By Donella Meadows
— August 17, 1995–
“In spite of the horrors that assault us in the news each day, there are people all over the world who still have faith in the humanness of humanity. They have not lost contact with the specifically human sanity at their core.”
This brave statement comes from the Anti-Barbaric Coalition, which abbreviates itself A-BC. I never heard of the A-BC until about a month ago, when its reassuring view of human nature crossed my desk.
“In order to spread the word that there is an ‘Unkillable Human’ that survived Auschwitz, Rwanda, Hiroshima, that continually manifests itself in ordinary people everywhere, A-BC has begun to collect articles, poems, and brief essays on the theme of “what it means to be human.” It is hoped that each submission will be a simple witness straight from the heart, representing each author’s personal observations.”
They asked me to send a statement.
Well. Gulp. What it means to be human. I haven’t had an assignment like that since eighth grade. What it means to be human with genocide going on in Bosnia, terrorists blowing up buildings in Oklahoma, and my fellow citizens demanding the right to carry concealed handguns. Hmmm.
To be human is, I think, to be born with a enormous package of potentials, for hatred and suspicion, for love and trust, for greed, generosity, passion, apathy — and a long list of other positive and negative traits. I guess all those traits can be found in many mixtures inside each of us. I sure can find them all in me.
To be human is to be born into a world that pulls out and pushes back the potentials inside us. I push and pull back, trying to find or shape a part of the world (including other people) that supports my inborn potential. We do a dance, the world and I. Sometimes the world supports part of me. Sometimes it crushes part of me. Sometimes I learn something that seems to change me entirely — but more likely just brings out a part of me I didn’t know was there.
Being human, I am blessed with remarkable organs of perception that bring millions of messages from the world — and I can be so dazzled by my own constant barrage of experience that I take it for the whole world. But I’ve learned, the hard way, that my experience isn’t the world. It’s only a tiny sample.
So I need other people, who have sampled other parts of the world. Together we can make a more complete picture. I need to report my piece of reality honestly, to listen to others, and to remember that the bit of truth I know is not anywhere near all the truth there is.
There’s a part of me — it feels as if it’s buried deep — that shines. It literally shines, or so it seems to me, with a warm, steady glow. It’s where my deepest wisdom and best instincts come from. That part of me seems, in a way I can’t explain (and I was trained as a scientist; I squirm at things I can’t explain) to be simultaneously inside me and beyond me. It’s connected to the whole universe. It’s ancient, loving, noble. I think it’s what other people mean when they use words like “conscience” or “soul” or “God.”
Most of the time I keep it well buried under a sludge of busyness, complaints, schemes, worries, fantasies, and fears.
I can only suppose that all of us have that glowing spot of wisdom within us. I think we differ greatly in our ability to contact it. Different inner potentials and different outer experiences must generate different amounts of sludge. And we live in cultures, created collectively by ourselves, that can encourage sludge — or encourage ready access to the inner shining.
Since I experience my culture and myself shaping each other in a dance, I find myself unable to put blame or credit for human actions fully on either the individual or the culture. I know from the nightly news that when dictators put guns in the hands of young men and tell them to shoot certain kinds of persons, a lot of those young men — but not all — will shoot. If their culture had encouraged them from birth to be guided by their own internal nobility, most of them — but not all — would not shoot. I think so anyway. I’ve never known a culture like that.
The culture I live in powerfully encourages sludge and shooting. It does not lead people to experience the shining place inside themselves. My sorrow about that is so deep that I can’t begin to express it. I see the news, the ads, the politics, the pop songs, the malls, the movies, the dope, the blight, the organized injustice, and I weep inside.
What kind of dance can I do with a culture that loads me with sludge and does not recognize my inner shine? All I can think to do is to tune into whatever I can know of the light and love of the universe, without denying the existence of my own faults and failures. I guess both are intrinsic parts of my humanity. I can respect myself and others for the moments of nobility we do manage to produce out of the incredible mix of potential and experience, shine and sludge, that we carry around with us. We do, with astonishing frequency, produce moments of nobility. Our culture just doesn’t choose to feature them on the nightly news.
I weep for the culture, but when I think about who I am, who we all are, we humans, I have to laugh — laugh as I would laugh at a child or a puppy, bumbling and self-centered, a still-unrealized being, but wonderfully endearing, infinitely lovable, full of potential.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1995