General Question

wundayatta's avatar

Are there any experiences it is essential to have in order to understand what it means to be human?

Asked by wundayatta (58663points) March 28th, 2009

I believe we derive meaning in our lives from a variety of places: a significant other, family, family history, friendship, culture, work, creative activities, spiritual activities, dealing with challenges. I believe that no matter who you are; no matter what station you have in life; life throws you challenges. No one really has a easy life. The idea of the “poor little rich kid” is not just a laughing matter.

So life is full of many kinds of experiences that provide meaning. Do people who don’t have certain kinds of experiences then not “get” what most of the rest of humanity gets? Like, if you don’t have children—it always struck me as odd that unmarried, childless Catholic priests, were giving couples advice on relationships and childrearing.

I know not everyone can experience all kinds of things. We can’t all be politicians, or mountain climbers, or chess players. Some of us never play in team sports. Some people can never carry a tune. Some don’t know what it means to feel graceful.

Are there some essential experiences that, lacking them, we can not truly understand humanity or humanness? If so, what are they? Are there any experiences, that, if you don’t have them, you can not understand what it’s like, and you can not empathize with or advise people in those situations?

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41 Answers

YARNLADY's avatar

We first would have to agree on a definition of what does “being human” mean. I don’t think it is relevant in most situations. People live the best life they can, based on their experiences, and that is all we can determine. The presence or lack of empathy would probably fit most people’s definition.

FGS's avatar

Yes and I will leave it at that.

SeventhSense's avatar

I laugh every time I see your avatar. It such a nice contrast. These thoughtful intelligent answers and then the picture of a woman with bunny ears showing you are a thoroughly grounded person with a sense of humor…..nice

Blondesjon's avatar

This one is cak’s.

YARNLADY's avatar

@SeventhSense Thank you : – )

RedPowerLady's avatar

I want to say yes because I think some experiences are so important. But I have to answer no. Because being human is a subjective experience. We all have to have our own experiences. And living is different for all of us. What seems essential to one of us might not be essential to another person. Even a totally clueless person who has no capacity for memory would be living a human life. There is just no way to define what experiences make us human. It is different for each of us. And each person is a beauty (or horror I suppose) in and of themself.

TheIowaCynic's avatar

Sex, successfully procreating, achieving revenge, and conquering something

cak's avatar

I just want you to know that I find this question so interesting, my computer froze and I just stole my husband’s laptop to retype my answer!

Anyway – to the answer:

I don’t think there are a certain set of experiences that are essential, but I see what you are saying.

Some people just aren’t cut out to have children; however, they may dedicate their life to working with children. They may have day-to-day experience helping children. While to you and me, it might not seem the same as actually having a child, but it can help a childless (by choice) person to understand what it is like to have children they don’t get that scream in the middle of the night that the kid is going to vomit! When my son was being treated for cancer, his pediatric oncologist was a wonderful man, a compassionate man – and a childless – by choice man. He spent his life dedicated to helping his patients. He sat with them, read to them and treated them. He loves children. His love for them was really no less than the love we have for our own children.

People interpret things in different ways, there is no way to measure the differences and determine who is experiencing them enough or not enough to set a standard that would help define or clear up the understanding of what it is to be human. We all experience things: spiritually, emotionally, physically, intellectually, creatively – and anything else you can think of; but, two line people up and think that there is going to be one set answer – it’s not going to happen. Just like you and your attachment to music, we’ve heard you express how it affects you – it’s a spiritual experience. My mother loves music, but it’s hardly a spiritual experience, but it doesn’t lessen her experience. It’s a simple example, but it shows that no two people experience things in the same way.

To be human, I think is something different for each person. I think you might post the question – “What is it to be human?” You would receive a lot of different responses. Just like when the question, ‘What is the meaning of life?” draws so many different responses.

Interesting question, but I just don’t think there could ever be one essential set of standards – experiences that could help us understand, or define, what it is to be human. I tend to think it is a very personal understanding, different for each person.

SeventhSense's avatar

I think that most vital experience( or non experience) one can have, is the insight into the following statement by Shakyamuni Buddha:
“The self is the only foundation of the self.”

evelyns_pet_zebra's avatar

I really cannot imagine having children, I mean, someone that depends on me 24/7? Even a dog isn’t that clingy. I like kids, don’t get me wrong, especially properly marinated and grilled to perfection but I don’t think having them is something one needs to do in order to understand what it means to be human. Anyone can procreate, even my dog.

