Whatever It Means To Be Human (Easter reflection, 4/12/2020)
As many others throughout the world have been pointing out over these last couple months, these are strange times that we’re living in.
Back in December around Christmas I started getting sick, and in January I had to go to the ER for some kind of infection that was causing me a fair amount pain in my throat as well as a fever and headache, got a look over and a prescription for a week long course of penicillin which seemed to knock out the infection (and later got hit with a 1200 bill for that ER visit that I still need to pay back over the next year or two, which I was livid about when I first found out about it but now am trying to accept as best I can because I have bigger things to worry about).
A couple weeks later I had a followup checkup and remember staff at the clinic being jumpy about some virus over in China (now widely known around the world as the corona-virus, or Covid 19) that I honestly hadn’t heard about before then, and they were asking me if I had traveled to China or had any interaction from anyone from there, and of course I said no, and I remember being kind of annoyed by their jumpiness at the time.
Well, needless to say, now I can see why they were being so jumpy.
I’ve had some kind of bug or another off and on since then, like a lot of people do in the wintertime, but because of, well, ‘everything that’s going on’ (a phrase I’ve been using and I’ve heard a lot of people using lately, like it’s become some kind of subconscious cultural meme) I find myself worrying much more than usual about a little cough or stuffy nose or feeling a little under the weather.
At first, like a lot of people, I thought this was no big deal, that it would be another of those diseases that infected a few people but would be quickly contained, and then when that didn’t happen I thought, like a lot of younger folks, that I would be fine and just needed to worry about older folks that I care about, but now I know that I could be potentially taken out by this thing too even at the ripe old age of 37, so I need to worry about myself as well as others.
Even with that worry, and with the whole world changing so drastically in just a matter of weeks, I’m still working (with the realization that janitorial work has more value than perhaps I initially thought) and still busing it to and from work and going to the grocery store as needed, while wearing my newly acquired neoprene half mask (with inserted filters provided by a friend) like armor, and while washing my bloody hands more than at any other time in my life, and while trying to boost my immunity as best I can with vitamins and supplements of various kinds.
Strange times indeed.
I admit it’s kind of odd to be considered an ‘essential worker’, to hear some even hailing people in my position as ‘heroes on the frontline’ or something like that, when for years I’ve felt that being a janitor was equal to being at the bottom of the totem pole, and over the years have on occasion been made to feel less than by others because of my place on the totem pole (though to be fair I’ve also received my share of gratitude and kindness from others concerning my work as well, which I’m thankful for).
I mean, I don’t really see myself as particularly heroic (I see doctors and nurses and other healthcare workers who are directly risking their lives in order to save others as far more heroic than myself, for example), but just as a guy trying to do his job in order to provide some service to others while also making a living, but I appreciate the validation nevertheless.
As an ‘essential worker’ (though even among ‘essential workers’ I still feel like I’m at the bottom or at least near the bottom of the totem pole), I just want to say that I feel that we all have a part to play in this world, that we all have something that we can contribute to the world, even if it may not seem like much.
Like I hear some people out there ragging on celebrities for trying to entertain others from the safety and comfort of their homes (with many of them being out of work at the moment for obvious reasons) but I would say that trying to entertain or encourage others in whatever you can, even from a distance, is meaningful and has its place, because we could all use a little entertainment and encouragement sometimes.
I mean, for example, people out there can rag on Gal Gadot for trying to sing Imagine with a bunch of other celebrities who may or may not have any musical talent or ability in some online video, but as cheesy and cringey as that may be, I still loved her as Wonder Woman (and through that role she has inspired many people, including many young women and girls) and I appreciate her desire to uplift others in some way.
Heck even just trying to stay home as much as possible, trying to keep your distance from others, trying to be mindful of others, as she and many other celebrities as well as everyday people are doing, in this time is meaningful and shouldn’t be completely discounted.
To me it’s not about being ‘essential’ or not, or ‘heroic’ or not, it’s just about being human, and doing what you can to be a decent human in whatever way you can.
