I think the question is important because there is something in each of us that drives everything that we do. There is a desire to discover who we really are. We long to be tested and to discover what it means to authentically be in our own skin.
Fully human, fully alive
What is it that drives you to reach within yourself, your relationships, your culture and search for what it means for you to be human?
Being human is about more than being a man or a woman. Our culture has a lot to say about what it means to be a “Real man” or a “Real woman”:
- Out drinking the next person
- Defining ourselves by our possessions: a fast car or big home
- Having to out-lift the next person at the gym
- Having the loudest voice or most-valued opinion in a conversation, an argument or a meeting
- Carrying a weapon or being able to do violence against another person… especially women
- Being able to fix things
- Our gender or our genitals
There is much more to being fully human than our culture tells us
For me, life is defined through the lens of manhood. And manhood is different in each culture and each family. You may have a different view of manhood, or womanhood than I do. What we share is that we are working towards being fully who we are… fully alive.
Most of us look outside of ourselves for our first definition of what it means to be fully human, fully alive.
For my father, manliness meant drinking all of the time. It meant having a lot of secrets and being overcome by your own darkness. It meant being angry and depressed and uncertain of how to talk about anything that is important. I grew up hating alcohol and I felt that it was like a demon that will possess you. In a sense I was right, but I have learned that alcohol can used to bring joy rather than to be used as a weapon.
My mother taught me the importance of being myself. She drew out the good in me, even when I could not see it myself. She still has an amazing ability to see the good in who people are and can become. I have an aunt who taught me that manliness is about being sensitive to those around you. Real men care.
Some of the men I knew growing up defined manliness through pornography. What pornography teaches you is that women are objects of your pleasure. Once you see a woman as an object, it changes you. It can be very difficult to erase the impacts from violent and degrading porn.
Other men taught me that being a man was being a person of faith. What you believe can change you.
Still other men in my life taught me that being a man is being willing to venture out of the city and learn how to live in the wilderness. I became a Boy Scout and spent many of my adolescent weekends living out of a backpack. But even there, older boys defined manliness as sneaking alcohol and porn into the midst of our group. What the experience left me with was confusion.
Being human does not come naturally. It is something extra…
To become fully human is something extra, a conscious choice that not everyone makes. Barbara Brown Taylor
The search for what it means to be human is not a requirement. It is optional. Many of us forgo a deeply personal search and instead accept easy, culturally defined views of humanity: hard drinking, having an important job, winning, misogyny and porn, being the smartest or the best at something, trying to save others, and having power-over others.
But for some of us, we are willing to push beyond these shallows into the depths within ourselves.
Along the way, I learned to search within myself and soon discovered that being human has more to do with knowing yourself. The examples of other people can be helpful guideposts, but they are only that: guides. You have to find a way to enter through the narrow the gates of your own consciousness, your soul.
As you search within, you will find caverns of shadows and caves of light. One of my shadows has been to learn to live with clinical depression and anxiety. These illnesses can have a particular impact on our confidence. In our culture, we are often told that we need to be self-assured and strong. But what depression will do is erode your confidence and your belief in your ability to navigate your future. At least, that is what depression has done to me. I am still in recovery from depression and it will be something that I will battle with for the rest of my life.
But there are also caves of light, surprises. You soon learn that being a man is knowing yourself and your strengths. Being human first of all is the willingness to be honest with yourself.
I don’t know whether it is a product of growing up in a home with an alcoholic, being introspective or because I earn my living as a therapist (or more likely, all of the above), but I always believe that there is something more. Being human is knowing yourself, being honest with yourself, but it is more. It means that you have chosen to be fully human and fully alive.
And being fully human is not easy. Being fully alive opens you to the best of life and also to the depths of wherever your life will take you.
For me, taking risks and pushing back against my anxiety and refusing to allow my depression to define my future are one way that I am being fully human. Accepting the discipline of a career and the responsibilities of being a father have also awakened something within me. Creativity and art push me to explore areas of my being that make me uncomfortable. Having the courage to slow down, to breathe and close my eyes is also helping me to become more alive.
I hope that this piece has given you pause. Asking yourself who you are should slow you down. A hand in the face is offensive, but it also asks a question: Are you willing to stop and listen? Today, I invite you to consider “What is it that makes you fully human?” I hope that the answer will surprise you.
I invite you to join me in the comments: How has your culture worked to define to you how you should be? And more importantly, how are you choosing to redefine yourself?
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Keep it Real
Photo by David Goehring