The human person as a relational being
Humans, I’m told, are relational beings. On a political, psychological, anthropological, sociological, theological level we exist in and thrive within communities. Our families, friendships, neighborhoods, parish communities, and local governments are structured around this fact: we were made for relationship, and we cannot be understood outside of it.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI), in the fourth of a series of four homilies published in 1995, writes: “to be truly a human being means to be related in love, to be of and for.” We know ourselves, he says, not only as self-contained beings but in those whom we love and in those who love us. We need each other, and we are known by and through our relationships with each other.
We’re related in love, but that relationality can be deeply broken. The reality of sin means that we, relational beings, live in a world that is relationally damaged. We, though related in love, live in a world of broken relationships. So what do we do when the community and shared life we so desperately want often hurts us or leaves us feeling even more alone?
The easy solution, of course, is to become self-enclosed and self-sufficient units that don’t need each other. “If I can just carry this load, complete this task, and work through this problem on my own,” we tell ourselves, “everyone will be better off.” We share our lives with each other, but just for viewing pleasure. We justify our distance with our brokenness. We remain an arm’s-length away, careful to avoid letting others actually encounter, let alone attempt to heal, our burdens and our woundedness.
I do not like to be seen, dear reader, in my woundedness. I excel at perpetuating the narrative that my wounds and my burdens are mine to carry and mine alone. I shut myself in under the weight of it all, and I tell myself that it’s better that others don’t have to deal with me. “I just don’t want to be a burden,” I say.
But to be in relationship necessitates a sharing of crosses. “No human being is closed in upon himself or herself [and] no one can live of or for himself or herself alone” (Ratzinger 72). If I am unwilling to share my cross, my load, my joys and my sorrows with those I surround myself with, I am quietly but firmly rejecting relationship with them. We have to be willing to receive the help we need and we have to be willing to give our love and help to others.
So yes, I am a burden. You, dear reader, are a burden. But the ones we love, however imperfectly in this world, tell us again and again that we are burdens worth carrying. And the One who loves us, completely and perfectly and recklessly pursuing us in a relationship of love from the moment of our creation? He carries us better than anyone else. He loves us better than anyone else. Relationships are not a zero-sum game in which everything must be carried equally. There are times that we need to be carried. There are times where we are asked to carry those we love.
It is difficult to be seen. It is a constant challenge to acknowledge that you need to be carried. Despite our identity as relational beings, it feels impossible to admit that we are not self-sufficient. It is hard to accept that you are known and that you are still constantly and perfectly loved for the entirety of who you are.
What does it mean to be a human being? To be both of and for? It is to be the image and likeness of the God who created us, and who Himself exists as relationship: to be human is to allow others to carry our burdens, to carry theirs in return, and to constantly strive to be related, now and forever, in love.
Maggie Garnett is a first year student studying Theology and Constitutional Studies. You can find her struggling to complete even the easiest of crossword puzzles, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.