I remember when I was a college freshman, a professor asked the question, “what makes us human?” He was asking us to answer what separates us from any other animal on the face of the earth. I do not know the answer he gave, but I know the answer to be our ability to make a weighted and thoughtful decision. No other animal, when faced with something, stops to consider its options. All animals, except human, act purely on instinct. Animals cannot make decisions as humans do. They draw entirely on experience, Pavlovian, and instinct. Animals also always exist entirely in the moment. A German Shepard does not distinguish between his own breed and any other. All he sees is another dog. We humans should be so blessed. It would certain make for a lot less animosity.
But the single thing that separates us most of all from all other animals is the fact that we have the knowledge that one day we will die. No other animal, without exception, has any concept of mortality. They never consider what things will be like next year. They are entirely involved with living today, and assuring their continued survival but without regard to death.
We, as human beings, make hundreds of judgement decisions every day. Sometimes we fail and we recognize that we have failed. The concept of failure is not in an animal’s mind. Animals do not think that they failed, they are already moving on to their next plan that will fulfill their need. We humans would do well to take that approach. Unfortunately, many us get bogged down with our failures and allow those failure to rule our lives. We think we are “failures” rather than accept that failure is a simple fact of the entire animal kingdom, and is seldom a moral issue, another thing animals are incapable of, moral judgement.
Regardless of what you may think, no animal now, or ever, has ever been evil. Evil is an entirely human concept. Animals kill other animals because they are protecting their young, their territory, or for food. The mountain lion does not kill the deer because he hates any particular deer. He kills it for food. Bears attack humans because they usual perceive us as a threat to their territory. A polar bear will actually track a human down and kill him, but that is because he sees us as prey, not because he dislikes us.
In the entire animal kingdom, except for humans, survival of the fittest is an absolute law. We humans, however, do not have to follow that law. We have the ability to help the “less fit,” those who are weak, sick, mentally deficient, etc. How much and how well we do that is a matter of choice. Had other species been able to make such judgements, the woolly mammoth of North America for example, they would still exist today rather than having fallen into extinction. Because we are capable of understanding we have an immediate obligation to help and to understand our fellow humans.
It was not until the mid to late 20th century that humans had any real understanding of mental health. And because we are at our hearts animals, we tend to deal from our fears and too often let those fears control our actions. It is known today that a very large portion of our population, at some point in their life, suffers, even briefly, from some form of mental illness. Most common, of course, is depression. There are those who suffer from what is called clinical depression, and who suffer for a long time, if not a life-time. Then there are schizophrenics, bi-polar, psychotics, who require intense and life-long treatment. Those people suffer the largest degree of alienation from other humans even though their disease is truly a disease like cancer, chicken pox, polio, or any other disease humans suffer from. The difference being that diseases of the mind cannot be seen except in their outward manifestations, and that scares us. We become uncomfortable when we are around such people. But what we need to remember is our responsibility to them is no less than it is to anyone else, maybe more so.
On any given day we humans are bound to make a goodly number of mistakes in judgement. Most such mistakes we do not make much of, and are soon forgotten. Once in a while a mistake rises to something more serious. When such things happen one of the most foolish things we can do is to dwell on the mistake, and beat ourselves up over it. The most healthy thing we can do is to apply the appropriate fix and put it in our rearview mirror. There seems to be something unnatural to humans in doing that, but it is actually the most healthy thing we can do. If we can learn one very good lesson from the rest of the animal kingdom, we need to learn how to live in the moment. It is impossible to change history, regardless of how shameful, but as humans we do have the good fortune to not repeat of our mistakes by simply making a mental note of what did not work in the past. Animals are incapable of such behavior.
It is truly not easy being human, but it is extremely rewarding. Unlike our animal friend, we know we exist and we can do something about how we exist. Still, happiness is generally a choice.