On Thursday, a warm, sunny day, I drove to the gas station to vacuum dog hair out of the KIA. I was surprised to find that the station — the biggest, newest, and most modern in the area — was shuttered and its tanks being torn out of the ground.
The vacuum, across the lot, was still functional. So I worked away as I watched the workmen working away.
There are a lot of things you could think about seeing a nearly new gas station so upended: What a waste! Were the tanks leaking? Is there damage to our water supply? Did some government regulation dictate this? Is the station closed forever or only being repaired? Good riddance! Oh damn, how inconvenient. Save the environment! Hm, is this an opportunity to steal something? I wonder how the people who depend on the station for their income are getting along?
I thought a couple of those things, but for reasons unknown I was above all struck with the sheer awe of belonging to a species that can not only invent the internal combustion engine and process the fuels to run it, but both plant and rip out fueling stations seemingly on a whim.
Wasteful? Maybe. A great use of time and resources? Absolutely not. But OMG, aren’t we an awesome animal? We invent, we build, we get on giant, growling yellow machines and rend the very (artificial) earth we just yesterday created with different giant, growling, yellow machines.
I immediately tripped on Hamlet’s (insincere) observation, “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!”
When I was a child, “experts” were quite sure humans were separated from all other animals by a few handy-dandy traits. We had language; none of those mere soulless creatures did. We made tools; nobody less than human could possibly do that. We had opposable thumbs that were the key to all that crafting and creating. Animals didn’t have anything like real feelings or thoughts; they were acting solely on instincts.
To the Christians I grew up with the big difference was that we had souls and non-human animals didn’t; not even our beloved dogs were going to be with us when we took our place next to our human-shaped universe-creator in heaven.
Then little by little, we learned things. Jane Goodall observed chimps making and using tools. We eventually learned that even some birds— birdbrains by definition — can make and use tools. Opposable thumbs? Handy, but not essential.
We learned that all kinds of animals have language, and that a few (blue whales?) may have communication as sophisticated in its own way as ours.
DNA showed we’re more alike than different. Studies (some of them remarkably inhumane) blew away belief in concepts like “the mothering instinct.” Chemical tests and brain scans show that other animals bond via the same chemicals we do and have brains that light up like ours when stimulated or stroked or scared.
Nobody can refute (or prove) that heaven will be a dog-free zone (and therefore to many of us, a joy-free zone), but more and more we came to recognize that other animals are like us, and we are like them.
This has had some good effects and some not-so-good.
We’re more humane because of our kinship, but in thinking more highly of our fellow animals, we think less of ourselves.
If we’re just another critter, what’s the point? Live, suffer, mate, suffer, kill, eat, excrete, suffer, die.
Worse, it’s become easy to think of ourselves as an animal that’s particularly destructive (planting all those tanks in the ground, filling them with poison, burning the poison to create other poisons, then scrapping the whole system and doing it all over again!). We’re an animal that’s overrun its ecosystem, caused extinctions, threatens to wreck the whole planet, and is host to hosts of “social diseases” like racism, sexism, speciesism, transphobia, homophobia, nationalism, violence, narrow-mindedness, unwillingness to change (!), etc., etc., etc.
Outside of churches, you’re not likely to hear anybody talking any longer about godlike apprehensions.
But clearly, even if we are “just another animal,” we are (for however brief a geological time) animal royalty, animal giants, the genius animal of them all, the animal that rules not only the animal kingdom, but the entire planet and, if we could just get governments out of the way, an increasing bit of our local outer space.
Show me a chimp who could perform open-heart surgery. It wasn’t a cow that jumped over our moon.
Like it or not, there is still something special and grand about being human.
Post-apocalypse, the cockroaches may take over, but for now, we are not only a species at its peak; we are a species that stands above all other like-species.
This is not politically correct to say. Even outside of the realm where snotty humans snipe at other humans for the flaws all humans carry, it’s not a popular idea these days. It’s so Victorian. So self-centered, so factually wrong.
