The Context of Being Human

Since the devastating earthquake and tsunami struck southeast Asia, I’ve been struggling to make meaning out of it. I guess, at the core, that’s what writers (and communicators, and human beings of all kinds) do: we make meaning.

Ultimately, meaning derives from context…

I just looked up context in Dictionary.com. Here are some of definitions listed there:

  • â€?That which surrounds, and gives meaning to, something else.â€?
  • â€?The part of a text or statement that surrounds a particular word or passage and determines its meaning.â€?
  • â€?The circumstances in which an event occurs; a setting.â€?

We humans depend on context to understand the world and act in it. It’s how our minds work. Without context, we are truly adrift. Whenever something totally unfamiliar or unimaginable happens, we struggle to comprehend it, to create links from the familiar to the unfamiliar, to connect it to the world we once knew.

Looking at the southeast Asian disaster from half a world away, it still seems unreal. It has not touched the world I directly experience; yet, it has. My mind keeps getting drawn to it. I can’t stop reading the news, looking at the pictures. I am trying to make meaning of it.

There are many levels of context, and of meaning.

I can understand the mechanics, the simplest answer to what happened and how. This is how our planet works. These are the forces unleashed by geology and physics, which can be expressed in a simple, almost abstract animation.

And yet I envision the water being sucked away from a sunny tropical beach, the confusion, the flapping stranded fish, and then the terror as the sea becomes a rushing wall of death. I imagine the bone-crushing weight, coldness, and speed. The world is reduced to a resounding “SLAM!�

This is my imagination filling in the gaps. This is what imagination does. We imagine to create experiential context where none can exist, to bridge the gap between the part of the world we experience directly and the part we can’t due to displacement of distance or time. I am writing now to share that internal pseudo-experience, to add my bit of context to the collective human picture. That may not seem important, but it’s what I have to offer.

Beyond that I have the news stories, the photos, the blog entries. This is the context in which I experience the aftermath. It’s indirect, but still crucial. However, it’s piecemeal and remote. I do not shiver with shock, feel the splinters and rubble, swat at insects, inhale the stench of decomposition. I see pictures, and read and hear stories, from people who have those experiences. Meanwhile I sit in my comfortable Colorado home in winter, and sip tea, and check my e-mail again, and work. And check the news, over, and over.

And I feel adrift. Something about the scale of this disaster has loosened my moorings of security – moreso than the Sept. 11 attacks, moreso even than when I flew home from London on Pan Am 103 the day after that same flight got bombed, killing one of my housemates.

The fragility of humans, of beings who are connected to me because we are alike, now looms in my foreground. I can’t shake it, and I don’t want to even though it chills me. My context has shifted to this: We all want to live. We all want peace and security. We all fear that other people can end our lives, shatter our peace and security. Yet the very planet which birthed us and sustains us can shift without malice, wiping out a vast swath of humanity.

Every person who died on those beaches valued life, and deserved to live, at least as much as I do. Every survivor now facing disease, hunger, thirst, poverty, and bereavement is connected to me because, in a capricious shift of context, I could be any of them.

We are fragile. We are dependent. We are interdependent. And we all die. Amazingly, our fragility and inherent connectedness is the essence of our strength as a species. When we act within the context of connectedness, rather than isolation, we become humanity — not mere individuals.

This is the context of being human. It is not tragic, it is merely what is. To be fully human, to experience your own humanity, is to stay aware of your connection to other people – even people in far-off lands, living in circumstances and speaking languages you cannot comprehend. It is to respect and value their lives as well as your own. It is to act, at least occasionally, in ways that benefit humanity as a whole.

Right now, just about every web site and news outlet is telling you how to contribute money, food, blood, supplies, prayers, and other offerings to our fellow humans in southeast Asia. This is important, and I hope that anyone reading this article feels connected enough to respond constructively to this disaster.

My own request here is more personal.

Please let yourself, even for a moment, feel fully connected to humanity. Experience our fragility and strength, as a species and as individuals. Then, do whatever you can within the context of your life to aid humanity. Be good to the people in your life, help them flourish. Expand your sense of community and welcome new individuals into your direct experience.

Let this shifting of earth and ocean reframe your context. Let that new context guide your actions in whatever ways seem good and useful to you, both large and small. Don’t close your mind, shield your eyes, and narrow your world. Let this tidal wave move you, too.

You are not powerless and meaningless. You have the power to create meaning for yourself and your world by consciously framing your context. The most powerful, beneficial, versatile context is connectedness.

Feeling connected is how we shift from feeling adrift to staying afloat. Reach out, grasp, and hold on. Support and be supported. Do what you can, in whatever situations life presents. Good actions rooted in connectedness accumulate to benefit all people.

5 thoughts on The Context of Being Human

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  1. The tsunami in context
    Amy Gahran has an excellent piece on the human effect of tsunami. This piece showcases her excellent writing skills like no other I’ve read of hers. It is truly a touching piece.

    Please let yourself, even for a moment, feel fully connected to hum…

  2. Amy — This morning, typing an email to my brother, I said I didn’t know how to put this disaster in context. Then later in the day, while browsing tsunami news, I found your weblog and this essay. I read it and thought, wow, someone I don’t know has expressed so eloquently what I was feeling and thinking but couldn’t put into words. Thank you. (This is my first experience in the world of weblogs.) — LJ

  3. I too have been struggling for context I grew up by the sea and never feared it even though I witnessed boats tossed ashore, railroad tracks washed into the sea and peirs heave, collapse and disapear. Only logic told me to go home against my desire to be an awestruct witness to the oceans violence. But this disaster was without context for me. I have little in the way of funds at the moment but in my heart I hear “they
    need it more than me.” I am in pain but my loved ones are with me. I am serious illness but I have healthcare, water food and roof over my head. I live in the lap of luxury in comparison to the orphaned infants who havelost and will miss so much of lifes joys. In know my pain and suffering and fears but I will never truly know those of the victims of the Tsumani. Intellectually I can grasp it, emotionally the thought of the magnitude of sorrow and pain causes me to weep for those who have and are enduring it. Emotionally I cannot touch that core of myself which could grasp this pain it frightens me. I yes I say they need the money more than I or anything else the rest of the world is capable of giving. Yes Amy’s essay touched me and helped me to come to terms with my thoughts about the matter. The context of my feelings will take a longer time to come to terms with. In my many struggles for survival I was never alone. I think how on earth would one survive this catastrophe. But survival now is the goal the numbness will allow it. The pain will only be faced when new reasons for living are found. To feel the pain now is too much. To look ahead is to much. Today and this moment’s survival is all there is. At some future tomorrow when death is no longer near, reasons for survival will be found but for now the survival itself for oneself and ones community is all there is. My prayers are with those affected by this. My pain and fear is nothing in comparison.

  4. Again, the globality of a catastrophe pushes us to reflect upon the urgent need we have to STAY TOGETHER: connected, as well said from Amy – stay TOGETHER in the GOOD, but!
    Let us re-define what GOOD, valuable good is.

  5. We created a special section on our global intranet for the South Asia earthquake/tsunami. It includes the latest news on my company’s efforts to secure the safety of our people, various external resources, and testimonials from some of our people who survived the ordeal. It was actually a rewarding and fulfilling site to build … knowing that it’s providing a service to our people.