Erwin Raphael McManus
What Makes Us Uniquely Human
It is so exciting to be here with all of you. I know in this room we have a skewed sample, but I want to do a brief survey. I need a moment of transparency and vulnerability.
How many of you would say, “I am a creative genius?” Just hold up your hand. We have a lot people in the front row. There’s a lot of self-efficacy way up here.
Still, that’s maybe 1% of 1% of 1%. We didn’t do well. Let’s try something else. How many would say that you are a linguistic savant? If you’re not sure what savant means, the last one doesn’t apply to you either.
Linguistic savant. Raise your hand. I can’t see hands. I’m sure there are some. Okay, we’re not doing well.
How many of you here would say, “I understand English?” I want to give you a win. Everyone. Except, I’m going to come to a pretty quick conclusion here. Those of you who raised your hand “I can speak English” did not learn English when you achieved your Ph.D., finished your Masters degree or when you finally received your B.A. or went to high school.
You learned English when you were around two years old. You were learning one of the most difficult languages in the world before you could walk, before you could talk, before you could feed yourself, change yourself, before you had any genuine value to society, before you could hold a job. Before you were bringing in income, you were learning one of the most difficult languages in the world.
If they had moved you from wherever you lived to Tokyo, you would have learned Japanese at the age of two. If they had moved you to the Philippines, you would have learned Tagalog. If they have moved you to Venezuela, you would have learned Spanish. If they had moved you to England, you would have finally learned English.
Yet somehow, you’ve convinced yourself that you are not a linguistic savant, except what would you call someone who, at the age of two, could be moved anywhere in the world and learn the most complex languages on the planet?
If they had moved you somewhere in Africa, you would have learned a clicking language. I hope I did not say anything offensive.
If you were also a linguistic savant, then is it possible you were also a creative genius, that when you were two years old, you were a creative genius equally as you were a linguistic savant, but somewhere along the way that genius inside of you, a creativity inside of you, that capacity inside of you, instead of being awakened and optimized, was actually beaten away and lost?
Years ago, I began asking myself this question, what makes us uniquely human? Some people have been entrusted with the great burden of great talent. I was not cursed with that.
There are some people who, at the age of five, become world-class violinists. There are those who, by the age of eight, are clearly at a world-class level of understanding physics and mathematics.
There are those of you here who always knew what you were going to do, because you were so talented that it was clear that one day you would be a surgeon, one day you would be a teacher, one day you would be a dancer, one day you would be an artist.
For me, even being a human was a challenge. I remember when I was 12 years old, I walked into our living room and my mom was talking to my step-dad. They were talking about me.
When they saw me, they called me in close and they said, “Sweetie, we’d like to send you to a psychiatrist.” Now, when they said that, I started screaming, “I’m not crazy! I’m not crazy! I’m not crazy!”
At the age of 12, I had a moment of self-awareness. I realized I looked absolutely crazy, and so I stopped. They were trying to pull back and tell me I didn’t have to go. They were just trying to help me.
I said, “Okay. I want to go. I want to go because if I’m crazy, I want to know.” Isn’t that the catch 22? If you are crazy, do you really ever know?
For some people, they cannot figure out what they’re going to do when they grow up. They cannot figure out what their unique talent is, what that their particular greatness is.
For me, even being human was a challenge. I didn’t know this at 12 that we’re that one unique species that doesn’t seem to know how to be human even though that’s the only species we are.
Isn’t it odd that humans go to therapy to figure out what it means to be human, how do to human well? I just don’t think there are killer whales going, “I don’t know. I don’t know if I have this right.”
I don’t think there are giraffes going, “Have you looked at me? I could be a model, but just a neck model. That’s about it. It’s all I got.” There’s no zebra out there going, “What am I? What does this mean? Am I black on white? White on black? I don’t know.”
We spend our lives trying to figure out how to do human. If you have a pet, you realize that there are nuances of our humanity in our animals. If you have a dog, you see loyalty and love. It reflects human characteristics. If you have a cat, you see disloyalty and indifference, just like you see in humans.
We had a squirrel in our backyard. That squirrel chose to leave its natural essence and choose a life of crime, and kept breaking and entering into our house, stealing things that no squirrel with any sense of self-respect would ever steal.
Because we do not really believe in capital punishment, we captured our squirrel, put him in a cage, and put him in the witness relocation program, but not after I talked to him and said, “What you’re doing is wrong, man. Live up to what you’re supposed to be as a squirrel.”
You never have those conversations and yet we have conversations as humans describing ourselves as being inhumane. We never think of a tiger being inhumane if it rips a gazelle’s throat.
I remember, with my children, watching National Geographic, so we could watch something wholesome and healthy. We saw all these baby elephants roaming across the prairie.