Outside of those increasingly empty churches, you won’t hear too many people talking about how uniquely special, how very different, our species was created — or engineered itself! — to be.
As a practical matter, it’s also simply hard to go around thinking of ourselves as such hot stuff.
For one thing, we’re too busy dealing with the latest family crisis, trying to recover from computer crashes (ahem), feeling foolish over our latest mistake, worrying about … whatever, growing beer guts and wrinkles, watching TV, applying deodorant, angling for attention, thinking about what we’ll post on Twitter, wondering if that lump is cancer, planning a birthday party, hoping to get laid, speculating on whether we can go another week without cutting our toenails, counting our money or our bills, and just generally being human. It’s a busy, mostly petty, and often not-so-pretty occupation.
It’s damned hard to feel awe about yourself or your species when you’re sitting on the toilet.
For another thing, there are a few people out there who are in awe of themselves — and we don’t like ’em. They’re politicians and arrogant movie stars, tech billionaires and crazy eccentrics. They’re narcissists, psychopaths, borderline personalities, and garden-variety jerks. They’re people who expect always to have their own way, people who treat others as props to use or obstacles to eliminate.
Sometimes, too, those few humans who find awe in themselves are damnfools — the guy who always believes he’s on the verge of making millions when he’s merely on the verge of another self-caused disaster; the woman who’s sure she has a voice like an angel, when it’s more like the screech of an angle grinder.
Only occasionally are the folks who think so highly of themselves actually the rare, priceless individuals who advance the human race.
It’s no wonder that so much of childhood training (until recently) has been dedicated to knocking us down, rather than lifting us up. We get some gentle encouragement and small incentives to be “good” according to certain definitions (an “A” on a test, our drawings on Mom’s refrigerator) — then we get a literal or figurative kick in the pants. How could you be so stupid? What’s wrong with you? Don’t get too big for your britches. You only got a B- on your test; what, are you stupid? Why are you always such a troublemaker? You’re a quitter. Boy, did you screw up. This hurts me more than it hurts you. You’re besmirching the family name. Why can’t you be like your brother? In our day, children didn’t ….
Parents, teachers, ministers, the superior creatures we watch in movies, all remind us again and again how inadequate we are, how screwed up, how not-getting it, how heartache-inducing, heartburn-inducing, stupid, untalented, ugly, inadequate, or even (thanks, ministers) how downright low and evil we are.
And nobody can send you the message of your own fatal inadequacies more definitively than fellow children on a school playground.
Even after the change in emphasis that gave us the self-esteem generation, we’re still raising children to have a deep dislike and distrust of themselves and of the species they belong to. The social mores and condemnations from child-to-child and adult-to-child are different these days, but no less deep. Your parents have ruined the planet and so will you if you don’t obey us. You don’t like some group? Then you’re evil — and we don’t like YOUR group! You must care about everyone in the world, and if you can’t do that (impossible thing), there’s something deeply wrong with you. You’re a boy? Heaven forbid. You’re a girl who likes girly things? OMG, we must change you!
And that’s without even getting into the lifelong crippling effect of telling children the world of human beings is so dangerous that they can never be allowed to explore on their own, make their own decisions, or invent their own activities.
And it’s true in a way; it’s not necessarily a good thing for us to focus on human grandeur — and certainly not any real or imagined grandeur of our own.
Nevertheless, we are an awesome species — creators of Greek philosophy, the Hubble telescope, micro-electronics, a thousand dog breeds, superior crop yields, surgical anesthesia, antibiotics, mind-altering drugs, mathematics, high-rise buildings, underground trains, lithium-ion batteries, cathedrals, great art, opera, symphonies, ballet, The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy, the works of Shakespeare and Tolkein, and fried Cheerios. Discoverers of insulin and Antarctica. Makers of ice cream and iPhones.
Yeah, I don’t care how many other critters can make tools out of sticks, gourds, and rocks. We (though not necessarily you or me) are the only ones who can do all that — and more, more, more.
Yes, you could think of all this in many different ways — including thinking of it as bad. And you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. Every step of human achievement has brought new horrors: mechanized wars, Zyklon-B gas, the guillotine and electric chair, more efficient genocides, more far-reaching propaganda. On and on.
