Hello there, I’m Linus, and this is an open letter to you, a human being.
I’d imagine this kind of a letter is the kind you find corked into a glass bottle, floating out into the sea with questionable fate. The kind you expect someone to find washed up ashore in storybooks. The kind that contains neat, handwritten letters in perfect cursive, and the kind that sounds like it came from an exotic island in the middle of the ocean. In some ways, that’s my idea. But I’m not throwing it out into the unknown depths of the ocean – I’m throwing this letter out into the maritime void that is the Internet. And that’s a conceptual leap, but in the grand scheme of things, there isn’t much that’s different between the two. Instead of walking along the shorelines and seeing a letter washed ashore, you might come across this through a link from Tumblr or Twitter. Instead of letters written neatly in ink, this letter is written in electronic bits traveling through copper wires and fiber-optic cables. But rather than having a questionable chance of contact, this letter is guaranteed to reach thousands. And instead of a few hundred people with the chance to find the washed-up letter ashore, this letter can be read by billions of people.
So that’s my idea. This is my way of talking to everyone in the world. All at once. And that poses some challenges.
I’d call you by a name, but there are billions of them out there. I’d address you more formally, if I could gauge your age or experience. But honestly, there aren’t too many things I can assume about you. You might be around my age, in a typical, middle-class family with the typical access to the basic needs of life. You could be a male or a female, and you could be going to school or your job for most of the day. That wouldn’t be too extreme of an assumption to make, I suppose. But you could also be in the past or the future. Your life might be a lot more fragile than mine, financially, emotionally, or otherwise. You might not fit into the stereotypical boxes of male or female. You might not be going to school, and you might worry about affording your next meal while I worry about reducing milliseconds of downtime on my servers.
But despite the wide gaps and differences between our lives, I’m writing to you because we share quite a bit. Despite everything that might separate us into categories and classes, we’re both human, and that’s a starting point.
There are a lot of ways to approach the question, “what is it to be human?” I could give a scientific answer, involving genetics and the various nuances of human culture and history. I could answer it poetically, referring to the organic beauty of the words that we speak, the colors in which we see each other, and the emotions through which we experience ourselves and our roles in the world. But I think the easiest place to start is by talking about the small things we all probably understand. You probably know the feeling of going into a room or a place to get something, getting there, then forgetting why you ever went there. You’ll also know what I mean when I talk about the urge to just find a place to be alone and scream at the top of your lungs, just because you’d feel better afterwards. You probably know the feeling of seeing someone you know from a distance, when you didn’t expect them, and trying to decide whether or not you should go over and greet them, because that seems like too much to do and they’re not doing it. No, these are not the most glamorous moments in our lives, but that’s precisely it’s so relatable and so common. They remind us that you and I, regardless of who you may be, share these little things.
Then there are the more significant moments. Remember that time when you said something to someone really important, and then as you say it over and over again in your head, the thing you just said sounds dumber and dumber until it consumes you, and you have to say something else about the thing that you just said to make the feeling go away? Remember that time when you were in the middle of something incredibly important – something you couldn’t afford to mess up – and precisely because you were focused so much on not making a mistake, you made a mistake? The quirks that we have in everyday life, the mistakes that we make, these smallest, sometimes forgettable moments, are also the ones that remind us that regardless of who you are, there are things we share not out of some moral obligation or conscious choice, but just because we’re human.
It’s tempting to give a grand answer to any existential question, and the question of what it is to be human begs ambiguous and generic answers, often about broad ideas like human nature, love, and mortality (or, if you’re Nietzsche, the fundamentally belligerent nature of our souls). While those might be more ideologically sound answers, they’re also rather impractical and unrelatable. In bringing together people across physical and ideological boundaries, the fact that we share the commonality of “love” or “mortality” is, while a nice thought, rather ineffective. But regardless of who you are and what your backgrounds may be, we share the little moments that make our lives relatable to each other. And rather than a smooth arc like the plot diagrams we encounter in English classes and novels, our lives are more jagged and unpredictable collections of these smaller moments, the small ups and downs, that take us on an emotional back-and-forth and carve out our unique stories through time.
And regardless of who you are or where you live, the happiest moments and the worst nightmares of our lives are made up of these smaller, more relatable experiences. In this way, these smallest moments in time are like the atoms of our experiences. They come together in infinite harmonies to make each of our lives unique and completely different, so each of our stories offer something new to the rest of the world. But in the smallest units, they’re also the experiences that all seven billion of us on Earth share. And I think that’s my answer to the question of human experience. Being human is making completely unique stories of our own, out of the smallest moments that billions of others share. Our greatest differences are literally made of the smallest things that we share together. And if we focus on the small things that pull us together rather than the big differences that threaten to push us apart, that would be a world in which I’m happy to be sharing my humanness as a part of the seven billion-character novel that is our collective story.
Thanks for reading, Linus.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy my next post, Fixed in time.
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