23 Mar On Life, Death, & What It Means to Be Human
I LAY ON a towel with my chin in a galaxy of pebbles; as my head scans the sandy surface low to the ground, I watch ants scatter across my field of vision. What are they doing?
Ants are ubiquitous, intelligent creatures which glide across the sand like cars, forming lines and filling the role of what they’re supposed to do.
Are we so different from these creatures?
Ant personalities differ, which is funny to think about. Some are bold and adventurous, active foragers, while others are fearful, shy, risk averse — just like us — so what makes us human?
Human beings are the product of three and a half billion years of evolution, when life first appeared on earth. It’s been a slow, miraculous undertaking to become what we are.
“All humans have language,” write evolutionary biologists Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein in their book, A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century.
We can tell self from other, and can distinguish self as subject (I cooked for her). We use facial expressions that are both general and nuanced, which include happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, disgust, and contempt. We predict and plan for the future, or at least we try to. We have law, and we have leaders… We have rituals, and religious practice, and standards of sexual modesty. We admire hospitality and generosity. We have an aesthetic, which we apply to our bodies, our hair, and our environment. We know how to dance. We make music. We play.
Unlike ants, which think as a collective brain, human beings act as individuals. Still, we’re part of a unified whole, and the earth is telling us to recognize this, and do something about it.
The journey of the individual is no simple thing; we can think about thinking, like looking through a two-way mirror into the room of the thinker.
Ants, like practically all animals, are only in the room, doing their duty, following light, odor and chemicals.
Humans understand that we are more than just the thinker in the room. We are infinite potential which can adapt, expand, change, and focus. Our potential has the chance to flourish through adversity and a willingness to confront our greatest fears.
So why don’t we?
Because fear can be paralyzing. But we aren’t the product of risk averse humans. Our ancestors were survivors, explorers, creators, artists, engineers — humans.
Overcoming the fear and adversity that holds us back is what we’re on this earth to do.
I flick an ant from my arm.
I didn’t think about it; I reacted to the tickling sensation of this minute creature wandering through the forest that is my arm hair. The ant was courageous; it seized this moment, even while knowing, perhaps, that the end of existence is a possibility, like us.
Ants emit chemicals which tell other ants, I’m alive, don’t throw away my body. When this chemical fades, other ants quickly remove the insect’s carcass to remove from the nest whatever killed that ant.
The ant knows existing. It can recognize the end of existence — but the ant doesn’t know what it means to live.
This bold insect traveled down my arm despite the dangers that came with it. It departed from the single file line and embraced the journey of the individual, and for that, I commend the ant and its bravery.
The Other Side of Struggle
Carry, bite, crawl. The ant is life itself, not what observes life, like us; not what ponders death, like us; not what contemplates worlds beyond this temporal one.
Physically, the body ceases to go on when the heart stops beating.
But we mourn and celebrate the spirit of those that have passed; we tell stories of how they lived, what they accomplished, how they changed the lives of others.
We hold on to bitterness of those that have passed, too, as their dreams, hopes, and fears linger like ghosts, even when they’re gone.
Death is a strange thing. We’ve all experienced the feeling of loss, an emptiness where something used to be. I fear becoming that vacuum; I’m afraid to say goodbye to all that I know, this beautiful adventure called living.
Perhaps on the other side of the void there’s unimaginable beauty, peace, and love, and that’s alluring, especially when life can seem meaningless and suffocating. Perhaps death is the only escape from that sort of pain.
There are undoubtedly struggles that come with being human — but the struggle, and what exists on the other side, and what it takes to get there — that journey makes us human.
The Joys of Being Alive
In the struggle, we open our hearts to newfound energy, strength, beauty, connection. In the struggle, we discover what it means to love.
We know what it means to hurt, but we’ve also experienced the joy that comes from being alive, like hearing a child laugh. Like holding another human’s hand and feeling butterflies in your stomach.
We’ve experienced the wonder of overcoming a difficult season and looking back with dignity. I’m okay. I beat it.
Why are we here if not to enjoy the simplest pleasures, like feeling the sun warm our skin when we need it most?
Like crying with a friend or listening to music while looking at the sky, that incomprehensible force that comes from deep down in the recesses of our being and connects to something greater.
Life on this earth is an absurd journey, and we’re painfully aware of what it takes to maintain love in our hearts and joy in our soul. That’s the inner battle, the one that will guide us till the end, the only fight worth continually having.
Death is the deprivation of perception; something that causes no trouble when it is present causes pain to no purpose when it is merely expected…Death is nothing to us. When we exist, death is not; and when death exists, we are not.
We cannot know what lies beyond physical death for certain; but we endure a sort of psychological death while we’re alive — fear itself — of embarrassment, of letting others down, of failing.
We also fear physical death, so we’d rather play it safe.
Yet what I continue to contemplate is how the fear of death, both physical and mental, inhibits our willingness to thrive.
What makes us so wonderfully human is our ability to overcome. Our ability to decide. Our capacity to fill the darkness with light, to stare death, fear, in the face, and take a chance.
There is no safe path forward to become the humans we are meant to be. Keep your hand down, and the world will never hear your voice; but you’ll never risk making a fool of yourself.
Stay home where it’s safe, and you won’t have to confront risk; you’ll also never have to shift your worldview. Refrain from taking a stand against a toxic co-worker, and you’ll never risk losing your job. You’ll also endure an endlessly conflicted inner world.
Our lives are full of choices, and it’s always easier to play it safe. But we’re not here merely to survive. We’re here to live.
The human being fundamentally strives for life. And the same is true for life as a collective. Earth is becoming more and more alive all the time. Biodiversity increases and increases and increases and each new species contributes to the collective condition for even more species to come up. And we are part of that evolution to make earth even more alive. And that is more important to life than keeping safe and surviving.
We’re not meant to be ants. We are fucking human — we defy odds; we overcome adversity; we try and we fail. But if we fail, at least we know we tried. To never try is to die while our heart still beats.
The following notion by psychologist Jordan Peterson on the Modern Wisdom Podcast is something I have hardly stopped thinking about since hearing it.
Peterson describes Michelangelo’s Pietà, which portrays the body of Jesus in the lap of Mother Mary after the crucifixion.
“The Freudians said very wisely that the good mother necessarily fails,” says Peterson.
It means she stops providing the comfort that insulates people against the need for adventure. It’s the female crucifixion. And that’s exemplified best, in Michelangelo’s Pietà. Away you go kid. Away you go. Well why it’s dangerous out there? It’s like ya, no kidding. You might lose your body out there in the world, (the mother says to her son). But if you stay here with me, you’ll lose your soul.
There is so much life waiting to be lived. This world is full of so much beauty, waiting to be felt. There’s boundless love, ready to be shared. We mustn’t be afraid to be in this body, in this soul, on this earth, at a pivotal point in human history.
It’s time to discover what it means to be alive.