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Reflections on being human: Part 1

Do we still matter if our capacity to solve problems and be creative has disappeared?

What does it mean to be human when we lose our minds? 

I think about these questions a lot and they trouble me. As Robert’s dementia has progressed, the answers have slipped into unexplored caverns. Can I still be a good person if I probe these questions with candor? 

Thorny questions

Over the past few months, I’ve been turning the first question over in my mind. Without coming to any definitive conclusions, I have decided the answer is subjective and entirely dependent on the culture and society in which we live. The question is value-based and its answer doesn’t exist independent of who is asking it. The answer doesn’t live within us, it comes from outside of ourselves and is answered when one person examines another. The act of asking is me judging you.

I’ve struggled with questions of value because I have always believed that what we’re able to do with our minds, is the most important aspect of our personhood. I’m uncomfortable with this perspective and still seeking to reconcile this long-held belief with the reality of Robert’s decline. I’ll explore this more in an upcoming story. The topic is very thorny and controversial.

Asking a more basic question

The answer to the second question, now settled for me, is, I believe, based on objective (if ephemeral) criteria. What does it mean to be human when we lose our minds? To me, this question asks about the essential nature of being a human. I believe there is a defined, unchanging set of behaviors, a set of responses to the world, that define our personhood.

. . . . .

Today dawned crystalline sunny. I went for a swim and then headed over to visit Robert at Daylight Senior Living and Memory Care. He’d been living in his Daylight studio for eight months. I wanted to get him out on this lovely day. He could no longer manage the walk to Starbucks as he once had, but we could still make it outside to the garden. Robert loved these times of outdoor exploration. He might spend all our time together marveling at a bright red dahlia in bloom or discover a new (to him) Japanese maple as he ambled through Daylight’s manicured grounds.

Essential Behavior Number 1: Unprompted communion with the natural world. In this communion a wonder overtakes us, and delivers us to a place where we are more than ourselves.

Delight

Today, Robert greeted me with a surprised, wide, happy grin. I felt a tug of sadness that he might have doubted I’d come to visit. I always did. How could he not know? Or perhaps his wonder had nothing to do with me! Everything that happened at every moment of every day was a surprise. He might always be delighted to see me.

Essential Behavior Number 2: Delight in the surprise of another human being. The recognition needn’t be accurate, it just needs to dawn. 

As I struggled to get Robert’s arms through his bulky coat for our trek outside, Elian wandered into Robert’s studio. Elian had a habit of following me through the corridors whenever he saw me arrive at Daylight. I thought I’d avoided the Elian blitz this morning, but he had seen me duck into the alcove just off Robert’s room and with a slow, somewhat unsteady gate had made his way to find me. Elian was also delighted to see me. (What a wonder I must be!)

Old friends

Robert and Elian greeted each other like old friends, though they didn’t know each other’s names and shared no interests. Robert enjoys comedy routines, listening to his beloved Beatles, looking at photos of his kids, and counting anything and everything. Elian is an architect by training, forever examining what does or does not work within the corridors he shuffles through and the buildings he finds outside his window. He paints watercolors and loves sharing the very washed-out landscapes that have become his late-life signature style, fading as he fades.

I asked Elian if he’d like to sit down and have a couple of mandarins and perhaps a small chocolate bar. He was pleased to join us. I headed over to the kitchenette to prepare a small plate for Elian and Robert to share.

This is the conversation I overheard.

Track this!

“Are you going for a walk today?”

“My son, Jackson, is bringing me a burrito.” (Jackson is at school in Illinois.)

“I’m not sure where my son, Devon, is. He hasn’t called me.” (I would come to learn that Devon lives in Grenada.)

“My son is very tall.”

“I told them I wanted to go on the walk, but I don’t know when we are going.”

“Yes. That would be good for us to do.”

“I need to trim my fingernails, but I don’t know where the clippers are.” (Some weeks later, eight sets of clippers would turn up in Elian’s room. He was collecting them.)

I brought six peeled mandarins and four Hershey’s mini-chocolate bars to the table. Robert and Elian leaned in with excitement. 

“Oh, I really like these. Thank you!”

“I like them too!”

Communing in wonder

Robert and Elian broke into raucous guffaws as they dove into the snacks. They threw back their heads and laughed until they cried. Their joy was unabashed, total, and shared. Though their conversation was a series of non-sequiturs, impossible to track, they were content to have made the connection with each other. No judgment, just connection. 

Essential Behavior Number 3: A desire and a drive to connect with others (even when we insist, we don’t need to). We are fundamentally social, we humans, and we are consistently uplifted by connection with others.

Bigger than ourselves

I believe these are a few of the behaviors essential to being human. These behaviors are manifest when we simply exist in parallel, never wandering into a shared mental space at all. We are bigger than ourselves, and fundamentally human when we commune with nature and with other people.

Even when we have lost our minds.

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