Mother Nature’s running a trial-and-error business, so sometimes our programming doesn’t make a lot of sense.
We come out of the box tuned for self-preservation and conformity. Not self-expression, not self-actualization, not happiness. But that’s what we want. Our genes want rock-solid, redundant systems for survival, nothing more. We want to have fun and feel good about our lives. Not the same thing!
The bulk of human activity is still driven by our oldest impulses — to secure, to acquire, to indulge, to conquer, and to reproduce these motives in one’s children. They were around when that first fish-monster fin-flopped onto the land and began our extended family, and still sit at the centre of human motivation.
But we’re quite far along from that now, and while we’ve developed some great new tricks and some new desires, it’s all built on the same bedrock of high-strung survival impulses that kept sea creatures flourishing hundreds of millions of years ago.
So by now, for humans, the basic survival motives are still prominent in our consciousness. You feel their influence whenever you sense a mannequin’s presence, or when weird people get into the elevator with you.
They come in a thousand forms and the reactions they create are all quite normal and quite unconscious. But because they’re normal, they’re generally unquestioned, and because they’re unconscious they can be really destructive. Nearly every instance of conflict you read about in your newspaper is somebody’s base motives leading them to create trouble for themselves or others.
We do have newer impulses though. They’re more complex, more delicate and a lot more interesting. We exhibit capacity for creativity, mindfulness, curiosity, wonder and love. We want to arrange things in certain ways, beautiful ways, and we want to see them arranged that way. And not necessarily because it helps the species survive. We just want to do it.
Those impulses don’t have a lot of driving power in the biological evolution game. But this is civilization, and we’re not really playing that game anymore. It is still running in the background, but let’s just say that if you don’t survive it’s probably not because you’re not quite as jumpy as your fish-monster ancestors.
Today, you can survive just as easily, maybe better, if you’re not a sharpened killer or an insatiable hoarder. So with survival now fairly easy, our higher faculties finally have a chance to air themselves out.
That is, if we’re listening when they ask to be aired out. They’re subtle. They aren’t rude like our survival impulses — the fight, fuck or flee systems that commandeer our entire bodies when they get set off. Our newest sensitivities are liable to be drowned out if we’re preoccupied by the more familiar, older, closer-at-hand impulses of survival.
On the grand scale, it amounts to an awkward stage in human development. We’re still almost overwhelmingly obedient to the three desires of the animal kingdom — for security, sense gratification and power. Yet we’re feeling increasingly compelled by relatively new human sensitivities, for curiosity, creativity, peace and gratitude.
But the loudest call prevails, and so we get conflict of the most asinine and irreconcilable kind. Mind-numbing partisan politics, environmental devastation as a normal business practice, opportunists getting rich at the expense of their grandchildren, religious wars, bad TV.
On the street level, it creates personal tension about what we decide to do with our lives and our time. We often feel torn between our aspirations to do work we love or to let our inhibitions down, and the impulse to be practical and save for a house and get some kids on the way before the spouse market dries up for your age group.
The older motives are deeper and more invisible to us. But they lead to security and procreation, not happiness and peace. Nature’s goals — not necessarily our own.
I keep meeting people that are really airing out the higher faculties. As much as I’m interested in them — in creativity, mindfulness, love — compared to some I’ve really just been dabbling, afraid I might lose sight of what’s practical.
But what’s “practical” is always on the survival end, the end that’s already pretty sewn up. The old roadmap. It’s not that survival isn’t important, of course it is. Everything else is contingent on it. But civilization makes it way, way easier than it was for most humans who lived with the same set of impulses.
Yet old Mother Nature still wants us fully preoccupied with it, rather than just keeping it mindfully on the radar. She thinks we’re still cavemen who need to be altogether consumed with self-preservation in all its forms — physical but especially social — which leads us to conformity, more than anything. And conformity leads to boredom, recurring sinking feelings, periodic where-is-my-life-going crises — and ultimately — deathbed regrets.
Living only by the lower motives is the definition of going through the motions. The forces of life will still move you, but where, and for what?
Defiance is necessary — defiance to the strongest gravity in the human world, the pull of security. That’s the force that sucks you into the couch to watch TV, that tells you the safest thing to say is nothing, that tells you to stay in tonight, not to wear red, and to wait for the other person to call.
Nature made us this way and the only sensible thing now is to defy her. We know how important this kind of defiance is. Even people whittling their hours away on Facebook still post the odd picture-quote championing the idea of really living before you die.
How exactly to do it is rarely discussed though.
Clearly, we need to harbor a certain suspicion towards impulses of self-preservation, especially the social kind. We’re so high-strung about saving face, even though nowadays there’s nothing remotely fatal about being cast out of a particular clique for saying something unpalatable to the others. This isn’t the savannah anymore.
I’d like to hear your thoughts on it. How do you live before you die? Do you feel like you are ? Do you feel like you’re always about to?