You want to know what it means to be human, in my opinion; that would be watching someone you love with all your heart, dying and knowing that you cannot do a fucking thing about it but stand to the side and feel fucking helpless.

Wow, I just totally depressed the crap out of myself.

augustlan's avatar

My answer is in line with EVP’s. Love and loss. That’s really all there is, isn’t it?

RedPowerLady's avatar

@evelyns_pet_zebra Quote “You want to know what it means to be human, in my opinion; that would be watching someone you love with all your heart, dying and knowing that you cannot do a fucking thing about it but stand to the side and feel fucking helpless.”

I Agree

TitsMcGhee's avatar

Being in love, seeing someone die, and experiencing overwhelming beauty. The first two are the most intense, raw feelings I think you can experience; complete selflessness and adoration, and ultimate sadness or fear. The last puts the experience of humanity into perspective in an intangible way.

Allie's avatar

My answer is: When you do something really good for someone else. I mean something genuinely selfless.

teirem1's avatar

I guess I need to understand what you mean by “humanness” – as animals also experience deep love and loss.

RedPowerLady's avatar

@Allie I would have never thought of that one but so true

Kraken's avatar

To experience love & to experience all the joys that the world can offer us and to take advantage of this as often as we can. Feeling & compassion are paramount to experiencing life as humans with the ups and downs that go with it.

ninjacolin's avatar

To the one main question: Nope. Every human lives a 100% human existence. There’s no way to escape it. Every new person broadens the definition of humanity.

A human being can be: Loving, caring, murderous, selfish, sharing, happy, sad, egotistical, selfless, born blind, alone, poisoned, revered, burned alive,.. any and all features that any individual has ever experienced is included in the definition of humanity.

janbb's avatar

I would like to say that to be fully human one must experience a deep connection with either someone or something be it an activity, a person or an animal. I’m not sure that’s true though; I think maybe I agreee more with @ninjacolin that humanity encompasses all that human beings can be or are, good, bad and indifferent.

If we want to talk about a fulfilled human life, then I think work, love and play in varying proportions would have to be included.

adreamofautumn's avatar

I guess, like others have mentioned I believe that it really about love and loss and experience that makes us human. Without experiences, what you? You’re alive, but are you really living? I think that in love in any form is incredibly humanizing and loss in any form is incredibly humbling which is also humanizing. Aside from those I think standards are open to what kind of person you want to be…do you want to be a person whose greatest joys come from making others genuinely happy? Do you want to be a person whose greatest joy comes from success at work? Whatever your interpretation of what you want to be is makes all the difference on what experiences you would hold as making yourself “human”.

jo_with_no_space's avatar

Merely living, existing in this form.

mattbrowne's avatar

My answer is yes: Dealing with challenges (or even crises) and evolve. I think the closing of the Isthmus of Panama about 3 million years ago lay the foundation to the evolution of human beings. The Earth’s climate totally changed. There were ice ages. Africa became very dry. Our ancestors had to climb down the trees and leave their paradise.

The homo genus had to evolve. Unlike the crocodile it had no other choice (crocodiles have existed for 200 million years). Our ancestors had to develop language to be able to survive in unchartered territory. Our species had to develop complex social behavior. But the challenges kept coming like the supervolcano which erupted 70,000 years ago.

Human beings developed true empathy and above all it was the very first species in the history of life on Earth that asked the most fundamental question of all: “Why?” (some might argue that chimps or dolphins are capable of why-questions, but I strongly doubt it)

Driven by the desire to answer why-questions our species evolved further. Why do we have to go out and hunt animals and search for edible plants? Why don’t we bring the animals and plants to us? Farming was invented. Why are there men and women? Was there just one gender first? It took human beings a while to figure that one out. Eve is not a rib of Adam (an answer to a why question at the time the bible was written). Why are there thunderstorms? Not because God becomes angry, but because the energy in the atmosphere creates charged particles. Why is the Universe expanding? Because there was an explosion at the beginning. Why is there a multiverse? Ah… now it gets really tricky. Yet human beings are driven to find answers. For every question asked. This is also an explanation why websites like Fluther are so popular.

To sum up my thoughts: What does it mean to be human?

