Meditation #3 from the middle section, Noon, in this free serialization of my book, A Million Different Things: Meditations of The World’s Happiest Man, concerns itself with human evolution and what drives it. A full index for the articles so far can be found at: Gift of A Million Different Things
David Stone, Writer
Appreciation, to whatever degree we practice, is a habit. Elements percolating with change around us give us more to love at every turn. The things we love neednt be animate. Like that small patch of blue penetrating the architecture across the river, there is an unending supply of views to enjoy. Ive always been able to lose myself among the pitches, rolls and elevations of mountains whenever theyre in view.
A puzzle Ive been unable to resolve: for many people, maybe even most people, an automatic response to many situations is reserved. On a sunny day, they cant resist mentioning the next time rain is forecast or that theyll be stuck wasting most of it indoors. Something has conditioned us to invoke the dark side. Its as if were guarding ourselves against, of all things, happiness and optimism. I believe we learn this from our parents and other adults in childhood, but the habits are surprisingly easy to discard. Once we drop them, we can feel like weve stepped outside a shell of voluntary confinement.
My deliberate intention is to look for and recognize things that make me feel good. Sometimes, its as simple as the uncertain contours of a puddle rippling in the wind. Runoff fills a pool. As the pool evaporates, its shape alters. It grows muddy as solid compounds are left behind. By tomorrow, the puddle will be a damp spot shrinking into dust. It happens again and again, but always uniquely. I love watching rain fall as it reshapes everything below, something I didnt enjoy so much as a child, passionate about baseball and knowing the showers were washing todays game into the streams and ditches.
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I would never suggest ignoring anything ugly, mean, painful or threatening that may exist in any environment. What I am suggesting is that there is nearly always much less of whats disagreeable or dangerous than we are encouraged to recognize. Any field of barley contains weeds and insects intent on surviving at the expense of other living things. This can only seem negative when you are neither the weeds nor the insects. Its a mistake to settle on right and wrong where there is really only difference, and yet, thats the practice we follow, nearly all of us.
We know, dont we, that war is wrong? But war has been used to free slaves or, taking the obvious example, innocents from the slaughtering machines of a holocaust. There are few absolutes. Maybe there arent any, just choices we decide about as we go through our adventures. A value decision for me is not to harm any living thing for a reason other than necessity. Simple, this might seem, but in our daily lives, we hurt others so routinely its nearly unconscious. It might not be physical, but consider the sustained, subtle office bullying that alienates individuals not accepted by the group, leaving them without the common support humans crave.
Defenseless animals are harmed routinely to provide excess food. We cant conscientiously observe the weight gains in recent decades and not acknowledge that millions of trapped and helpless creatures spend their short lives in miserable circumstances and are killed daily to supply more calories than we need. Calves are taken away from their mothers at birth and shoved into containers designed to restrict movement. They never suckle, run, jump or see the sun, because naturally developing muscles reduces the tenderness we want from veal.
Making decisions demands conscious awareness, and that is a quality many of us keep to a minimum. The more aware we are, the more likely are our decision to have more far-reaching and beneficial results, but evolution has prepared us for an easy way out of anything by making ignorance effortless. Lassitude flirts with us, but weve also been primed to explore, think and analyze. Without those activities, we cant be happy because we cant be complete. Its like trying to get around on part of a leg while the rest of it shrivels from idleness.
As humans, weve arrived at an interesting, high plateau. A small percentage of the population remains excited about discovery and exploration, but for most, that game is over. Thinking analytically helped us navigate and, then, dominate complex environments in ways unique to us, but how true is it now?
Ancient communities observed their environments and thought up conquering strategies. Farming, for example, took the best advantage of the land around them, and when the land was not ideal, farming was taken to be so beneficial that we invented irrigation, tiered plots along hills and crop rotation.
Probably from wolves, we learned to live in family groups for mutual security and strength, and the family groups grew into communities that, in spite of what we call news, offer the safest places to live yet known, probably, to any species that ever occupied places on the Earth.
As our understanding of nature grew, our need for discovery decreased. We dont need to verify supersymmetry to get safely through our day. The potential benefits of any such discoveries are so far off, so far beyond the time when the soil will reclaim us, that they cause not the slightest ripple in our enjoyment of The Simpsons, CSI wherever or the latest reality competition. Thinking about the fabric of time-space is the caffeine that gets only a tiny number of us up and going at dawn. The plateau were on has been flattened by the absence of immediate danger or the need to strategize about the environment. Still, something in us wants it, and we respond by inventing challenges to keep our blood circulating oxygen all the way down to the tiniest capillaries.
The alternative is we simply die. A spiritual shriveling, I believe, can already be observed.
