ or a socially constructed category of ‘gender’, our experience of being either male of female also influences what it is like to be human.  Although equality legislation in the workplace has done much to remove the ‘glass ceiling’,  stereotypes remain. From a feminist perspective, traditional gender roles are oppressive for women. They assume that the female gender role was constructed as an opposite to an ideal male role, and they help to perpetuate patriarchy.  In the language of the female gender “I” = “my body” and there can be no doubt that being female is linked to beauty, slimness and biology – and more specifically reproduction.  I know as a woman I have struggled with the issue of my weight, and I am rarely comfortable in my body.  Although there are very many aspects to me, often my sense of self comes down to how I look and how I experience myself  and others is often through that lens.  As Germaine Greer put it:

“Every woman knows that, regardless of all her other achievements, she is a failure if she is not beautiful… preoccupation with her appearance goes some way towards ruining some part of every woman’s day”. (Greer, 2000)

All anyone needs to do is to look at the myriad of ‘women’s’ magazines available to see the emphasis on beauty and slimness, or look at the incredibly vast amounts of dieting books on sale.  And I certainly can’t claim to be unique in this; men’s self experience can also be tied up with his physique.  As a human society we look to men to be physically strong, masculine, attractive, the provider.  As base as it may sound, gender plays a huge role in our experience of what it is to be human.

And so our body is the vehicle, the carrier of our humanity, but there is more to being human than just our anatomy.  It is just one of the levels of identity available to us.  In Wilber’s spectrum of consciousness, it falls within “the persona level” (Wilber, 2000).  How we get from raw biological material to acute social sensitivity, diverse human emotions, highly creative knowledge and reasoning powers however demands more than our physiology.  Here again the influence of our society contributes to our journey into humanness, and a specific part of that society, our families, and our experience within it.  Researchers like Chamberlain, Grof, Lake, Verney, etc, have proven that our in uterine life is extremely important in terms of our developing sense of self.  Lake advocated the first trimester held the origins of personality.  Having worked with over 1,200 clients, he identified ‘maternal fetal distress syndrome’ – a maternal-fetal affect flow, which is transmitted via the umbilical cord.  The affects of this “flow” are conditioned by the interaction between the mother’s emotional state and the fetal response to it.  The mother’s emotional state either

“leads to foetal joy in being recognized, accepted and, indeed, welcomed.”  or; “her distress, if that is her condition during the first trimester, invades the foetus in the form of a bitter, black flood (Lake, 1988)”

This clearly shows that, from the moment we are conceived, we are in immediate relationship with another, in this case our mother, and that this relationship can have huge implications for our developing sense of self, our humanness, either negative or positive.  Where this has been borne out for me is when I look at the impact my husband’s adoption has had on his sense of who he is, in moments of real difficulty for him he ‘knows’ he wasn’t good enough to be kept by his mother and this can colour every aspect of his life and indeed who he is – his experience of being human.

Additionally, unlike other mammals, we are born remarkably helpless and immature – as Gould put it “we spend the first year as extra-uterine embryos” (Gould, 1988) and our every need depends on our caregivers.  My feeling is that how these needs are responded to will have huge consequences for our experience of our humanness, particularly at the emotional and psychological level. And here again at this level our inextricable connection is illustrated – the experiences our parents have had along their human journey influence how they relate to us and so become part of the fabric of our own, unique sense of what it is to be human. Bowlby’s work on attachment clearly illustrates the different experiences we will have in childhood, depending on whether we were securely or insecurely attached to our primary caregiver.  The impact our attachment pattern can have in our later lives was developed further by Main and Goldwyn (1984) and someone found to have an ‘autonomous-secure’ relationship with her parents experiences the world and herself in a very different way to others who may have had a ‘dismissing-detached’, ‘preoccupied-entangled’ or ‘unresolved-disorganised’ attachment patterns (Main & Goldwyn, 1984).  It seems in lots of ways we ‘survived’ our birth and childhood and this formed the basic pattern of our human experience:

“the granting of love or its withdrawal, the climate of trust or its fracture, the experience of joy or of fear, the encouragement of individuality or its suppression, the too little or too great burden of responsibility, all left their mark” (MacNamara, 2003).

