III. 2. Reverence for Human Life
It is often difficult to feel a reverence for human life, but doing so is key to being truly alive.
Facing death in way that affirms life leads not only to a general reverence for life. It can, more importantly given the present state of human affairs, result in a reverence for human life. This is a critical distinction. Too often those who speak of a "culture of life," or see themselves as acting on behalf of natural life, have little feeling for actual human beings different than themselves. It is often easier to feel for objects onto which we project our desires for perfection which cannot disappoint us -- our God, nature, animals -- than sweaty, messed-up, confused and tortured human beings.
The environmental movement, for example, feels tremendous reverence for nature, flora and fauna, beautiful pictures of which adorn its literature. But one is hard-pressed to find images of actual human beings, who are seen as responsible for the problems that afflict nature. Many religious traditions also downgrade the human experience, which is seen as a lower order of being than a perfect afterlife. And even many who believe they are acting on behalf of human beings do so out of a sense of obligation or desire for power, without liking or treating actual human beings very well- let alone revering them.
But being truly alive requires a reverence for human as well as non-human life. One cannot revere creation without revering humanity which, though often acting badly and blindly, is as much a part of that creation as anything else.
Denial of our mortality is often a root-cause of our devaluation of human life. To identify with our humanity is to face our animal physicality, the fact that we are housed in bodies that decay and will day die. Identifying with God, spirit or nature helps us avoid this painful reality. But when we deny our pain about this fact, we also cut ourselves off from much of life itself.
It is really not necessary to make a "case" for why we might revere human beings. It is enough to realize that humanity is an integral part of all life. But it is worth noting, as E.O. Wilson has said so beautifully, that there is much to revere about the human journey: "The human species -- in achieving its independence from that universe, its ability to survive in good part by understanding how the universe works -- has achieved something truly magnificent. And what we need to offer in the way of reverence should be not to some imagined higher power, but to each other."
Developing a reverence for human life is important in an of itself, as it immeasurably enhances and expands our aliveness. But it is also important because it is a key motivation, besides compassion, for not only realizing the satisfactions of serving others, but doing so in a way that genuinely helps them.
Feeling the depth of our sadness at our own mortality leads naturally to a deep connection, identification and yes, reverence, for our fellow, frail human beings who, like us, have struggled against such odds to create so much. And moving from empathy to reverence for the miracle of human life deepens our experience of connection and identification with life.
This matter of "identification" is key. Most of us grow up seeing our primary identities as related to our nation, religion, race or gender. National identity is often our primary identity in America, as when politicians solemnly declare that "although I am a (religion, race or ethnic group), I am an American first and foremost." When we limit our identity however, we also limit our aliveness. When we are truly alive, we automatically shift our primary identity to that of being a human being. We emphasize the close similarities, rather than differences, of our basic experiences of life with our six billion fellow human beings. We turn the unlived cliché that we are all "members of one human family" into a lived reality. Doing so immeasurably extends our experience of aliveness.
Identifying with humanity is but a first step, however. What actually determines our degree of true aliveness is the extent to which we act out of our reverence for the human experience.
It is a partly a matter of breadth. The experience of "aliveness" clearly is not limited to a particular sub-category of life. Clearly, the broader our sphere of action, the more connected we are to more life, the more alive we are. Americans or any other group who limit their sphere of action only to their nation are clearly limiting their experience of life.
But it is even more a question of depth. We are clearly primarily encoded by our genetic, evolutionary and cultural inheritance as human beings first and foremost. National, religious, racial or ethnic identities are a distant second. To the extent that we act primarily on behalf of one of these sub-categories, we are cut off from important parts of ourselves. We are realizing only a small portion of our full potential to love, connect, feel, and experience aliveness.
Our goal here is not to advocate a certain course of social or political action. And it is beyond the scope of this website to analyze the ways in which those who claim to be acting on behalf of "a culture of life" so often wind up in practice promoting death, discrimination, social injustice and environmental neglect.
We seek here simply to emphasize that merely experiencing increased aliveness by facing death as an individual, or even feeling an enhanced connection with others, is insufficient to be truly alive. If we are to experience true aliveness we need also to revere, and act from that reverence, on behalf of all humanity.