“I am human: nothing human is alien to me.”
I first read this in a book by Isaac Asimov when I was in grade school. It wasn’t until college that I learned that this is an English translation of the Roman writer Terence. It remains one of the most powerful sentences I’ve read. If any single idea serves as my deepest moral code, it’s this.
I even made it the subtitle of this blog.
To me, this statement defines my responsibility to try and understand. All human feeling, all human thought and action, should be comprehensible to me. If human nature is capable of encompassing it, I should be able to relate to it. No matter how dark or twisted, no matter how bright or saintly—if it’s human, then by definition it shouldn’t be alien to me.
Meaning: No matter how monstrous, people are people and not monsters. No matter how angelic, people are people and not angels. It’s dangerous to let ourselves believe that our darkness and our light is anything other than fully human.
Meaning: We are all Us, and no matter how different we may be, there is no Other.
It doesn’t mean that I must agree, condone, or support all human action, thought, or feeling—but I do have an obligation to try and understand it.
The problem is that I fail at understanding. Specifically, I don’t understand hatred.
Intellectually, I get it: it’s a toxic mix of fear and anger, frequently with doses of resentment and jealousy thrown in. Hatred is a common reaction to threats, and it ties into our sense of identity—personal, social, tribal.
Lord knows I understand fear. And lord knows I understand anger, everything from mildly miffed, to petty and personal, to righteous and raging. Lord knows I can be fiercely protective of my family and friends, of my community, of my tribe.
But I’ve never hated anyone.
I look back on my life as honestly as I can, doing my best not to flinch, and I don’t recall ever feeling hate. There have been plenty of people I disliked with varying degrees of intensity, people for whom I have no respect and little regard. I’ve been plenty angry with plenty of people (most without just cause). But I have no memory of hating anyone. There’s been lots of fear and anger, sure, but those elements don’t mix inside me to make hatred.
Hate is a primal human emotion and I don’t think I’ve ever felt it. If I’ve never felt it, how can I claim to understand it?
There’s a contradiction built into my mantra and how I’ve tried to live by it: If nothing human is alien to me, then we are all Us and there is no Other, so how can I hate? Hate requires an Other and I refuse to see anyone that way.
But hate is elementally human, so I should be able to relate to it. I don’t know how to do that if I don’t have it in me to hate anyone.
So much of what’s happening in the world right now is born of hatred. So much is born of people’s need to oppose an Other. If I refuse to cast anyone in the role of Other, how can I understand the logic of opposition (no matter how flawed that logic may be)? If I don’t understand hate, how can I understand what’s happening?