The ambition to be human


“It comes to this,” Tarrou said almost casually; “what interests me is learning how to become a saint.”

“Perhaps,” the doctor answered. “But, you know, I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with saints. Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is being a man.”

“Yes, we’re both after the same thing, but I’m less ambitious.”

– The Plague by Albert Camus

As promised to one brother I am returning this week to a less heavy-going, non-political, more happy-go-lightly post. This will probably disappoint my other brother but hey ho, you can’t keep all of the people happy all of the time.

This week in book club we were discussing Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, which led to a discussion about post traumatic stress disorder and then about why some people care more about certain things than others.

There was general acceptance amongst the group, perhaps more readily by some than others, that to shut oneself off from the traumas of the world is an essential human coping mechanism.

I agree it simply isn’t possible to constantly feel for all the tragedies that are enacted out across the globe at any given time. Right now, current tragedies include the two Malaysian passenger air line disasters: one missing one shot down; the Air Algerian plane crash; the situation in Syria; the fact that there are now estimated to be more refugees than at any other time in history; the situation in Gaza; the rise of Boko Haram and the missing schoolgirls abducted in Nigeria; travesties of democracy in Cambodia; and Isis’s latest announcement that FGM will be mandatory. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are simply too many awful things for us to focus on at any one time, even if we wanted to, and so we don’t.(Perhaps this post isn’t quite so happy-go-lucky as I had intended after all – sorry bro.)

One book clubber asked does it take a crisis to make us care? Certainly when a crisis takes place many people are great at demonstrating that they do care. When I was a student I worked at a call centre, which often volunteered to man donation phone lines in response to global disasters or for Comic Relief. I took donations from a wide range of individuals, from all walks of life, many of whom giving sums they couldn’t really afford precisely because they did care about what was happening and wanted to help. So people really are wonderful.

And some people dedicate their lives to making the world a better place for others, providing their time, money or skills for the benefit of others. These people are exceptional. These people are saints.

But it doesn’t make the rest of us bad people because we don’t dwell on these things all the time. Yes, there are many terrible things that happen but there are also many wonderful things that happen too and it is important, at times, to hold onto the horror and the beauty. But being able to enjoy life at the same moment in time that someone elsewhere isn’t enjoying life doesn’t make us the antithesis of saints. It makes us human.

If you are a dedicated fan of my blog (a.k.a. my mother) you will be aware that I called the blog fearofthereaper and started all this as part of an ongoing evaluation of how my life is progressing. More often than not my focus tends to be on positive things I have achieved to become the person I want to be, but it is also important to reflect, from time-to-time, on the things I’m less proud of and on the kind of person I do not want to be.

I do not have the ambition to be a saint, I do have the ambition to be a human. Like so many things in my life, this is something I have the power to realise.

Let me give you a recent example: I had just moved to a new area in Geneva, my French was worse than it is now (which still borders on Yoda-like gibberish) and I was walking to the nearest shopping centre when I walked past an elderly woman who called out to me in French.

Thoughts that ran through my head went something like this: oh no, a human being wants to interact with me and I’m not in the mood, she probably wants something of me that I don’t want to give, she might be selling magazine subscriptions, my language skills are so bad I probably won’t understand anyway, someone else is bound to help, not my responsibility.

And I carried on walking. After about 10 metres I turned to look back, saw no-one else had stopped but walked on a bit further. But then it hit me that I didn’t want to be the kind of person that would just ignore someone calling out to them and so I stopped pretending not to hear and turned around and walked back.

I understood enough French to feel guilty when she thanked me for coming to help her (guilty for not stopping straight away) and to understand what she wanted, which turned out to be directions to a place I didn’t know. So it turned out I couldn’t help her but I did wait until we could find someone who could at least speak to her intelligibly in her language and I did, eventually, try.

I believe all humans are capable of both wonderful and terrible things and the capacity for good and let’s not say evil but instead let’s say less-good is something that resides within all of us all of the time.

How much we are influenced by the good over the less-good depends on a lot of factors: what’s going on in our lives, how we are feeling, how others are treating us and so on. Often we can’t control these factors but we can control how we respond. This I think is what it means to be human, if we take being human as deciding to be the best version of ourselves that we can be.