Anthropomorphization and Objectification

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    I grew up in San Francisco in the neighborhood of Parkside, one block away from the city park. There was a small copse of trees and bushes there that together created a private space, if one was small enough to crawl into the center. And there, sitting on the cool earth against a tree trunk in the filtered sun, I could hear the birds and insects and, I thought, I could hear the trees. Talking to each other, joyfully. And taken all together – the sun, the earth, the chirps and buzzes and especially the trees - I heard God telling me that I was part of and connected to all. Loved.

When I was nine, my Buddhist parents sent me to West Portal Lutheran school, where I was taught, among other things, that God was NOT in the sunlight and the trees, and that humans were special, separate from the rest of creation.

By age 16 I had rejected Christianity, in favor of the rational reductionist materialism of science, which taught me to look at things objectively; not subjectively. To distance oneself mentally and emotionally from the world we observe. Rational people do not anthropomorphize animals and inanimate objects. That is, rational people don't attribute human qualities to things, like our “superstitious” ancestors used to do.

So trees cannot be joyful, let alone talk to each other. They are just … things that are useful to us, as wood to build new things, as lungs for the planet exchanging CO2 for oxygen, or as prettiness to look at. Trees are objects; we are subjects. Subjects have inherent worth – worth in and of ourselves. Objects only have worth if they are useful to subjects.

Science has given us so much – and even that is an anthropomorphized thought – so it's not my intent to disparage science. But over time, following the rational, objective approach, the world seemed less magical, less loving to me. What I've found is that, if one thinks of trees as objects whose worth is dependent upon their being useful to us, then it becomes easier to think that way about (non-human) animals. And if one thinks of animals as objects whose worth is dependent upon their use to us, then it becomes easier to think that way about fellow humans. The circle of who has worth gets ever smaller. The distance between us, ever greater. This type of thinking justified slavery both then and now. It is what allows people – usually men but increasingly women too – to rate other people on whether or not they are “do-able.” It's why this society cares so little for those who are aged and/or disabled, who are of “no use.” It's what allows people to write open letters to the mayor complaining about having to see people on the street who are not “contributing to society.” And it is why I get anxious when people ask me “what do you do?” – a very common question – yet I worry, am I being useful enough?

So much of our society actively trains us to objectify others, creating deeply ingrained ways of thinking, of which we may not even be aware. It requires active resistance on our part to counter it, to balance it by training our minds otherwise. So I decided, if I'm going to err on one side or the other, instead of treating subjects like objects, I'd rather treat objects like subjects. I'd rather anthropomoprhize trees than objectify humans. (Incidentally, scientists have recently discovered that trees do indeed talk to each other and support each other.) I'd rather strive to enlarge the circle of who has worth, and recognize our kinship with all things.

The other day I was at East Bay Meditation Center and in the context of talking about mindfulness our teacher, Mushim, mentioned thanking the tea cup for holding the tea. Faint alarm bells about anthropomorphization rang but they were drowned out by a louder, deeper joy welling up in me. To thank the teacup is to be grateful, to not take it for granted. As an object, its existence barely registers on my consciousness, except when things go wrong, like if it breaks or is dirty. Otherwise, it's just a conveyance for the tea, which I drink also without much notice, thinking instead of my next task. I've done that with tea, and honestly, I know I've done that with people. As a subject, whom we thank, the cup has my attention and has inherent worth. I/we are fully present to the moment, between the self, the tea cup, and the tea.

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Acknowledgments is made possible in part by generous support from the Fahs Collaborative