The Notorious Difficulties of Just Being Human
I was talking to my friend Kelvin a few months ago in Shanghai, when he brought up a book that he’d been reading lately — No Longer Human by Osamu Dazai. It’s a book that I’ve always encountered in my life, but never actually read, maybe because the the title itself is just so discouragingly depressing. That day, Kelvin told me an interesting tid-bit about the title — in Japanese, the book is titled Ningen Shikkaku (人間失格), which actually, more literally means “Disqualified from Being Human.”
I’ve been mulling over that phrase ever since, despite the fact that I still have not read the book. The word “disqualified” suddenly made the phrase that much more poignant to me.
After all, “disqualified” is so much less dramatic than “no longer human,” but it’s less dramatic in a more vicious and cruel way. Whenever I heard, “no longer human,” I always thought, “how edgy and dramatic.” The phrase “no longer human” makes you see think of “human” as this very pure, ontological entity. In this world, there are either humans or not humans, and of course it’s easy to tell what is what. The potted plant I bought from Ikea, sitting on my desk? Decidedly not human. The novelist known as Osamu Dazai? Definitely human. Quit being a whiny little bitch, Dazai.
But, the phrase “disqualified” adds fifty more shades of grey to the matter at hand. Because, to talk of “disqualification” means that there are many qualifications for an ontological category. A presidential candidate can be disqualified, for instance, because it turns out that he or she lacks American citizenship. Has almost nothing to do with real things that make a good president. Out of the thousand qualifications one needs to be a good president, that candidate missed just one.
And, so, Dazai’s book title, in its newly revealed form, has been gnawing at me for these past few months. I could no longer just assume that I was in the human club, just because I was not-not-human. I could be disqualified, because I lacked something that was inanely bureaucratic, like human-citizenship, or a certain height requirement.
And, so, I have now finally noticed what a vast number of moments in my life there are, in which I felt “disqualified for being human.” Don’t worry, these are all just brief moments. It’s not like I am constantly festering deep within some thick bog of self-loathing. But, despite how brief these moments are, they are still overwhelming in those brief moments, like the sensation of waking up in bed because you feel like you’re falling.
For example — I often feel disqualified from being human because of my lack of interest in sports. Up until today, I have never watched a full televised sports game in my life, and I have never had a team to root for. Whenever I was at a Bay Area sports bar, watching a Golden State Warriors game, I would just look around and wait for everyone else to cheer so that I could cheer. The game itself did nothing for me, didn’t stir my competitive spirit. I just cheered — well — to look like a normal human being.
It’s little things like this that gnaw at me and make me feel disqualified. Of course, I can live a perfectly healthy life without sports. Yet, there is something so universal and primal about sports that I feel like I am left out of a club of 7 billion people. The rich and the poor, the young and the old, the Pope and the atheists — everyone watches sports. Those scenes in Annie Hall, in which Alvie Singer is playing tennis with Diane Keaton — they really sting me, because here is a character who is the archetypal nerd, and yet he too likes sports. Every darned person except me.
Here’s something a bit weirder, but way more trivial: I have never used deodorant in my life. I have never had to. As an Asian-American male, I have been quite odorless all my life, almost like Jean-Baptiste Grenouille in Das Perfum, that weird-ass, German magical realist novel. I told my two friends Kelvin and Holly while we were all staying together in Seoul, and they were shocked. I asked Holly if I ever smelled. She said, “no, you actually smell quite nice. You smell like flowers.”
These are the things I mean when I say I feel “disqualified.” Trivial things — a lack of a sports team, a lack of body odor. Yet, when I ponder these experiences for a moment, I realize that I cannot think of anyone else in the world who has these experiences, like I do. I feel disqualified, because on a list of one thousand qualifications for being human, I’m missing just one.
I speak about these quirks in my life, not to mope, nor to say “look how weird and different I am.” But, the fact that these microscopically trivial matters can make me feel so disqualified makes me realize how many people must have the same experience. After all, there must be a reason why Disqualified from Being Human is such a long-running best-seller in Japan and worldwide. It must speak to a problem that is actually quite pervasive, no matter how invisible that problem might be.
The universality of disqualified-ness makes no sense, of course, because if almost no one is actually human, then — what the heck is human, anyways? But it feels so true, that there is some radiantly immaculate finish-line called “being human,” and we have all run out of breath, 5 meters short of the mark.
This paradox has been occupying my mind lately because it reinforces a bigger, more sweeping paradox that I’ve also been thinking about a lot, lately: the fact that the simplest problems can be so astronomically complex. Feeling-like-you-are-human is one of those simple problems. How silly! It should be quite easy. After all, just by standing there, breathing, being you, you are hypothetically already doing a fantastic job of being human. Yet, there are so many movies, novels, and other kinds of stories that make the opposite case.
Thinking about Dazai makes me think of the Ryan Gosling film, Drive, because at the very end of the movie, Ryan Gosling’s character is driving through the glitzy neon streets of L.A., and the movie ends with a song that literally goes, “you have proved to be / a real human being,” as if Gosling wasn’t one before.
Then I think about all the other movies about entities that are almost but not quite human — Pinocchio, Blade Runner, Frankenstein, the episode “Be Right Back” from Black Mirror, etc. Of course, these stories are slightly different from Drive, because they are actually about entities that are literally not human, rather than metaphorically. Robots, monsters, marionettes, etc. But these are all movies that argue that human-ness is not something in the flesh; it’s something abstract that you possess. It’s an action that you can perform. It freaks me out. Doesn’t it suddenly make you think — shoot, am I “doing” human well, right now?
So, you know, my real, concluding point is this — why try to do anything more complicated than the simple things? Why try to be rich, be popular, be accomplished, when it’s so hard to just be human — to just be?
Here are some more concrete, non-abstract examples of simple-things-that-are-actually-insanely-complicated, just so I don’t sound like an edgy, existential teenager. Have you ever tried to meditate? For the first time in my life, this autumn, I have seriously begun to dedicate my efforts to meditation, and it’s drawn my attention to the fact that I am just so bad at such simple things. Such simple things like having good posture. Staying still. Breathing.
I am incredibly bad at breathing. It sounds stupid to say. Isn’t it just something you do? Like blinking your eyes? But, because of my case of asthma, I have never been able to take long, deep breaths, or have good control of my diaphragm, and my sessions of meditation have made me confront this aspect of my health. (And, out of savage irony, this problem is compounded by the fact that I never got much cardio as a kid because I never did sports.) When I meditate, I can feel the un-naturalness of the movements of my belly. It’s erratic, and tense, and arrhythmic. It frightens me, to think that I’ve been doing this wrong my whole life. I seriously suggest that you take a moment out of your day to pay attention to your own breath. You might not be as much of a breathing champ as you thought.
The good news is that meditation has given me the epiphany — my breath is something I can control. I can do breathing better. Yet, because of this epiphany, I’ve been forced to realize that the way I’ve been doing breathing has been bad, for twenty-three years.
So, why have any bigger goals, even when something like breathing can be a Herculean task? I do not mean to freak you out. To me, all these ruminations are, in the end, extremely life-affirming. After all, I can free myself from all those lofty ambitions and unending desires in my life, because I now realize that I have more pressing matters at hand: I need to take deeper breaths. I need to have better posture. I need to learn how to stay still. These are things I cannot buy, nor cheat my way into achieving. Even if I flew all the way to Nepal, climbed the tallest mountain to meet the wisest guru, there is nothing that this guru could offer me that I don’t already have. I am forced to recognize that I don’t even need to go searching, anywhere. I have to stay still. And hold my back straight up. And breathe. Maybe, then I’ll finally be human.