Of course being human is hard, as every human, no matter who they are or where they are, gets their share of suffering and sorrow in some way or another or at some time or another in their lives, and being a decent human is even harder, as it’s often a challenge to do some good or do the right thing with all your faults and flaws and with all your limitations and shortcomings, and then going above and beyond that and being someone that most others would think of as a ‘saint’, well, that seems nigh impossible.
And what does it mean to be human anyway?
I guess that brings me to something that’s been on my mind, and is on my mind more now what with Easter and having Jesus on the brain a little more than usual (hey, you can take the boy out of Christianity but you can’t take the Christianity out of the boy).
In times like this where the world is shaken up and we’re in a semi-apocalyptic state of mind, where our mortality is more in question than usual, the question of what it means to be human looms large for us, along with all of those age old questions about where we come from, why we’re here, where we’re going… you know, the usual fare.
Lately I’ve been reading some books by former evangelical Christians, including Unfollowed by Megan Phelps-Roper, granddaughter of Fred Phelps, founder of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, as well as a couple of books by Frank Schaeffer, son of Francis Schaeffer, an influential evangelical thinker and theologian.
Being a former evangelical Christian myself who is trying to find his way after questioning and deconstructing and for the most part walking away from that way of seeing and operating in the world, I can resonate with much of what they have to say and share, like the pain and loneliness there is in walking away from a community that you can no longer agree with to try and find your own path, or how with freedom to think for yourself comes an uncertainty that you have to get used to because now it’s on you to decide what you will believe and where you will stand rather than just following what others have taught you or told you, or the mixed feelings about who you were and where you were when it wasn’t all bad and it’s part of who you are today and even while you don’t want to, and really can’t, go back you’re still grateful for it.
And they both wrestle with what it means to be human, what it means to be a good person, with the value of life and the value of love, because those questions and concerns still matter to them whether God or some higher power exists or not, just as they still matter to me.
I’ve also been thinking about Fred Rogers, better known to the world as Mister Rogers, the widely beloved children’s TV host, after watching the recent film starring Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, as well as the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, and listening to a podcast about him called Finding Fred.
My late friend Erin McCarty was a big fan of Fred Rogers, who she saw as a bonafide saint, and she was far from being alone in thinking of him as one.
Fred Rogers was one of those people who seemed to go above and beyond just being a decent human, as he was by all accounts a highly exceptional human, who, while having his share of quirks and eccentricities, more than most dedicated his life every waking hour to pursuing the good and showing love to others (and most especially children, whom he could be thought to be the patron saint of if he were canonized as a saint I should think) and even in such a way that no one with a sound mind and clear conscience could find any fault in him.
Of course those closest to him knew that he at times struggled with feeling inadequate, with feeling as though he wasn’t really making a difference in the world, like what he was doing wasn’t enough, but even so he continued to move forward, continued to try, an artist whose art-form was kindness and empathy.
I remember I was talking with a friend of mine about Fred Rogers the other day and he said that he thought if there was anyone who could have been the second coming of Christ it was Rogers, and while some might think that sentiment sacrilegious, I think it’s a testament to the respect many people have for the man’s character.
People may on occasion playfully mock Mister Rogers for some of his mannerisms, for the way he talked or dressed or otherwise expressed himself, but if you were to ask anyone with any sense at all they would admit that he was, if nothing else, a good man.
The same could be said of Jesus, whose teachings about life and love Fred Rogers, being a Presbyterian minister who took his faith seriously (even if he was kind enough and wise enough not to push it on others as many religious folks tend to do unfortunately), sought to follow and apply to his own life as best he could.
Many have parodied Jesus in one way or another over the years (in fact the next book that I’ll be reading just in time for Easter is Lamb: The Gospel According To Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, which I look forward to reading as it sounds like fun) but most would agree that he was, if nothing else, a good man.
Even the beloved comedy group Monty Python, most of whom were agnostic or atheist, after studying the gospels in preparation for what would eventually become their classic comedy Life Of Brian, decided against making a film where they mocked Jesus but instead made a film that mocked the church that often failed to follow his example.
