On Being Human


What a joy it is to know a man or woman who is truly human. St. Iranaeus of yore (interesting word) understood this; and way back around the year 170 A.D. he said: "The glory of God is a human being fully alive." How true. Those human persons who have grown up to be all they were meant to be are true wonders of creation. Such fully alive people Mr. Maslow calls "actualized."

So this brief morning meditation demands I investigate the origins of the word human. No one can be surprised that human is an old word, a word rooted in the soil of our beginnings. In fact, soil is exactly the root meaning of human. We have the Latin humus for soil; and we have the Greek hamai for ground or earth. And both these words look to their common origin the truly ancient Sanskrit word, hsam. It seems our long-ago foremothers and forefathers were quite in touch with their humble earthy origins.

Did I say "humble"? Yes; and why not? Humus gives us some wonderful words that are intimately related to human. The human person is truly a humble person, because the humble human knows the truth about herself and her earthy origins. Very appropriately the holy woman Therese of Lisieux used to ask: "Why do people so mix up the meaning of humility? Humility isn't at all about denying one's abilities and accomplishments. Humility is simply knowing the truth about yourself, and about where you come from, and about Who gets the ultimate credit."

Maybe, just maybe, the classic Romans became so great because they knew the truth of their nation's grounded beginnings. The Roman word for man is homo-a direct variant of humu-s. The Romans, after all, were famous for having their feet on the ground.

Then there is the word humor. How I love this connection. To be human is to know humor. And to have humor is to have the ability to see through things. It's the knack, as it were, of seeing two different or conflicting things at once, which when brought together are simply funny. The classic example of this is the elegant-looking gentleman in top hat and tails slipping on a patch of ice and falling on his tail.

So humor, like its cousin humility, is a truth thing. The deeply human being is the person who is good at being truthfully humble about himself. And she gets a big humorous kick, too, about the whole human comedy.

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This story was published on December 5, 1996.