Sometimes it’s hard to look at humanity and see anything other than the ugliness and greed that seems so pervasive in our world right now. The last few days have been particularly difficult, as politicians have placed power over people. They struggle to push through their agendas, relying on grandstanding rather than fact-finding in their quest to… what, exactly?
Make the world a better place?
If that’s the aim, then both sides are doing a shitty job. I’m a liberal, but being from Oklahoma I also have conservative friends, and I know if we talk long and honestly enough, we see that we basically want the same things.
The news we see blasted on our screens is polarizing because that’s what gets ratings, and it’s starting to make our thinking binary. But the world isn’t ones and zeroes, black and white, or any other simple metaphor we can come up with to pit one group against another.
The world is π.
It’s Jackson Pollock’s abstract expressionism painted by Bob Ross in real-time. Angry. Happy. Simple. And frenetic as hell.
There are as many possible iterations of humans as there are of stars, and I guarantee we’re all as fallible, fascinating, and flawless as the next.
I see this most clearly not when I’m stuck in the liberal echo chamber of Los Angeles or shaking my head at the misplaced fury of Fox News. The nuance of our nature certainly doesn’t show up on Facebook or Instagram where algorithms and curated lists of friends and followers only confirm what we already believe. And don’t even get me started on the hate-fueled Rage Fest that is Twitter.
I see it in the stories we tell. Not only to each other, about our days, our hopes, dreams, fears and failures. I see it in the ones that a wonderful group of people called authors have written down for posterity.
There are numerous studies that have shown a link between reading fiction and increased empathy and emotional intelligence. The idea is that stories that focus on the interior lives of characters stimulate an area of the brain used for enhancing theory of mind, the ability to intuit what’s going on in another person’s mind.
But what if a story could help us see what’s going on in all of our minds?
That’s what The Humans, a fantastic novel by Matt Haig, did for me. The book follows an alien who travels to earth and assumes the identity of an illustrious Cambridge University mathematics professor named Andrew Martin. His mission is to rid earth of the information that would allow for interstellar travel. The reason is simple: humans are greedy, violent, self-centered beings and allowing them to travel among the stars would have deadly consequences for the Universe and its inhabitants.
At first, alien Andrew is disgusted by the people of earth. Not only are their looks repulsive, but they act in completely incomprehensible ways.
He’s baffled by the popularity of magazines…
Magazines are very popular, despite no human’s ever feeling better for having read them. Indeed, their chief purpose is to generate a sense of inferiority in the reader that consequently leads to a feeling of needing to buy something, which the humans then do, and then feel even worse, and so need to buy another magazine to see what they can buy next. It is an eternal and unhappy spiral that goes by the name of capitalism, and it is really quite popular.
He sees social media as a news source for narcissists…
On Earth, social networking generally involved sitting down at a nonsentient computer and typing words about needing a coffee and reading about other people needing a coffee, while forgetting to actually make a coffee. It was the news show they had been waiting for. It was the show where the news could be all about them.
And only realizes the error of his thinking when he remarks that getting drunk on a park bench “seems like a good way to solve problems,” and that the homeless man next to him must enjoy it because otherwise he wouldn’t do it.
Of course, this was a little bit disingenuous of me. Humans were always doing things they didn’t like doing. In fact, to my best estimate, at any one time only point three percent of humans were actively doing something they liked doing, and even when they did so, they felt an intense guilt about it and were fervently promising themselves they’d be back doing something horrendously unpleasant very shortly.
Reading these passages reminded me of another excellent book, Stumbling on Happiness, whose main premise was to show why humans are so terrible at predicting what will make them happy in the future. In it, Author Dan Gilbert argues that the best predictor of future happiness is not facilitated in our imagination like most of us think, but rather by using other people’s experiences as indicators of what our lives will look like.
This is precisely what Andrew does throughout the book. His first introduction to love involves a conversation with a student he stumbles across in the dining hall of the university who has “thin, orange-pink scars on her arm” and a t-shirt with the Vonnegut quote, “Everything was beautiful (and nothing hurt).”
“What about love? What is love all about? I read about it. In Cosmopolitan.”
Another laugh. “Cosmopolitan? Are you joking?”
“No. Not at all. I want to understand these things.”
“You’re definitely asking the wrong person here. See, that’s one of my problems.” She lowered her voice by at least two octaves, stared darkly. “I like violent men. I don’t know why. It’s a kind of self-harm thing. I go to pubs a lot. Rich pickings.”
“Oh,” I said, realizing it was right I had been sent here. The humans were as weird as I had been told, and as in love with violence. “So love is about finding the right person to hurt you?”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“There is always some madness in love. But there is also always some reason in madness. That was …someone.”
That someone was philosopher Friedrich Neitzsche, who also wrote the words, “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.”
Haig is no stranger to suffering. In his best-selling memoir, Reasons to Stay Alive, he details his struggles with depression and the ways he’s overcome the disease. One of those is through writing and the hope that his pain will not have been in vain.
Haig’s understanding of pain is present throughout The Humans. In a poignant acknowledgement of its universality, our protagonist states…
I knew there was one rule that held fast across the universe: if you wanted to get someone on your side, what you really had to do was relieve their pain.
And yet, he’s also able to understand that acceptance is often the best way to find relief…
Just to feel pain, sometimes, was enough to cancel it.
…and perceive the different ways people deal with pain…
Some humans not only liked violence but craved it, I realized. Not because they wanted pain, but because they already had pain and wanted to be distracted from that kind of pain with a lesser kind.
Following along as someone discovers these insights, especially in a first-person narrative that allows the reader to place him or herself in the shoes of the character, is both enjoyable and enlightening in the best possible way.
Later in the The Humans, Haig returns to the concept of love as his main character starts to discover it in himself. Sometimes it’s coupled with pain…
That’s what starts to happen, when you know it is possible for you to feel pain you have no control over. You become vulnerable. Because the possibility of pain is where love stems from.
Love is scary because it pulls you in with an intense force, a supermassive black hole, which looks like nothing from the outside but from the inside challenges every reasonable thing you know. You lose yourself, like I lost myself, in the warmest of annihilations.
But always with another human…
This was, I realized, a beautiful planet. Maybe it was the most beautiful of all. But beauty creates its own troubles. You look at a waterfall or an ocean or a sunset, and you find yourself wanting to share it with someone.
For me, reading books like The Humans has been, and still is, the best way I’ve found to rejuvenate a withered psyche after a dispiriting week. When everything and everyone around me seems at conflict with some ill defined “other,” stories like these remind me that all I have to do to see our shared humanity is look a little closer.