The way is the way of the true human being, the way of true human-being-ness, the way of being truly human. Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? You’d think everyone would be rushing to get in that line, to find that way, to do whatever it takes to become a true human being. Ah, but. Things are not what you might expect them to be.
Being a true human being has very little to commend it. Yoda, remember, in the Star Wars epic, was a very advanced spiritual being who lived in a hole in the ground. Want to trade your life for Yoda’s? I don’t think so. And, if you complain that Yoda wasn't human, we can talk about Obi-Wan Kenobi. Same thing. Only the holes were a little different. I don't think you would trade for either!
I think you probably like your life pretty much the way you have it, except for the bills, and maybe the frailties of age, and the people who get in your way. If you could keep things as they are, only make them better, you’d go for it. But, to hand it all over for a hole in the ground, probably not. The bad news is that true human-being-ness will not pay the bills. And, even true human beings have to deal with the aches and pains of age. And people get in their way. Just ask Jesus, or Socrates.
The problem with true human-being-ness is that it is subversive, revolutionary, transformative, and unsettling. It calls everything into question, itself included. The life of a true human being stands in dramatic contrast to the culture’s idea of what it means to be alive. If enough of us began to live the life of a true human being, the economy would crash, the American Way of Life would be on the brink of extinction, and national security would be up for grabs. Everything hangs on our being good little boys and girls who buy, spend, amass and consume, without ever pausing to consider, in the words of Mark Hendren’s fine mother, that we are “spending money we don’t have to buy things we don’t want to impress people we don’t know.” If we woke up and moved into today’s equivalent of a hole in the ground, it would all be over.
True human beings live in their culture without being a part of things there. They are a step or two removed from the cultural assumptions and suppositions that everyone else takes for granted. They are a different kind of bird. For one thing, they need a lot less to live a life of true human-being-ness than the culture’s economy needs them to need. Which gives rise to the question: How many true human beings can the economy sustain before it crumbles? It is a question no culture has ever had to take seriously because the good life in any culture is always apparently quite better than the kind of life a true human being is led to live. There has never been a rush to do it the way true human beings would do it. There never will be. Who wants to live in a hole in the ground?
There is nothing attractive about the life of a true human being. Certainly nothing so obviously compelling about it that we would hand over this life to have it. “Do your work and step back,” advises Lao Tsu. “The only path,” he says, “to serenity.” “Serenity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” we say, insisting, willing, demanding, forcing our work to accomplish what we want it to accomplish in the time allocated for its accomplishment. THAT is the only way to get ahead in this life, and have it made, and retire early, and avoid living in a hole in the ground.
“Offer what you have to give and let nature take its course,” says Lao Tsu. But we have our schemes and plans for rerouting nature’s course to the route we have in mind for it. We blow up a mountain range, drain an ocean, and wa-la, wonderland! “Take only photographs,” says John Muir, “and leave only footprints.” But, we think a McDonald’s would do well in the spot that grove of Redwoods currently occupies, and a Wal-Mart with that creek running through the home and garden section would be great.
American Indians could live in harmony with the land, and the animals, and the seasons, but we genetically alter everything so that it is more in line with our ideas for it. And, we are working on ways to eat all we want without weight gain or exercise, which is the real American Dream. The life of a true human being, with its offer of a serene hole in the ground, is no threat to the culture of mass consumption and endless belching.
The culture has no worries, because there will never be more than a hand-full of people devoted to the way of being truly alive. It’s too difficult. It’s not as much fun as going with what delights the eyes and thrills the senses. Engaging in disengagement through sensual overload to the complete exclusion of everything keeps us from worrying about anything. We just plug in and fly. It’s great. There is nothing about true human-being-ness that can compete with the level of diversion, distraction and denial that is practiced and promoted by the culture of wonderful things. That culture is alive and well.
Yet, that culture is also dead and lifeless because it is devoid of what true human-being-ness has to offer. The gift of true human-being-ness is a perspective that does not take itself seriously. It is a perspective that takes it all in, hides from nothing, sees everything, and laughs—not in a cynical, despairing, hollow kind of way, but in a way that truly delights in the oddities and paradoxes and contradictions of life.
For example, in this world, we have to give up this to get that, and we don’t always know what is worth having. We don’t always know where we are better off, what is optimal, or even beneficial. A true human being can see the humor in that predicament.
What makes us think that the things we care about are worth caring about? What makes us think that the things we love are worth loving? That the things we think about are worth thinking about? That the things we do are worth doing? Why are we the way we are and not some other way instead? How different can we be? How different should we be? On what basis do we decide?
We will never think our way to answers to these kinds of questions. But, we know when our dentures don’t fit, and when a glass of cold water or a cold beer hits the spot, and how much better off we are for taking a timely bathroom break. We know some things about what is good, and what is not, and can trust ourselves to settle into a life that is good-enough if we stay grounded in the reality of all the ways our lives are impacting life. We have to care about what we care about with our eyes open to its impact and implications until we find ourselves caring about something else, or not caring about it any longer. We find the way to where we need to be over time. It only takes walking with our eyes open.
We don’t have to know what to do, what’s best, or even what’s good. We only have to start somewhere, doing something, and make alterations toward something better as those things occur to us, become obvious, over time. We only have to be aware of what we are doing and what its impact is, its implications are. We figure things out over time. It is not the knowing what to do that saves us, but the figuring out what to do as we do it, the making it up as we go.
Our lives are self-correcting, self-guiding, self-stabilizing survival machines. We are equipped to assess and evaluate, adjust, amend, revamp or scrap and start all over. We can tell when something is working and when it is not working—IF we don’t hypnotize ourselves into a stupor with a sweet little repetitive story about things being the way we wish things were and want them to be, to the complete exclusion of how things actually are.
Compassion and awareness keep things on track in service of the true good of all. Compassion and awareness are the primary characteristics of true human beings. Grace, kindness, civility, and a passion for fair play (also called justice), aren’t far behind. With these qualities at work in our lives, we have everything we need to live in the service of the true good of all.
That is not to say we are going to usher in the kingdom in all its glory in our lifetime. It is to say that we are going to be faithful servants of the good all our lives long. And, it is to say that we will be recognized as true human beings by those who are blessed by our presence-for-the-good in their lives. And, that is all that can be asked of any of us, ever.
The practice of true human-being-hood is the practice of compassion, awareness, grace, kindness, civility, and justice. It results in the experience of peace and joy and goodness. In the presence of a true human being, we calm down, settle into the reality of the present moment, and wake up to the wonder of love. Loving presence is produced by the blend of the qualities of true human-being-ness. To know a true human being is to know love, and to be loved, for no reason.
Love is not something we work to achieve or deserve, but is simply given freely to all comers by true human beings. True human beings are lovingly present for good in the lives of all people. Not that all people are capable of receiving love, or goodness, when they are offered, or of recognizing a true human being when they are in the presence of one. Some people, it seems, do not know a gift when they see one. But, some people do. And, to those who have what it takes, as the good book says, more will be given.
We begin where we are, and we grow in our capacity to recognize and receive the gifts of true human-being-ness. Over time, our own inclination toward true human-being-hood begins to stir, and we take up the practice of the qualities of true human beings—which is also the practice of right relationship with self, and neighbor, and the world in which we live. And everything is blessed by those who are simply intent on doing what is theirs to do in the way it ought to be done, then stepping back and letting the outcome be the outcome.