Becoming Human Is Hard
It takes a lot of work to become and remain a human being.
If we think of “human” normatively, in an ethical sense of what our species could or should be, then I’d argue it takes a lot of intentional work to become and remain human. This is so because there is a great deal in life that either can happen to us or that we can do to ourselves to diminish our humanity.
In Christian theology, human beings were created in the image of God. “Image” or “imago” has meant different things over the centuries: use of reason, creativity, being a maker/creator/artist. I like the understanding, derived from what “image” meant in Hebrew: a marker set up at the boundaries of a ruler’s territory. Human beings are markers of God’s realm. I also love Rabbi Marc Gellman’s take in his book, Does God Have a Big Toe?. Creation on the 7th day is unfinished and human beings were created to be partners with God in finishing the world.
There is so much in life that threatens to diminish the meaning of being human, that mars the image of God and lessens our capacity to work with God to finish the world.
Many of us are familiar with the acronym “ACEs”: adverse childhood experiences. The Centers for Disease Control describes ACEs:
Adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, are potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood (0-17 years). For example:
• experiencing violence, abuse, or neglect
• witnessing violence in the home or community
• having a family member attempt or die by suicide.
Also included are aspects of the child’s environment that can undermine their sense of safety, stability, and bonding, such as growing up in a household with:
• substance use problems
• mental health problems
• instability due to parental separation or household members being in jail or prison.
ACEs and associated social determinants of health, such as living in under-resourced or racially segregated neighborhoods, frequently moving, and experiencing food insecurity, can cause toxic stress (extended or prolonged stress). Toxic stress from ACEs can negatively affect children’s brain development, immune systems, and stress-response systems. These changes can affect children’s attention, decision-making, and learning.
Children growing up with toxic stress may have difficulty forming healthy and stable relationships. They may also have unstable work histories as adults and struggle with finances, jobs, and depression throughout life. These effects can also be passed on to their own children. Some children may face further exposure to toxic stress from historical and ongoing traumas due to systemic racism or the impacts of poverty resulting from limited educational and economic opportunities.
Childhood experiences are particularly important because of how much brain formation occurs in childhood through ones mid-20s.
This means childhood is also a critical time during which our brains may be de-formed.
Of course, brains are susceptible to toxic stress that robs us of our humanity long after childhood. One of my aunts was a bank teller. One day, a robber entered the bank and shot the teller next to her in the face, killing the teller. My aunt was permanently changed by that event, traumatized until relieved by her own death.
Think of what the war in Ukraine is doing and will do to generations, or being pressed into child soldiering means for the psyches of their victims, or the kids in neighborhoods where gunfire is a daily occurrence, or the survivors of and witnesses to the unconscionable number of mass shootings in the U.S., or the veterans of America’s Iraq and Afghanistan wars scarred by traumatic brain injuries or missing limbs or with burn-pit damaged lungs.
Such experiences can fuel fear, anger, depression, and bitterness. Such experiences can lead a person, or a whole society, to believe the world is headed more into Mad Max territory than destined to become a Beloved Community.
Christians claim love is the most powerful force in the world. Toxic stress tests that claim repeatedly.
And yet, we give billions of dollars annually to thousands of nonprofits and to religious organizations in hope of some repair, some healing. A key reason society supports nonprofits is to inject a little more humanity into the world, to boost humanity’s capacity to do and be good and to offset the sources of toxic stress.
We join those organizations because we know being human is hard work, that there is always a need for repair, for recovery. We also hope to provide a more humane ecology for raising children—and the systematic abuse of children within some religious contexts feels all the worse because that abuse violates the double-sacred trust of dealing with children and of representing God.
It takes a lot of work to become and remain a human being. The proverb about “it takes a village…” does not apply only to children. It takes a village to become and remain a human being.
At some point in our development as humans and as adults, we each must deal with the hand we were dealt when we did not have a say: with the hugs and the ACEs, with the love and the trauma, with the kindness and the hate. And then we must own the hard work of becoming a better human being, of what we will do with our anger, of how we claim our agency, of whether we return an eye for an eye or seek to walk a path that includes anger and love, reparation and forgiveness, judgment and grace.
While we each must own and courageously do our own work, we need communities to guide and support us in the quest to grow into being human. One never becomes human alone. One never remains human alone.
Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.