1) There’s a strong desire to ask why-questions and find answers
2) There’s a strong will to deal with challenges and evolve

All experiences around this are very essential and at the core of human nature.

wundayatta's avatar

Is it possible to live a life without being challenged by a question? I’m trying to get people to say whether there is any particular question that is essential, in their opinion.

mattbrowne's avatar

Yes, it is possible. Sorry I misunderstood your question.

wundayatta's avatar

And if it is possible, then is it possible to be a well-rounded person without facing such a challenge?

lataylor's avatar

sense of humor

mattbrowne's avatar

@daloon – define well-rounded – do you mean many-sided? Or a well-balanced character?

wundayatta's avatar

@mattbrowne It’s hard to explain. I think there are some essential experiences that if you make though life without having had them, you are missing something that has important lessons to teach you.

It’s not like we have to do anything in life, or learn anything in life. However, I think there is a quintessential human experience. If you have that experience, you can talk about a lot of things, and if you don’t have it, you can try to talk about it, but you really don’t get it.

The only experience I put in that category is having responsibility for the upbringing of children. People who have done that are on the opposite side of an important divide from people who haven’t done that.

There is something about creating life and bringing it up that, I believe, changes you in some ineffable way. Raising children without being the gene contributors, or being gene contributors without raising the children, or raising the children but treating them as less than human—all aren’t the same.

Passing an embodied part of you on—at least for me—seems to add something important to a person that people who have not done this do not and can not have.

Similarly, having a love relationship with a person and living with them seems somewhat essential to me. Relationships, I believe, teach us something important to our nature. Something that is essential to make us be able to understand what it means to be human.

This is just a feeling. It’s probably overblown in some way. I don’t let it change my relationships with people, but I do find it frustrating to talk about these things with someone for whom the subject is only theoretical.

ninjacolin's avatar

“I do find it frustrating to talk about these things with someone for whom the subject is only theoretical.”

That’s pretty close to an ad hominem fallacy, daloon. just because someone isn’t a lawyer, doesn’t mean they cannot give excellent legal advice. just because someone isn’t a professional chef, doesn’t mean they can’t make an excellent meal, even on a first try. just because someone doesn’t have kids, doesn’t mean they don’t have excellent child rearing ideas/opinions.

all you need is a good idea in order to share a good idea.

@daloon said: “I think there are some essential experiences that if you make though life without having had them, you are missing something that has important lessons to teach you.”

I agree with this statement 100% but i just don’t think anyone’s set of experiences qualify as “more human” than anyone elses’

YARNLADY's avatar

@ninjacolin That’s exactly what I was thinking. I welcome good ideas from every source.

wundayatta's avatar

@ninjacolin: In my life, I’ve found that book learning is never as good as experience. For the book learner, everything is theoretical. Real life is so much more complicated than book learning can convey. Sure, book learners can get lucky every once in a while, and their application of book learning will work. However, for consistent good advice, I believe it is necessary to have experience with things.

When I was young, I didn’t really appreciate this. I thought book learning made me very well qualified to do a lot of things. Turned out that I hadn’t a clue. I’ve spent a number of years gaining experience in a lot of areas, and I think my advice, informed by experience, means a lot more to other people than any theoretical advice.

When I get an operation, I want the surgeon who has done two thousand of the operations, not the one starting out. When I get my house repaired, I want the carpenter who has rebuilt a thousand houses, not the one just starting out. I could go on and on, but you get the point: experience is the thing there is no substitute for. Over five decades, I’ve learned how important experience is.

And, as I say, I think there are some experiences that teach you about relationships in a way no other experience can. Since we are tribal creatures, this method of survival is built into us via evolution.

Sure, there are multiple ways of being human, and we don’t all have to be the same. I should know that better than anyone, since I’m off the charts enough to be considered mentally ill. However, even though I don’t think there’s such a thing as a normative human being, I think that if you don’t have certain experiences, then you can’t really understand some things important enough to be considered essential.

ninjacolin's avatar

@daloon, well, i definitely agree that experience gives an individual new information to consider.

But there is no guarantee that the information will necessarily result in a change of opinion. New information may spurn new conclusions but they may also only support the conclusions you’ve already had.

