The question of what it means to be human is a common one. One of my favorite vloggers, John Green, once said that humans were the only animal that didn’t know how to be itself. Dogs, he claimed, know how to be dogs; at the very least, they don’t seem to worry about it in any outwardly apparent way. Whether or not dogs know they know how to be dogs is another question entirely. Anyway, I obviously don’t have the answer, but I have some ideas.
My first thought is that the question is wrong. Admittedly, this is often my first thought when I don’t know the answer to a question. But it seems that the question of what it means to be human is often conflated with what makes humans unique, which is completely different. I’ll leave that one to the evolutionary psychologists, biologists, sociologists, anthropologists and all manner of other scientists, who come up with a new wrong idea every few years or so.
So one idea is that what it means to be human is tautological. We are human. By definition, we’re experts at it; certainly no one else does it better. So whatever it is we do with our lives is what makes us human. One might even argue that the sheer fact of living is so incredible that it doesn’t take much else to make living meaningful.
An easy way to understand what it means to be human is to find the very question meaningful. We can start with the fact that the sheer miracle of our existence is mindblowing. As Carl Sagan says, we are bits of star matter gone cold by accident. This planet, life, sentience, each individual human life – all of these are deeply, only barely calculably improbable events, and they’re fantastic. We can also use this reasoning to appreciate the multitudinous opportunities available to us, and perhaps begin to siphon through them to decide which of these should occupy our time.
If we allow, perhaps, that the goal is then to find those activities that give us happiness, that give us meaning, ignoring for now the possible differences between these goals and the difficult in achieving them, then we have found a possible purpose for human life, a goal of being human. And the best example I’ve ever found of people doing this, doing it passionately and well, is the preponderance of subcultures.
I’m a biker, and biking has played, in part, a political role in my life. When I lived in Miami full-time, my father and I would do critical mass the second Saturday of every month, and that was really fun. It was a group of socially minded people who live out their values and enjoy spending time with others who feel the same. They also just happened to be fun people. Anyway, so my dad and I decided to do a critical mass this last weekend, but it was on Friday. I thought maybe it was just a different version of the usual ride, which they sometimes do. Instead it was the actual Miami Critical Mass, whose formula is traditionally the last Friday of every month. And it was huge! There were at least 200 people there, maybe more.
I’ve been a part of a lot of groups, and sometimes it’s incredible to share a great deal of values and interests with the people around you, but in this case, we were all brought together by one thing: we were bikers. That was it. And seeing the diversity within that subculture was absolutely amazing. There were hipsters with their fixies, parents getting their kids into biking, tricksters doing wheelies, semi-professionals in all their gear, mountain bikes, hybrids, road bikes, people with and without helmets, in and out of athletic clothing. There was a teacher from my high school, and a guy playing the uke while biking. We were a real critical mass, blocking the roads, riding through red lights, and having a wonderful time being part of a grassroots, almost flash community. It got better, too, with the reactions we received. Some people were angry, obviously, as we were blocking the roads (or, one could claim, they were), but most people were shockingly supportive. They yelled, hollered, hooted, honked and generally showed their appreciation for the way we had decided to live, or just spend an evening.
We went through Viscaya, Allapattah, Midtown and Little Haiti, and everywhere, people came out on the streets to watch us go by, ask us what we were doing, and cheer us on. Kids bunched up and waved at us. I think my favorite part was a guy standing outside of his restaurant just holding up a thumbs up as we passed. But these weren’t one sided interactions, either. We all responded, certainly, and the people who were blocking the cars were talking to the drivers, explaining what we were all about.
That connection with people, the bikers, the people of the community, the people who I share this earth with, has always been the most meaningful experience I’ve ever found, and I was so glad to have it on the Friday. It reminded me that subcultures are a way of immersing yourself fully in some of the beautiful things that life has to offer, with other people who feel similarly, and that they are conduits through which to connect to the rest of humanity.
There are lots of other reasons I like subcultures, but having them teach me about what it means to be human isn’t a bad start.