Enlarging the Concept Of the Human

Gosh, William Lynch just gets better and better:

The sick [i.e. the mentally ill] deeply fear that they are not human. They interpret an endless variety of problems and distresses as nonhuman.

I remember I used to feel that it would be a relief to have the kind of problems that “normal” people had: in high school, worrying about girls; in college, about grades; later, about money. These things seemed to me standard problems, problems you could talk about. And it’s true — I heard people talking about them all the time.

But I was consumed with things that I couldn’t talk about — things that, it seemed to me, it was shameful even to feel, because they were not within the range of the normal, the human.

This is why, when I find myself stuck in a traffic jam, I sometimes can’t stop grinning: how enjoyable it is to be having a normal human problem! I imagine it’s how someone from Haiti might feel when he has to buy creamy peanut butter because THEY’RE OUT OF CHUNKY.

When people are mentally ill they excommunicate themselves or are excommunicated by human society…let us imagine the mentally ill as living the life of excommunicates from our humanity, from the human race.

For many men with SSA, this feeling is manifested specifically as a (real or perceived) excommunication from the world of his fellow men, rather than from humanity at large. If the mentally ill person feels that he is outside of the realm of the human, the man with SSA often feels that he is outside the realm of the masculine: that there is an essential difference between him and other men.

I say “an essential difference” because it doesn’t feel like something that can be overcome: the very fact of having to overcome it in the first place seems to place one outside of the realm of the masculine. So, seen in those terms, it’s an insoluble problem. One feels that, even if he somehow attains the masculinity he thinks he lacks, he’ll still be forever marked — because he didn’t have it from the beginning.

(As if anybody is born knowing how to be a man!)

I remember the look on my friend M.’s face when, from the middle of my own personal Golgotha, I explained this to him for the first time — I used the phrase “insurmountable chasm” (who doesn’t get histrionic when they’re in the Pit?) to describe the distance I sometimes felt between me and other men. And, wow, I could tell he got it because of — God bless him for his empathy — the way the blood drained from his face. He hadn’t really understood, before.

For the sake of the sick, therefore, we must be concerned to enlarge the concept of the human so that it can include everything in them.

Walker Percy, somewhere in Lost In the Cosmos, has the image of a man riding a subway, feeling lost and isolated and alienated. But luckily, he is reading a novel about a man who feels lost, isolated, and alienated. Since the man in the novel feels as he does, the feelings become endurable — because they are something human after all.

What to take from all of this? Our job as Christians, it seems to me, is to “enlarge the concept of the human” to include those struggling with SSA. This is done, not by pretending that SSA is not a problem, but by acknowledging that it is a human problem — which means something that can be talked about, sympathized with, understood.

More specifically, this means — for both the sick and the well — acknowledging that the feelings of inferiority suffered by men with SSA exist precisely because they are men. Every man wants to be a man, wants to love and be loved by other men, sometimes feels inadequate as a man.

For the man with SSA, this desire takes on an extra intensity. But the important thing to remember is that the desire arises, not despite his manhood, but because of it.

15 Comments on “Enlarging the Concept Of the Human”

  1. Thomas D says:

    A very good post, this. It is helpful to know that one isn’t alone in facing that existential dread of feeling — for whatever reason — irreparably “wrong,” or “not normal.” One doesn’t wish, in the comment box of a public blog, to be self-revelatory to one’s own detriment, but your concerns here echo those expressed in a conversation I had with a dear friend just yesterday.

  2. Melissa says:

    A friend of mine referred to it as “terminal uniqueness.” And for some reason, we cling to it though we hate it.

  3. Rayjo says:

    As Christians we may talk freely about sin in the abstract, but we shy away from the gory specifics because, if anyone knew, they’d think we were monsters rather than the children Jesus came to save.

  4. DavidM says:

    Great post. No SSA for me, but I think I know that alienated feeling. I think that it’s hard for most men to really be secure in their masculinity, because really it’s not easy for anyone to know whether they’re getting it right. And yes, this is just because masculinity is an aspect of being human, and it’s generally hard to know whether you’re getting your humanity right, even if you seem to get through most things with swagger enough. …which is just to say, the path to holiness is difficult and narrow, and not many are very far advanced on it.

    1. “It’s generally hard to know whether you’re getting your humanity right” — great way to put it!

  5. jason taylor says:

    It is hard to feel secure in one’s masculinity especially in an urban society where there is an acute shortage of mastodons to kill.

    Honestly, though I don’t know how YOU feel, not being a telepath, I do have some idea of what it feels like to not feel like a man. I can neither marry nor find a job and really can’t do more then sit here and type.

    I hope I don’t sound like I am to glib about this. It is a horrible feeling and I am sure it is horrible for you what you are feeling. Nor am I saying that it is the same feeling. I am saying I can identify.

  6. Albert says:

    God, I miss this blog. God bless you Steve.

  7. Albert says:

    You’re so right all the time, it’s amazing

  8. Sky says:

    “Existential dread”, “terminal uniqueness”, and “insurmountable chasms”. We’re a funny bunch.

    God bless your beautiful mind, Steve.

    There’s something to be said for drained blood from faces. It’s important for people to know how big the struggle is, but it’s helpful to know that they never really saw you as all that different. That’s half the battle won, right there.

  9. Dan S. says:

    “Every man wants to be a man, wants to love and be loved by other men, sometimes feels inadequate as a man.”

    Hmm. Maybe? I’ve never really given much thought at all to wanting to love and be loved by other men (I’m pretty sure that you don’t mean the word love in a sexual way).
    But, I have to say, I can’t think of a time when this was really ever on my radar. Maybe it was, but not on a conscious level, that I can think of.

    That doesn’t mean what you said was invalid. I just don’t see it in reflecting upon my own experience.

  10. jason taylor says:

    One problem is that only visible and obvious forms of fortitude(like aforesaid manly mastodon hunting) are held as manly and it is hard to see how that will change. However Steve is a very brave man to endure what he had to go through for Christ.

  11. Rivka says:

    I like you so much Steve.

  12. Miguel says:

    Just wanted to say that I appreciate this post very much. I love reading your blog, as I’m going through much of the same stuff myself, and it’s nice to hear from someone who “gets it.” So thanks, because it’s nice to be reminded that I’m human. I don’t get many such reminders here on the campus of this conservative, Catholic college. I love it here, but there are downsides for people like me.

  13. Vuk Uskoković says:

    The thought of His manhood and His humanity should suffice to reassure anyone of one’s own. And our job perhaps is not so much to enlarge the concept of the human, for He has rounded it to its fulness, but that the concept is not diminished in our own persons by our failure to love unreservedly and unconditionally our fellow humans after His fashion.

    1. Sure…it’s just that “should” isn’t always “does”. We do what we can.

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