But what if feeling some awe about being human — some excitement about humankind’s potential for good, some joy in creation, some admiration for great achievement, some desire to rise to the heights — was necessary for survival? What if such awe is necessary for our species to continue to be what we have been all this time — and to grow better? And do better?
What if we are what we are not merely because we happened to grow bigger brains and get really good at solving problems — but also because we feel awe in our own species and its capabilities? Because we believe that we’re meant to be above all else? Because we believe our gods favor us? Or perhaps just that, by damn, we can do the impossible?
It’s easy to feel awe of nature or the universe. They’re bigger than us. And unless you subcribe to certain views about humans being “made of stardust” or “one with nature,” they’ll also remain apart from us.
We are lonely and small, gazing out at them.
But for such small, limited creatures, we have achieved so much awe-worthiness.
Even the simplest everyday things — the warm, dry houses we fret about cleaning, the reliable car whose expensive upkeep we painfully budget for, the food on our tables that we have to clean up after preparing, the computers and TV sets that rot our brains and encourage us to become sedentary and ill, the power that invisibly drives our too-many cluttery kitchen gadgets — are works of wonder.
And we forget that. Hedonic adaptation, I believe the term is. We just get used to living in a world of wonders created by (specific individuals and general systems within) our rather wondrous species.
We forget how rare our comforts are. We forget how rare this progress is. How rare we are.
And that’s okay, mostly. You can’t go around in a state of awe. You might walk in front of a bus. You certainly wouldn’t be any great hit with your fellow man. Or woman. Our very boredom, discontent, and desire for more drive us to greater heights.
But we forget at our peril when we forget how extraordinary mankind is and has been.
Achievement is based in part on belief that achievement is possible — and that I can do it — I, or somebody like me, or a chain of humans each taking a new step, or maybe the kid down the street who’s restless and out of it in school or the one who’s such an odd duck of a loner.
When a society or a system deliberately knocks children’s confidence down or aggressively hammers flat any protruding “nail” of a person, it’s doing what it needs to preserve its values. But it’s also grinding down the awe and awesomeness we are capable of as individuals and as a species.
And among all the other problems that grinding and hammering of our spirits cause — one is the death of freedom.
Freedom is based — at least in part — on a belief in the awesome potential of humanity and human beings. It’s based on a conviction that individuals have a right to rise to their best or fall to their worst, and others have a right (and duty) to learn from those experiences, get up, and go on. And that includes the freedom to reap the rewards of the best things we do. Freedom operates on a certainty of human capability (whether that be for building an industry or finding inner peace) and discovery.
Sure, sometimes even a cow can make an accidental discovery (“Oh, funny mushrooms!”), but humans — we awesome beings — discover by thinking, by making connections, by experimenting — and by believing that greatness is within our nature. If not our individual nature, at least the nature of ourselves as human beings.
It’s not an original observation that freedom can turn quickly into license and licentiousness. That’s why it requires a certain mindset. Part of that mindset is found in social standards and moral values. Part of it is found in various belief systems, from nationalism and religion to libertarianism. There’s a lot of to-each-his-own involved, and a lot of “do your own thing as long as you don’t aggress against anyone else.” But part of it is also found in the fundamental conception that humanity is capable of awe-inspiring achievements.
Freedom says the few, the odd, the aspiring, the talented, the hard-working, the risk-taking, the adventurous, the lucky, and the visionary deserve to be free. It acknowledges that they have a role, and that role is to lift the rest of us up, even as the forces of entropy and doubt drag us down. But they can lift us only when they are free to lift themselves.
It’s easy enough to forget that in the muddle of everyday.
It’s far, far too easy to be grindingly, endlessly taught and easily convinced that human achievement is futile or downright evil. That way lies not only individual self-doubt and submission to self-appointed Authority, but small, pathetic humans who’ve unlearned, and will tragically forget, the awe that humans can truly inspire and at our best deeply deserve.
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