113. The Crime of Being Human

A few years ago my wife and I owned some chickens. Unfortunately, one the chickens was attacked by a raccoon and badly injured. After some time, the chicken was healthy again but somewhat disfigured. Much to my dismay, the other chickens resisted having the chicken back in the coop and attacked it – they may have killed it if we didn’t intervene. Such behavior is certainly disturbing to most of us. But don’t humans act the same way most of the time? Don’t we detest and ruthlessly punish those who break from the norm? Consider this passage from Soren Kierkegaard’s journal (see Papers and Journals: A Selection, Penguin Publishing):

“Actually, it is the crime humans consider the greatest and which they punish most cruelly, that of not being like the others. It is just this that proves them to be creatures of the animal kingdom. The sparrows rightly peck to death the sparrow which is not like the others, for here the species is higher than the specimens, i.e. sparrows are animals, no more, no less. In respect of what characterizes the human, each is meant on the contrary not to be like the others, to have its peculiarity. Yet human beings forgive every crime except that of being what in their view is to be inhuman – namely to be a human being.” (p. 331, 48 IX A 80)

Kierkegaard’s last sentence appears to be false: child molesters and rapists, of example, are not readily forgiven by people and their crimes will no doubt trump the “crime” of robust individuality. But his observation certainly applies to many people and is a sad fact about the human condition. The good news is that it is against the backdrop of this this sad fact that we might, perhaps, catch a glimpse of something that helps differentiate us from all the other animals: the reality, celebration, and cultivation of individuality.

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