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Meditations on Man and Woman, Humanity and Nature
What Does It Mean to Be Human?
Therese F. Hicks
This article is an abbreviated version of Chapter 3 of the author's book,
Spirituality: A User’s Guide
In the past 50 years there has been a scientific revolution every bit as staggering as the Copernican revolution. Copernicus said that the earth was not the centre of the universe. This was greeted with outrage and ridicule at that time. ‘Is it not obvious that the sun moves around the earth!?’ In the 20th century, there has been the quantum physics revolution, which has largely been ignored, except by quantum physicists. Even biologists and chemists still operate as if it hasn’t happened. Very simply put, the quantum physics revolution says that what we perceive has been crafted by our minds, or psyches. This is known as the ‘observer effect.’ If confronted by this assertion, the ‘ordinary’ person would be quick to dismiss such a perspective.
The most important consequence of this new understanding is that nothing that we perceive is absolute truth. This has major implications for religions built on the assumption of faith in divine revelation. It means that in fact, all those sacred texts are the product of the human mind and spirit in their images and dictates. Allowing ourselves to take this new reality on board is a major challenge to how we understand ourselves and our world.
Because it is our mind or psyche which has generated the truths attributed to one or another deity, we must now begin to look at the various renditions of what it means to be human. Then each of us has the difficult task of choosing the model of being human which most appeals to us as individuals, and is most workable for society. Choice is the very essence of what it means to be human.
Probably the most basic and universal understanding of what constitutes a human being is that we are a combination of body and soul. Apart from scientific fundamentalists, who deny any sort of soul or spirit energy to the human, everyone else seems to agree on these two bits. The nature of the soul, how it differs from the body, how they work together, etc., are all matters of debate.
In addition, the history of a western understanding of being human is one that takes thinking as its starting point. How thinking evaluates experience is considered the proper order of priorities. Prior to the agrarian revolution, people were more experientially and relationally oriented – life was organized around ritual and sensual experiences rather than a thought-out analysis of a situation. The difficulty with thinking is that we become disconnected from the experience of our body. The body becomes something that we think about, rather than an intrinsic contributor to our understanding of being human.
The Judeo-Christian Approach
Let us look at the Judeo-Christian thinking on what it means to be human. I will go further and use the Roman Catholic articulation because it has the most extensive history of exposition, and, in its most recent publication, the most traditional and least influenced by modern thinking. At the moment, the most comprehensive source for the Roman Catholic position is
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992).
In brief, it sees the meaning of being human as being in relationship with their god. On the surface, this seems benign enough. However, the god which it goes on to describe is highly problematic. While initially said to be entirely loving, the fine print reveals a god who demands serious retribution for any affront to his honour. This is said to have been taken to the point of requiring the killing his own son.
One of the primary dynamics within the Judeo-Christian tradition is the practice of having a scapegoat. This is a mechanism which allows the group to deal with an angry, judging god. Ritually, an actual goat had been used in the original tribal society. The sins of the people were put on the goat’s head (symbolically), and it was driven out into the desert to die (see Leviticus 16). This saved the people from having to be confronted with their sins. But later, other people were used as scapegoats. Late first and second century Christians started to use women as the primary scapegoat, projecting all male discomfort with the body, especially their sexual energy, onto women. Sexual energy, as you may have noticed, makes it very difficult to think straight, and so was public enemy No. 1 for the male leaders in the Christian communities.
If you look at the current Catechism, you will notice that running through it are themes related to redeeming humanity, which their god had judged as sinful and deserving of everlasting punishment. The official saviour/scapegoat is Jesus, usually called ‘christ’, which means ‘the anointed one’. But even with his death, there is uncertainty as to the safety of individuals from damnation, so there is much discussion as to who is ‘saved’, and how they can be sure of this. The impact of this is very serious. As J. Young has outlined in his The Cost of Certainty (2004), the need for certainty in this understanding of being human generates a lot of fear. For all its talk of being saved this practice of judging and scapegoating has made Christianity a violent and fear-enhancing system.
There have been dissidents within the Christian tradition, and there is a long history of schisms large and small. Most recently within the Roman Catholic Church there have been movements like liberation theology, small Christian communities, and feminist theology which have tried to return to the theme of social justice which they see Jesus as championing. But this has been firmly rejected by the male leadership until recently. It remains to be seen what inroads Pope Francis I will make on this, but the authors of the catechism have decided to make the formulations of the Middle Ages in the science and philosophy of those times, as the only acceptable framework within which to talk about Jesus and the meaning of being human.
There has been a lot of development in human knowledge since the Middle Ages. Especially since the 17th century, there has been a concerted effort to look directly at the evidence of physical reality and human behaviour. This, of course, suffers from its own serious limitations due to the observer effect, but it has helped us to be more precise and objective about what we say we are looking at, and who we are.
