Humans say “humanity” as if it is perfection. The highest form of life on Earth. But we also use “human” as an excuse for our shortcomings. Song lyrics have folks apologizing with, “I am only human … born to make mistakes, only flesh and blood …”
Only human. So is our main flaw that we are human? Is being human, humane, and humanity the best form of all of life? Or is it the worst?
I often wonder what other species — our fellow Earthlings — would say about us if they could.
Being such a pro-human, human-centered planet has wreaked havoc for all species and life on Earth. In the same way a patriarchal, pro-cishet world doesn’t create a healthy space for more than half of the world, women or the LGBTQIA community, and how a pro-white world does not offer justice for the global majority or BIPOC.
Most patriarchal religions honor the belief that creation is linear. That creation is hierarchal, with value placed on what is at the top vs. what is at the bottom — the bigger, the better.
All this despite the fact that heavenly bodies move in elliptical and circular motions. Despite the fact that the Earth itself is round, as are many elements of the known universe: moons, suns, planets. We ignore all the signs from nature of the galaxy’s circular, symbiotic ecosystem and shared interdependence with all creatures, great and small.
The circle of life. We ignore it all and focus on a false hierarchy of existence.
When we talk of life on Earth we mean “us,” humans. But I am talking about all of us, all living things, including and beyond the human family.
Other belief systems have long understood that “family” extends beyond the human family. Through my work, I have become a novice student of the cultural teachings of Haudenosaunee, a traditional Indigenous confederacy including members of Pittsburgh’s Seneca Nation. When those artisans talk of “Brother Wolf,” they aren’t being poetic, they mean it. And what Brother Wolf has taught them collectively and individually.
When the Bambara people of Mali created the Ci Wara headdress in honor of a half-human and half-antelope entity, one of the most recognized of all West African art, they are connecting, honoring, and celebrating the antelope which taught humanity agricultural methods.
To me, these Indigenous and traditional teachings — the kind of teachings that helped us become human — show the value of embodying the lessons that our fellow animals teach. It helped us survive, thrive, evolve, and, yes, even helped us become human.
Even the Nickelodeon series Avatar The Last Airbender uses these Indigenous ideas as part of the story’s narrative. The power some humans could invoke through four elements — earth, air, fire, and water — was taught to them first by mythical animals and a celestial body. Imagine the knowledge we’d have all around us if we focused more on our place in a cycle of all life rather than being at the top of a false life pyramid.
Being pro-human has centered us to the detriment of everything, ironically including us. Why? Because we do not fully define what human, humane, and humanity even means? We are so tied up with hierarchies being based on skin color, gender, and bank accounts. We aren’t fully us yet, not yet. Maybe we were and forgot how, or we lost it in the drive to this hierarchy of color, gender, and money.
Instead of being human-centric, we should become pro-terrestrial. An outlook that offers us the chance to not only understand our connection to all other living things in a theoretical way but also could shape a healthier environmental, economic, social, cultural, and even spiritual way forward.
Bruce Lee, the famous martial artist and actor, invoked the zen of Tao Te Ching when he said, “Be like water.” Maybe with time and intention, instead of invoking “humane” and “humanity” as the pinnacle of existence, we can turn to the many creatures and elements we share this little blue marble with to help us become better humans, better terrestrials.
Be like bamboo, strong, yet yielding. Be like an elephant, remembering and honoring. Be like the ants, carry what you can and bring it to the community to make something larger than yourself. Be like the jackals, a pair united for life, dedicated to family. Be like the antelope, sharing knowledge so others may grow sustenance.
Be human, learning from all, and be humble in the understanding that there is so much more to learn. Though our time to build a sustainable, regenerative, justice-centered world is running out, it is not over yet. I reject that it is a matter of time. Justice needs no time, justice only needs will and the work.
The lessons and teachers are literally all around us. Look, listen, learn.