On Being Human

Being Human

It’s hard for many of us to remember it now, but childhood is that time of life when everything was a first encounter of the most vibrant kind. Fire trucks never looked so big and red. Grass was never so cool and green. And ice cream? Well, maybe some things survive.

Life when it’s new is a tidal wave of sensations that time has a way of taking out to sea. We suffer loss, disappointment, illness and injury. Undeniably, though, we also take in all the triumphs, passions and breathtakingly happy moments, too, tossed between the highs and lows of life no matter how “best laid” our plans may be.

We grow up and we grow old riding the same rail everyone else does, learning how to take control of our lives and responsibility for them. If we’re lucky or blessed, we don’t entirely trade that wide-eyed wonder in which we held the world for a perspective that is limited by the borders of me and mine, fear and a jaundiced protectiveness.

And yet, there is no question that “the way of the world” is to wear away innocence, challenge hopefulness and exact a price for just about everything. We have a phrase for what results from that lifelong engagement in a trial by perseverance. We call it “the human condition.” It’s the total experience of being alive that we all share in common. A journey we are all taking together.

Being human means being transformed.

So how do we embark on that journey and become who we are? It’s the quintessential question: nature or nurture? The answer is probably yes. But regardless of the forces that work upon us, the fact is, being human is a state of constant becoming. As surely as we grow along a genetic path, we are also developing an interior architecture that informs our personality, beliefs, conduct and character.

Jeffrey Hubbell, LSCSW“A lot of people used to think that every cell in the body replaces itself every seven to ten years,” said Jeff Hubbell, GraceMed Director of Behavioral Health. “The reality is that different cells regenerate at different intervals, so we’re really always in a state of change physically. That’s also true about our interior selves, but the changes generally happen at a much slower pace. So much so that you don’t really notice the different you, but your long lost friend at your 40 year reunion likely will.”

There are notable exceptions to this rule, of course, but studies have shown that most of us gravitate toward becoming more emotionally stable, agreeable and capable members of society as we age. Researchers have investigated the relationship between this mature state of well-being and certain personality traits. They identify five key traits, any one of which can set you on a path to a heightened sense of well-being. They include:

  • Enthusiasm
  • Low tendency to withdraw
  • Industriousness
  • Compassion
  • Intellectual curiosity

Being human means being at risk

Well-being is something we concern ourselves with at GraceMed. It’s why we go beyond treating illness to minister to the whole health of our patients. We know there is a direct, two-way connection between the quality of your healthy and the quality of your life. Stress is a prime example of that connection.

Alyson Taylor-Smith, APRN, FNP-C“Stress can have a major impact on our physical health,” said Alyson Taylor Smith, APRN at GraceMed’s Oaklawn Family Clinic. “Our body’s response to stress can contribute to other health problems like heart disease, diabetes, GI disorders in addition to many other physical ailments and chronic conditions. Other behavioral health problems such as depression and anxiety can have similar effects on our physical health.”

Well-being, or what we might also think of as being wholly well, is not just a two-way street between our body and our mind. We know that stress, for example, often comes from factors that have nothing to do with either one. Grief, relationships, financial or careers problems, the expectations of others – all of these influences which come from our relationship to the world around us have an impact on our wellness. And notably, they are aspects of our lives over which we probably won’t have exclusive control.

“From within and without, we’re always having to cope with things that can hurt us,” Jeff said. “Being human inevitably means being vulnerable. We have to experience the risk and reward of sharing life with others to grow and contribute to the world around us.”

Being human is not for the inhumane.

So the state of being human is a perpetual state of needing each other. And having the courage to need each other because of everything we know we are putting at risk, as in self-esteem, peace of mind, acceptance and love. But we can need each other selfishly or generously.

The novelist John Steinbeck once observed: “It always seemed strange to me that the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are [associated with] failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed . . . meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success.”

Is it possible that we can value the wrong values? Can we pursue our own well-being and find it at the expense of others? Or is the wholeness of our humanity better served by seeking each other’s success than by a headlong pursuit of our own?

To be human is to be a part of someone’s story.

So we journey in our lives from that world-discovering child full of wonder through the years in which we are learning who we in that world and among the people we encounter. But our perspective is still essentially from the inside looking out. There are certain experiences in our lives that are designed to change that. Foremost among them is family.