Cooley believed we build up our sense of self from the reactions of others to us, he called this the ‘looking glass self’ (Cooley, 1902) whereby other people provide a social mirror and we come to see ourselves as we are reflected in them.  And so, from the earliest of times, it seems our steps on the road to developing a sense of who we are is in relation to, and in relationship with, others in our family.

Passing ‘healthily’ through Erikson’s developmental stages means we would learn to trust in ourselves and others, develop autonomy, initiative, empathy, identity, intimacy, etc. We would have a wonderful balance between being healthily attached and yet independent and continuously growing. Perhaps we would be a very different human race if each of us had had such positive experiences. Instead, often our experience of what it is to be human is some sort of psychological tug-of-war between wanting to be close to others but feeling at our core level that we can’t be, we don’t deserve to be – we are not worthy to be as deep down we are undesirable/unwantable. This is rarely conscious, covered by a multitude of what Freud called defence mechanisms and indeed it is often split off, yet it forms an integral part of who we are and how we relate to others, possibly through a depressive, schizoid or histrionic way of being.  It seems like a cosmic see-saw tipping between engulfment and separation.  And, for me, that is a key part of my own experience of humanness.  At times it can feel like my entire experience is centered around trying to stay involved with people – to satisfy a deep need to be in relationship.  But this need is not a healthy one, it exists to try to quench the fear of isolation, of a deep sense of not being good enough. By being in relationship with others, I am promised respite from what feels to be a very old pain which I believe has influenced my way of being in the past every bit as much as any genetic determinism. And yet, too much interrelationship leaves me feeling constricted and restricted and longing for space, a need not to be involved with others. This oscillation is a fundamental part of my experience of what it is to be human and falls into Wilbur’s ‘ego’ level of identity.

So the seeds of our psychological life are sown at conception and grow through our childhood and on through the rest of our life.  It seems that we are formed and moved by forces – cultural forces from without and unconscious forces from within.  This points me to an inescapable conclusion: part of our experience of being human means to feel pain and suffering and to be wounded.  That pain can be at different levels, for example at the personal level, one of the biggest evils and sufferings a person can endure is that of abuse and it can shape that person’s view of themselves and their experience of what it is to be human is beyond doubt: “I am filled with black slime.  If I open my mouth it will pour out.  I think of myself as the sewer silt that a snake would breed upon” (Lewis-Herman, 1994) is how one victim saw herself, her being, her humanity.

This brings me to another inevitable and distressing realization: to be human also means having the capacity to inflict pain and suffering on others, as an abuser, a bigot, a profiteer of another’s misfortune, one who turns a blind eye to the injustices which are rampant in our world, etc.  The concentration camps for me are probably the single most frightening example of what we as humans can do to our brothers and sisters.  Standing in Auschwitz last year, seeing the remaining rows of huts, the punishment cells, the death wall, the ruins of the mass crematoria, the ‘medical’ unit where the most torturous and grotesque experiments were carried out, the hundreds of thousands of tons of human hair shorn from the inmates and packaged up for use in the Third Reich, will forever be with me. It is hard not to agree with the verdict of Else Baker, sent to Auschwitz as an eight–year-old, that “the level of human depravity is unfathomable” (Rees, 2005)

The hatred that we as humans are capable of and the pain and suffering we can mete out proves conclusively Jung’s concept of our shadow side. I have no doubt that to be human is also to be shadow.  However, as far as possible, we try to deny this shadow side for here at this level of our humanness we find the most pain and it is the part in ourselves which can be the most difficult to explore because it is dark and terrifying.  Because of this, we find ways to shield ourselves from an important truth of our self.  We ‘become’ different, trying to hide our rageful, jealous, lustful, hateful, petrified selves not just from others but from ourselves because deep down we fear that this is the sum total of ourselves – that Freud was right, that the id is our main driving force, that there is nothing more.  As Matthew Arnold’s beautiful poem puts it:

“I knew the mass of men concealed
Their thoughts, for fear that if revealed
They would by other men be met
With blank indifference, or with blame reproved;
I knew they lived and moved
Tricked in disguises, alien to the rest
Of men, and alien to themselves” (Arnold, 1917)

But by excluding these aspects of ourselves, we are living an unfree and inauthentic existence, we decrease our humanness, we become as Steiner puts it “strangers to ourselves, errant at the gates of our own psyche” (Steiner, 1989).