Either way, I agree that experience makes for a more robust understanding of whatever thing you’re talking about.

portal's avatar

experience death and you will see what is to be a human. Have you ever heard of dungeons and dragons well see! where do you find yourself in , for you is in a great and peacefull universe with so much chaos but with less chaos… so much do to asteroids and stuff and less at this time from satan or and that ufo a long story but to make it short thats pretty much what it boiles down to .

Jeruba's avatar

I think that what it takes to understand the meaning of being human is first recognizing and then coming to terms with one’s own fallibility and vulnerability. I think those two things together take in error and reconciliation, love and loss, sickness, old age, and mortality. I think they teach us to give and forgive and feel empathy and also to take and to know gratitude.

We may not all have all the experiences of which humanity is capable, but I do not think it is necessary to do everything humans can do in order to be human. I do think we have to understand that it is in us to do whatever it is human to do.

@daloon, I do agree that bearing and raising your own children is an experience for which there is no substitute, although I think there are some that come close. But I do not agree that you can’t know what it means to be human without that. Instead you simply know what it means to be human without children—an experience that is real to many but only hypothetical to you.

By way of comparison, I would say that the use of sight, as one of our senses, is a part of being human. A huge number of human experiences are tied to sight. But a person without sight is not less of a human being. A person without sight knows the experience of being a person without sight—something that is only hypothetical to you. Some human experiences are mutually exclusive; only a very few of us, for instance, can talk about what it is like to be male and also know what it is to be female. But it is not more or less human to be male, even though it is real to you and hypothetical to me.

wundayatta's avatar

Of course one can be human with a variety of different kinds of experiences that are non-overlapping sets.

I think what I was really wondering about was how you could have a priest who could never be in a relationship with a real person and never bring up children—how could this person be able to counsel married couples?

Then, extrapolating this idea, I wondered if there could be any experiences that are essential to being a well-rounded human. Of course, this is a subjective thing, but then, all things are subjective, so what’s the difference?

While I don’t think there’s anything humans are supposed to learn in life, I do think there are things that we can learn in life. I wonder if some of these things are more valuable than others. More helpful than others. Perhaps I should have asked “what is the most valuable or helpful lesson you can learn from life?”

jo_with_no_space's avatar

@daloon Priests have long been placed in positions of moral authority over the communities that they serve, and it is about time that authority was queried. Clearly they do not, if they have taken vows of celibacy, know much or anything about the intimate workings of romantic relationships, from personal experience. However they are seen as moral arbiters. I’m not sure how this works either. Maybe they are assumed to be privy to some divine knowledge and grace that gives them the ability to greater understand and empathise with the experiences of others.

No ONE experience can, in my mind, give you the key to being a well-rounded human being. We do all have our unique gifts to bring. In the case of priests, they have gone through considerable experiences of duress and self-sacrifice that most of us never have or will.

There are, of course, things that make people more amenable to certain, more open states of mind. For example, people past the age of about 50 who have never had children or been married seem (at least in my experience) to have a slightly less rounded and open approach to the idea of sharing the intimate aspects of their life with someone.

I think the most important things one can do to be fully-rounded are to remain true to themselves whilst always bearing in mind the differing experiences of others. A mind will be as open as you let it, regardless of how limited your life is.

Lonestarwildman's avatar

Sex,scratching my butt,picking my nose,and a woman’s soft touch is the reasons why I thank God every day that I live.Then there is Rock and Roll and Corona beer.I LOVE YOU GOD!!!!

kitszu's avatar

I think we are all human regardless of our experiences. I do not believe that ‘being human’ puts us on the pedestal that most people seem to think it does. When we hear words like ‘humanity’, ‘being human’ etc, the assumption is that those terms exclude us from being monsters, from being capable of doing monsterous things to one another, it assumes a particular/exclusively positive moral standing.

I’ve been watching ‘The Walking Dead’ and anyone else who’s seen the show should understand.

We do become who we are through our life experiences but the same lessons can be learned in many different ways. It’s not necessary to be a ‘poor little rich kid’ to know that life can be shit on either side of the tracks. It doesn’t matter how the lesson presents, only that one be receptive to learning it. People who look to learn from everyday things, from the things that are hard to swallow…

I’m a big fan of ‘practical knowledge’ (v.s theorectical knowledge) but I think the ability to emphathize with others takes us a long way when it comes to learning lessons we have not personnally experienced.

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