Each of us searches for our identity amidst a sea of human faces. Who are these people around us? How are we connected to them? How much do we overlap in our experiences of life? The questions are complex and the answers not obvious. In my work as a hospital chaplain, visiting patients no matter what their religious persuasion, their country of origin, their cultural background, or their diagnosis, I find both moments of profound connection and moments of total lack of connection. Sometimes the inability to connect feels related to a religious or cultural difference and sometimes it seems totally personal – someone may be so angry about their disease or their life that they cannot let anyone anywhere near them. And sometimes it is something within me.
In an attempt to quantify our connections, researchers have developed a set of “universal human emotions,” experiences they believe are common to human beings independent of race or culture or any other factor. Evidence from a variety of research suggests that emotions such as happiness, anger, fear, sadness, disgust and surprise are shared by all human beings, no matter what their culture. One of the ways this was tested, as reported in a recent edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was by having people of different cultures respond to the sounds of expression of emotion and react to them.
Not everyone agrees with this list of universal human emotions, pointing out that both emotions and language are complex, and some question the list of English words. If I say I am sad, or if I cry, you may or may not understand what I mean, even if we speak the same language and have a similar cultural background. Even if we live in the same home! Add into the mix differences in languages and meaning and culture, and precise translation may be nearly impossible.
Reviewer Peggy Rosenthal tells us how Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, in her book of poetry Saint Sinatra and Other Poems, plays with the complexity of language and its multiple layers of meaning, stating that “Language is as incarnational as Christ himself, the Word made flesh.” Through her poems about saints both officially canonized and of her own making, O’Donnell “is conceiving of a new sainthood in its core New Testament sense of a “holiness…that is available to anyone” – any one unique human. Rosenthal wonders, “is poetry of God or of the devil…or merely human.” O’Donnell, of course, does not give answers, but at the close of the last poem in the book, she makes explicit the poem’s vision of poetry as sacramental, and invites the reader: “Here. Take. Eat.”
Considering the possibility of language being incarnational adds another layer of complexity to our understanding of our universal connections. Yet our efforts to comprehend and articulate these connections continue in a variety of ways. One, spearheaded by Anna Wierzbicka of the Australian National University, has been through the development of a Natural Semantic Metalanguage, which attempts to identify basic concepts, such as good, bad, and want, that are found in all languages. To get to what we truly share in common – the concepts of good and bad, for example, as opposed to what our cultures consider to be good or bad – we have to get to what is most fundamental about life. Only then can we have a chance of conceptualizing our universal humanness, beyond our 23 pairs of chromosomes and the presence of our specifically homo sapiens physical features.
Poetry may or may not be divine, the list of universal human emotions may or may not be accurate, and the Natural Semantic Metalanguage may or may not succeed, but all are powerful attempts to find our common connections within and between traditions. For some reason, we seem to keep trying. Our hearts keep pulling us toward articulations of the universality of being human. At the same time, on the flip side of the coin, again and again, our religious, cultural, and modern traditions and teachers, through stories and through teachings ask us to become ourselves. They lead us and prod us and encourage us to find and express the uniqueness of our own selves. Jewish tradition, in Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, teaches that, “One human was created alone … to declare the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be He, for people mint many coins with a single mold, and they are all similar to one another. But the Sovereign, the Sovereign of sovereigns, the Holy One blessed be He, stamped every human with the mold of the first human. And not one is similar to any other.” Judaism, of course, doesn’t have a monopoly on the paradox of our universality and our uniqueness. Each of us has 23 pairs of chromosomes, but a unique set of genes on those chromosomes makes us who we are. Each of us, through the vehicles of the language and culture we know and that are familiar to us, is asked to express our uniqueness in our shared role as human beings.
 “Cross-cultural recognition of basic emotions through nonverbal emotional vocalizations,” by Disa A. Sauter, Frank Eisner, Paul Ekman, and Sophie K. Scott, PNAS 2010 107 (6) 2408-2412.
 “Beatifications,” in America, October 17, 2011, pp 24-25.
 “Language and Metalanguage: Key Issues in Emotion Research,” by Anna Wierzbicka, Emotion Review, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Jan. 2009) 3–14.