Reclaiming the Human Condition

For nearly a decade I’ve had strong preferences about cultural products, but lacked the ability to capture what the difference between them was. I think I’ve finally found what differentiates the things I really love from the things I don’t really like. That differentiator is the way they address the human condition.

The term is problematic because of its tiredness. That is, while people do sometimes address “the human condition,” it is usually students reaching for things they can call “themes” in a piece of literature. This rarefied notion that only literature can or does address “the human condition” is essentially the reason that it took me a decade to realize it was the idea I was looking for.

“La condition humaine”–the term’s failings seem perfectly contained in the French spelling of it–is not something we should leave to the academics and would-be academics, who talk about it only tangentially and briefly in their works few people read. The human condition is the most valuable thing to study and the utter essence of what it means to be alive. The extent to which we understand the human condition is the extent to which we understand what it means that we are alive.

Looking at it now, I can see that what I love about American Beauty, and The Little Prince, the Buddha’s teachings, this video, and Louis C.K.–this is a small selection of things I love, it is neither a complete nor universal list–is the way they deal deeply with the nature of what it’s like to be alive in this time and place, and by extension, all times and places.

Louis C.K. isn’t funny because he’s willing to “work blue,” or because he’ll badmouth his children–he does both of those things if you’re unfamiliar–it’s because what he’s talking about are truths universally known and seldom acknowledged. His comedy is rooted in that dark part of the human condition we prefer to pretend isn’t there. He’s telling the most private jokes in the most public setting. Much of the laughter comes from the tension between the public and private truths.

But no discussion of his talent, and I’ve seen many, talks about this tension. I can’t tell if it’s ignorance, a general unwillingness to “get heavy” about comedy, or something else, but this kind of thing has been frustrating my efforts to understand my preferences for years.

This may well be the central problem with discussing the human condition. It’s heaviness. I have a feeling that it’s so frequently glossed over because it’s one of those topics people prefer not to talk about. Essential to any serious understanding of the human condition is a grappling with the reality that we are not crucial, blissful, flawless, beautiful people who will always be young and never die.

The human condition is, to the extent I find it’s interrogation valuable, a delving into the deeper realities of life. Its exploration, when done well, leaves behind issues of who, what, and when and focuses on the why and the how.

Bad drama shows pieces moving around on a chess board. We see who’s yelling at who, then who punches who, and finally, when they’re due in court. Good drama tells us the meaning of the pieces moving around on a chess board. Or: why that person’s yelling and how that punch won’t make either combatant any better off.

The only place people seem to frequently discuss the whole range of the human condition is in religious practice. But since so few people change religions–the majority die in the one they were born–few people ever spend long looking around for understanding that isn’t contained in their chosen scriptures. And the crutch of these scriptures, I suspect, has something to do with why the deeper nature of life is discussed so little in public settings.

As an atheist-leaning agnostic in an increasingly secular country, I think we can and must do better. We encounter each other most honestly in a place where we don’t worry about the facts and figures we often confuse for our life and meet one another instead as people struggling with similar problems. It is on this plain that we can see how minor our differences really are and how much we share with those people the fact and figures of our lives would have us hate.

Every encounter with a work that really grapples with the human condition leaves the encounterer with something to wonder about. Perhaps it’s: “What would make people do that sort of thing?” Or “I’d never considered that. What else haven’t I considered?” These are the essential questions of life. “Where did we come from?” and “Where are we going?” Most succinctly: “What is this?”

There’s no end to the ways we could seek to the define the human condition. At minimum, I can say with certainty that there exist over 100 billion ways it’s been experienced thus far, and many more likely to come in the future. Any failings in my characterization are due to the the inevitable fact that I struggle to gain access to any more than my own experience of this, our human condition.

That is why, I think, I love the things I do. Because when they succeed they give a window onto how someone else experiences the human condition, and thus grant some modicum of knowledge about the reality of how all of us experience the human condition. And that knowledge is the most valuable kind.

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