I react just a little bit to the phrase “what you are.” I am not a “what.” I am a “who.” I am a being, a human being. Over the years, though, I have come to see and experience (and find research to support it) that both animal and plant life show signs of sentience which calls into question my own notion of what a conscious, sentient being is. When family dogs look into their human being’s eyes, both the dog and the human being release oxytocin, a powerful hormone that aids in social bonding. Those of us who have pets know how deeply and meaningfully they become interwoven into the fabric of our lives. In fact, we might find ourselves thinking of “our life together” rather than “the dog who is in my life.”
Since Aristotle constructed his “ladder of life” plants have been thought of as removed from what we call conscious, sentient life. There is significant research, however, which demonstrates what some are calling a neurobiology of plants, that plants have the ability to communicate with each other, feeling things and exercise memory. For a long time, we have known that when human beings talk to their house plants, those plants tend to thrive more so than plants which do not receive this kind of interactive attention.
So, what are we? I still bristle at the notion of being a “what,” but maybe we should bristle at talking about an animal or a plant as an “it.” My own answer is an appeal to our Unitarian Universalist 7th Principle. What I am is a participant in the interdependent web of all existence. So are animals. So are plants and trees. I am not a vegan, but I care deeply about how animals raised for human food are treated. I also care deeply about how plants raised for human food are treated. I care deeply about how human beings who are different from me (many categories could be used: gender, gender identity, ethnicity, language, region of the world, income level, education, political outlook, religious views) are treated. My life is entirely dependent on animal beings, plant beings, the water and mineral life of this planet, the specific mix that makes up our atmosphere, and how I interact with other human beings.
That’s what I am. How do I return to what I am? By really seeing these other beings on whom I depend and with whom I am interdependent, and honoring their lives, the life we share. This past year, the gym that I go to renovated the inside of the building. Yesterday, I arrived with my heavy duty water bottle almost empty. I went to the water fountain to find that they had installed a water fountain with a feature that allows you to fill up a water bottle. As you do so, it shows a digital monitor showing how many bottles of plastic have NOT been bought and used because you chose to fill up a permanent water bottle. That’s when I realized that they had also done away with the machine that sold plastic bottles of water. Because that matters.
That’s what I am. That’s what we all are. Members of the interdependent web of existence.