We deny ourselves a very key part of our humanity for we are all the things we fear and only when we experience and own these aspects of our humanness can we integrate them and become capable of being more than them.  When we can acknowledge these aspects of ourselves, the feelings can be felt, words can be put on to them, it becomes possible to think about what has happened to us and to mourn.  With mourning comes the possibility of forgiveness, of reparation, of new growth.  And growth is an essential part of what it is to be human.

So although our humanness involves our shadow, like our body, it is also not the entire story.  Being human also means having potential and possibility.  Although we may not have the answer to what this potential and possibility may be about, it does propel us and drive us.  Somehow we sense that we are as yet unfinished and we long for fulfillment and freedom. And so we search and sometimes that search takes us into existential concerns. Often the prospect of our mortality is what fuels our search, Yalom believed our fear of dying is the main source of anxiety in our lives and that we try to find alternative ways of gaining symbolic immortality. I have no doubt a key defining human characteristic may be our awareness of our mortality. The appreciation of the momentary translates into aesthetics, the uniqueness of our fleeting life breeds morality, and the shortness of our time gives birth to ambition and originality.

Sometimes the search is for meaning in our lives. Victor Frankl emphasized the importance for people of the ‘will to meaning’ i.e. finding a sense of purpose and a direction in life.  He quotes Nietzsche’s line: “he who has a why to live can bear with any how” (Frankl, 1959).

When we are in severe danger, our ability to survive may be all the point and purpose we need. When continued survival is not immediately at risk, we seek purpose and meaning elsewhere. In traditional societies, religion typically served this need. Today, Frankl believes most of us live an existential vacuum. Each person’s ‘why’ must be constructed by him/herself. This may be through creative activity – e.g. creating something through which we give value and meaning to our life. A second way is though for example the experience of beauty, nature and music. A third way is through love “encountering another unique being in the very uniqueness of this human being” (Frankl, 1959). And finally to find meaningfulness through fortitude – the capacity to face up to adversity and to find meaning in doing so.  All of these can bring us into a fuller experience of our humanity and the possibility which it affords us and for me, if we could no longer use the word ‘human’ to describe ourselves, I would use the word potential, for we are burning with it.  What we chose to do with it, however, may be something different.

We are also capable of immeasurable acts of love, history is filled with the altruistic acts of men and women right down throughout the ages and again like death, it is an essential ingredient in what being human is all about.  Human love is our incarnate manifestation of the creative spirit that brought the universe into being, and which is still creating it.  At our core then I believe that we can be both shadow and love, it is a further paradox of being human and I believe both can exist together.  It is not that we are one thing or the other, i.e. shadow or love, we just are.

Additionally I believe part of being human is having an inner spiritual yearning for wholeness, which transcends our physical nature, perhaps this is the ultimate search for meaning, the search for our core?  Maslow believed this spiritual longing so fundamental he placed it at the top of his human needs hierarchy into what he called ‘peak experiences’.  Similarly Jung recognised it as an underlying human impulse and the drive behind individuation. It is a journey inward to a transpersonal level, one which Wilbur calls ‘the centaur’. Perhaps it is at this level, the ‘transpersonal’, that we can see the potential and interconnectedness of our humanity most clearly. It is here that we begin to transcend our individual sense of humanness and become connected to a world beyond what we know in terms of conventional space and time. At this level of our consciousness, we are more than our damaged selves, our pathology, it is the vista of soul, a further level of aspiration, a drive towards wholeness, wellbeing and spiritual experiences. Maslow believed it is the source of health and the source of our human creativity. Here the cultural, spiritual, ancestral and cosmic influences converge. It is about the transformation of the person, the “evolution to a new awareness or sensitivity that picks up the signals of the heart”, it is “the area of spirit”. (MacNamara, 2003). And although we need to create the time, space and openness to hear them, they are constituents of our being rather than something that is outside of ourselves.