One may ask why one point of view is not just as good as any other, no matter what century it comes from, given the difficulty of the observer effect. While it is true that we cannot achieve an absolute statement of facts, we can nevertheless look at the impact on the emotional health engendered by the different ways of making meaning of human existence. Most importantly, in the last half of the twentieth century, psychologists have been able to discover the conditions required for emotional health and balance in human beings. It is called attachment theory. It is a theory in the same way that evolution is a theory (see below).
That is why I am offering guidelines for assessing the workability of any system of spirituality. I would suggest that whatever decreases our fear and increases our ability to love (firstly ourselves, though simultaneously others), and be loved, is most fundamental to a viable spirituality. And that is where the Christian approach is highly problematic, as it is very fear based.
The challenge of how to deal with fear is that whatever we use must work, as much as possible, equally well for all people at the same time. This means that the practice of scapegoating, which certainly helps the person projecting their fears onto someone else, obviously doesn’t work well for the person being projected upon. Or, we can ease our financial difficulties by buying the least expensive item or amount of food. But if it is produced at the expense of the exploitation of someone else’s labour, or of the environment in an unsustainable way, then it will not ultimately reduce the amount of fear that we will have to deal with. Attacks on the US because of its economic oppression of other countries, or the impact of global warming on local weather, amply illustrate this.
The Psychological Approaches
There are nearly as many psychologies as there are religions. The ones I have found useful are analytical (Jungian) psychology, developmental psychology, and the psychology of trauma. None of the psychological approaches deals directly with the soul. But some of them, principally Jung’s understanding of the unconscious, allow for a docking gate with spirituality and soul matters.
Jung’s system uses a map of the psyche which includes our body, our consciousness, and the unconscious. Ultimately, health in this instance means a good working relationship between consciousness and the unconscious, which is reflected in the health of the body. While the initial container of consciousness is the ego, eventually a bigger phenomenon, which he called the self or Self, is needed to accommodate the unconscious, which includes a transpersonal or transcendent reality which connects us with all that is.
At the time of Jung’s early writing, there was very little infant observation data available. Freud and others had tried to describe the early stages of growth on the basis of their clients’ memories and reports. But this has proved decidedly unworkable, and rife with the projections of Freud et al. onto the first five years of life. The phenomenon of projection is another version of the observer effect. It has been more obvious in interpersonal interaction. This really gets in the way when trying to arrive at a useable understanding of what is going on inside the experience of infants and young children. Infant observation and longitudinal studies of individuals, with multiple observers who can exercise some check on each other’s projections, have proved most useful to date in trying to understand human development.
The amazing understanding that this has brought into focus is called attachment theory (in which I also include attunement). I will briefly describe its findings on how bodies function from birth in terms of their physiologically-based ability to interact with their environment and other people for the rest of our lives. Basically what they have discovered is that all mammal newborn bodies are extremely dependent on their interaction with the mother. The mother, through her body, provides not only nutrition and physical safety, but also programmes the infant body with its basic chemical and neurological regulation via the limbic system. A very young body is not self-regulating, but must learn this from physical closeness to the mother. This is why, if separated from the mother and not provided with some adequate substitute, young mammals die, even if given warmth, food, and safety. The more evolved the mammal, the more vulnerable it is. Thus, rats can manage to survive better than primates, though their ability to function and expected life span will be greatly reduced. Humans are most vulnerable of all. Even if merely left alone for too long (how long is too long changes with the child’s age), or cared for by a mother who is herself insecure, a child will have a lifelong vulnerability to despair, depression, and anxiety due to the impact of the physical dysregulation which underlies these emotions. If the lack of mothering is more severe, it can lead to self-injury, extreme neediness, reduced ability for intimacy, or even make intimate relationships inaccessible.
From this research we can see that mother love and its effective communication to the infant is crucial to an individual’s ability to live a healthy life. So rather than being simply a romantic ideal, love is indeed what gives us life. It’s not romantic love, or even dutiful attention, but rather the heartfelt attunement to the infant’s being that provides the needed physical basis for our ability to relate to ourselves and others. It is the very stark ill effects of a lack of love early in life which makes it possible for us to state that the ability to love, and be loved, is essential to being a healthy human. Any religion or spiritual approach which does not support a love-based understanding of human reality will unavoidably exacerbate the early wounding that most of us experience in life.
Prior to the discovery of the importance of attachment, there had already evolved a stage-based understanding of human development. Briefly, each stage of development describes specific tasks which need to be accomplished by the child with essential help from the environment in order to attain healthy functioning as an adult. The infant needs to feel safe and welcomed into the world. The ability to trust is what is at stake here. In toddlerhood, a child develops the skills for exploration and dealing with anger. These are the basics, and the stages beyond them build on this foundation.
