Learning to Be Human

Disclosure: I write from the perspective of someone who is quite socially isolated due to 30 years of living with multiple chemical sensitivities and environmental illnesses–finding most environments and many people harmful to my health due to use of consumer toxins. I am also isolated through geographical distance from my closest friends and family. Social isolation is the curse of my situation, but an outsider’s perspective is the gift. 

When my oldest child, Asher, was only three, he was overheard speaking to a dog: “Puppy, do you know what it’s like to be human? It’s kind of a job, being alive.” Three years old and already that perceptive. Yikes!

When my youngest child turned three, on the evening of his birthday, he turned a gaze on me that was clearly the spirit of the “big” Paul looking through the eyes of a little boy. It was a gaze that shook me to my core for hours afterward. I have never in my life had such a look from any human being.

I am not saying my children are special (though of course I think they are) but that I was lucky enough to hear and perceive things that I might have easily missed. I believe all children provide such moments. Whether the adults heed them is another matter.

So what does it mean to be a human being? At the moment I write with a kitten in my arms. She has inserted herself between me and the keyboard and so I am leaning over her to type. It’s a perfect example of one kind of human role–as a mediator between tech and animal life. She dozes with her head on my left forearm. She trusts me. And yet I am a member of a species which has accomplished the most profound betrayal of all–the collective, burgeoning destruction of every ecosystem on this planet that we share. And so I love my cats in the way that I love my children–with deep regret and sorrow at my share in this betrayal of trust.

And yet I’ve lived for thirty years as a “canary in the coal mine,” an activist mom warning about the dangers of household and industrial chemicals. No one much has listened to me, or to others like me, so I now refer to us as “Cassandras in the coal mine” (because people at least paid attention to the warning songs of canaries). But I am still complicit. Every mouthful of food that I eat, the clothes on my back, and almost every item I own are the direct result of income or goods produced by someone working his/her/zir/their ass off in a toxic industry –from my ex-husband to workers I’ll never meet–and probably destined to suffer from health consequences as a result. (FYI–my own condition is also due to occupational exposure, years ago.)

Yesterday I wrote about the complicity of settler-colonist genealogy–of facing the almost certain fact of ancestors who perpetuated numerous incidents of brutality and cruelty against the first peoples of Turtle Island, and probably also against victims of American chattel slavery. And if there weren’t always direct actions on the part of my ancestors, there were/are the social, economic, political, system-wide benefits and privileges that came from being an oppressor, rather than one of the oppressed. I am struggling to recognize and disengage from the ongoing inclinations and assumptions that attend these genealogies while also trying to recognize and disengage–as much as possible–from my participation in malignant, toxic, consumer culture.

And yet, I reconize that in some essential way I lack the tools or skills or mindsets that could enable me to fully function with other people in a wholesome, collaborative, and productve way–a way that I identify (from afar) as being “fully human.” But it’s not just me. All around me are (mostly) white people who have good hearts, intelligence, creativity, compassion, some understanding of social justice issues and certainly the understanding of the urgency of our climate crisis, and yet we just can’t seem to function effectively together! There always seem to be egos and agendas, mean girl machinations and mansplaining obfuscation, and all kinds of other weird-ass territorial factors at play. Why is this?

And all around me are my cis-female friends of “a certain age,” who are also socially isolated, economically disadvantaged, and in other ways marginalized, who know we have entered the twilight zone of the socially disposable and thus need to band together to take care of each other, and yet we just can’t manage to plan and strategize on how to do this, how to pool our limited resources and join together to mutual advantage. We know the need, we might have some skills, but not the collective will? Why is this?

For several years now, I’ve come to understand that our settler-colonist, capitalist, consumer culture does not help us learn to Play Well With Others. I have watched other cultural communities, from the ally sidelines, do much much better in terms of coming together, organizing, and providing what is needful with a generosity of spirit that is–to me–miraculous. And yet I understand these capacities are what it takes to be “fully human.”