Instead of focusing on Jesus in the film they decided to focus on a guy named Brian who was mistaken for Jesus, following him on all of his adventures (or misadventures), while occasionally showing the real Jesus respectfully somewhere in the background (much as was done in the film Ben Hur).
They said their reason for doing this was that they couldn’t help but appreciate much what of what Jesus said and did in the gospels, or as they said in their decidedly British way ‘you can’t take the piss out of it’.
As Frank Schaeffer points out in his book Why I Am An Atheist Who Believes In God (which I thought was a pretty clever title), some things that Jesus says and does in the gospels, or at least is recorded as saying and doing, don’t really make sense or seem inconsistent with the general thread of kindness and empathy that can be seen in Christ’s teachings, and having read the gospels at least a couple of times myself (or at least a couple of their English translations anyway, where no doubt much gets lost in translation), I would agree.
He wonders if maybe some things were taken out or added in, if the writers sometimes spun some things to bolster their own point of view (which humans tend to do), or if some things were simply a result of ‘the telephone game’ as it were (with most of the gospels probably being written decades after the events that they chronicle took place so that’s not really out of the realm of possibility), and he may be right (as much as many Christians out there, especially the more fundamentalist among them, who may believe that scripture is infallible and inerrant, would hate to admit).
But whatever the case may be, there is still enough of that thread of kindness and empathy in Jesus’ story and message that countless people have been inspired by it through the centuries since he was said to have lived and died (and at least according to the Easter story, risen from death), including people like Fred Rogers, and also including people like Megan Phelps-Roper and Frank Schaeffer or myself, who even though they no longer identify as Christian still see value in Jesus and in much of his example and teachings, or at least as they now interpret it.
Many still seek to follow that example and apply those teachings today, including in these very strange, and very difficult, times, trying to walk a path of kindness and empathy when the world seems to be falling apart.
I can’t really say for sure how much I’m doing that myself, walking that path, with all of my faults and flaws and limitations and shortcomings, but I would like to think I manage to do a little good each day and get things right at least on occasion.
The truth is though that many of us, including me, feel as though we don’t measure up to the standard that someone like Jesus sets, or even to the standard of someone like Fred Rogers. It just seems nigh impossible to meet that kind of standard.
I mean I can’t really speak for everyone who struggles with this, but I know that I have struggled with wondering if I’m good enough, if I’m really making a difference in the world, if I am even a decent human, let alone a saint.
I feel like I fail or fall short in some way or another every day, like I don’t care enough, don’t give enough, don’t live big enough or love deep enough.
Maybe some of my family and friends who see more in me than I see in myself might argue with me on this, but it’s still how I feel sometimes, and is a daily internal struggle.
Hearing about Fred Rogers, who some half jokingly (but also half seriously) would call the closet thing to a second coming of Christ that they can think of, having similar struggles gives me some perspective and comfort though, and it makes me wonder if even Jesus himself had such struggles, even if they may not have be written about, even if they were only written in his own heart, as blasphemous as the thought of someone whom many claim and believe to have been the Son of God, or even God in human form, actually struggling with feelings of inadequacy may be, but blasphemous or not that thought gives me a strange kind of comfort.
I remember in reading the gospels one of the parts of Jesus’ story that resonated most with me was him wrestling in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane before he was arrested. Just imagining him being scared and uncertain and agonizing in the dirt and just being, well, human like me, because I’ve been there too, is somehow encouraging, because if that’s God, or a representative of God, or even just a very good man, maybe it’s okay for me to be scared and uncertain and to agonize in the dirt, because maybe I’m not alone in that.
One of the things that Fred Rogers is famous for saying is ‘I like you just the way you are’.
In the podcast Finding Fred, the podcast host, who greatly admired Fred Rogers, sometimes expressed struggling with that idea, being a black man who had experienced a lot of racism, and also being someone who had been mistreated in a lot of ways by others throughout his life, he wondered how he could like someone just as they were when, well, there was so much wrong with some people out there.