Anyone watching the around the clock presentation of televised news with an objective eye sees how it is slanted to incite. Balance and objectivity are features, not requirements. At the crudest level, we are fed grisly stories about automobile accidents and crimes we are expected to accept as examples of the many threats to our communal safetythe next examples of which will be fed to us at 11:00. The next drunk driver might wipe out our family on a street corner. Anonymous bad guys wait their chance to steal from or kill us. Local news reminds us, between commercials, that these threats are waiting to destroy us and our happy homes. Reports of governmental issues elevate the concerns above a basic level, but the threats to our well-being can be just as tangible. Officials struggle to subdue the dangers of unsafe drinking water, homelessness and not having enough revenue to supply our promised benefits. Eventually, these concerns can be goosed at the national and international level. While some are legitimate, few are to the extent presented. An element in these dangers is our realistic inability to act or react in any effective way. We simply watch the polished presentation of what is appropriately called a news feed. Our helplessness relieves us of responsibility.
Futility and meaninglessness swells behind the public facade. Even after being fed artificial, inflated dangers, we still havent the reason or skill to act in our own behalf. With real threats, such as global warming and overpopulation, being too distant to call us to action, we are encouraged to neglect a big part of what we essentially are: investigators, researchers, inventors, problem solvers. Few problems needing solutions are imminent enough to incite action, and we can see the evidence when a threat does present itself.
The public reaction to threats from the H1N1 virus in 2009 is an example. Even though few of us are involved in medical research or in the delivery of vaccines, everyone seemed to have a take on the threat along with ideas about how to respond. With H1N1 news on every front page and on most newscasts for weeks, the dangers were clearly exaggerated, but everyone seemed to be prepared to act. Debates and controversies erupted concerning the effectiveness of vaccines as well as their dangers. Would there be enough to stop a virulent pandemic? Was the government using them to control the public through fear? Were the drug companies profiteering? What should we do as individuals to avoid exposure and illness? Sales of antibacterial hand washes soared, even though they have no effect on viruses. When the opportunity to take action against a clear and present danger presented itself, people swung into action, if a bit rusty, overly chatty and ill-informed.
The plateau on which we are stuck may be the last one our species gets to thrive on. Although threats remain, those that can move us to action are few. Skills deteriorate from lack of use. Evolution falters. Our brilliant arc of progress has delivered us to the place where our needs for survival are met effortlessly. This is evident in the way we obsess about our already healthy bodies, debating dietary regimens, overreacting to threats exploited in the media, running to the doctor or pharmacist with every sniffle. We can see it in the imbalance between results and efforts, the most obvious and most criticized example being the many calories consumed relative to how many are spent in obtaining them. In most developed societies, we are fat and getting fatter, and there is a reason. Our inborn desire to eat whenever food is available has been enhanced by better tastes, improved sanitary conditions, and stimulating variety while our companion ability to acquire it has been simplified and accelerated by inventions. We eat too easily. While our empathy for others at a distance may be harder to stimulate than some would like, with relatively little fuss, we generously share excess calories through food stamps and other programs that would have been unimaginable in earlier centuries. We may have outsmarted ourselves on many levels.
In a culture where a rising focus on leisure is changing basic economics and projections are that free time may soon become the center of our lives, the skewing of our psychological and emotional structures will change how we relate to each other and build groups. Evolution driven by need flounders when essential desires decrease. It may even be that we are at an end stage. Maybe weve already fulfilled our destiny and are lounging as the credits roll.
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Technology already plays a key role in allowing us to be associated with more friends, if mainly those we will never touch, see in the flesh or miss much when we disconnect. We have time on our hands and are scrambling for ways to occupy our imaginations and desires for contact. The value of close up relationshipsby this, I mean families and the communities they generatehas decreased without our having an inkling of what the long term implications may be. Weve never been down the road before that features us undoing millions of years of communal development and replacing many of our combinations with the remote and digital. Are we still deft at developing intimacy or has privacy gone? Are we overexposed? Are we able to talk openly about so much because individuality is vanishing? Is there still value in secrecy, in privately held information? Can we see where this is going? Exposure may melt us down to personas without substance. Contact with our inner selves may become unimportant when we no longer seek insight as a guide or angels as protectors. Those who dont believe they are lost are never in search of maps.
A bleak picture, in my opinion, and its ironic that its come about as a result of the spectacular successes of our evolutionary trek through time. We met and beat our fundamental challenges. We live in security. Crime, violence and war are at their lowest ebbs in the history of man on Earth. Our ability to produce the staples necessary to feed everyone is known, if not our ability to deliver them successfully. We are developing clean water strategies and pouring millions into enacting them in the most necessary places. We suffer fewer diseases, far less infant mortality and advance through life restricted by fewer handicaps. Life expectancy increases everywhere, and there is even talk of manipulating genes that may extend it indefinitely.
Still, if all this simply delivers us to a place that has more leisure, more entertainment and more safety, the steam of evolution will run out. We are not driven to pass our lives distracted by television. We are born as humans to build on qualities that, accumulated, can best be described as the wisdom that develops and shepherds a natural world.
How can we get to the place where everyones contributions still matter? The answer is: on purpose. There is no gut reaction that will take us there. All things visceral are less vital. We must, I believe, deliberately step up to the next stage in our evolution, and that means learning to more consciously manage our lives. We may think we do well at it now, but we dont. We manage a plateaued existence that has eaten away at meaning and value.
David Stone, Writer