In the past 30 years, the discovery of how trauma affects our physiology has revealed an added challenge to our struggle for healthy maturity. When we experience a threat to our life, our bodies have a built in programme for dealing with it. A body needs to either fight, flee, or collapse. Unless our body feels it has done at least one of these successfully, the sensation of being in danger is held in the brainstem until that task is accomplished. The younger the body, the more vulnerable and easily threatened it is. This leads to the build-up of trauma in the system, which manifests as anxiety or depression. It increases our sense of fear, but because the danger is in the past, we are not able to understand why we feel this way. Unless we give our body a chance to perform one of the above actions, we are kept in the grip of an inexplicable fear, which prevents us from feeling safe. When we do, however, we are saved from the fear as it was first encountered.
Western psychology, then, sees humans as passing through various developmental stages which culminate in the ability to love oneself and others. This allows for happiness and contentment, without the use of addictive behaviours, and an ability to deal effectively and competently with life experiences both joyful and painful. One’s level of maturity is assessed by one’s emotional and interpersonal point of view, including being tolerant, non-judgmental, and respecting of life at every level. This results in social justice and sense of ecological responsibility.
New Age Approaches
Another point of view on the meaning of being human has gained credence since the 1960s. Many New Age systems take a much larger perspective, seeing our human experience as part of a spiritual journey requiring multiple lifetimes. This is not a totally new point of view, since some form of reincarnation can often be found in traditional religions as well as major religions such as Hinduism.
The notion of reincarnation does not ensure, in itself, the level of maturity described above by psychology. But when combined with a value system calling for social justice, reincarnation allows for both a lessening of fear about what happens to us when we die as well as a sense of responsibility for living our life as best we can without blaming others for the life lessons we are involved in.
Contemporary approaches to reincarnation, from such authors as Brian Weiss, Michael Newton, Patrick Francis McMahon, and Sylvia Browne, agree on the assertion that the purpose of our many lifetimes is to grow in love, or level of vibrational energy. Love energizes us, while fear turns us cold, sometimes to the point of paralysis. To help us with the hard work of this growth, we are said to have the assistance of spirit guides, with whom we have a long-term relationship. They advise us when choosing the circumstances and goals of an incarnation, but the individual soul (not ego) is thought to have the ultimate choice.
Each lifetime has specific goals, or lessons, for the insights and healing which we hope to achieve. Sometimes we are successful, or perhaps only partially so. Pre-birth our soul sets up circumstances calculated to give us the best chance of achieving our goals. This includes an agreement with those souls who will be our parents, as well as the choice of economic, social, and health details. Lifetime after lifetime, we are confronted with circumstances which give us the opportunity to make spiritually healthy choices. Past life research indicates that we come to these choice points repeatedly until we make the healthy one.
It is fairly clear from the information gained in this sort of research that our personal level of wisdom in the world beyond is not necessarily higher than the one we use here. Despite increased awareness and a much bigger perspective, it is the amount of our fear which can lead us to design unrealistic or counterproductive lifetimes. We can never know for certain, however, exactly what the point of any given lifetime is on this side of the great divide. So no judgement as to the success or failure of a lifetime is possible before it is completed and viewed by the soul involved. If we have learned what we needed to learn while here, then the lifetime was a success, even if it looks wasted or miserable otherwise. The stories, channelled or reported under hypnosis, are fascinating in the creativity used to achieve growth and healing.
This understanding of what it means to be human is at the same time very comforting and very challenging. It eliminates any sense of being under anyone else’s power or will. We have set this story up in order to help ourselves grow and heal, and so it is primarily for our good. Yet at the same time, we are challenged to change our emotional and judgemental perspective in order to let go of the fear which confronts us throughout our life. There is no one else to blame for our ‘bad luck’ or lack of power in life.
The serious ‘shadow’ side of this perspective is the same as the one which plagues societies which subscribe to reincarnation. It is all too easy for those in power or the wealthy to dismiss the suffering of others as the result of the sufferer’s choice for their growth, thus allowing the powerful to continue with injustice and oppression. No matter what scripts people are operating from in their lifetime, it is important for every individual to manifest love and respect for all other conscious beings (and this includes nature consciousnesses). We need to do this, not simply for the sake of others, but for our own sake. It is extremely harmful to ourselves if we do not operate from a level of integrity which understands that all our actions and thoughts impact on us. This is why self-love cannot be disengaged from love of others. To paraphrase a reported comment by Jesus, whatever you do to the least of those in society, you do to yourself.