One of his guests on the show, another admirer of Fred Rogers, suggested that what Rogers meant by ‘I like you just the way you are’ wasn’t that everyone was perfect in every way, nor that everyone’s words or actions or choices should be condoned, let alone praised, or that people didn’t need to learn or grow in different ways, but rather that underneath all the dirt and the muck of our imperfection, our imperfect words and actions and choices, and no matter how deeply buried, there is something of value, something of worth, some spark of the divine in us, which can never be completely destroyed, and no matter how much others, or even we ourselves, may try to.
Of course, much like the host of the podcast, many of us struggle with seeing that that is true of those whom many of us would call ‘monsters’, the murderers and abusers and tyrants of this world, but it appears that Rogers was able to look at people even like that and see something of value and worth in them, seeing something of beauty beneath all of the ugliness, or at least the potential for it.
I think of another man that many could think of as a saint, Daryl Davis, a black man who has made it his mission to try to befriend members of hate groups, including members of the KKK, not in a concerted effort to convert them to his way of seeing things but simply to give them something to think about through their knowing him.
He has helped many to walk away from the KKK and other such groups simply by extending the hand of friendship, and he challenges others to try to break down divides by seeing the humanity in others, including those who are different from us, or even those who hurt us or frighten us.
I also think of Fred Phelps, the founder of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, who has become an icon of religious hate to many, and what his granddaughter Megan wrote about him in her memoir Unfollowed, how even though to most people he was a terrible human being, even a monster, to her he was her ‘Gramps’, whom she loved even if looking back she knows that he got a lot of things wrong, and she spoke of how towards the end of his life when he was falling into dementia that he softened considerably, even to the point that his own church effectively excommunicated him and abandoned him in a retirement home, where Megan and her younger sister Grace, who had recently left the church (at great personal sacrifice to themselves), snuck in without permission from their family to see him one last time, and Megan says he was mostly lucid at the time, and instead of reproaching them for leaving the church he only expressed his love for them in the end.
It seems that at the end of his life Fred Phelps didn’t cling to his dogma and hate so much as his relationships and love.
Fred Rogers (the other Fred if you will), whom Fred Phelps often mocked as ‘a wuss and an enabler of wusses’, even going so far as to protest at his funeral, would have been proud I think that Phelps had come so far at the end, and I think he would have said to him ‘I like you just the way you are’ and I think the humanity buried even in someone like Phelps was what Rogers was pointing to by saying that to everyone he encountered.
Frank Schaeffer spoke of his mother, Edith Schaeffer, in his book Sex, Mom, and God, in much the same way, even going so far as to say that she was like a force of nature who was straitjacketed by the limitations of her religion and its dogma but even so he could see her humanity shine through throughout her life, especially towards the end when as Fred Phelps did she softened, and said that ultimately she was better than her beliefs, or that something in her, her humanity, rose above that.
And maybe that humanity, or that divine spark, or whatever you want to call it, is what Jesus was pointing to as well and trying to call out, whether that be in the everyman on the street, or in the seemingly irreparably damaged people that you may find in prisons (or even sometimes in government) or even in the religious who can get so mired in their ideology and self-righteousness as to forget that spark within them or in others.
It may seem nigh impossible, if not flatly impossible, to live up the standard of what many of us think of as saviors or saints, but I think of a scene in A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood where Roger’s wife Joanne says that ‘Rodg’ (as she affectionately called him) wouldn’t want people to think of him as a saint, as he believed that anyone and everyone could walk the path that he walked, or at least tried to walk, and in their own special way.
I also think of how Jesus said to his disciples that they would do even greater things than him, which when you think of the kind of example that someone like Jesus set, namely one where you are willing to die for what you believe in and stand for, seems like a pretty tall order, but it makes me wonder if, contrary to popular and widespread religious opinion that has been built up around him for centuries, maybe Jesus wouldn’t want us to think of him as a savior anymore than Fred Rogers would want us to think of him as a saint, because maybe instead of putting them up on pedestals we’re meant to try and follow their example as best we can.
