I am lucky enough to have my profession be one where I am paid (though very little, to be fair) to think about important questions that do not bear immediately on my survival or comfort. I’m first and foremost a writer (because the word “poet” still seems like an ill-fitting sweater at times), but I’m also a student, a scholar, and a teacher in the humanities. Beyond analyzing texts and thinking critically, my work is to exercise empathy. I have the benefit of having more time than most to think about what it means to be human and how we inhabit this world, both the one we share with others and the one that exists solely within ourselves, within our own minds.
My consideration of what it means to be human always becomes more pointed and feels more urgent when someone commits an atrocious action, like that committed by Dylann Roof. More interesting than the actions of one individual, however heinous and shocking, is how others react to it and how our perpetual national conversation changes in the wake of such actions. It is critically important, I think, to maintain or self-awareness and remain metacognitive in our reactions to terror and in how we engage with it and with others.
In a recent conversation with a family member about Roof’s manifesto (a quick Google search should allow you to read it as well), he was relatively quick to mention that parts of it made sense. Anticipating what I would find in the manifesto, as I had not yet read its short pages, I said something about that way of thinking being an easy one; seeing the world in a black-and-white, us-and-them sort of fashion is probably the easiest way to live. And after reading it, I stand by that. Seeing the world as a clear-cut place is so easy because it significantly decreases the amount of thinking one has to do on a daily basis. It provides a template against which all future actions can be measured and accounted for.
We have all fallen prey to this kind of thinking, the kind where mentally, deep down, even if we don’t realize or admit it, we decide “this is how I will look at the world from now on.” This may be due to something we saw, read, or heard about. Often some trauma fashions or worldview with such intense and unyielding finality. This is what it appears Roof fell prey to; the injustices he saw in the pattern of history as he interpreted it revealed the minorities as predatorial and the white people as blameless victims. His interpretation, as any intellectually honest study of the past few hundred years will reveal, is inherently flawed. The particular flaws he saw are not the real cause for concern, however. It is the closed-mindedness disguised as awakening that created his worldview; it is the total lack of empathy that un-moored his world. To the shock and suffering of many, Roof succeeded in his plans, but his actions reveal a substantial failure in his humanity. Thus, his actions provide a helpful reminder to us all of what it means to be human.
Being human means acknowledging, though it is often difficult, that others besides ourselves are incredibly complex, feeling, and vulnerable. It does not mean being able always to empathize, but to always make an effort to empathize. Being human and dwelling in our humanity means imagining the lives and experiences of others as the exceedingly sophisticated and complex things that they are. Above all, being human and being aware of our humanity means being aware of our thinking and remembering to avoid taking the easy way out: the black and white. To see the world without its pervasive grey is incredibly easy, temptingly relaxing. The work of being human, on the other hand, is hard. We must take what we can from tragedy, from failures in the practice of humanity, and remember to do the hard work. Indeed, our world depends on it.