Human nature reveals itself in beauty and becoming

In late 2017, the magazine Are We Europe revealed an inspirational story about a homeless man who spread love and good cheer among the people of Bristol, England. He achieved this while selling a magazine published for homeless people who want to earn an income.

“Whoever meets Jeff in person doesn’t forget him easily. With the life he’s had so far, you’d be forgiven to assume he’d be a surly man, at war with the entire world – but you couldn’t be more wrong. Not once did I walk past him without him pulling me in for a big hug, or just telling me to ‘go and study hard.’ I’m not the only one who has received comments like this. He’s one of the biggest sources of encouragement for students at the University of Bristol, who pop out to Sainsbury’s for lunch and talk to Jeff for a few minutes. He grinningly chats away with people in their forties, working long hours in the nearby offices. They go out to get a sandwich and a breath of fresh air, but Jeff provides them with a dose of happiness. Even if you don’t buy a magazine, this cheerful man still has a kind word for you and genuinely wishes you a good day. Jeff Knight is the most positive person you’ll ever meet.”

The Good News Network announced this month that over 500 people donated money to buy a new van for Jeff, who had been seen sleeping on a sidewalk. What a great story!

I’d like to reflect on some insights about given human nature represented in this story.

First, there is something about human nature that we experience as beautiful. Not just useful, productive, capable, rational, or healthy, but beautiful.

Our appreciation of beauty is not simply an emotion or set of emotions. It is an insight into our self and our world that fills us with a certainty that we are connected to something far deeper and expansive than we are typically aware of. Philosophers have recognized the essential importance and complexity of describing beauty (aesthetics) since before Aristotle.

Often, as in this story about Jeff, we see beauty in extraordinary demonstrations of love and compassion by other human beings. This part of human nature that we adore is a social reality, shared between persons.  

One reason that we love this kind of story is because it eases our fears about coming across selfish or nasty people. We are relieved: There are also nice people out there!

But that doesn’t explain why we also see this story as one of inspiration. From the depth of our hearts, we want to act the way Jeff does and to experience the same kind of love. We know that somewhere in us is the capacity to live in the same way. For a short time at least, we imagine ourselves as someone like Jeff or we actually begin to imitate him.

Human nature is aspirational; it is expressed not just in being, but in becoming.

But how is it that we “become,” and what is the goal? In some religious perspectives, the goal is to be worthy of God’s mercy or eternal life. Karl Marx thought that human beings transform and fulfill themselves through work. Hindus believe that mankind strives to achieve nirvana by freeing the soul from desire for worldly possessions.

Thomas Aquinas developed a unique perspective on human becoming that has informed centuries of Roman Catholic theology and natural law philosophy. For Aquinas, every faculty (capability) has a natural drive toward perfection. Human intellect has a drive to know and understand perfectly, and this leads human beings on the path toward knowing God perfectly.

Today’s secular society has largely adopted Aquinas’ vision while removing mention of God and over-emphasizing the importance of individual human desires. Self-help, psychology, and even many Christian authors promote the idea that each individual has a unique personality that can – and should – be expressed to the fullest extent in our life activities. 21st century wisdom shouts that we should each “perfect” ourselves by unfolding who we already are in our core. Even when many people attribute each individual’s unique personality to God or “the universe”, the emphasis is still on individual freedom to act according one’s personal desires and conscience.

This ideology of radical individualism has helped us to gain some self-understanding and to engage in positive action. It nevertheless fails to recognize the continuing role of human nature, which is shared among all human beings in shaping why and how we “become”.

For example, as I mentioned above, human aspirations for a beautiful life seem to include love and compassion for others. None of us can move toward our human aspirations without social interaction with others who have other personalities. We need each other. We are not merely isolated, independent personalities.

Also, imagination is a uniquely human trait that all human beings share, even if it is expressed or experienced differently by individuals. It allows humans to mentally access realities that do not yet exist in our experience, then to cause those realities to exist through our creativity. Imagination is not exclusive to only some personalities, but is a characteristic of shared human nature.

Struggle is also a part of human nature, even though it is difficult for people to appreciate it. It’s true that our bodies avoid pain, our minds seek the easiest paths to solutions, and our personal psychologies drive us to resolve the discomfort of confusion, uncertainty, and contradiction in our identities as we grow throughout life. But we would not experience our becoming – fulfillment of our human aspirations – if we did not struggle.

Think about it: Is there any good movie you have seen that did not have one or more primary struggles that challenged the main character? There would be no story, no real nature, no meaning, without the struggle.

So, the point here is that the human nature that flows through all of us cannot be reduced to independently unique, individual personalities. The aspiration of human beings to becoming something more authentic, more fulfilled, is not reducible to individual conscience or desires.

Here’s what all of this means in regard to the current revolution in the genetic sciences:

In the genetic sciences, there is too much emphasis on “medical” intervention for newly conceived individuals and the freedom of parents, doctors, and government to follow particular desires and moral perceptions. Preservation of shared human nature is too easily sidelined in such processes.

If we give human nature its due, we will not pursue genetic therapies that simply change the characteristics of human beings for practical purposes or personal preferences. Humanity is not merely a static condition of being, not a collection of characteristics, but a dynamic process of becoming.

Our human aspiration cannot be fulfilled by tinkering with the genetic code to “enhance” individual capabilities, gender, temperaments, intelligence, etc. Overcoming the challenges of life is what matters for human persons, not trying to erase those challenges by somehow designing the “perfect”, meaningless organism.

If we treasure human nature, we will not allow human beings to be defined in such a limited way by their genes, and we will not allow genetic manipulation to replace the crucial importance of beauty and struggle to our human identities. 

It is only in a context of joy over our shared human nature that we can wisely make moral judgments about the direction of genetic experimentation and therapies.

It is that joy, after all, that human persons most want to experience. Eternally.    

Find ecstasy in life: the mere sense of living is joy enough.
~ Emily Dickinson

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