What does it mean to be ‘human’? One definition of man reads: ‘an integrated unity of the biological, the organismic and the personal, the natural and the social, the inherited and what he acquires during his life….’
Being human is simple, in that we belong to the species Homo sapiens. Historically, many of the great cultural and religious traditions placed the origins of humanity as close to the stuff of earth; to ordinariness and mundanity. We say: ‘It’s only human….it’s just human nature…..’; refering to our earthiness as escape clauses for weakness, failure etc (especially when it is others’ weaknesses that we are describing!). Modern psychologists challenge this cultural heritage, seeing it as a hair shirt that inhibits people from achieving happiness and fulfilment.
At the same time, we reflect our frailty by fencing round it with moral codes and rules of engagement. (We might ask why some organisations depend so heavily on this form of protection and how things would be different without the cultural ‘hair shirt’?)
All too often, our earthiness means that we get carried along by unplanned and uncontrolled experiences. Our capacity to rise above these and to make meaning for ourselves is indicative of a second aspect of being human: a state of self-awareness and seeing ourselves from an outside perspective: relating to the world, to things, others, time and mortality.
Something of the nature of being human is characterised by a yearning: ‘our soul’s reach exceeds our grasp; it seeks more than continuance; it reaches for something beyond us, something that for the most part eludes us…..’ writes bioethicist, Leon Kass.
Being truly human is therefore something to aspire to. A desire for things to be more human (less mechanistic, less automated, less routine, less mundane) has something to do with the longing we feel to be closer to fulfilling our dreams, our hopes and our potential. This longing is often the starting point for spiritual quest and growth beyond ourselves.
It is this tension, between the two aspects of being human, that is played out in the world of work. On the one hand, work is the mundane requisite for sustaining life and livelihood and getting the job done. On the other, it is a major forum for our aspirations and fulfilment. So, we are motivated to drive for continuous improvement, or life-long learning, to reach new targets and create better products, and for all that looks like success and fulfilment. However, we all know that it can be a bit of a tightrope. It is good to take stock now and then and evaluate how well the two aspects of being human are balanced for us in our work.
The following are some questions to get us started:
- What are the ‘given’ aspects of our work – the given relationships, the power heirarchies, the mundane routines, the baseline requirements, the fundamental contracts of work?
- How do we make meaning of our work experiences? How does this add flavour to the whole of life?
- How does the work culture enable us to develop aspirations? Is there room for self-expression? Is our workplace a life-giving environment? (Take a moment to read your workplace – look at the tools, consider the way time is spent and note the moods and emotions that surround your work. What does it say about your relationship to work?)
- In what way is being human ultimately work, an ‘opus’ of crafting ourselves in the world?
Note: This is an edited version of preparatory notes written by a colleague and subsequently edited by myself for a regular series of lunchtime discussions on the spiritual dimensions of work.