What makes us human?

Each week on BBC Radio 2’s lunch time show, Jeremy Vine hosts a series called “What makes us human?”. He has various guests on from philosophers, religious and political leaders and scientists, to comedians, writers and actors who read a short essay giving their perspective on the meaning of our existence.

I find the whole subject absolutely fascinating and have always listened intently if I’ve had the opportunity to catch the show to hear other people’s perspectives on this deep and philosophical question.

We were driving back from a hospital appointment a couple of weeks ago, when Radio 2 DJ, Johnnie Walker, appeared as a guest on this slot in BBC Radio 2’s carer’s week. I’m a child of the 70s and absolutely love 70s/disco music (amongst many other genres) and like to listen to Johnnie’s show on a Sunday afternoon.

I know now that Johnnie sadly lost his father and sister to cancer and battled with the disease himself having colon cancer back in 2003, with his wife, Tiggy, caring for him not long after they were married. Sadly, she too was recently diagnosed with breast cancer herself and now Johnnie is her carer.

These are the words of Johnnie’s essay:

“In 1965 The Who sang about my generation. No longer would people try and put us down. That repressive older generation and their establishment can just f-f-f-fade away.

Riding a wave of powerful creative energy, young people at last had their own voice, clothes, art, music and thanks to the pirate ships in the North Sea, their own radio stations. The Beetles blasted out revolution. The Theatres Act of 1968 put pay to theatre censorship. I went to see the musical Hair and in 1970 Oh! Calcutta! at the Roundhouse, both  featuring nudity for the first time on a British stage.

The old rule book had been torn up, thrown aside and there was now a new freedom. And so began my quest for the meaning of life, of why we’re here. What is our purpose? And what would be the new rules and morals to guide our life?

Like so many others I experimented with mind-altering drugs, explored Eastern and Native American philosophies and devoured books like Be Here Now, The Prophet and other books on Western and Chinese astrology and many others.

All I learnt, together with a number of experiences over the years, has led me not just to believe, but to have a deep and profound  conviction of the existence of a soul and life after death. I found it impossible to accept that we only live once. What would be the point of gaining all that experience and knowledge, for it just all come to nothing at the end?

One of my toughest experiences is dealing with the death of a loved one. Perhaps that dreadful sense of loss and loneliness could be made a little easier to bear with the knowledge that loved ones do still exist and that we will re-unite with them one day.

Many of us are familiar with people’s accounts of near death experiences, of them being totally aware of their consciousness existing separately from their body, and of meaningful events of their lives passing before their eyes. As the French Jesuit priest and philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

So, if our natural state is spirit, what if, before entering this human life, we had some sort of preview, or knowingness of the lessons and experiences that this new life could offer us? Maybe that’s too much of a leap for our belief system to adopt, but supposing it were to be true? Gone would be our lamenting about how unfair our lives are, how dreadful our parents were and why is it always me that gets all the problems? If we could accept that we actually chose this life, then we could get on with discovering its purpose.

Knowledge may present the sign post, but it doesn’t make the road any easier to travel. Frequently we fail. Frequently I fail, and still do. If we were perfect, we wouldn’t be here. Forgiving sets us free from anger and hate and learning to give love is what I believe advances us the most.

Today we’re in the middle of the annual carer’s week, a time to give thought and support to the 6.5 million people in the UK caring for a loved one. It’s a very hard role to play. We all show concern for the patient, but who thinks of the carer? Often lonely, struggling with work, children, financial hardship and in many cases carers are having to deal with their own health issues caused by this extra burden in their lives.

As we think this week of their selfless acts of kindness, love and support, maybe we might reflect that loving and caring for others is one of the finest aspects of what makes us human.”

I really resonated with the sentiment of Johnnie’s words, not only from a personal belief perspective, but also having listened to it at a very poignant point in my life. A time when you question your mortality. A time when you begin to question everything in your life and its deeper meaning.

It also reminds me to look up out of the cancer fog and know how tough this must be for my carer, my darling husband. I sometimes forget that I’m not the only one battling this nasty disease.

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