Modern Wisdom from Classic Books: The Human Condition

Hopefully, we’ve all had at least one moment when we’ve meet someone and thought, “I can’t believe how much we have in common!” These moments can inspire feeling seen, validated, affirmed. They can make us feel less alone, more connected. Here is at least one person out of the billions on this planet who *gets* what we’re about.

What can be just as remarkable is when we feel connected despite seemingly having little in common, at least on the surface.

Modern Wisdom Through Classic Literature: The Human ConditionOne of my dearest friends and I are like that: On the surface, we seem startlingly different, like Paris and Los Angeles different. We’re so very different in the way we manifestly live our lives that people who know us both may wonder, really? these two?

This is because what connects us isn’t something people can necessarily see with their eyes. It won’t always be self-evident in the daily realities or details of our outer lives. What connects us are the driving forces of our inner lives: an appreciation for the absurd and faith in the power of love, compassion, and empathy.  Even when we express them differently, what connects my friend and me is what we live for, what we struggle with, and what we aspire to, rather than how we live moment to moment, day to day.

Realizing this provokes me to look beyond sameness, beyond the obvious, for what I might be glossing over. I learn so much from my friend. I am so much better for knowing her. What else that seems *other* might, upon closer inspection, provide an opportunity for connection and growth?

Reading classic books is part of this for me. They drop me into worlds whose trappings, customs, and references are unfamiliar – whether it’s the rigid class system of Pride and Prejudice, the soul-crushing (lack of) options in The House of Mirth, or the warrior code in The Iliad. The protagonists of classic books and I don’t seem to have much tangible in common. Yet, those protagonists can at times articulate my inner life better than I can on my best day. I can see myself, even when I may not want to, in Lizzie Bennett’s stubbornness, in Lily Bart’s love for beauty, and even in Achilles’ struggle to reconcile responsibility for self and others.

In my last piece in this series, I talked about how reading classic books can liberate us from feeling the need to assess a book’s merit in the way we may feel inclined to do when reading contemporary books. Reading classics can be liberating in another sense too: It can free us to connect with the human condition not through trappings and conventions – through what we like/dislike or approve/disapprove of – but through longings, struggles, and desires. These are the core emotional experiences that persist across centuries and millennia.  We can see the ways we both are and are not different. And that can translate into what we can see and value in our own time as well. I know this because it’s what happened with my friend and me. 

What I love about reading classics is that it shows me how we’re connected even when it may seem like we’re not. It affirms for me that every human on this spinning orb is bound to the other by common needs, desires, fears, and longings, and by a common fate. Otherwise known as the human condition.

This post is part of a series that explores reading classic literature. Others in the series are here and here.