In this series, I have argued there are shared features among cultures and between individuals that point to something true about us all. This true human identity is more fundamental than the cultural narratives we tell about the world and us living in it. In fact, this true human identity is the impetus for any good narrative. It is the basis for good storytelling, and those who understand it well, and who can tell stories well, we often call genius.
The features themselves are like imprints– indelible marks which call out for a larger context and demand a grander story, something that can explain and contain them. These marks are cross-temporal and cross-cultural. They point to a human nature that is fixed and universal, even if ever changing on the periphery. The story they call for is one that is not only comprehensive but that is true.
Speaking to racial identity, for example, Brown economist Glenn Loury points to this fundamental nature that binds us all:
The fundamental challenges any person faces in life arise not from his or her racial condition, but from our common human condition.
Glenn C. Loury, “Exit and Return from Slavery” in Race and Covenant [emphasis added]
Loury also points out that in any discussion on socially constructed identities like race or gender, it is critical (no pun intended) to see that human beings are not all that different but that we are essentially the same:
In more practical terms, the attainment of true democracy in our divided society requires that the white middle class see the black underclass as consisting of people, who, in essence, are not so very different from themselves–all of us having been created in the image of God.
Loury, “Exist and Return,” 134. [emphasis added]
Loury, like Aquinas, reminds us it is our human nature that is our true identity. That nature, being made in the image of God, is essentially sacred. Our human essence is sacredness.
Indicators of Essence
In the previous articles, I laid out a few of these features. First, I claimed that the fear of the unknown and the triumph over fear is one such feature that binds us together and gives evidence for our common humanity. Experiencing fear and taking joy in overcoming it point to our shared humanity, our human nature. These experiences also demand an answer to our ultimate fear, the fear of death.
Then I argued that guilt before a moral law was another such universal feature. The fact of conscience weighs on every man, woman and child of a certain age, regardless of time or place. Folk psychology and evolutionary theory have strained metaphysical credulity trying to argue that morality is reducible to social convention or biological adaptation. Both fear and guilt transcend any merely immanent threats of physical danger or social ostracism.
In this entry I look at another universal human feature: the need for recognition. While I could have titled this portion “The Desire to Be Loved,” I have chosen instead to think about this particular aspect of love, the need to be known and affirmed by another.
The Unloved Ice Skating Princess
One of the most tragic and bizarre stories involving a public sports figure in recent history, is that of former Olympic skater Tonya Harding. A recent film, I, Tonya, depicts Harding’s truly depressing life. Filmed as a dark comedy, the movie shows the real person behind the tabloid persona that Harding became, especially after the cruel yet farcical attempt by her and her husband to take out chief rival, Nancy Kerrigan, prior to the 1994 Winter Olympics.
While some have criticized the movie for trying to exculpate Harding from moral responsibility (and apparent lack of repentance), it nevertheless does an excellent job of capturing how the tragedy of not being recognized as a sacred creation, a human being possessing intrinsic value, can lead to a litany of appalling consequences and a shattered life. In the story, all those closest to Harding treat her with loveless contempt and use her as an object for their own benefit. She is truly a used and abused creature, a tragic “hero” at best.
Those who normally would be most influential in affirming the inherent value of an individual, of recognizing their sacredness, are either missing in Harding’s life (i.e., her father) or act in ways that directly contravene that most fundamental human need (i.e., her vile mother and hapless husband). Counselors, therapists, priests and rabbis all recognize the four fundamental needs for any healthy childhood: safety, empowerment, hopefulness and affirmation. Harding seems to have grown up with none of these. Further, a child who is left unvalued or undervalued will inevitable seek out the recognition he or she never received in aberrant and often criminal ways.
And so it was with Harding, whose yearning for unrequited recognition drove her to do things on the ice few at that time could do, like the daunting “triple axle,” yet also facilitated her own iniquities and moral transgressions in the process. The desire for recognition ultimately overwhelmed Harding’s moral conscience, as well as the consciences of those like her mother, portrayed as particularly cruel by Allison Janney.
