There seems to be a fundamental division within the very idea of humanity. On the one hand, the word connotes the best of what our species can do and be: People who embrace the idea that we are ‘the measure of all things’ are called “humanists;” areas of study that explore our creativity and wisdom are called the “humanities;” Christians speak of humanity has having been made “in the image and likeness of God;” and lest we think this is a purely Western phenomenon, Buddhists speak of the Buddha-nature inherent in every human mind. At the same time, however, we let ourselves off the hook by saying “I’m only human” and discuss horrific crimes in terms of “human nature.” (As a side note, the same dichotomy seems to exist for the word “man” in its gendered sense. We’ll tell a guy who’s being lazy or whiny to “man up” or “be a man” and the Civil Rights Movement was famous for its signs saying “I AM A MAN,” but men — especially in groups — will also use “just men being men” as an excuse for any sort of bad behaviour.)
While in a way it’s strange that the same vocabulary can be used to express both the best and worst in us, it is at the same time very, well, human. We are after all animals who have evolved intelligence and reason (the ancients called us “rational sheep”), creatures driven by the same instincts and drives as any animal with a spinal cord, yet who have the capacity to do and be more than those drives alone would allow.
The ancient cosmologies of the West expressed this tension within the human mystery differently, but in a way that nicely complements these ideas. The Church Fathers spoke of humanity as being a microcosm of the created universe, uniquely holding together the noetic (i.e, intellectual, wise, and perceptive) and physical realms. Either way, whether instinctual and rational or material and noetic, this basic contradiction lives inside each of us. In the words of Walt Whitman, “Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Yet, not all of these multitudes are created equal. We don’t need to look very hard or very far afield to see the damage some of our ‘multitudes’ can wreak on ourselves and on those around us. We are, each of us, complicit in the suffering of the world. It’s tempting and far too easy to point the finger at someone else. But, as Solzhenitsyn famously said,
“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil” (The Gulag Archipelago).
Along a similar line, I’m reminded of the oft repeated but poorly attributed legend of the two wolves within us.* As this story goes, there are two powers inside of us, imagined as wolves, which war against each other. One wolf represents virtues such as goodness, kindness, light, wisdom, and intelligence; the other represents the correlating vices of evil, cruelty, darkness, foolishness, and ignorance. The wolf that has the upper hand is, of course, according to the parable, whichever wolf we feed.
Both Solzhenitsyn’s reflection and the parable get to the heart of the contradictions within the human condition, not just our very human capacity to do incredible good or incredible evil, but crucially, our very human capacity to do something about it.
Unlike most other animals, we aren’t at the mercy of our nervous systems, of the fight-flight-freeze-faint-feed-fuck drives that operate at the most primitive levels of our brains and beings. Over hundreds of thousands of years, our species has evolved the ability to challenge, question, and push back against those drives. It’s really quite a miracle if you think about it. It’s not that those drives are bad — there is a time when fighting is necessary, a time to run away, and certainly times to eat, sleep, and have sex — it’s not about a kind of dualism between body and spirit. But rather it means we know that these impulses can lie to us about what we need to do, and so we can be intentional in how we respond to them, challenge them, ask questions of them, and, when appropriate, set them aside in order to pursue more important values, plans, and ideals.
To a large extent, it’s this process that the spiritual life invites us to embrace. Certainly, spirituality is about being in communion with God and the world around us, but it’s also about being in greater communion with ourselves, understanding how our minds and hearts work and leaning into and embracing what makes us human. For it is only through this process that we can really be in communion with anyone or anything. Fight and flight may help us to survive, but they certainly don’t help us thrive, and they certainly don’t help us to build communion.
A spiritual life — a life with God — calls us to question our desire to fight and urges us to make peace instead. It calls us to question our desire to run away from responsibility and pushes us towards reconciliation. It calls us away from the bliss of ignorance and into acceptance of hard truths. It calls us to fight our spiritual lethargy and wake up. And it calls us to be mindful of our eating and sexuality so we can be healthy and full in heart and spirit and body. (Are we eating because we’re hungry or because we’re sad? Are we having sex to express our communion with the beloved, or because we enjoy the ego boost of feeling desirable? More broadly, does our consumption of food and sex uphold the sanctity of our bodies and the unity of our personhood, or does it denigrate others or ourselves, or divide body from heart?)
The spiritual life invites us to these challenges because God desires us to be free from our unhealthy attachments, to bring light into our dark places, to grow up into maturity, and respond to crises with openhearted faith and love. These are all metaphors for saying that God longs for us to be free from sin. And to do any of this is to lean into our highest human potential. To use the traditional vocabulary, if we are indeed a microcosm of all creation — if we hold both the physical and noetic worlds together in our being — this is as much a vocation as it is a gift: a calling to really bring both realms together in our bodies, hearts, and minds.
To do so, to pursue this calling, is only human.
[*Note on the Parable of the Two Wolves: While I think there is a lot of wisdom in this parable, there are important problems with how it is usually framed. For an excellent primer on the issues surrounding the parable, and cultural appropriation and false cultural attribution more generally, please check out this post.]