The term “human experience” is one that’s thrown around often at home. It’s what connects one person to another — their commonly held truths that come with existing as a human in today’s society. It’s the heart of good literature and what makes storytelling so powerful. Through the written and spoken word, we’re able to preserve the cultural moment in which we live; when a person reads our books or hears our stories, they immediately understand the experiences we sought to capture simply because they, like us, are people who live on this Earth.
The human experience is often the focus, or at least one of the focuses, of English class back home. It’s something I’ve written analytical papers on, discussed as a major theme in the literature I’ve read, and even tried to capture in some creative writing of my own. Because of this familiarity with the human experience, I was both excited and intrigued to hear the same concept be a focal point of the Pachamama (Quechua for “Mother Earth”) ceremony we observed on our third day in Peru.
As I listened to Elder, the man leading the ceremony, I observed that our common existence for people in Peru involves much more than just humans — it involves nature and our Earth as well. We were at the ceremony to celebrate our common experiences as people, people who share the same Earth and have the same connection to our land, as Elder said. These sentiments and this ceremony were completely secular; they reflected something that Peruvians hold in their hearts: an immense respect for and deep connection with the natural world. Their human experience involved something much larger and of greater importance than just themselves. They respected an out-of-body connection to the soil they farmed, the crops they ate, the animals with which they coexisted, and the immense mountains by which they were surrounded.
So why is the American human experience so introspective, whereas the same concept for Peruvians allows for a more out-of-body perspective? After some reflection, I’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of this difference stems from the alternate ways in which Peruvians and Americans define success.
American culture and success is largely individualistic. We value pioneers, entrepreneurs, and trailblazers. The way we derive satisfaction is by experiencing success through paving our own way. This philosophy is fundamentally in conflict with Peruvian values and ways of living. Especially in higher altitude and more rural communities, Peruvians live self-sufficiently. Their chosen purpose is to be agents of the Earth. Success comes from being surrounded by people they love, using their land efficiently and respectfully to support themselves, and embracing the history and culture of their communities. They’re successful because of the people around them and the resources given to them by Pachamama. With their lives and their definition of prosperity being so non-individualistic, it makes sense that Peruvians’ human experience involves much more than just themselves; the human and the Earth are fully connected.
This connection that Peruvians feel to their land, although non-religious, is largely spiritual; while observing Elder, it was clear that his bond with Pachamama and all that she provides genuinely moved him and came from his heart. This bond is intangible, another element of the Peruvian human experience that is in stark contrast with America’s evidence-based culture. In America, writing and other forms of communication are immediately written off if they’re considered to be unfounded. We rely heavily on tangible affirmations in our day-to-day interpretations and our broader philosophies and perspectives. Even with regards to the human experience, we consider ourselves and our audiences to be our own evidence. Literature is only considered to be “good literature” when the author includes truths about what he/she knows well that can then be related to by others because of its authenticity.
The Peruvian human experience in its inclusion of the natural world comes directly from the heart. Devoid of a need for tangible evidence and affirmation, Peruvians embrace a deep connection that simply requires emotional sentiment for them to consider it true.
The contrasts in our definitions of the human experience highlight major cultural differences between Peruvians and Americans. American society’s individualistic and evidence-based attributes shape our values and the way in which we define success. Likewise, Peruvian society’s appreciation for forces greater than the individual and faith in genuine feeling and connection allow for different values and a different definition of success. These differences manifested in the Pachamama ceremony, where the term “human experience,” one that I’ve always believed to hold a universal meaning by nature, embodied a connection with more breadth than I’ve ever considered it to before.