The following blog post is adapted from an ethics speech given by Middle School social studies teacher-coach-mentor Brian Reilly '09. In it, Reilly reflects on what he believes makes humans unique, and how we have the opportunity to be global citizens.
Earth is about four and a half billion years old, and humans only appeared relatively recent in its history. In fact, if you're looking at the Earth's history in terms of a 24-hour day, human history is only the last few seconds in the day of Earth history.
Regardless of how short this time may be in the big picture of planet Earth, humans existed for tens of thousands of years as small groups of nomadic homo-sapien hunter gatherers before the agricultural revolution, before we became farmers as a species.
And now, towards modern day, the human population on planet earth has exploded! Today there are 7.5 billion of us. Compare that to just one billion 200 years ago. Consequently, what it means to be a human, and part of the universe, is changing faster than ever.
So, what does it mean to be human?
I think that a big part of being a human is believing in things that you can't see, can't hear, smell, or feel. To be a human, you have to believe in things that only exist in your imagination.
Check this out: over the last year, I read this book – Sapiens: A Brief History of Human Kind. On the cover, it says "From animals to gods" because the book tries to answer the question, "What made humans, homo sapiens, so special from other animals species?" How or why did humans become so powerful and populous in such a relatively short time? What's so special about humans that let us dominate other species like we have done – like gods?
The author, Yuval Noah Harari, argues that it is because humans are better at cooperating than any other species.
Supposedly, we can organize better, work together better than other animals. We definitely are not bigger or stronger or faster or more poisonous or more ferocious than all the other animals. We cooperate better.
For example, about 2 million Muslims from more than 100 countries travel thousands of miles to visit Mecca every year. It's called the great hajj pilgrimage of Islam. Think about that feat of cooperation! It requires a lot. It requires a lot of money, for one, and a lot of faith too, commitment to the pillars of Islam.
No other animal does that. We are the only species that can organize, 2 million strong, to travel across the world and pray together. And we do it because we believe in something that we cannot see.
Generally speaking, a Muslim can't physically see Allah any more or less than a Christian can physically hear God, than a Landon student can physically smell civility and honor, than an activist can physically touch justice, than a feminist can physically taste equality, and so forth. But humans believe in these things very strongly. Just because we can't sense them in a physical way, doesn't mean they don't exist to us. They still inspire us to cooperate, to organize like only human beings can. Other animals just pursue survival.
What about you? What are the invisible things that you believe in with your whole heart and soul? What makes you a human being?
I think that for you to determine what you believe in you need to have a serious talk...with yourself. And for you to know what it means to be a part of this universe or world, you need to have a conversation with the universe or world! Let me try to explain...
I have lived outside of the US for about 5 years of my life and in many of the communities that I visited the people had "coming-of-age" rituals of that fascinated me. People would have an intense experience in order to pass from one stage of life to another. You may enter one of these rituals as a boy and emerge a man. Or enter as a man and emerge a master elder. Many of these cultures practiced some sort of isolation or meditation for days, weeks, or more. I think these practices helped people tune out distractions and connect their hearts with the universe. It's like a very rigorous kind of listening. Conversations with ourselves or reflecting on the world around us help us develop our deep beliefs – the beliefs that make us human.
What about you? Do you have those conversations? Do you listen to the deepest parts of your heart? Do you listen to the world around us?
Maybe you do! Maybe you have a strong relationship with God, with the earth, with honor & civility, or with freedom & democracy. I think some things we do at Landon like the great This I Believe speeches and challenges in sports can make you ask those questions – what do I believe about myself and what do I believe about the world so strongly, and what will I work tirelessly with my fellow humans to accomplish?
Reflect on the things you value. What does it mean to be a universal citizen? Ask yourself what do you believe in about yourself and about the world, and take your answers to heart.
Remember that book that I mentioned earlier (Sapiens: A Brief History of Human Kind)? I learned that the author spends weeks or sometimes months each year in silent meditation. It's called "vipassana."
He sits still for about 10 hours a day focusing only on his breath and sensations in his physical body. No communication with the outside world. No talking to anyone. There's also a strict diet – no food after 12 noon each day. That's his way to tune into his heart and tune into the universe.
Am I saying meditate in silence for 10 days straight? No, not necessarily. I am just asking you to listen carefully to your heart and the world around you. It's a crazy time to be a human and it's also getting harder to listen to the universe. We are so constantly connected to other people through technology that it can be hard to slow down and listen deeply.
But I hope you will find a way to do it. I believe you can.
Listen to your heart and listen to your world. Believe in something that you can't see.
Be a human.