The Human Condition:

Why Human Beings Are Special – March 8, 2015

Vitruvian Man in x-ray

I’ve been publishing my weekly blog—except for the number that specifically address the publishing world1—under the rubric of “The Human Condition” since the beginning. Now, as I move beyond 200 posts in four years, I guess it’s time I defined that term.

First, let me say that the human condition is the concern of all novelists and storytellers. We may choose science fiction or romance or history as our personal bailiwick. As a science fiction author I may have characters who are aliens, time travelers from the distant future, or artificial intelligences.2 But even when I write from a non-human viewpoint, using characters who would seem to have solved most of what current humanity conceives to be problems or mysteries, my concern is still with the bases and consequences of being human.

I think Shakespeare said it best with the soliloquy from Hamlet, even though that’s not one of my favorite plays:3 “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—nor woman neither …”4

It has been said that human beings are at the median point in the universe, halfway between the realm of the infinitely small, of atoms and subatomic particles, and that of the infinitely large, of stars and galaxies. Within the past century, we humans have been able to invent instruments that sharpen our view in both directions. We are now plucking apart matter to examine its tiniest fractions along the boundary between mass and energy. We are also seeing out to the edge of the cosmos and back along the red shift to the first seconds of its birth in a particle explosion.5 The human mind extends to both extremes while the human body in its dimensions stands midway between them.

We are, by cell type and biological definition, animals, and yet we have brain functions, intelligence, and self-awareness unlike any other creatures on this Earth. We share some dimensions of this intelligence with all mammals. And we may share self-awareness and something approaching our unique spiritual condition with dolphins, whales, and elephants. It may even be that these particular creatures might have developed technologies such as radios and rocketry if they hadn’t lived in an ocean environment that makes electrical experiments impossible, or if they had possessed opposable thumbs for manipulating tools. Still, try as we might with our great brains, we cannot determine the exact nature of their communication systems or the capacities of their brains, and we can’t reach real communion with them—just interact through signs, spoken commands in human language, and rewards of food. Until we can establish a common language with these mammals, real understanding of our comparable natures is out of the question.

We are, by imagination and desire, a kind of creature that had never before existed, except in human thought. Call them gods, angels, faeries, or superheroes, they are beings that are near-perfect in their physical strength and innate understanding. Such beings know without having to study and memorize. They are capable without having to practice and suffer through trial and error. They command changes in their environment without having to form teams, negotiate goals, plan cooperative actions, and strive and sweat together. They harness energies and forces without having to build contraptions of wood and metal driven by strings under tension, springs in compression, exploding gases, falling weights, or carefully managed electrical discharges. Where gods and superheroes can think their world into being, we human beings must scheme and make and scrape and do.

We are the animal that dreams—not simply the nocturnal ramblings which discharge the day’s burden of useless half-formed memories, but the soaring visions of things that are not but might be. We live in a dream world of hopes, fears, expectations, disappointments, triumphs, and frustrations of which a dog has no conception and for which a god has no need. We are creatures of our own mind.

We inhabit the past in our memories and the future in our imaginations. So many of us live inside these unreal worlds of the brain’s creation that we must be jolted out of our insistent schemes, grievances, mutterings, and musings by some sight like a sunset, sound like a bell’s chime, or other fragment of the immediate senses so that we can appreciate the instant of now. We take courses in yoga just to teach our bodies to rest and appreciate gravity. We take courses in meditation just to teach our minds to stop and appreciate the moment.

In our perceptions, the instant in which the future becomes the past is also in the nature of timelessness, of infinity. We think the future stretches on through infinite time, but we know or suspect that it doesn’t. We know that one day we will die, our bodies will cease to function—we’ve seen it happen to others, and we’re not fools—and yet we can see through our imagination so far into the future that we actually believe in our current condition going on “forever.” But we don’t stop to think that an infinite future would be infinitely boring. Our minds, our hands, our interests, and our imaginations were not made to last so long.6

We know that the past does not stretch out forever behind us. Although we cannot remember our own beginning, the instant of conception, our time in the womb, the moment of birth, or our earliest years as a helpless blob, we’ve been told about these things, seen them in others, and we’re not fools. We know that everything has its beginnings, whether it was Rome as a village of Trojan refugees—or were they simply brigands?—on the banks of the Tiber, or Jerusalem as the place of Abraham’s sacrifice. We look for the headwaters of the Nile. We seek to identify the seed’s power of germination.

We are the creatures of the cleft stick. We have a godlike appreciation for the infinite and everlasting but are trapped in bodies that seldom endure longer than a hundred years. When we are young, we have strength and energy but not the knowledge and skills to use them wisely. When we are old, we have visions and desires but not the physical or mental ability to achieve them. When we are young, we yearn to be older. When we are old, we yearn to be younger. We anticipate death—the major event in our singular lives, toward which each of us moves ever more certainly day by day—by putting it out of our minds. We invent or accept stories that make death merely a transition to a higher and better state, one that will last for an infinity of time, when all along death has us caught by the ankle like a rabbit in a snare.

If we were any other kind of creature, this would be tragedy. We would live under a black cloud, moan daily in our despair, and wait to die. But we can put that cloud aside, inhabit the world of our dreams and imaginings. We can concern ourselves with friends, family events, career ambitions, paying bills, acquiring mortgages, saving for retirement, planning for our children’s success, buying objects of beauty and experiences of pleasure—all the minutiae of living, either in the moment or for the future—and give our lives and our energies to these imagined values and treasures.

We are the creatures of contradictions and distractions, almost infinite in our comprehension, almost pitiful in our limitations. And yet man delights me most, because his stories are infinite and varied. And woman delights me even more, because she not only shares in all this confusion but must also nurture the little polliwogs that will become tomorrow’s children.

If there is a study more fascinating than the human condition, I have yet to find it.

1. See most recently The Future of Publishing: The Best of Times from August 31, 2014.

2. For example, see ME: A Novel of Self-Discovery, and The Children of Possibility.

3. The boy is timorous and indecisive; he manages to insult everyone during the course of the play; and in the end he gets everyone killed. How wonderful is that?

4. You see? Such a delicate appreciation of the human condition, and yet he delights not. I know that Hamlet is feigning madness with this and his other pithy observations at the court of his uncle, but to quote another great character: “Stupid is as stupid does.”

5. That is, if you believe the Big Bang to be something more than just another creation myth. Personally, I am of two minds about this. See Enigmas of the Big Bang from August 18, 2013.

6. We also talk about “forever” when the world around us continually demonstrates its instability. We know that climate changes, oceans rise and fall, ice advances and retreats, stars explode, galaxies spin apart from each other, and that one day the universe will disappear into a cold, thin void. Yet we can dream of a house on the beach, facing a perpetual sunset, in a moment that will last forever.