I had the opportunity some time ago to see the world through the eyes of another person – a more obscure and illusive thing than most of us realize, I think. It wouldn’t be true to say it changed me: I’ve been in a constant state of change my whole life, and one moment isn’t really any different than another; but this occasion was different in that it brought with it a clarify I have experienced nowhere else. I suspect we best see ourselves when looking through the eyes of someone else.
I’d just come from a long, trying day of work; I was short fused and stressed; I’d just bought smokes to cure the stress, and like a fool, I dropped my lighter under the car in front of a stranger. That was it, that was the end of my sanity; and in frustration, I threw my smokes into the passenger seat and tried to fish out my lost lighter. I couldn’t get it.
This guy was sitting on a bench a few feet away watching me. We had no reason to like each other, no reason to talk. He could’ve just watched me go getting pissed off and cursing the world under my breath, but he didn’t. Instead he offered me his own lighter; and as I sat in the open car door, we smoked and he told me some small piece of his story, unsolicited.
He’d moved from his home, from his career, from his life, just to be closer to his only daughter who was in the custody of his ex. He didn’t tell me the circumstances: they weren’t good. It didn’t matter. What mattered in that moment was that he cared enough to tell me why he was sitting on a bench outside a gas station in a strange town smoking a cigarette as if life were only barely just tolerable, and I got to sit there and hear what he needed to say – more importantly, I got to see who he was behind his words. We weren’t just two guys bullshitting, trying to be seen: we were two people who understood each other.
“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
― Mother Teresa
Humanism is the belief that people are the world’s most valuable asset. It’s this idea that there’s something inherently valuable about someone just because they’re a person who feels and loves and hurts. Some don’t agree; some say we’re really rather a menace. But I object to that notion, and I’m going to explain why.
If you come from a preset of ideas, humanism may be a difficult concept to understanding. Being an individual with personal experience in religious practice, I’ve come face to face with the opposing view. You see, there’s a prevalent theory in the world that we (people; individuals) are inherently wicked, not good, that we are bent on the destruction of generally everything; that we would as soon murder our family as protect them. Basically, we are all criminals waiting to happen, and it’s unsafe to allow us to govern ourselves. I believed this once; I don’t anymore because it’s flawed reasoning from a corrupt point of view.
The fault is this: to assume we are all bent on destruction is to ignore the fact that every person basically wants to feel loved and accepted for who they are – in a word, safety; and no one who feels safe – physically, emotionally – is dangerous. Dangerous people are the result of a traumatic life, not a pre-existing condition. Yet some people and groups, using this flawed reasoning, claim to make individuals safe through higher power. They say, “The world is dangerous but we’re safe: come be one of us so you too can be saved.” But they miss the point. The problem isn’t with the others or the world in general. People are inherently safe, and telling them otherwise is like telling a man with perfect sight that he is blind: he knows better, but he may doubt his reality if he hears the lie enough.
“Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.”
― Oscar Wilde
We aren’t immune to the flaw of this logic, even if we don’t subscribe to those theories of higher powers and original sin. There are other ways we fool ourselves into overlooking the value of the people around us. These are all dark and lonely roads.
There’s this underlying consensus among many that people suck. Some even hold to this belief so strongly they live lonely lives, shutting themselves away from much of the world because they don’t want to tolerate the people around them. If that’s you, I don’t blame you. I’ve seen people do miserable things. I’ve also done miserable things. It’s not exactly wrong to say that people suck, and I used to be an isolationist, too; but I don’t believe in that crap anymore.
“You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.”
― Mahatma Gandhi
I still think people suck. We do really stupid things, and we cause a lot of harm. But shutting yourself out of the world around you isn’t a solution: it’s a problem.
The problem, and the reason we choose to isolate ourselves, is that we don’t understand the importance of the individual; and when you can’t fathom how a person – any person – can be absolutely valuable then you won’t be able to understand how essential the whole is. What I mean is, people make up a community, and a community looks after the people within it. This is where we get our sense of safety from: this is how we feel loved and accepted. This is a place where a guy like me can sit across from a stranger and listen to his story, me feeling honoured to hear it, the other guy just feeling like someone actually cared enough to sit and listen. This is humanism at its core; this is the way things were meant to be.
“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.”
― Dalai Lama
We generally experience this kind of community from our closest circle of family and friends. And if you’re the kind of person who avoids interaction for fear of hurt or failure, then that circle is pretty small. We live in these little bubbles we’ve created for ourselves, and from the inside looking out, all we see is a world of hungry carnivores prowling around us. Our mentality becomes, “They aren’t helping me; I don’t think they even care about me: so they clearly are horrible people who hate me and want to hurt me.” Back to the It’s dangerous out there but safe in here thing. In this state of mind, its easy to assume the lion kills because it enjoys killing; it’s harder to understand that he reacts violently over and over and hates himself for it every time but can’t figure out how to stop. People aren’t defined by their problems, and we need to stop seeing them as angry, controlling, hurtful individuals. At their core they’re the same as us: they want to feel safe.
“If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”
How much better would life be if every person whose path you crossed became basically the same as you: just another individual with fears trying to get through a confusing mess they call life? Never mind the grumpy cashier at the grocery store: she just found out her best friend has been spreading rumours about her. That drunk in the alley? His wife died, and because he doesn’t know how to live with the grief, he’s now homeless and spending all his spare money on alcohol. It’s easy to say, “Well, they just need to get their shit together.” It’s harder to actually do it. We all think we’re doing pretty good till something really humbling brings us back to reality to remind us just how much we suck. The truth is, even if you have a house, a steady job, you always put on a smile and do your best, you aren’t really any different than anyone else. It’s when you can understand how similar every person is you can start to care about them, see them for who they are; and when you care you can reach them. You can treat them with respect when they don’t deserve it. You can hear their hurt and reach out to them with compassion. You can take a moment to make a difference in their life: because in that moment you know that tomorrow it might be you who needs it.
This is humanism. We are humanity.