I had the pleasure of both listening to and reading a recent article in Emergence Magazine by Melanie Challenger called On Death and Love. Challenger shares her experiences with death and explores why humans as a species approach death in the way that we do with our own kind and view the death of other species in a completely different light. She roots these different approaches in our habit of deeming humans as different or separate or superior from nature: the idea of human exceptionalism.
Human exceptionalism assigns traits or characteristics to the human race that don’t exist in other life on the planet and therefore make humans a higher form of life. Different thinkers of the past have assigned different traits that elevate humans above other life; sometimes it’s spiritual or higher intelligence or superior rationality. Regardless of which traits you use, the practice of elevating the human race above all other races on the Earth becomes rooted deeply into cultures and develops as part of the stories we tell ourselves about truths in the world.
To oppose this idea of human exceptionalism, there seems to be two possible approaches: one that looks something like animism where we assign these same traits or characteristics to non-human beings, or another approach that looks more like atheism or nihilism in that it removes all idea of spirituality from the picture and reduces human existence to something more basic, the way that we view other life on this planet.
For me, I disagree with the idea of human exceptionalism and believe it feeds the broken systems that has gotten us into the mess of late stage capitalism and climate collapse. And while I love the idea of animism, there’s something deep down inside me that can’t immerse myself in it. I love the stories and messages and culture found in times and spaces that practice animism but that’s as far as I can get. Sometimes I feel sad that I can’t bring myself to journey further into paganism or witchcraft, but it is what it is.
I want to take a moment here to honour those cultures which place animism at the centre of their lifeways. The cultures and peoples and their stories born of animist beliefs often centre balance and reciprocity, honouring all life equally and honouring connection to space in a way that colonial cultures cannot comprehend because of the human exceptionalism baked into western culture. Colonial culture views animism as “uncivilized” but it is exactly these cultures who know how to live with the Earth rather than destroying her. I will always and forever endlessly admire these cultures but they are not my own.
So back to my train of thought: if I’m rejecting the idea that we are inherently better or superior to other animals or plants or even the Earth itself (which it pretty dang amazing, just to mention) and I’m not willing to imbue other life with the characteristics that human exceptionalism bestows on the human race, then it follows that I believe the human race is devoid of these characteristics, namely any ideas of spirituality or superior rationality.
But if that is the case, what purpose is left for us humans? More specifically, if I’m going to peel back these layers of story and culture that I’ve been taught from birth, where does that leave me?
At first glance, I feel like I’m left somewhere rather bleak. But when I lean into this space, it actual feels really very free. If I pair this spiritual rejection with anti-capitalism and reject the notion that I must “earn a living” or that my value as a human is only valuable based on what I produce, the sense of freedom expands significantly. I am no longer responsible for proving my existence. I have fewer needs and desires, I have fewer responsibilities to others. Rather than feeling a lack of purpose, I actually feel that maybe I have more room to just simply exist.
I’ve come to this space before. A few years ago I did a deep dive into Buddhism. I practiced meditation daily, read texts and studied thinkers. I came to a better understanding of detachment while maintaining love, the illusions of control, and the practice of mindfulness. I think there’s a difference, though, because Buddhist practice has an end goal – Nirvana – and where I am right now doesn’t have that end goal. It comes back to just simple existence. I think many of the practices might cross over though.
This space of simple existence is a new feeling for me. I’m going to try it on and wear it for a while and see how I feel. I’m nervous that it absolves me of accountability in some ways, but I think that it’s the simplicity that I need at this point in my life. When everything seems to be exploding around me and there’s so much conflict that I’m carrying in my heart, I think maybe a little less responsibility is what I need to stay sane.