I remember one of the guests in the Finding Fred podcast saying that maybe instead of just looking back on Rogers and his example with admiration and nostalgia, we could also try to be like Fred Rogers ourselves, much as those who seek to follow the way of Jesus (which Rogers himself was trying to follow) instead of just looking back can try to be like him as much as they are able, or in their own special way.
With it being Easter today as I post this, I honestly don’t know whether or not Jesus rose from the dead, heck I am not even one hundred percent sure if he even existed (as there are those who argue that he didn’t, even if most historians would agree that he did, though most of them think that most of what was written about him was just fanciful legend that was built up around him, which may or may not be the case, because none of us can know for sure on that since we weren’t there, and unless we invent time travel or something it will continue to be a matter of faith and faith alone), but I am willing to keep something of an open mind about it.
Whatever the case, I believe that his example and message of kindness and empathy lives on (even if one has to dig through a number of inconsistencies and mistranslations to find it), much as Fred Rogers similar example and message lives on…
And I guess this brings me back to ‘everything that’s going on’, and the question of what it means to be human.
One of the things that a lot of people have been saying through this crisis that all of us in the world are facing is that ‘we’re all in this together’ and I think it’s safe to say that there’s nothing quite like a pandemic to remind us of how much we value our relationships when we are having to keep our distance from others, including those we love, for our good and theirs, and when we are fearing for not only our own health and our own life but also for the health and lives of others.
I recently watched the film Contagion, which came out about ten years ago, and many are seeing it as eerily prophetic as much of the film parallels what is happening now, but one of the underlying messages of that film, as one of my favorite Youtubers, Like Stories Of Old, pointed out, is how much our relationships matter, how much those connections that can so easily be taken for granted matter, when we are faced with existential threats such as the one we seem to be in now. Maybe as in Contagion this pandemic, as bad as it may get, will more likely than not not be the end the world, but it is certainly shaking it and it appears it will continue to do so, and in the midst of that all we have for sure is eachother, even if we can only be there for one another at a distance and in spirit for the most part.
In A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood there was a moving scene where Fred Rogers says concerning death and how difficult it is to talk about that ‘anything that is mentionable is manageable’, and I think the same applies to the situation we are in now, maybe if we can talk about then we can face it, and face it together, because we’re not alone in this mess, not alone in the dirt, even as lonely as it may feel at times.
Our situation is also a reminder (and is another theme in Contagion) of how connected we all are, especially in this globalized world that we now live in.
A friend of mine here on Tumblr was telling me in a recent message how this whole situation shows how interconnected we all are, and how every choice we make can impact those around us and can have a domino effect, even having effects, whether positive or negative, that we aren’t even aware of.
What he said reminds me of this passage from the classic children’s book Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, which I finished reading for the first time just a couple of days ago, where there is this exchange between the book’s protagonist Milo, accompanied by his companions Tock and Humbug, and the princesses Rhyme and Reason:
“It has been a long trip,” said Milo, climbing onto the couch where the princesses sat; “but we would have been here much sooner if I hadn’t made so many mistakes. I’m afraid it’s all my fault.”
“You must never feel badly about making mistakes,” explained Reason quietly, “as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons.”
“But there’s so much to learn,” he said, with a thoughtful frown.
“Yes, that’s true,” admitted Rhyme; “but it’s not just learning things that’s important. It’s learning what to do with what you learn and learning why you learn things at all that matters.”
“That’s just what I mean,” explained Milo as Tock and the exhausted bug drifted quietly off to sleep.
“Many of the things I’m supposed to know seem so useless that I can’t see the purpose in learning them at all.” “You may not see it now,” said the Princess of Pure Reason, looking knowingly at Milo’s puzzled face, “but whatever we learn has a purpose and whatever we do affects everything and everyone else, if even in the tiniest way.
Why, when a housefly flaps his wings, a breeze goes round the world; when a speck of dust falls to the ground, the entire planet weighs a little more; and when you stamp your foot, the earth moves slightly off its course.
