What Does it Mean to be a Human Being?

A man and woman laying in bed smiling for the camera.

Do not let the roles you play in life make you forget that you are human.

~ Roy T. Bennett


Aging in Place

What does it mean to be a human being? The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History requested submissions from readers on that very question. Here are some of the responses:

Being human means making mistakes, bearing emotions, thinking deeply, and interacting with others to better oneself and those around him.

~ Lauren, Florence, SC

Humans are image bearers of God: being mind, body, and spirit that desire to feel, communicate, and live for something other than oneself.

~ Lili G, South Carolina

Being human includes walking on two feet, being able to use and make tools and having a conscience. Also, to know about emotions and empathy.

~ KALLI, Vermont

To be human means to be able to problem solve, invent, and adapt to change. You are able to get through all the challenges life will throw in your path.

~ Penny, New Zealand

Making Mistakes

~ Corri, USA

These are thought-provoking statements with human identifiers such as making mistakes, emotions, thinking, interacting, consciousness, mind, body, and spirit, adaptive, empathy, and tool employment. Seldom do any of us ponder what being human means–we are too caught up in the minutiae of living.

I was jolted into awareness about the concept when my friend and colleague Mike Waters shared this email he sent to a contact of his:

Deb, I got a story for you. Yesterday one of our granddaughters had a piano recital at a local church. A guy in a wheelchair was sitting in front of my wife and me. After the recital, I asked him if he was a retired music teacher. We started chatting away. I finally figured out the gal that was with him was his caregiver. She interrupted our conversation, and said she had to “get him back.” I walked with them out to the parking lot.

As he got into the car, he said to me “Thanks for talking to me. You made me feel like a human being.” I’m guessing the caregiver was taking him back to the assisted living community.

Whenever I get a chance, I try and spend a little time with folks like this.

Mike’s words fell heavy on me–the caregiver role is one I’ve played my entire adult life. Not just professionally, but with family as well. I’m intimately familiar with all the roles in this scenario, Mike played the role of the kind and empathetic community dweller, the “resident” role was played by the older gentleman in the wheelchair who got out for a brief time, and the time-pressed role of the caregiver was the younger woman.

The “resident’s” comments brought to mind a powerful memoir by Carobeth Laird and her temporary experience inside an institutional care setting. Dehumanizing was the theme of her experience and echoed by this man in the wheelchair.

The gift Mike gave was making this gentleman feel human again–if only briefly until he takes on the role of “resident” once again. Lingering in a conversation wasn’t a luxury he could afford–the things we take for granted. The next time you encounter an older adult out in the community, engage them, it might be the only opportunity they will have to feel like a human being for some time.


What Does it Mean to be a Human Being?

Limbo: A Memoir about Life in a Nursing Home by a Survivor Paperback – April 1, 1979

by Carobeth Laird (Author)/Amazon

Limbo recounts Carobeth Laird’s “efforts to hold onto sanity and identity in an atmosphere which was, by its very nature, dehumanizing.” In straightforward, wryly observant, and reflective prose, she describes her seventy-ninth year, the year her gall bladder burst. She winds up a resident of the Golden Mesa nursing home. Nearly paralyzed and hopeless, and feeling trapped by a “body, with its relentless unreasoning instinct for survival [that] was at cross-purposes with a mind that could see absolutely no future,” she begins to articulate her experience.

Note: The term “resident” was used intentionally to express the dehumanizing effects of intuitional language.

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