Hopefully, having explored our four themes and questioned your usual thinking, you are more aware of the global challenges we humans face. In examining the various artifacts, you realize they arose from our natural craving to make sense of what it means to be human.
Some of these artifacts and discussions may have resonated with you, even validated your thoughts and feelings. Others may have sent you to entirely new worlds. It can be daunting, discouraging, to study human trafficking, gender inequity, genocide, political corruption, and the largest refugee crisis in human history.
On the other hand, we hope to have shown that the humanities provide a means for engaging in positive, empowering, enlightening, and hopeful reflections about what it means to be human. You have a grounding in philosophy, history, literature, religion, art, anthropology, politics, and psychology. And now, you understand how these disciplines reveal the moral, spiritual, and intellectual paths of people making their way through the world.
In his poem “,” American poet Jack Gilbert challenges us to acknowledge human sorrows and suffering but also “have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.” He describes women laughing in the face of sickness and suffering in the “terrible streets of Calcutta.” He concludes the poem with his appreciation for the life he has:
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
The Big Questions
What is the purpose of life? Awakening at 3:37 a.m. pondering why we exist is perhaps a universal experience. Why do people suffer? How do we find joy? Is there life after death? The study of humanities is uniquely designed to address these confounding questions having no black-and-white answers. The humanities provide an assurance that we can embrace the process of searching, even if the conclusions are ever-changing.
Some human experiences are universal—falling in love, finding success, enduring loss, withstanding pain. Nevertheless, an individual’s response to love, success, loss, and pain is unique because every person has a different interpretation of what these experiences mean. The comforting caress of the sun on someone’s cheek might be a source of irritation to another person. One person may shriek with joy over a winter of deep, heavy snowfalls. Someone else despairs during a long winter of gloom and depression.
We feel differently. We look different. We are different. At the same time, we automatically file away people by race, culture, religion, gender. We assess people’s worth according to how closely they resemble us. We treat people who are similar to us better than people who are different. This bias towards favoring people and values we agree with dictates social structures and relationship power-dynamics.
Digging under the surface of these habits can make us uncomfortable. We may choose to ignore unflattering aspects of our belief system. Flee from discomforting facts that challenge our world view. Disconnect from the world with the excuse that we are not sure we can help with this. Or, we may decide to invest in changing how we think.
Another big question. Since we are not all the same, can we claim a shared human experience? Perhaps the more important question to ask is how individuals can join together to battle the darker manifestations of humanity, such as greed, manipulation, violence, injustice, and intolerance?
On Being Human
It can be hard to be human. To wake up every day and brush your teeth and do the things you said you would do to find the work you enjoy and people you like; to deal with pandemics and earthquakes and disappointments; to cope with paper cuts and breakups and lost keys.
The insufferable waiting for social reform to manifest can be hard on humans. Emancipated slaves won the right to vote in America in 1870. One hundred thirty-eight years later, the United States elected President Barack Obama, its first Black president. Women won the right to vote in America in 1920. In 2019, American women made up 51% of the population but only 24% of the federal legislature. One hundred years after winning the battle for suffrage, a woman has yet to be elected president of the United States.
Maya Angelou’s poem “” reverberates with a message about how change gets started. In the last two stanzas, Angelou repeats the phrase, “I rise,” to underline her defiant resilience in the face of racism:
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Now What Do We Do?
The next big question, but certainly not the last, how do we move forward from being a human to acting on our humanity? Throughout the four themes, we have explored artifacts from the far and near past. In deciding what to do in the future, perhaps the answer lies in examining our present. Use the experiences of the artists, poets, activists, revolutionaries, and scholars to reflect on how you fit into this thing called the human experience. Compare pressing global issues to current events happening in your community. Measure yourself in relation to the experiences, good and bad, of people who are different.
As Orbinski notes, speaking leads to sharing, and sharing leads to action. Perhaps the next time you listen to music, read the news, or see a homeless person, your newfound awareness will compel you to speak or act or even just think a little differently. I hope that you do.