The Secret to Understanding Humans | Larry C. Rosen | TEDxsalinas
How to Understand the Human Condition
"The human condition" is a term describing the essential facts of what it is to be human. It deals with things inherent to all humanity, regardless of race, class, gender, or culture. The study of the human involves asking questions like "what is the meaning of life?" and "how do we cope with the inevitability of death?" It is very difficult to fully understand the human condition, but trying to do so will lead you to important insights about yourself and those around you.
Finding Human Commonalities
Learn about our common evolutionary origins.Most scientists and many people accept Darwin’s theory of evolution. This theory holds that humans evolved from other species, and we are considered Great Apes, a type of primate.Regardless of race, culture, or religion, we are all biologically the same species with common ancestors.
Notice social hierarchies.All primates are hierarchical; they establish a system whereby there are leaders and subordinates. This system limits the number of conflicts among members of a group and keeps us generally cooperative.
- Note that hierarchical disputes can be common when individual members feel that the hierarchy or division of power or goods is unfair. Such disputes are common in both human and non-human primates such as capuchins.
- Humans have hierarchies that are nested. In your household, there is a dominant individual, but this person may be subordinate to someone at work or in the community.
Get along with others.Part of the human condition is that each of the approximately 7 billion people on the planet has to get along with the other humans as well. Humans’ tendency to be averse toward unusual behavior or appearance, combined with a high likelihood of encountering people different from us leads to high conflict.
Try to fit in.One way to minimize conflict among humans is to attempt to act like those around you. This tends to make everyone more similar and reduce conflict among individuals.
- When a trait that doesn’t match the majority is unchangeable, like ethnicity or sexual preference, people can campaign to increase acceptance. For example, some areas have a non-discriminatory culture, which discourages people who are aggressive toward ethnic minorities, lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) people, women, or people who are disabled.
Step outside of yourself.To do this, turn your focus outward. Instead of thinking primarily about what you need or want, look around you and think about the needs and wants of others. The first step to doing this may be simply to become more social; joining clubs or groups and cultivating relationships can keep you from feeling isolated, which can hinder empathy.
Question your comfort zone.If you feel as though you lack empathy, think about your childhood environment.Many times, a lack of empathy or the presence of prejudice begins at home.Becoming aware of the limitations or biases that you grew up with can lead you to break the cycle and become empathetic of others yourself. This will help you understand the humanity of others.
- For example, you may have grown up hearing your mother and father making racial slurs. Acknowledge that your parents’ views were prejudiced, then think about what you can do to minimize or eliminate any lingering feelings about people of a different race in your own mind. You may also want to resolve that your own children will not have similar memories of their parents.
Volunteer for charitable organizations.Donating your time and money for an organization that helps other people can give you a broader view of the human condition. Find an organization that places volunteers “in the field,” talking to people who need help.
Live in someone else’s environment for a time.Volunteering or spending time around people with different cultures or circumstances can give you a window into the living situations of others. To develop more empathy, try living the way that someone else lives for a while.
- For example, if you wish to develop empathy for people who are living in poverty, find out what an individual’s weekly budget is. Then put away all of your comfort items (such as your cell phone, your tablet computer, your television, and your fancy crystal stemware). Try to live for 2 weeks the way someone in poverty would live.
- Even if you don’t give up the roof over your head, sacrificing your luxuries and trying to feed yourself on an extremely limited budget can give you a good impression of the way other people have to live every day.
Talk to people whose situations make you feel uncomfortable.If a particular type of person makes you feel somewhat uncomfortable, try talking to him. Finding the common humanity of people who we see as “others” can help us feel empathy towards them.
- For example, if dirty homeless people make you feel uncomfortable, try talking to someone who is homeless. Ask him what his name is and whether he has any family. Ask him his favorite food and what his favorite weather is. Then ask him about how he became homeless, where he sleeps at night, and how he gets regular meals.
Experiencing Other Cultures
Recognize your discomfort with cultural differences.Humans tend to be more accepting of what is similar to ourselves than what is different.We often feel afraid and uncertain when we interact with someone who is very different from ourselves, making us less likely to cooperate.
- You can acknowledge this reluctance and push past it in order to become more comfortable with cultural differences. The best way to do this is to experience other cultures.
Travel to new places.The best way to experience other cultures is to travel. If you are able to travel to new places to experience culture, try doing what the natives do instead of visiting tourist attractions. Eat at restaurants where the locals eat and participate in activities that the locals attend.
- As you experience more and more cultures, you will develop a greater picture in your mind of what it means to be human. While you celebrate the differences among cultures, you can also see the similarities among them.
Look at a globe or a map of the Earth.Understanding the human condition means knowing that humans live almost everywhere on our world. The fact that humans have been able to migrate and inhabit everywhere on Earth that has at least a moderate climate means that humans are an adaptable species. It also means that the survival skills we have developed vary greatly from place to place.
- From the Midwestern U.S. to Western Europe, central Africa, northern Alaska, China and Indonesia, people have different challenges from the environment in terms of getting food and shelter. What they have in common is living with other people in a social network.
Use technology to learn about other cultures.If you are unable to travel yourself, you can still learn about other cultures. You can watch television programming that introduces the customs and people of distant places. You can use the internet to find details about countries you may never have heard of before.
- Be aware that if you are experiencing culture through media such as television, you are necessarily experiencing it through someone else’s “lens.” Some organizations or sources of information may have a particular agenda when presenting alternate cultures, and a savvy viewer should be aware of potential biases.
Develop friendships with people from other cultures.Becoming friends with someone from a different culture can be a great way to broaden your view of humanity.Spend time with your friend and her family. Ask your friend to be a sort of “tour guide” for her culture.You’ll likely find that there are similarities between your families that you would never have guessed.
Read literature written in and about other cultures.Literature can be like a window into another world. Reading literature can help you develop a sense of empathyand expose you to cultures other than your own.
- Select literature that was written by a member of a cultural or ethnic group rather than an outsider.
Define humanity.Once you have experienced a variety of cultures, ask yourself what it is to be human. Gather your own experiences to find a common thread that crosses the lines between seemingly different cultures.
Sources and Citations
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