It is perhaps the area of the transpersonal, of the spirit, that I am just beginning to get a glimpse of and it is usually more obvious to me when I start to integrate holotropic work.  Although quite a body of work is available through authors such as Grof and Browne and Wilber, etc, it is only recently that I have begun to see my own human experience extend into this area.  I have a sense of a different dimension that I have the possibility of tapping into. It feels like there is a space in my experience where myself opens up and out, where I let go of my smaller self and become enveloped into a bigger sense of self.  It is yet only fleeting but when I can touch it in myself I have a huge sense of power, of pure energy and of great fluidity. It is kaleidoscopic in colour and it feels limitless.  Barry Stevens manages to put this aspect of our humanness far more eloquently than I can and her words capture to some extent what I have experienced on occasion:

“we are both actuality and potentiality, neither binding them to the one which is to belittle them, nor thinking of them as the other, which is illusion. With the acceptance of both realities they become one: my actuality softens and dissolves into the stream of my potentiality and this flowing is me” (Stevens, 1967)

and when this happens for me I don’t feel like I am experiencing time in the usual sense but neither do I feel unconsciousness or in my usual experience of consciousness.  It is as if both come together in me and there is a huge sense of belonging. I become “a point moving in time against a background of eternity” (Stevens, 1967)

When I touch it I feel anything is possible and everything is possible, there is nothing concrete but its almost as if the fullness of Everything is there.  And for the first time I feel no separateness from anything. No one thing exists in it, no one person exists in it – it is complete and it is all. I have no sense of body or mind – its bigger than that but I have a huge sense of when it isn’t there and that’s when I feel the limited nature of myself, when I can’t get in touch with the more of what I can be.  It feels like the totality of me, no divisions and in it I feel linked to all that is and in some sense linked to all that can be.  Joseph Campbell says that the “spirit ranges out beyond the boundaries, and it is often out on that furthermost edge of our experiencing and awareness”  – and that is how it feels for me.  And although it is still very new for me there is a feeling of being enriched when I experience it but also a feeling of yearning that it is gone again for now, that I can’t hold it with me all the time.  And this closes the circle for me in some ways, it is the potential that it is there within me, to experience my humanness in this way when I can let go of my smaller self, the self that exists in the world, and open into the fullness of what I can be – of what my human experience can be, it includes all aspects of my humanness – my body, mind, emotion and spirit and it transcends all of these and links me to the universal nature of humanness. It is an unfolding into all that I in my deepest core long to be. It goes beyond ‘rational’ or logical experience.  Here I realize that to be human is also to be a mystery – a “magical well, a mysterious well of infinite depth, a holy well” (McCarroll, 1986).

And so I come to the end of my investigation of ‘being human’. Although space allowed only a cursory look at some of our elements, my belief is that being human involves so much. It involves embodiment, or being related to a particular body, of experiencing through our bodies.  It involves subjective experience – consciousness, a sense of self and agency and it involves cognition, which helps us process and make sense of our experience. To be human also means being intrinsically related to others, to exist in a social medium of meanings, customs and culture and being connected via our spirits.  It means having unconscious feelings, a sense that some of our experience and our reactions emanate from feelings deep within ourselves of which we may be hardly aware.  It entails being wounded and being able to wound.  It involves being separate from others and yet offers us the possibility at our core to be in connection with all that is. We strive for meaning and we are a mixture of beauty, creativity, curiosity, reason, intuition, will, compassion, dignity, grace, love, worth, shadow, pain, jealousy, lust, pride and spirit – in the words of MacNamara we are an “angel-beast, body-soul knit” (MacNamara, 2003).

In essence being a person involves some sense of all of these strands being in complex interrelation with each other.  Being human means we are in essence relational, complex and dynamic.  And it involves mystery because what is deepest about us, what makes us what we are, can not be measured, proven or analysed and that is because we live in a world in the process of creation and we are part of that creation – we are ‘becoming’.  Kirkegaard’s words perhaps reflect in two short sentences what this essay has striven to show:

“A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity.  In short a synthesis” (Kierkegaard, 1849)

Patricia Allen-Garrett holds an honours degree in psychology, is a pre-accredited member of IAHIP and is a psychotherapist in practice in Dublin.


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