Smile Politely

Learning to Be Human(e)

I think it’s kind of strange that we human beings don’t really know how to be human beings. We have to be taught.

I was reminded of this when I attended a “Children First” class last Monday evening at the Family Service of Champaign County. This is a class that is now required by the State of Illinois for all parents who are going through a divorce. It teaches the parents things such as what not to say in front of your children about your spouse, how to handle visitations, communicating with your ex-spouse, etc. It is a class that teaches common decency and how to treat other people — in this case your children and ex-spouse — with dignity and respect. In other words, it is a class on how to be humane (or human).

It would be nice if there were classes like this for other situations too. I can think of a few past employers who could have used some instruction on being humane. Or even just a few lessons in simple professionalism would have been nice. I have heard employers bad-mouth and talk about employees in front of other employees, post condescending posters and lists of rules on the walls, and let their personal, petty gripes and grievances affect the way they treat their employees in the workplace. When will the state require employers to take a class on being human?

Or what about all the folks we meet in our day-to-day activities: the person who takes our order at the fast-food restaurant, the individual who changes the oil in our car, the one who rings up our groceries, the mail carrier, the telemarketer, and on and on. At one point or another, we all encounter someone who could use some lessons in being human. And many other times, it is we who need the lessons.

Why is it so difficult for us to be human? To treat one another with kindness, dignity, respect? To give one another the benefit of the doubt? To have compassion for those in need and not take out our anger and frustrations on those we are supposed to love?

Other animals do not need lessons on how to be. Birds learn to be birds without going to class. They fly, they eat, they build nests. They know how to be what they are supposed to be. And dogs know how to be dogs — unless they meet some silly human that decides the dog should wear a sweater and learn how to shake. But even then, the dog doesn’t forget its essential dog-ness.

But we humans are different. We need classes on how to be what we should be. We are the most pitiful of animals on this planet.

But I haven’t given up hope. When I remember people like Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. — individuals who acted humanely even to those who probably did not deserve it — it reminds me that, even though we are not born human, we can learn how to be so.

We just need a lot more teachers and a lot more classes.

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