Then all of a sudden, these baby lions came after them. You could hear this really elegant NPR voice saying, “And the baby lion cubs have to refine their hunting skills on baby elephants, though their claws are not yet capable of breaking through the strong elephant hide.”
My children are freaking out, going, “What is going on?” I had to change the channel to HBO to watch something that wasn’t as violent.
Yet we never put that classification on any other species. Do you know why? It’s because we humans have this unique capacity to imagine ourselves different than we are, better than we are.
We humans have this unique gift known as the imagination. I am convinced that what makes us uniquely human is that we materialize the invisible. Doesn’t that sound like a superpower?
If you are a human being, you have the capacity- in fact, this is an inherent nature of being human- you materialize the invisible on an ongoing, regular basis, even though you may not realize it.
As a human being, you imagine a world that does not exist. You imagine a future that has not been created. You imagine a life you’ve never lived. You imagine a self you have never become.
That imagination, which we call ideals, drives us. Sometimes they haunt us and taunt us, but they always woo us and call us, which is why the imagination is both a curse and a gift.
Some of you know your imagination has been a curse. When you imagine yourself better than you are, when you imagine your life better than it is, when you imagine the world better than we know it be, it can become an incredible curse to all of us.
There are some of us here who have been paralyzed because of our imagination. We’ve been lost in our darkest imagination. I want to assure you, there is no creature on this planet having a crisis of imagination like a human being does.
There’s no gazelle saying, “Can’t you see it, the routine, the redundancy, the monotony of life? We sold out, man. We’re trapped. The man has taken over. We need to rage against the machine.
We get up. We eat grass. We hear the roar. We run. We don’t look back. You don’t look back, man. We pretend no one’s missing. We eat a little more grass. We drink some water. The next day repeat.”
Wouldn’t it be great if some animal would get up and say, “I’m done. I’m done being the hunted. From now on, I’m the hunter. I’m going after a lion. Who’s going with me?” It would be a one-day career. “Whoa, he was good at catching that lion.”
Yet, you will live your life always haunted by a sense of more, of wondering if you’ve lived the life you were created to live, if you’ve ever stepped into the full potential of who you are as a human being.
I think names are amazing. There are people whose names are Farmer and Carpenter and Smith. You have those names because, somewhere in your history, you had a great-great-great-great grandfather who was a carpenter and his son was a carpenter, and his son was a carpenter.
You had some ancestor who was a farmer and his son was a farmer and his families were family. You had some ancestor who as a blacksmith, so you had Smiths, from Smith to Smith.
If beavers had last names, they would be Dam. If you were a beaver, you would have one career option. You would be building a dam for the rest of your life.
Because you’re human, you can have the name Farmer and become an architect. You can have the name Carpenter and you can become a dancer. You can have the name Smith and become an engineer.
Humans can reimagine who they are and create a future that does not yet exist. We live in the world of ideas, dreams, visions and thoughts. We are talking about a future that does not yet exist.
If anyone should be meeting about climate change, it should be polar bears and penguins, but they do not have the foresight or the personal responsibility to do something about the problems in the world. However, we can see where this is going, and so we need to do something about it.
I was in a conversation in Rio de Janeiro at TED. One of my friends, who invited me to Hong Kong, came and said, “What we really need is the highest level of human consciousness. We need the elimination of all thought.”
I said, “When you said the elimination of all thought, do you also mean the imagination?” He said, “Absolutely. We need to eliminate the imagination. Not only that, we need to eliminate all feeling.”
“Now, when you’re saying let’s eliminate all feeling, do you also include love?” He says, “Absolutely. We need to eliminate all love, all thought, and all feeling.”
I said, “No. Maybe I’m missing something here, but if you give me love and imagination, I can change the world.” I am convinced that what we as humans bring that is different than every other species on this planet is in the same way that bees create hives and ants create colonies. Humans create futures.
What we oftentimes underestimate is the human capacity to create a future that the world desperately needs. Evil men do not wait for the permission to create what they imagine, but good people keep responding to the future as if we have no control over what’s coming into the human story.
We need to realize that it’s time for us embrace our responsibility, that we have been imagined to imagine, created to create, and that we are all works of art and artists at work. There is no question whether we will create. The only question is what we will create.
There are some of you here who are haunted by your imagination. You imagine a world without poverty. You’re haunted by your imagination. You imagine a world without injustice. You are haunted by your imagination. You are haunted by an imagination of a world with peace, without violence, with equality, with economic prosperity for everyone.
You imagine a world where we take social responsibility and environmental responsibility. You imagine a world that has never been known, has never been experienced, has never been created, but you know that it’s more important to imagine and create than to reflect and regret.
The question is not whether we can create, or whether we will create, but what kind of future we will create. God bless you.