The young girl sat in the bathroom stall. It was the same stall, the only stall she had ever used since she arrived seven months ago. Even if it was occupied she would wait by the sink and nip nervously at hangnails until the occupant left.
Nobody could say they knew her. Nobody noticed her. Why would they? There were plenty of shy girls. Nobody remarked about the sad turns at corners of her mouth, the mouth that set off her tired and lovely face. When the stall was vacated she would glide in and sit down, the last stall at the end of the row in the girl’s room in the freshman hallway, closest to the outside wall, farthest from the door and the hallway clamor.
She removed a long box from her book bag and opened it. She tore the plastic wrapping open with her eye-teeth. That always worked in a hurry: pinch the plastic between enamel points, feel the puncture, then rip. She followed the procedure as the instructions said in their short, discreet sentences. In three minutes a pink line would appear, or maybe two. She waited. A wad of toilet paper daubed her eyes.
Her spine stiffened as the door opened, and the hallway laughter and a stampede of sneaker noise poured in, and then it went silent again with the wooden door knocking shut and the hinge that always squeaked the same three-note tune. She sat still, and expe
cted the sound of footsteps coming in to enter a stall, but there was no sound.
She checked for the pink line, and she listened again closely. A presence was certainly in the room. She smelled a person and heard the soughing of clothes. Another 30 seconds passed. Still no lines. She took a deep breath and her throat and chest rattled. She checked for the pink line again. Two lines faintly appeared, and as they did a man’s deep voice spoke. “It’s going to be a boy.” “How can that be?” she said and she daubed her eyes again. “I’m still a virgin.”
One of my working theories about humanity has to do with the continuity and discontinuity between people and animals. How much are we “family” with the animal kingdom? What evidence is there that we are different than animals? Where does the break take place?
There are varying levels of animal-like behavior in individuals and communities: greater or lesser expressions of culture, more of less living to feed basic appetites, greater or lesser domination by emotions and passions, what value is placed on orderly living, the overcoming the impulses of the body by the exercise of the mind, willingness to abide by the law, manners, decorum, formality vs. informality.
One easy example is the use of utensils to eat with, including chopsticks, instead of hands. I was reminded of this recently when watching Kill Bill vol. 2. In one scene, Kiddo must eat her rice with chopsticks, and when she throws them down in frustration and starts to eat with her fingers, the Kung Fu master, Pai Mei, dumps out her food on the floor and says, “If you want to eat like a dog, then you can live and sleep outside like a dog. If you want to live and sleep like a human, pick up those sticks.” It would be an even more stark example of animal behavior for someone to eat out of a dish without hands, just slurping food up with their lips.
Another example is whether we are content to live in squalor, disorder, messiness. Teenagers are a perfect illustration of this point I am developing, that is, that humans beings are creatures “in transition,” engaged in a lifelong struggle to rise up above their animal nature and live like the higher-order creatures we are intended to be. Little children are more animal by nature, and the process of maturing is, at least in part, a cultivation, an enculturation of the person out of their animal raw material into the form of a good human.
Other examples can be seen in what we choose to do with our free time, whether we default into mere pleasuring-seeking activities (that is, feeding of useless, purely self-centered appetites) or whether we foster at least some kind of drive to a meaningful activity. Hobbies are productive, culture-bearing, meaningful activities. And I think it is a great shame that people do not have “hobbies” as they once did. Reading, gardening, visiting with friends, cooking, knitting, hiking and so on, can be expressions of humanity rising up over mere survival activities and the pursuit of stimuli to the pleasure-center of the brain.
Sex obsession is another barometer of human vs. animal. One’s appetite for sex may be strong, but it is an animal-like behavior to give in to that call whenever it comes, to be obsessed with feeding that appetite, to let it dominate the mind rather than exhibit self-control, with no ability to master the impulse or to moderate it or to keep it in an appropriate context. I wont say that sex obsession is new, but I will say that the societal mores and manners that have helped people live according to rule of their minds have eroded so that sex obsession has become more accessible and acceptable.
There is a continuum at work here. One can never say to another, “You are an animal because you don’t eat with utensils,” or “because you are addicted to porn.” You can only say that such behavior is unfortunate because, among other things, it diminishes a person’s humanity. This is also how the conditions of harsh imprisonment can be said to dehumanize a person.
There is a kind of an implicit challenge to humanity always to be living and being according to what we are by virtue of being uniquely rational creatures. At some point in the advent of homo sapiens, that reason and rationality became the new operating domain for humanity. We escaped from the food chain. We were rocketed into a higher paradigm of rule and stewardship. Now, instead of a predatory relationship with animals, we were capturing and domesticating them. We were putting some of them to use carrying things and provide food.
Finally, this explanation affirms a storied and epic vision of the human experience. It gives new merit to “civilization” in that civilization is a scaffold that helps each of us stand upright like humans rather than groveling in the dirt like animals. Indoor plumbing, food supplies, law and medicine, education, institutions, manners, etc. are props against the gravitational pull toward animalness.