What's Special About Being Human?

Continuing the revised 3rd Edition of A Million Different Things: Meditations of the World’s Happiest Man. It’s Meditation #11 from the first section, Morning. Links for every chapter can be found at: Gift Of A Million Different Things.

What Makes Being Human Special?

Being human, wingless, I’ve fantasized about flying, soaring above the world with an eagle’s view, my normally flightless body graceful and weightless. Probably, everyone has.

When I fly in meditation, it’s without wings, and I travel to places birds never go. I’ve raced across the Milky Way, stars, comets and gas clouds flashing by.

On airplanes, I try to get a good look at Earth from thirty-thousand feet. Last year, on a trip to Naples, I got a long look at the sun-washed, snowy peaks of the French Alps poking up through a cloud cover, hidden from the rest of the world.

When we watch them fly, we imagine birds to be full of joy and freedom. But everything making their flight possible, the hollow bones, the feathers and wings, were birthed in evolution, the results of a struggle to survive and never as simple as we assume.

Flight gave birds a survival advantage. Flight didn’t come as a joyously playful diversion. Accidents or innovations over long periods created birds from reptiles by helping them to escape dangers on the ground.

If birds think about us, they probably envy our freedom to safely walk on land, not unnerved by incessant wariness, not ready to fly at a moment’s notice.

People think about nature in countless ways, and I’m certain some envy the underground tunneling mastery of, say, moles, woodchucks and rabbits. For sheer wonder, I admire those most amazing birds, flightless penguins, that soar underwater, often in icy seas. The graceful immensity and mystical presence of elephants are inspirations for wonder.

What’s Special About Being Human: Warmth?

In the final chapter of Saul Bellow’s classic novel, Herzog, his main character reflects on the essence of being human. He concludes that people give off warmth as oranges give off orange and grass, green.

Unforgettable moments in other books, Henry Miller walking the Seine near the end of Tropic of Cancer, for instance, reflecting that the closer you got, the more peoples’ outward appearances deteriorated, from negligible to ugly and malicious, have struck chords in me that reverberated for decades.

Still, nobody but Bellow closed a story with as much intensely delivered wisdom. In the final pages of Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Sammler prays over the body of Ilya Gruner in a hospital morgue, telling God that his friend had the wisdom of knowing the right thing to do, no matter what craziness erupted around him, concluding with the revelation “…for that is the truth of it, God, that we know, we know.”

Sammler, in mourning his friend, sadly acknowledged to his God that the deepest understanding rests in each of us, even as Gruner was one of the few willing to hear and try to follow.

As a young man reading both Miller and Bellow, eager to learn what they knew and expressed so well about being human, I seldom lost a gnawing sense that I was traveling through life separated by a curtain from real knowledge. I kept reaching, trying to find a way to get inside, and it was not until much later that I realized that all I needed to do was take a deep breath, relax and let it come.

Here are a few things I’ve learned about being human:

1. Life is short only when we’re not paying attention.

2. Everywhere we turn, someone or something is trying to connect.

3. Nature has no duplicates.

4. Diversity is unlimited.

5. Trying hard always delivers us to a place we never intended to go.

6. Opening up to wonder is like taking our place at the most sumptuous banquet ever prepared.

7. Insight is our greatest gift and one no one else can give it to us.

8. Individuality is absolute.

9. We can do anything we want, but we can’t do anything twice.

10. Conformity is a restraint that grows to self-imprisonment.

11. Because we are different, we must be different.

12. More important than eating and sleeping is the steady practice of pausing to remember who we are and where we are going.

13. Our subconscious is a storage shed for things we don’t want to pay attention to right now.

14. Accept that we always have choice, and the world will become whatever we want it to be.

15. Listen to wise people and teachers, but learning to listen to our own inner voices will bring the best results.

16. Love one another, appreciate everything, let it be, and it will all come back in a flood.

17. Optimism junkies are their own gods.

18. Not a single thing in the world is good, and neither is anything bad.

19. We are magnets.

20. Experience is the only thing we can ever accurately call our own.

As there is always at least one thing that sets all species apart, what I believe makes being human unique is precisely this: we hunger for more and better knowledge, and we hunger for it as a way to power our own evolution. That’s what we are, the pioneering engineers of our universe.

Birds and squirrels make no such lists of declarations. As humans, we’ve made thousands of them. Pithy, irreverent and inspiring collections of wisdom in any size are published in books, printed on scrolls and passed along over the internet. I even have a poster, Peter’s Laws, found one night while strolling in the French Quarter, taken home, framed and hung on our wall. I see it every day.

As humans, we keep ourselves lively with the peppery spices of energetic memes, just as birds express their species through flight. Birds adopted hollow bones and feathered bodies, and we developed magical minds of immense capacity and diversity.

We do want to know, to each his or her own, and it never goes away. We want to know because it’s what makes it possible for us to do.

Previous Chapter: When Was The Last Time You Played?

What’s Special About Being Human continues the revised 3rd Edition of A Million Different Things: Meditations of the World’s Happiest Man. It’s Meditation #11 from the first section, Morning. Links for every chapter can be found at: Gift Of A Million Different Things.