“ I expect to pass through this world but once; any good thing therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature,let me do it now; let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again. ”
– Stephan Grellet –
Humanity. It is such an intriguing topic. It has captured my attention ever since the moment when I really became aware of its existence; the moment when I realized that Nationality, Race, & Religion are just lines in the sand – and in the sky; simply differences that we assign to ourselves and place upon others. This process of self-differentiation, of creating We & Us and Them & They, is a process that strips other people of any connection to ourselves, and thus robs them of their very humanity.
I hesitate to continue, wondering if it’s possible to capture certain emotions or ideas and then force them here, into the physical world. I did not sit down with the intention to ask why humans always divide themselves; to ask why there always exists an Other. I’ve done that before, but no answer seems capable of explaining why it is so difficult to truly recognize the humanity in people different from ourselves.
Too often we are afraid to take a bite from the Apple, to open our eyes to the common thread that connects all human beings around the globe. Certainly, it is much easier to sympathize with and care for those who are most like us. But is it actually that much more difficult to empathize with someone who may pray to a different deity, has a different idea of marriage, or perhaps has totally different ideas as to what constitutes as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’?
Can we not look beyond the veil and see that the woman underneath loves her children just as deeply and passionately as our own mothers love us? And what of the person who prays to no god? He fears for his family’s safety just as any God-loving man does. And what of the peoples who still nomadically roam their land? Surely the hunger that they may feel is the same as ours.
The embrace of a loved one brings a smile to a Muslim face just as it does to a Christian face, does it not? Isn’t the love between a man and his partner just as powerful as the love between a man and his wife? And can we not agree that when Iraqi parents lose a child, their pain is just as piercing as an American family’s when their child dies in the war?
Before someone is Buddhist, atheist, a socialist, a foreigner, black, or white, they are first and foremost human. That is our connection; we share so many of the same worries and fears, but we also share many of the simple pleasures of life. Both laughter and tears are languages that cross all boundaries.
Humanity has an unquestionable hold over me. It has, at times, brought me such anguish, and yet other times, filled me with an immeasurable joy. But in particular, it is the human duality – humanity’s capacity to create such destruction and pain, and at the same time harness such understanding and compassion – that holds me spellbound and deeply moves me.
It is reading the story of a young boy who was pried from his life by the indifferent and obedient hand of History and placed into a bloody war; who was robbed of his father’s strong embrace, the smile of his brother, and his grandmother’s stories. It is the story of a child who once spent his days playing soccer, but was forced to murder until it felt unnatural not to kill. It is then reading this child’s words when he earnestly states that he would go through it all again – the killing, the months when sleep would not come to him, the migraines that he felt sure would finally relieve him of his burdened life – if only it would assure that no other child would have to experience such pain and loss, such confusion and sorrow. Yes, that’s what moves me.
It is far too easy to focus only on humanity’s shortcomings. Indeed, they are in no short supply. But, it is important to realize that there exists a sincerely beautiful side of humanity, as well; a side that is too often pessimistically portrayed as disappearing in today’s world. But, one mustn’t wait to read of a far-off war to witness such displays of compassion. These acts of beauty, these acts of inspiration and raw honesty, are all around, if one will but see them.
Last week I witnessed an awesome act. It was awesome in its simplicity and beautiful in the fact that it was mundane. I noticed a librarian helping a blind girl to an empty space at a table. I then watched in amazement as the girl pulled a laptop from her bag, put in earphones, and then proceeded to check her email and surf the Web. That was it; nothing more. It is a simple act that millions of people do several times each day, but I only wish that this girl knew how her act gave me an entirely different perspective and deeply transformed me.
My first reaction towards anyone with a ‘handicap’ was always one of pity, and that seemed like the appropriate reaction. But I see now that pity (though meant with good intentions) still places the other person on a different, sub-standard level. By pitying someone, we focus too much on their difference and in doing so, sometimes forget they are actually a whole person, capable of loving, hating, and everything in between.
So, as I watched this girl perform such a mundane act, realization washed over me. It was as if I was seeing the girl – indeed, the world – through brand new eyes. This girl was not sitting at the table thinking, “I’m blind, but I’m going to use my laptop anyway.” She was simply a teenage girl, who happened to experience reality differently than I, but who was a complete and full human being nonetheless. And so the act of checking her email was, in fact, nothing astonishing, but routine. But that mundane act transformed the way I saw the world, and in doing so, became both beautiful and extraordinary.
Today I beheld yet another vessel of human beauty. I was sitting at a table when something caught my eye. I looked up as a young woman walked by, draped head to toe in the flowing, ebony fabric of a burqa. I had seen her once before, but only for an instant, and the image of her had lingered in my head for weeks. But today, as she walked past, she seemed to simply glide effortlessly over the floor. And although I could only see the golden skin around her stunning eyes, I found myself overwhelmed by her inexplicable beauty and grace. Perhaps it had something to do with her strength. To wear that shield of black cloth in this land, where it is neither forced or the Norm, must require amazing confidence and dedication. I found myself wondering: Where does she come from? What is her story? Her story, no matter its contents, has made her who she is. That story, to me, is Beauty. Her exoticness and our common human bond is Beauty.
We all have to wake up on some mornings when all we want is to sleep in. We all have days when the world is against us, and we all have the capacity to be resentful and even hate. But every one of us – even the person at work or at school, who we think has no heart at all – has something that brings pure, unadulterated joy into our lives. We all have the capacity to overlook demographic differences and truly see one another. To acknowledge the common thread of our existence is to show Compassion.
That is why I have come to believe that Humanity’s greatest attribute is not necessarily Love or Hope, but instead, Compassion: the act of recognizing the Humanity in another.
This life is very short and fragile, but I find it quite comforting that one can find such solace in something as plentiful as the smile of a child.
Human Beauty by W. J. Newsome is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.