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Reflections on being human: Part 2

Do we matter when we lose our minds? 

I touched on this question in part 1 of this series but didn’t answer it for myself. Instead, I focused on observed behaviors, essential markers of our humanity like the joy we find in communing with nature and with each other. I believe these attributes are unarguably objective.

In writing about my journey with my husband’s dementia I’ve had to abstract ideas and turn them over in my mind before I can express them. In the weeks since I began reflecting on being human, I’ve continued to ponder the bigger question. Does Robert matter now that he’s lost his mind? Do any of us matter when our minds fail? Does the universe need us when we can no longer be productive or creative?

Asking the right questions

I’ve concluded the question is beside the point. All we will ever be is human with all the limitations and failings our humanity implies. Our life’s journey is the entirety of our time on earth. Some journeys are so pocked with hardship that we don’t recognize them as lives worth living. Some are so blessed that they seem fantastic, unreal. So what? We are only who we are in this moment, nothing more and nothing less.

Some of us will go to war, survive, and live until we are old and stooped. Some of us will suffer a grand mal seizure and drown in the bathtub, some will touch down for a sliver of a second, but pass before we learn to walk. Some of us will spend the last 10 years of our lives being cared for by others because we have dementia. But whatever our journey, no matter what we accomplish, we are exactly and only human at every moment of our lives. 

Standing apart

As humans, we possess (what we believe is) a unique ability to stand outside ourselves and look at our place in the world, to examine our standing for its worth. We can all see the damage we cause. (We are an invasive species, after all.) Indeed, during some periods in my life, I’ve felt I was carrying the weight of the world; because we can see the damage, we are responsible for correcting it.

You’re not really all that

But this tendency to feel responsible for everything now seems arrogant, almost paternalistic. No matter what we pretend, we are in the world, not apart from it. There is very little we control. We exist only as human animals, neither worthy nor unworthy. 

For a time, I contemplated whether I had the right to have children when the planet is already overflowing with us. But the desire to have children is basic to our experience of being a human. This is what animals do. They reproduce. Are we obligated to deny our humanity because we can see it from the outside? I don’t believe so. 

This is the crux of my ponderings. If we are not obligated to be “better” than human, how can we matter less if we lose our minds? We are human with every twist in our journey.

Opened and still open

These are complex ideas that I’ve cut open in this story but (arguably) failed to stitch back together in a satisfying form. I’m hardly a philosopher. Suffice it to say that Robert’s illness has caused me to collect my judgments about our individual obligations and our singular worth and set them aside. 

Does Robert matter less because his trajectory has landed him in this place where he can no longer contribute as he once did? 

No, he does not matter less. He was here. 

That’s all any of us can ever claim. We exist for a brief, sparkling moment. We were here.

2 thoughts on “Reflections on being human: Part 2”

  1. You’re leading me to think of the movie Coco. Sounds like Robert sparkled, and it was a good thing you got to spark and sparkle with him for a while, even though the last act was sad and challenging. I wish all our last acts could be like the best parts of infancy, but for sure without that sleep deprivation and anxiety about how to parent!
    I can get judgmental and sure of how something should go my way for very good reasons… and probably very hard to live with. When my perceptions are challenged, when I think I’ve got it all figured out and someone or something blows them up, I’m trying to learn to look for the humor. There are so many foibles to being human. Beating up ourselves or one another for not being perfect is a serious waste.
    I’m glad you got to go to Alaska. Amazing what a reset getting to be somewhere else can be. I think, though, that wanting another human to relate to (complicated as it can be) is part of our make-up. Guess I’m not a vision quest sort.

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