Pastor Steve Slack

“Our culture certainly talks about family in different ways today,” said Steve Slack, Director of Spiritual Care at GraceMed. “There are a lot of blended families and couples without children who form families as well, of course. There is a fundamental sense that these people belong together and to each other. When you’re in a relationship, your lives are shared, and you see yourself as part of someone else’s story.”

Rochelle Bryant

How critical are family relationships to well-being? Ask any social worker. “So much of what we do is picking up the pieces of lives that have been shattered along with their family units,” said Rochelle Bryant, Director of Community Cares. “For the kids especially, their whole sense of security and who they are in the world just evaporates when their homes are broken. They start reaching out for anything they can belong to and a lot of the solutions they come up with are of the self-destructive kind.”

Conversely, healthy families are the world writ small and safe. For children, they incubate our capacities for learning, social interaction and love. For their parents, it’s the joy of life personified and the living mark we make on the world. Life may pull us apart, but somehow never completely. Family members abide in each other’s lives even when they are only memories.

To be human is to be both individual and indivisible.

There is a sense in which we are all individual, and many would say that being human has a lot to do with being unique. The talents, characteristics and insights we possess combine to form a truly distinct human being. And that is undeniably true. Generation upon generation, our endless capacity for innovation and creativity is fed by the originality of who we are.

In fact, “creative openness” was another quality that scored high in the research that identified those five traits that contribute to our well-being. What all those traits have in common is a willingness to expand and express ourselves in an ever larger context. To understand what seems beyond our understanding. And that’s where the story we’re a part of gets even bigger.

Because being an individual is only one side of a two-sided coin in the currency of our well-being. The other side connects us to humanity. It’s the side that holds our capacity to empathize and show kindness and gratitude. As Rochelle explains, failing to access this generous capacity within us has real-world consequences. “When we fail to care for one another, that’s one good example. But if enough people stop caring about those in need around them, that lack of empathy can and does translate to things like food insecurity, and neglect and abuse of the elderly.”

The poet John Donne once wrote that “no man is an island,” and it is true that we were meant for each other. We are connected individual to individual at the points and moments where we become aware of the “other” as an individual, too. That awareness has no more meaningful expression than when we sacrifice our own interest for that of someone else, as we do when we socially distance in a pandemic or as a soldier does who gives that “no greater love” mentioned in scripture.

To be human is to be created.

What bonds us to each other if we are all so different? Pastor Steve says that there is a shared sense that we are all a part of something greater than ourselves. “Across the globe there are many options and perspectives about God but there is in our nature a desire for The One True, Living God.” “In Matthew chapter four,” he continued, “the devil tried to tempt Jesus in the wilderness to trust in His own power and Jesus responded, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ If Jesus recognized this need, how much more do we need to feed on God and His word in order to live the fully healthy lives that God intends for us to live.”

In a way, our natural hunger for the spiritual fulfillment at some time in our lives is the completion of our journey of discovery. Having spent many years of our lives taking in the world, and more years seeing ourselves through the eyes of those who love us, our perspective has changed. We are now looking from the outside in at our lives, searching for a broader, more meaningful explanation for who we are and why we are.

Psychological studies have confirmed the correlation between what researchers referred to as “religiosity and spirituality” and the degree to which we enjoy a healthy well-being. The research identified the value of an active belief system has in helping us find meaning and purpose in our lives.

“We tend to think of faith and belief as intangibles that can’t be measured like blood pressure and heart rate,” Jeff noted. “But we certainly can see their impact on mental health in factors like self-worth, life satisfaction and fulfillment. It seems to be a relatively valid conclusion that our whole health, and I think a fully human life, will eventually include the development of a sensitivity to the spiritual nature of life.”

As Steve Slack sees it, the pursuit of that fully human life derives from our need for a deeper connection with God. “We are creatures with a God-given need to know our Creator. It’s the ultimate discovery in life, and no one can make that journey for you. But I’ve seen it in so many people’s lives. They may be very successful or living on life’s edges, but at some point, they realize something’s missing. We need that personal connection with the source of all life, the Creator of our being – with God.”

We are as individual as humans as we are indivisible – from each other as well as our shared sense that we are part of something greater than ourselves. Yes we are diverse in countless ways, diverse like an artist’s palette is diverse. Mixed and matched in an apparent chaos of colors that, reassembled on the artist’s canvas, depict all the beauty and complexity of what it is to be human.