Humanity-- to be humane-- human-- what does all of this mean? I have been receiving a lesson in this for my entire life, but over the last three months it has been especially emphasized to me. The professor who inspired the last three or so posts on this blog influenced me once again, along with another professor. In a class called Classical Ideals of Character, he suggested that to be human does not mean, as Aristotle defines it, to be a rational animal. He suggests compassion as the main trait that sets humans apart from animals. Learning to be human is what the humanities are about, so learning what a human is is of utmost importance to one studying the humanities.
As a side note, knowing what it means to be human is why the humanities are important in the first place. They aren't there just so that people can enjoy them, though if someone doesn't enjoy any part of the humanities I would suggest they need them more than those who love them. To hate art, literature, and history would be to hate the creations and stories that teach us what beauty, love, mercy, and all the other virtues are like. Someone who hates that would find it hard to exemplify those virtues to others.
Compassion is something I have always admired. Occasionally I lack compassion due to the miasm of the culture and my own shortcomings. And occasionally I feel the sharp pangs of empathy worse than anything I can imagine. But usually I am somewhere in the middle. Compassion links us together. It creates community and breaks the walls of isolation to pieces. We attend funerals to mourn the passing of a loved one, and we visit hospitals to encourage our friends, and we volunteer our time, money, and assets to help those in need. Without compassion, community and civilization would crumble. Humanity would fall.
When the Hindenburg burst into flames the famous cry was "Oh the humanity!" This was a spur of the moment lament that carried the sentiments of despair for life and compassion for death. There was nothing that anyone could do to save the lives lost in the accident, just like there is nothing we can to keep our bodies alive forever, until God makes them new. Death is a part of humanity, and compassion for the dead is part of that too.Consider "The Ruined Cottage" by Wordsworth. It is a poem about a man who meets another outside of a cottage in shambles. The second man, Armytage, is a peddler who knew the family that lived in the cottage. Armytage watched the family fall apart like the cottage when the husband went to war in order to keep them alive, since he could find no other way to do it. When the first man urges Armytage to continue his story after taking a moment, Armytage responds (emphasis mine):
It were a wantonness and would demand
Severe reproof, if we were men whose hearts
Could hold vain dalliance with the misery
Even of the dead, contented thence to draw
A momentary pleasure never marked
By reason, barren of all future good.
But we have known that there is often found
In mournful thoughts, and always might be found,
A power to virtue friendly; were’t not so,
I am a dreamer among men, indeed
An idle dreamer. ’Tis a common tale,
By moving accidents uncharactered,
A tale of silent suffering, hardly clothed
In bodily form, and to the grosser sense
But ill adapted, scarcely palpable
To him who does not think.
This response and much of the rest of the poem indicate that memory of the dead and mourning as a community create and hold community together. This is also evident in the Odyssey. When Odysseus is shipwrecked, the men who do not mourn his loss, the suitors of his wife, have forgotten him. They have left his memory by the wayside in order to further their positions in life, and this is cruel. The memory of the dead in the Odyssey is sacred. And without it civilization falls to pieces, which is why those people who did the unthinkable and did not consider those who had fallen while the kings and warriors were at Troy were punished through diverse means. Even in the Bible mourning was a public event, and the community participated in it together. (See the story of Jairus and the story of Lazarus for instances.) In today's society mourning as a community is much less dramatic. There is a short service and then most people just go on with their lives, leaving those most affected to mourn in solitude while we should be mourning together.
Compassion for the injured, sick, and dying is also something that makes us human. We cringe when we see a man do something cruel, such as the villain stepping on some helpless child's broken arm and laughing at their pain. That cringe is a moment of compassion that breaks through the numbness we have in our violent society. We even cringe when we're laughing at fail videos on Youtube. Compassion is inherent to what it means to be human. That's why visiting hospitals, sending get well cards, helping sick friends to take care of themselves, and all of these other gestures of compassion are seen as such essential parts of friendship. Friends are those people in whom we see humanity the clearest. We see their vices and their virtues, their cruelties and their compassions, and their hatreds and their loves. We know them by what makes them human, not simply by what makes them a fellow student or a neighbor or a coworker. Friends or enemies, when we see someone's compassion, we see them at their most human. They are participating in humanity with other humans by empathizing with their pain. (And this doesn't even just apply to compassion toward humans. See Proverbs 12:10. I have some trouble with this one because I tend to think that compassion is misspent on animals if people are still suffering, but I know that the Bible indicates here that compassion is for the suffering, not just humans. And the world groans with us, so why shouldn't I groan with the world? Romans 8:18-23) To participate in the pain of others, whether you have felt the pain yourself or not, is to participate in a community with them. We call that community between men "humanity," and participating we call "being human" or even "humane" when we are specifically talking about compassionate participation.
I have felt the sting of compassion. That is, I have had compassion that leaves me groaning with the suffering, but helpless to do anything to prevent the pain. The only action we can do in those cases is to pray to the One who has all power. In those cases compassion hurts, and why shouldn't it? It is an empathetic emotion and state of mind. Christ knows this feeling more deeply than any of us could fathom. He took all of our pain and all of our death upon himself and directly experienced it all. Isaiah 53 and Philippians 2 bear that out. To be compassionate is not only to be human, but it is also to be Christlike, to be Christian. That is why Christians throughout the ages have been involved in prison ministry, hospitals, insane asylums, funeral homes, slums, third-world nations, war hospitals, and even social justice movements. The Church has always been compassionate. The Church has a long history of mistakes, but those mistakes are only clouds that will burn away when the sun rises on the eastern horizon. When Christ comes back the Church will be glorified for the compassion she has had in this world. How will you contribute? How will you be Christlike? How will I?
P.S. God wants us to have compassion for our enemies too. Proverbs 24:17-18, Matthew 5:23-28
Written from my dining room.
P.P.S. Bonus verses: Psalm 25:6
- Hi, my name is Justus, I'm a Christian.I attended Patrick Henry College for three semesters, and I transfered to College of the Ozarks in the fall of 2013 where I graduated as an English major in 2016. I love the Lord Jesus Christ the savior of my soul. He has made me new. He leads me in the Old Path; He is the Way. I am not perfect; my Lord is sanctifying me though.