I’ve been encouraged recently—on a number of different fronts—to contemplate what it means to be human.  And what better way to engage in such contemplation than through the prism of those creatures that inhabit my beloved fantasy novels and who are most definitely not human.

What does it mean to be human? Many have answered this question, and it’s not my intention to provide a survey of philosophical or spiritual or biological theories in this space.  I would like to follow a thread offered in the most recent Dark Ones book I’ve read by Katie MacAlister.

In these books, she explores the consequences of some of the Dark Ones (vampires) being born without a soul, and the quest of those so cursed to find their beloved, the one woman in the world who can redeem their souls for them. MacAllister describes the state of being soulless as an unrelenting torment of pain, loneliness and need.  It is this endless need to which the Beloved responds, because of her ability to assuage the pain and fill the emptiness.

In her book, Even Vampires Get the Blues, MacAlister adds a bit of a twist, and this time, it is the Beloved, who, after redeeming the soul of her Dark One, loses her own.   Because she had been human (or mostly, in this case) and because she had had a soul before she lost it, Sam knows exactly what she is missing and the pain is that much greater.  MacAllister explains, “A soul means different things to different cultures.  To most, it’s the thing that makes us more than just sentient, the part of us that lives on when our bodies fail and turn to dust… I came to realize another function of the soul—it connected us to humanity, made us a part of a common experience… [and without it] I felt detached.”  Sam wonders how her Dark One lived so long without a soul with his sanity intact.  He explains to her that that it was all he’d ever known, so it didn’t seem as bad as having had it and lost it.

I really love the idea of the soul as that which connects us to each other, and that it is the connection that makes us human.  It’s a particularly interesting thought in this age of digital detachment, with everyone tied to electronic experiences—living life through the lenses of our cell phone cameras.  Can we really be connected to our own lives—much less each other—if we are so dependent on our electronics that we cannot, by definition, be present in the moment?

I was recently at a school chorus concert in which my son was performing.  I was struck by how many parents we watching their children through their phones and tablets as they recorded the event.  I watch my own kids recording their lives through selfies and pictures of everything they do—including the food they eat, which then gets posted to Instagram for others to validate the experience with likes—or perhaps the reality will be that my kids’ experiences will be discounted or negated if no one “likes” their Instagram pictures.

Have we created a world where authenticity is equated with the stamp of external approval and life doesn’t count if no one watches us—from the rear view mirror that a photo or video necessarily depicts (even if it’s nominally “real time”).  Have we willingly relinquished our souls—that which connects us—to a series of machines that we allow to control our experiences? Are we losing the ability to connect as one human to another?

Are we voluntarily forfeiting our souls for the illusion of immortality that a digital record presents for posterity? Do we get to live forever—young and vibrant—in pictures and sound waves with the only cost being never really having lived it in the first place?

I don’t have the answers to these questions.  In fact, I’m just scratching the surface of these questions and thoughts.  But, as I sit with my pen and notebook and practice connecting my hand with the paper, I am thinking about connection, and having a soul, and what we’re giving up in exchange for the convenience and experiences we can only get with mechanical assistance.

I’m not ready to denounce this age of digital dominance.  But, like a Dark One born without a soul, I’m wondering if our children, who will grow up never having known any other way to be, will even know what they are missing by adding an electronic filter to all of their experiences.  Perhaps they will never seek to redeem themselves and claim their souls because digital detachment is the new normal and they’ll see no need to fix that which they don’t consider broken  I hope that’s not the case.  I still believe it’s the connection that keeps me human. 

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