Whenever you laugh, gladness spreads like the ripples in a pond; and whenever you’re sad, no one anywhere can be really happy. And it’s much the same thing with knowledge, for whenever you learn something new, the whole world becomes that much richer.”
“And remember, also,” added the Princess of Sweet Rhyme, “that many places you would like to see are just off the map and many things you want to know are just out of sight or a little beyond your reach. But someday you’ll reach them all, for what you learn today, for no reason at all, will help you discover all the wonderful secrets of tomorrow.”
While I think the main themes of The Phantom Tollbooth are the value of education as well as how you see and experience the world around you, I think this passage could also be applied to how we learn how to live and love, and how you follow a path of kindness and empathy.
It’s a process to be sure, and we will all make mistakes along the way, but as Reason says, we can learn more from being wrong for the right reasons than being right for the wrong ones, and trying to apply what we’ve learned as best we can and holding onto our reasons for doing so is just as important as what we learn.
And there’s a purpose to it, to living and loving as best we can, and it can impact the world around us, it can be like a ripple in a pond that spreads out in ways we can’t know or even imagine, and maybe it will take us to places that we couldn’t have even dreamed of…
Maybe that’s something to remember whenever we get discouraged, much like Fred Rogers did, and perhaps even Jesus did, and when wondering whether or not we have cared enough or given enough or lived enough or loved enough, that even little things can have a great impact and can make a difference in the world.
In Fred Rogers’ last television appearance after 9/11 he spoke of how his mother said in times of crisis that you should “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” I remember in the Finding Fred podcast they pointed out that in many ways in that message he was speaking to the children who were now grown ups themselves, the ones who had watched his program as they were growing up, and maybe in a way he was pointing to their own humanity, to that divine spark within them, and calling them to become those helpers themselves.
Even in that instance Rogers struggled, as he was so shaken by the events of 9/11 that he felt that nothing he said could really help, and yet many, including myself at the time, even not being as familiar with Fred Rogers then as I hadn’t watched his show growing up myself (I was more of a TMNT and Transformers kind of kid back in the 80s), were encouraged by what he had to say, and it made an impact, it made a difference. It helped.
And we can too in our own way, even if we too may feel shaken by the events of our own time, these strange times that we’re living in, we too can make an impact and a difference, we can help in some way, however small and inconsequential what we may have to offer may feel, and whether it may feel decent or good or ‘essential’ or ‘heroic’ enough or not, it can still make an impact or a difference or can help even if may not know it or be aware of it.
As far as the answers to the bigger questions, where we come from, why we’re here, and where we’re going, honestly I’m not sure what the answers are, I mean I have some guesses, but I don’t know with any absolute certainty (and I’m having to learn to live without that anyway, even as I try to look forward with some hope and look back with some gratitude), but whatever it means to be human, I think it may have something to do with doing what you need to do even when you’re scared and worried, with trying as much as you can to lift up others when they’re down or maybe even when you’re down, with the value of life and of love, with not being alone in the dirt, with seeing some measure of value and worth in a jaded and cynical adult as much as you may see it in an innocent child, with extending the hand of friendship maybe even to those that are different from you or looking for the humanity even in those that hurt and frighten you, with somehow loving those that others may only see as irredeemable monsters, with seeing the light in someone even if they are held back by things that limit and hem them in, with not insisting that others put us up on pedestals whenever we do some good or get something right but that they try to do the same themselves as best they can just as we are trying to do, with learning and growing in every way we can, with facing difficult times together, with trying to encourage and support and help one another and even as imperfect as we may be and are.
I hope that we’ll get through these strange times, that we’ll not only survive them but that this may also push us to change some things for the better, that this will push us forward somehow, through death towards resurrection, that this will remind us of our humanity, that spark within us, and while I don’t really know why we are in these strange times, or why ‘everything that’s going on’ is going on, I hope that in the end it will move us a little closer to finding out, both for ourselves and for eachother, what it means to be human.