The thing that most clearly differentiates humans from animals is the capacity to self-reflect. Although chimpanzees, our closest genetic relative, can be taught to do almost everything humans can, albeit at a more primitive level, they cannot self-reflect. They cannot take that mental leap of stepping outside of themselves and studying themselves from an alternate perspective, even having a relationship with themselves—of dialoguing with their internal self that they are alive, that their heart is beating, that their life has purpose and meaning, that they will die someday, and, ultimately, that they can make creative, conscious changes in their internal and external environment based on what they learn on their life’s journey. This is the realm of humanity—and perhaps of dolphins and whales too, though if this is the case then I would agree with John Lilly, the famous dolphin researcher, who called dolphins “the humans of the sea.”
Yet so many humans do so little self-reflecting. This includes many of the most intellectually sophisticated people. They work complex jobs, have profound memories, learn numerous languages, yet rarely stop to contemplate their existence in any sustained way. They live as highly intelligent animals—smart and functional in their pursuit of private goals, but not very wise. And of course this also applies to Homo sapiens en masse: as a species we are certainly not very self-reflective—we who are in the process of ruining our habitat and driving ourselves and a lot of our fellow species into extinction. In this way we are the least wise animal, perhaps uniquely so—supremely self-destructive parasites.
I see this as a reflection of psychological trauma. Although as individuals we were each created with the capacity to develop into beings who know ourselves and our minds intimately, we get blocked, hurt, overwhelmed, shut down, sometimes even broken and shattered. Unresolved trauma can cloud our inward-looking lens and even crush our self-reflective capacity entirely. Often this protects our traumatizers, parents included, who are terrified of the heightened awareness and truth-telling that goes hand-in-hand with self-reflection. They sense, know even, that the gift of too much self-reflection in their personal spheres can topple their self-deception and force them to wake up to all their inner pain—and to the ugly reality of how far they have strayed from their buried humanity. So they try to snuff it out.
Yet in some, a rare few souls, self-reflection is stronger than trauma. These people, children even, refuse to give up that which is most special in them and nurture it despite all odds. As the result they grow internally stronger and better able to see truth, both the heartbreaking truth and the beautiful truth. These people are the most human, and I see them as our future leaders as we evolve toward the next, higher level of humanity.