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Thumbs? Religion? Poetry? What is it that makes us human? “What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!” (Hamlet, Act II, scene ii)
Shakespeare seems to have held a far higher opinion of humankind than many of us share.
Certainly being human must begin with biology. Our DNA creates the physical package—arms, legs, head, etc. A few of us are missing parts of the basic structure or have developed alternative formats, but they’re still human—regardless of how they’re treated by insensitive onlookers. Those who would use genocide to “cleanse” the population of unusual specimens are following their own idea of where the filter separating Man from Less-Than-Man lies. The rich and powerful often draw an emotional line between themselves and all those who are not rich—obviously due to their inadequacy. If the lesser ones sicken or suffer or starve, it is their lot.
We once drew the line to separate our own tribe members from others, the safe from the dangerous, the familiar from the bizarre. But was there ever sufficient justification for treating some people as less than human? To my mind, the differences are merely intentional distortions of the viewer’s sight. Genetically, we’re all cousins.
Many claim death is the great equalizer. Regardless of how huge a person’s marble monument might be commemorating his or her life, the person is still quite dead. The physical body returns to its composite elements, whether or not the corpse is wearing a Rolex. So, does being human stop with biology?
Author Marcus Sakey plays with my question of what makes us human in his novel AFTERLIFE. Somewhat surprisingly, Sakey is generally known as a crime writer, so what kind of book is AFTERLIFE? It’s a crime novel/romance/ghost story/thriller with philosophical underpinnings…and a heck of a read that will soon be a major motion picture. Sakey takes his readers beyond life to see what divides people in death. You don’t have to agree with his depiction to find it thought-provoking.
For Sakey, in death the human form is merely a structure, an introduction. The spotlight is on the nature of the individual. He suggests that what truly makes us human is our willingness to work together—to sacrifice if necessary—for the good of all. All. Everybody. No lines but that. Other thinkers offer the same standard for civilization.
When you watch video of people risking their lives, fortunes, and health to come to the aid of disaster victims or victims of famine or war or political persecution, you know you’re looking at people who are willing not merely to talk but also to act. Cooperation makes us stronger. Working for the good makes us better. I’ll vote for that.