Elian, 68, is a tenured professor in Georgetown University, a major institution in our town. He teaches courses in sociology and social psychology and has written a couple of books. He grew up dirt poor in Sofia but was able to persuade an uncle in business to lend him the money for a passage to the US. Russian was his first language and he still speaks English with a Bulgarian accent. I find him brilliant and remarkably affable.
We both had a recent mishap. I had a problem with my vision that incapacitated me for two months. Elian’s was far worse: his child died in a car accident. A snow-bound road, a tipsy driver, a moment of carelessness, all combined to end the life of a lively kid. We were trying to find a meaning in these experiences.
To be human, many would say, is to live a life of meaning. And what does such a life mean? People readily cite examples from their experience, from headlines, from biographies. It is usually an example of success. In politics, in business, in social affairs, in education, even in sports or war. Somebody who has achieved something, built a country, an organization, a charity, a hospital or a school.
The other kind of model people seem to have in mind is of a successful person, often a person of affluence or influence, a strong, confident man or woman, who seems to always to know which way to go and goes that way unflinchingly. A strong and stable person, who knows his or her own mind. That is the kind of person all seem to admire. That is what they think means to be human.
“I think just the opposite,” said Elian.
“To be human,” he continued, “is to be weak and vulnerable, to suffer and grovel like the most of us, to accept that few of us have much control over our fate, our life, even our body. One minute we are walking confidently down the road, and the next we are cowering before a bully or a terrorist, or tossing in agony from some invincible disease in an impersonal hospital bed.
"When I suffer or I am miserable, I am one of the vast majority of humans who are the victims of deprivation or injustice or misfortune and have no recourse. I am a full participant in the vast human destiny.”
“Is this what connects us?” I asked.
“It connects us the most. We have fleeting moments of joy, we have even periods of peace and happiness. But there is always pain. The pain of disease. You may at best alleviate it. But there is something you cannot alleviate: the pain of aging, of daily accentuating weakness and incapacity.”
Elian paused and added, “Then there is the final ignominy of death. Not a heroic death for the most of us. But a humiliating, cowering death, that comes after a daily embarrassing handout of kindness from reluctant relatives or callous caregivers.”
Elian touched a chord in me. I had been partially sightless for a while, dependent on others’ help. Friends and neighbors have been thoughtful, but such thoughtfulness leaves one feeling a trifle awkward for intruding on their time. It gave me a pointed taste of the helplessness that almost all of us feel at some points. You feel like shouting, “I am more than this weak, needy being. I still have a lot of strength left in me. Help me, and I can stand up and do quite a few things.”
Elian seemed to pick up the thought and said, “We are powerful beings. But we also have our vulnerabilities, our Achilles heel. Stuck there, we crumble and need help to get up. That is when we are most human.
“When we think that to be human is to be strong and brave and achieve success, we think wrong. We then value pretense over reality and pride over validity. Essentially, to be human is to own our vulnerability and face our dismal destiny. If we can do that without flinching, we are truly brave.”
I have always seen Elian as highly professorial, articulate, but suave and serene. This evening, as we sipped green tea together, I was seeing another Elian, thoughtful, earnest and firm. The improvident boy, who grew up in a sordid suburb of Sofia and struggled long and hard against nearly impossible odds, had grown up, learned, adapted, but never quite forgotten his roots or his fellowmen.