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Jenifer’s Journal: Only human

Challenging the meaning of life is the truest expression … of being human. — Viktor E. Frankl

January is the perfect month for self-reflection, not just the kind we apply to our often hastily assembled New Year’s resolutions, but rather the deeper, quieter kind that the cold, gray skies of January encourage. 

The ancient emblem for Janus, the Roman god for whom this month is named, consists of two profiles facing in opposite directions, backward and forward, past and future. While appreciating its symbolism, I don’t confine myself to just January reflecting. Over the years I’ve developed an appetite for little slices of self-reflection and inspiration every day, ones that I consume along with my early morning coffee. Food for thought and almost as good as glazed donuts. 

I have friends at the ready to support me in this very pleasant, not to mention low-calorie, pursuit — two or three small books, ”daily readers,” that I switch from time to time. Maybe some of you have your favorite little volumes; there’s lots of them out there.

For me, there’s only one that has been a constant morning companion from the Christmas Day I received it as a gift from my mother-in-law back in 2008: “An Almanac for the Soul,” edited by Marv and Nancy Hiles. Compared to its palm-sized fellows, it’s a 7.5”x 8.5” spiral-bound behemoth, a treasure trove of daily, brief, but brilliant excerpts from the works of brilliant people, from Arthur Ashe to Virginia Woolf, interspersed here and there with original entries from Marv Hiles.

The voices from the Almanac are poignant, provocative, funny, wise, passionate, and accessible. They come from philosophy, psychology, religion, literature, sports, architecture, medicine, science, theater, cinema, fine arts, education, etc., but what they speak to is the same: the extraordinary state of being human, a fact that bears remembering, especially now, at a time when, like Rodney Dangerfield, being human “gets no respect” — especially from, well, humans.

We seem to set great store, however, by artificial intelligence (A.I.). Certainly, in terms of the speed and scope of A.I’s mental abilities, humans definitely are second string. Like old cars, we’re useful mostly for our parts, providing scientists with templates to study so they can replicate and improve on our analog human ones.

And they’re certainly succeeding. They’ve already co-opted math and science, and fine arts and literature aren’t far behind. Check out Sarah Andersen’s “The Dark Possibilities of A.I. and Art ” in the Sunday Opinion pages of the Jan.1 edition of the New York Times. And trust me, your 16-year-old grandkid is likely already aware of the sites that provide A.I. essays. As nichepursuit.com touts in an October, 2022 article: “Using artificial intelligence and deep learning, Article Forge can research and write completely unique up-to-date essays …” 

Maybe that’s why taking at least some time every day for deep thought and reflection is so important to me. From all reports, so far anyway, only humans do that — reflect on themselves, their relationships, and their lives. I think the “soul” that the “Almanac” refers to in its title is that “only human” impulse — something spiritual, not religious — that resides in all of us whether we care to acknowledge it or not and which is as much a defining feature of our species as opposable thumbs. 

As Hiles says in the editor’s foreword, “Ours is a brief life, hedged about by mystery, and lived out through long, long years. For all its pain and uncertainty, however, there is a splendor that erupts into this or that common day with the sudden and forever intuition that the greatest truth to which we cling may simply be that Everything Is! Sadly, in the noise and inattentiveness of our era, we witness only infrequently Whatever-This-All-Is … here are voices who help us frame our questions and resolves …” 

Maybe that mysterious sphere of our hybrid species will be the next frontier for the developers of A.I. — a co-opting of our spiritual sector. Of course, on the other hand, they may have little use for it, find it to be more trouble than it’s worth. After all, what market value would there be in replicating whatever that odd, “only human” thing is?

What practical applications could it possibly have? And besides, it might blur the artificial divide between science and spirit that for centuries so many have taken such pains to reinforce.

It was one thing when spirit was safely cordoned off within the confines of religion, but who knows the risk involved with tampering with it, at least for the time being?

I wonder if ultimately A.I. will despair of trying to completely co-opt human beings, if only because what a constitutes being “only human”is ultimately irreducible. Worth reflection, maybe …