Earlier today I listened to the Democracy Now interview with Lakota historian, scholar, and activist Nick Estes, author of Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance. His description of the camp at Standing Rock parallels the conditions currently at the Kia’i (protector) encampment at Pu’uhonua o Pu’uhuluhulu in Hawai’i, at Mauna Kea.

Here are his words from the Democracy Now interview:

“And in the camps themselves you had sort of the primordial sort of beginnings of what a world premised on indigenous justice might look like. And in that world, you know, everyone got free food. There was a place for everyone. You know, the housing, obviously, was transient housing and teepees and things like that, but then also there was health clinics to provide healthcare, alternative forms of healthcare, to everyone. And so, if we look at that, it’s housing, education — all for free, right? — a strong sense of community. And for a short time, there was free education at the camps, right? Those are things that most poor communities in the United States don’t have access to, and especially reservation communities.

But given the opportunity to create a new world in that camp, centered on indigenous justice and treaty rights, society organized itself according to need and not to profit. And so, where there was, you know, the world of settlers, settler colonialism, that surrounded us, there was the world of indigenous justice that existed for a brief moment in time. And in that world, instead of doing to settler society what they did to us — genociding, removing, excluding — there’s a capaciousness to indigenous resistance movements that welcomes in nonindigenous peoples into our struggle, because that’s our primary strength, is one of relationality, one of making kin, right?”

Now there’s a danger in romanticizing this as something “those others” do–which can come close to the old “noble savage” crap of yore–and I am aware of that. I’m also grumpy about white people saying that indigenous people are going to save us all now from climate catastrophe (i.e. clean up a mess that was never theirs)–even though they often have little in the way of power or resources. This mindset sidesteps the need for settler-colonists and their corporations and political representatives to drastically change everything about the systems that are running dangerously amok.

In order to avoid that dangerous and ultimately unproductive mindset, we who are settler-colonists have to continue to swing back to a recognition of where we ourselves are now and with that recognition of our deficits and their origins, work double time to develop capactities and understandings necessary for “relationality,” as Professor Estes says above. Doing this is going to take a helluva lot of humility. I’m sixty-five now, and I’m willing to go back to human “kindergarten” (as long as it’s in a fragrance free zone).

What follows is a speculative question. Is it possible that the epigenetic expression of European-originating people was triggered toward self-centeredness, violence, conquest, and greed due to long histories of violent subjugation by Romans (as one example) and others, and by exposures to such things as wars and continent-wide plagues, where bodies piled in mass graves could have fostered a sort of despair and then an unconcern about the preciousness of life? An even bigger speculative question: can we willfully trigger another kind of epigenetic expression in real time, to call back the capacties our ancestors must surely have had in the long ago? The kind that enabled us to live in villages, farm or forage for food, and provide care and sustenance for all? The kind that enabled us to see other creatures in this world–plant, animal, and spirit–as worthy of respect and kinship?

And can this be done in record time, to meet the climate and environmental/political catastrophes that are no longer a train wreck in slow motion?

Personally, it is hard to reach out toward others in real life, to work on my skills for “relationality,” when my condition requires this degree of isolation in lieu of disability accommodation. My activist efforts in the past have seldom been met with understanding–because this whole environmental illness request for fragrance-free accommodation thing can look like a “special snowflake” or “white lady” way to, I dunno, derail or disrupt others and the work that is being done. It can look and feel like a request for more privilege and special treatment from a white settler-colonist who is already inherently privileged by other aspects of my circumstances. And so my blogs are the only way I can reach out. Writing about what I see and feel is all I can do at this point.

I wish it were otherwise. I truly do wish to be of use in creating a better world. Like everyone else, I have the future of cats and children–and all living beings and our only planet–to consider.

“It’s kind of a job–being alive.” And right now our biggest job is to keep everything else alive too. It’s really down to that.

Fractal Flame, Made with Gimp
Fractal Flames, Linear. Author: Nevit Dilmen. 2000. GNU Free Documentation License.