At the same time, this does not mean that we are responsible for other people’s self-destructive or unwise choices. If we have the opportunity to help someone to understand how they might be harmful to themselves, it is a good thing to do, so long as they are open to this kind of sharing. But to the extent that their misfortune is due to the systematic oppression of people in a society, we must work to remedy the system. Still, we are not meant to be saviours to one another. Empowering ourselves and one another to know and exercise our creative talents is the meaning of love. Empowerment starts with how we are related to from the time of our birth. Therefore generating and maintaining a society which supports women and men in the job of healthy parenting needs to be the primary purpose of a society, not the increasing of the profits of corporations.
Although I had been making passing references in the early drafts of this book to the impact of materialism and consumerism on society since the 1950s, I had not originally intended to include it as one of the ways of providing meaning for human beings. But as the years have progressed, it is becoming more and more obvious that materialism, and its correlate, consumerism, is one of the most dominant spiritualities on the planet today.
A more traditional understanding of ‘spirituality’ would not see materialism as a spiritual path. Yet it is the way many people functionally find meaning in their lives today. It is most ferociously championed by the financial elite, who feel that they are special and superior to those who are not super wealthy, say, one of the top 400 hundred wealthiest families in the world. And because they are ‘the winners’ in so many people’s eyes, we are drawn to imitate them, often without being aware of what we are doing. Yet if you don’t prioritize money in a significant way, you are unlikely to survive in the modern world. Without money, one quickly becomes homeless as an adult. Even if your parents decide to let you live in their house, most probably they will die before you, and then you won’t have the money to keep the house up. In a modern society, everything is accessed with money: food, health care, education, etc. Without it, death is the most likely and soonest outcome. Yet acquiring enough money to live at a tolerable level requires a lot of time and effort, as well as a certain degree of mental health.
As previously laid out, if we define a spirituality as that story which gives meaning to our living and dying, then materialism ticks all the boxes. It defines the meaning of human life as that which is found only in the literal physical matter of existence. The ‘spirit’ of materialism is that this is all there is – death is the end. Materialists embrace very literally the phrase ‘thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return’. In this perspective, it is our interaction with matter that is all that counts. While the matter of one’s family, at the very least a set of parents, if not partners and children, may be meaningful in a passing kind of way, the most important aspect of matter is money. The more you make, the more you buy, the better you are. Shopping and consumerism are what give satisfaction to a day and a country. It is your patriotic duty to consume so that you sustain jobs and make profits for the shareholders. And when you make enough money, then you can buy governments and countries.
Today, consumerism is the most common form of social interaction and social identity. People shop to feel good and powerful (retail therapy), and need to have more material goods than they can use or afford. This has inevitably affected the way people relate to life, work, each other, and the environment. Having and consuming, no matter how unsustainable, are rarely ever criticized. It also evidently rules out any kind of challenging of the multinationals who fuel the supply of goods and jobs so essential to people’s sense of well-being.
To conclude, let me review these four approaches to what it means to be human: Judeo-Christian, psychological, New Age, and materialism, also noting some of their pros and cons.
The Judeo-Christian tradition has allowed rational consciousness to emerge and get to know itself by developing a dialogue with its god. Its downside is that it also reflects a fear-based approach to reality which characterizes the ego and rational consciousness.
The psychological understanding of the human has mapped out our stages of growth, helping us to understand how our fear works, and what to do to heal it by also describing models of emotional maturity. It suffers from the limitations of the modern scientific point of view, except for that of quantum physics, which does not deal with any reality apart from the physical. This leaves out any consideration of the spirit level.
The New Age point of view introduces a wider cosmology, which places the project of being human in a bigger picture which is more congenial to many contemporary minds. It deals with the questions of fear and evil in a more empowering way. Its drawback is that it tends to be easily manipulated for selfish ends. Social justice is not well developed in its various presentations.
Materialism has helped us to live more comfortably, with a longer life span and better health (if you have the money). But its overall disadvantages so far outweigh these advantages that it is difficult to truly give much credit to this approach. After about 5,000 years of keeping records of debt and demanding repayment, we have come to the brink of destroying our environment to the point where the continued existence of humankind is in grave doubt. Accountants have kept records so that money can be made from the earth, but have not kept track of the cost of generating mountains of toxic waste and oceans of pesticides.
Which understanding of what it means to be human informs and shapes your life?
Note: Spirituality: A User’s Guide is available through local bookstores via IngramSpark, or at Amazon.com, where you can “Look Inside”.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Therese F. Hicks graduated from Villanova University with a BA in theology and went on to do an MA in that subject at St. Michael's in Toronto. After that she joined an Irish missionary community and spent 6 years in West Africa - Nigeria, Cameroon, and Ghana. After returning to the USA, she earned an MA in Counselling Psychology in Boston (1991) and has worked as a psychotherapist in both Boston and the greater Dublin area. Her search for a satisfactory spirituality has informed her life, and Spirituality: A User’s Guide is the story of what she has found and how she got there. She is also researching the history and psychology of Christianity as well as the more recent stories people use to make sense of living and dying.