In yesterday’s post I began with definitions of the what it means to be human. Does the definition of humanness matter? Yes. It matters because many human beings feel free to mistreat others they deem non-human or less than human.
One’s worldview has an influence on one’s view of humanness. There seem to be two basic categories of creation myths: those which contend that mankind is dominant to all other forms of life and those which place mankind on a par with the rest of creation. While the idea that mankind is the top of the natural hierarchy and endowed with dominance over nature has probably contributed to knowledge and development of technology, it has not necessarily advanced the cause of humane treatment of fellow human beings. The believers in philosophies of coexistence with nature, such as many of the American Indian cultures, have been overrun by societies that believe in dominance of man over the natural order, or the placement of man just below the gods.
Societies based on philosophies of mankind dominance over nature can act humanely if guided by thoughtful leadership that realizes dominion comes with responsibility. But this is far from the case if these societies are run by those who are either ignorant of the fine points, or willfully distort them to their own advantage. At its most extreme, the philosophy of dominance results in terrible treatment of those who are dominated. We see this constantly in world history, from the Spanish Conquistadors, to Nazi Germany, to Bosnia and Rwanda.
Mental and physical attributes of human beings
If we set aside ethnicity, there are many who believe that mental or physical abilities define classes of people. Many in society treat those with compromised mental or physical health less respectfully.
Words are cheap and platitudes abound: “There but for the grace of god go I”; “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”; “Walk a mile in his shoes” are a few examples. These sayings encourage one to have more than just empathy for another – the ability to feel what another is feeling – but to have compassion. Compassion is the awareness of another’s suffering plus a desire to act to relief it.  However, there is nothing like first-hand experience to drive a point home. For example, it is very unlikely that many of us who are not African American would artificially darken our skin, as did the main character in the movie Black Like Me  to get first hand knowledge of what it is to be a member of another group. But it is possible, even inevitable that mentally and physically fit people will slip into a ‘lesser category’, whether through an injury or debilitating illness.
Wisdom (sometimes) comes with age and experience. How surprising it must be for a young person, never sick a day in his/her life, to experience eroding abilities that come with age, or an accident or head injury that renders them reliant on others; or for the father who truly loves his son and believes that AIDS is retribution, who discovers that his son has this dreaded disease.
There must a better way than this retail approach to realizing the plight of people with lesser abilities and empathizing with them. How do we disseminate the notion on a large scale that the entire range of humanity – from those with little or no mental or physical abilities to those who are mentally and physically fit – deserves equal consideration? Is it possible? Perhaps social engagement is one way, even taking backlash into account; there is a chance, if lines of communication are open. However I fear that isolated enclaves will stick with their sclerotic views and perpetuate the idea that there is only one dominant human type, and it is theirs.
I have had the advantage of an older brother who taught me life lessons. It wasn’t easy. Mike has never said a word to me, but my lessons arose from my efforts to understand him. Although he is very low functioning and autistic, he taught me tolerance; patience; sensitivity to others; an acute desire to express myself; and the desire to be understood.
That I am biologically closer to Mike than either of my parents, makes me particularly sensitive to the notion that some view him as less than human. No doubt, he is a low outlier at the end of the statistical bell-curve-of-abilities, but that does not equate to being less than human. His existence is one instance of the diversity of human life. If he is not human, then I am not human either. Not only is he human, he evokes the humanity of the people who care for him and care about him.
 I will address the concept of compassion as a component of the definition of humanness in another post.
I love your posts. The things you list as having learned from your brother are similar to the ones I would list as having learned from my son. I don’t think I was a very patient person until I had to learn how to see through Dylan’s eyes in order to try to understand him better. Nor was I a particularly tolerant person in practice (though I probably claimed it in theory) or sensitive to others. Most of what I now consider to be my ‘better’ qualities I have developed only through my severely autistic, learning disabled and virtually non-verbal son. This is very much experiential learning – I can’t imagine how I would have learned these things without caring for him. Maybe one challenge is to share this experience with those who do not have the privilege of living alongside someone like your brother or my son – because apart from those who choose to care as a profession (for whom I am in constant admiration) this experience almost always comes to us in a random and unplanned way. Except, as you note, our genes are not entirely random – I do sometimes wonder whether my daughter ever reflects that she has more in common genetically with her brother than I do. I grew up in a family that wasn’t close; one of the things I remember saying at a rare family gathering when I was younger, as my brother was preparing to leave, was: ‘just a minute – let me say goodbye to my genes’.
Thanks, Liz. It certainly is a learning experience… Not an easy learning curve, though. It is life changing, in fact.
Thanks for your comments,
By the way, I’m trying to find your page, to no avail. Is it still up?
Hi there – thanks for your mail. That’s interesting because wordpress has gone very strange on me today – I can’t see freshly pressed or readers and the site keeps logging me out so I can only see myself as a visitor. I’ve just managed to get on via the dashboard which is where I’ve picked your comment up. So something weird is up. My page is at http://dylanandliz.wordpress.com if that helps… Thanks for letting me know! Liz
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