Recently I was pondering what it is to be human. What is it about this human life that is distinctive? What makes it different from the life of a cow, an insect, a rock, an ape, a river, a tree, or a flower?
It’s not memory or grief, because elephants have been shown to have the capacity for both. It’s not language, because so many creatures have a language all their own. It’s not music; have you ever listened to a catbird go through its whole repertoire with zest and joy? Having lived with cats for years, I’m convinced we are not the only ones capable of at least moments of self-awareness. We’re not the only ones who care for our young, or live in family groups. I think we’ve all seen instances of the connection between a dog and a person that show we are not the only ones capable of love.
There are some rather dubious distinctions humans share. We are the only ones who seem to see ourselves as separate from our environment. We are the only ones who would knowingly drive ourselves to extinction by ignoring our impact on the earth we depend upon for life. We are the only ones who take pleasure in the suffering of others. We alone take more than we need, and give back to that source so little.
The dubious aside, surely it’s more than just our opposable thumbs that make us different! Some might say it’s our souls, but there is debate about even that.
So here is my theory. I think it comes down to two things; wonder and laughter.
One of our greatest gifts as human beings on this journey is our ability to look into a dark night sky and be filled with a sense of wonder at the vastness of the Universe, and the smallness of our individual lives. Then in the very next minute be filled with equal wonder at the immense impact one small life can have upon the whole. We can marvel at the almost unimaginable variety of colors, flowers, birds, insects, or trees. We can feel awe looking through a microscope at the tiniest building blocks of life, only to be awed yet again when we find a way to see inside those building blocks too.
As if the gift of wonder wasn’t enough, we also have the joy of laughter; deep, hearty, belly laughs, the irresistible giggles of babies, side splitting laughter among friends. One of the greatest gifts of laughter is our ability to laugh at ourselves. When we do the silly things that humans do, we can reflect on, and laugh at our own foibles. It is a gift that is often underused. It is an amazingly powerful gift because it prevents us from taking ourselves too seriously. It helps us to remember the immenseness of the universe in that night sky, and to feel joy for our small place within it. Laughter allows an outflow for that sense of wonder when it begins to bubble up inside you and needs an outlet. And when that wonder and joy, in the form of laughter, combine, a wonderful, uniquely human, alchemy takes place. Together they form imagination!
In that moment when wonder gives birth to insight, something so clear that you can’t help but laugh with joy, imagination is ignited! Your vision of what is possible in the expansiveness of the universe is clear. And in our uniquely human way, we can then imagine a shift in that universe, a whole different way of being and living, laughing all the while.
May your New Year be filled with wonder and laughter!