Thousands of tales of human tragedy could be told of those who in their pursuit of recognition and insatiable desire to be seen as worthy, wound up broken, cruel or dead in the process. One thinks of Cain or King Saul, whose desire to be recognized led to murder or at least murderous intent (not unlike Harding, whose husband Jeff Gillooly at least contemplated having Kerrigan murdered). Many celebrity or teen suicides also come to mind, as the need for recognition or the loss of it, acts like an unquenchable fire or bottomless depth. Recognition is far more alluring, far more invigorating than mere wealth or raw, physical strength. The star athlete may mourn the atrophy of his muscles as his body ages, but the loss of the cheering crowds is what gnaws at his soul.
Admittedly, there is more going on in any given story that ends in a tragedy like Harding’s story. But, the failure to affirm the sacredness of the child Tonya early in her life by those who were most responsible for doing so is clearly at the center of this tragic comedy. Ultimately, it is at the center of much pain in any life.
Universal Feature #3: The Need For Recognition
In what some consider the greatest sermon of the 20th century, C.S. Lewis contemplates what the most fundamental thing about human life might be:
I read in a periodical the other day that the fundamental thing is how we think of God. By God Himself, it is not! How God thinks of us is not only more important, but infinitely more important. Indeed, how we think of Him is of no importance except in so far as it is related to how He thinks of us.
It is written that we shall “stand before” Him, shall appear, shall be inspected. The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God. To please God…to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness…to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son—it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.
C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”
And so it is truly. All of our human ambitions, all our desperate need for recognition, all our deepest yearnings to be known are really the desire to not only be known by others of our species, but to be known by Him who made the species. This is what drive us to excellence, excellence in the sporting arena or the academy, in the office or even the field of battle.
But, this is also what drives us to despair. For nothing in this world can satiate our desire to be known, if we do not know first what our Creator thinks of us. After all, it is not just popularity we seek, but glory. In the end, that long sought-after glory can only be fulfilled in the light of God’s approval:
When I began to look into this matter I was shocked to find such different Christians as Milton, Johnson and Thomas Aquinas taking heavenly glory quite frankly in the sense of fame or good report. But not fame conferred by our fellow creatures—fame with God, approval or (I might say) “appreciation’ by God. And then, when I had thought it over, I saw that this view was scriptural; nothing can eliminate from the parable the divine accolade, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” With that, a good deal of what I had been thinking all my life fell down like a house of cards. I suddenly remembered that no one can enter heaven except as a child; and nothing is so obvious in a child—not in a conceited child, but in a good child—as its great and undisguised pleasure at being praised.
Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”
But, how do we know what the God who made us thinks of us? Lewis tells us that it is only possible to know this by looking at the work of Christ, the Godman. In Christ is the full revelation of what God the Father, our Creator and Sustainer, thinks of his creatures. The apostle John gives us the most succinct version of that revelation:
For God so loved the world, that He gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.
God has already told us He loves us and that love includes His knowing us and recognizing us, so much so that He took on the same nature we all share, lived among His creatures and died at their hands. The question now is whether we will accept God’s prior approval of us (Romans 5:6-8), an approval which launches an infinite journey of ever increasing recognition of God and His recognition of us, or, will we reject God’s affirmation, the affirmation demonstrated by Christ on the cross, and seek our glory elsewhere?
Conclusion: We Need To Be Known
Both Glenn Loury’s observations about race and Tanya Harding’s personal story are illustrative of the desperate need for people to be recognized and valued. This is regardless of any biological or socially constructed identity. There is nothing about one’s biology or one’s social identity that can alleviate the deep desire to be known. It is fundamentally human.
When nuclear families or local communities fail to affirm the inherent dignity of all children, there will be residual damage to some degree or another in the broader society when those children become adults. Moreover, unless that damage is redeemed by the One Who knows us best, the consequences of unrequited recognition are well know and well documented. The tragic fallout of unrequited recognition, or lost recognition, is as much a shared human experience as the desire that provokes us to search for glory.
Nota Bene: In relaying the story of Tonya Harding, I realize I am relying on director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Steve Rogers’ portrayal of her and those around her. Obviously, it could be the case that these characters were not depicted accurately or were depicted in a harsher light than perhaps was warranted. Still, the narrative points to a truth we all know and that we know occurs all too frequently. This is story telling that speaks to a common humanity.