What does it mean to be human?

It has been a night of conflagration and death in London and a day of multiple shootings in America. Voices rise from the halls of Congress, calling for unity and emphasizing that at hours like these we are not Republicans or Democrats, we are human beings.

Me? I turn to poetry.

by Anna Kamienska

What’s it like to be human
Asked the bird

I don’t know really
it’s to be a prisoner in your own skin
but crave infinity
to be captive of a crumb of time
but reach for eternity
to be hopelessly uncertain
and a fool of hope
to be a crystal of frost
and a handful of heat
to breathe in air
to choke without words
to be on fire
and have a nest of ashes
to eat bread
but feast on hungers
to die without love
but love beyond death

That’s funny said the bird
Flying lightly up into the sky

What does it mean to be human? The bird certainly gets more than it bargained for by asking. While its whimsical response and flitting ascent might be read as undercutting the persona’s rather earnest answer, I think it gets to heart of what makes people different.  The bird has no notion of infinity, eternity, hope, metaphor, or a love that transcends death. The human being speaks a language it cannot understand.  So with a dismissive “funny” (Humorous? Strange? Both?), it does what birds do.

To be human is to be complicated, frustrated, uncertain, inarticulate, passionate, and afraid.

Our humanity empowers us to reflect upon our humanity. This quality above all makes us unique on the planet. Our humanity enables us to recognize the humanity of others, others who are just as complicated, frustrated, uncertain, inarticulate, passionate, and afraid as we are.  I wish we could remember this more often, that it didn’t take killing and catastrophe to remind us. In days of political turmoil and unpredictable terrorism, this recollection of our shared humanity may be the only thing that can save us.

My favorite line in the poem is this: to be human is “to be hopelessly uncertain / and a fool of hope.” If there is any line of poetry that describes me these days, that’s the one.

2 thoughts on “What does it mean to be human?

  1. Susan Kuzia

    Love this, Dave. I agree with your remarks. I’ve always defined myself as a fool of hope, but there are days, recently, when I feel more foolish than hopeful! With the violence and hate that seems to be all around us, we must keep in touch with our own humanity and recognize the humanity of others. Fools of Hope Unite!

    Liked by 1 person


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