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The Greatest Gift We Ever Had

reflected sun

The inability to be heard is a very disorienting and disempowered state. You can learn that first-hand, as I did, if you accidentally sign up for a silent meditation retreat.

I didn’t know until I arrived on a remote, West coast island, that the course I had signed up for was essentially dawn-to-night Buddhist meditation, for almost a week. We were expected to remain silent the entire time, except when asking questions during the daily dharma talk. For six days we sat, walked, and ate in silence, even avoiding engaging others in eye contact.

The effect is profound. In a silent community, you suddenly find yourself without luxuries you didn’t know you had: the ability to ask questions, to apologize, to criticize, to consult with others, to make your viewpoint known, to suggest a better way to do something — and for others to do these things with you.

In retreats like these, there are practical reasons for this silence. It really aids the meditation, which is what you’re there to do. Discussion can always be had later. But at the same time it made me acutely aware of how vulnerable and isolated we become when we aren’t allowed to talk to each other.

That insight came flooding back to me one afternoon last week, as I listened to an interview between podcaster Dan Carlin, and historian Gwynne Dyer.

During the interview, Carlin asks Dyer whether human “progress” simply amounts to the world becoming more Western, or if we only presume that Western values are more “advanced” because they happen to be ours.

This is a huge, ugly political question and I know it doesn’t interest all of you. But huge questions require huge answers, and part of Dyer’s 20-minute response is fascinating. In a flash it threw my whole role as a writer and a human being into sharp perspective, and could probably do the same for your own too. 

Yesterday and every day before it

After beginning his answer, Dyer interrupted himself and then offered a “Grand Historical Theory” that explains the whole story arc of human beings — where we are and where we’re going. It’s a generalization but I think it can teach us quite a bit.

It goes something like this:

For most of human existence, we lived in little, roaming groups of roughly a hundred people, and those groups did not have leaders or classes. Nobody gave orders to anybody else. Important decisions, Dyer says, were made by discussion and consensus. He uses native Americans as a familiar example of how it might have gone:

“If you’ve ever been exposed to the way native Americans make their decisions — everybody has a say, as often as they want, for as long as they want. It’s one of life’s most boring experiences, to be present while they’re making an important decision, because it could go on for days.”

In these little groups, everybody knew everybody, and even the people who didn’t get their way respected the consensus.

Think about it — in such a tiny society, where everybody had to live alongside the same people for years, they would naturally become very well aware of each other’s strengths, faults, values and viewpoints. They would quickly become aware of virtually every viewpoint that existed in their society, which represents a level of social awareness we later humans couldn’t possibly even come close to achieving, once we began living in towns and cities and nations.

Dyer says this is the way all human beings lived up until 7 to 10 thousand years ago, when agriculture changed everything by allowing for cities, trade and enormous populations.

Night falls

The old kind of egalitarianism was only possible because those groups were so small. Fifty adults who all grew up with each other could easily have a fair and civil discussion around the fire, and ensure that every view was heard and considered. Once people were living in towns, in hundreds or thousands, alongside people they hadn’t grown up with, this kind of consensus and respect for opposing views quickly became impossible. There were now far too many viewpoints to even hear, let alone understand, and it was virtually impossible to communicate your viewpoint to more than a fraction of the population anyway.

Once societies get that big, the rules must change. “Functionally, those societies need hierarchy,” Dyer says. “…and hierarchy emerges, and boy is it not pretty. So you go in to this seven- or eight- or ten-thousand year night of universal dictatorship, tyranny and oppression. Everybody, everywhere in the world, [was] living in some slot of a hierarchy, and almost certainly doomed by birth to live and die in that slot.”

The campfire conversation quickly became extinguished. We could no longer have any semblance of deciding, together, what we want our society to be like and how we might get there. You could talk to a few of the people in your slot, and some of them might understand you, but you could never reach most of them, let alone be listened to by members of the other slots.

Essentially, we lost the ability to talk amongst ourselves, in any kind of way that could change the course of society. Whenever small groups of people decided by consensus how society would be run, it was only the most powerful class doing it, and they were deciding how things would be for everyone. That became the rule for how societies operated, and it continues today.

Keep in mind that this is only the most recent fraction — maybe a few percent — of human existence. We live in this burning tip of the cigar.

Dawn returns

But something happened a few hundred years ago that began to break this spell. The printing press (and much later the internet) began to restore our ability to have an inclusive conversation about what to do next. Suddenly, for the first time ever, a common person could speak his or her mind to a thousand people, and that is a very big deal.

Even though there are billions of us now, and we are dependent on each other in ways prehistoric people never could be, we can talk again.

As Dyer says, as soon as this social conversation becomes possible again, you see the old egalitarian impulse re-emerging wherever technology allows it to, even if there are nasty growing pains. People start printing their thoughts, and in no time at all they start overthrowing kings and tyrants, and calling out institutions on their cruelty. The Protestant Reformation happens. The American Revolution happens. The French Revolution happens. Democracy proliferates. Slavery in many nations is abolished. Civil rights movements happen.

Today we’re finally having fruitful conversations about topics like LGBT discrimination and our atrocious war on drugs. And because we’re talking about them, these present-day forms of tyranny are gradually (or sometimes quickly) eroding and and beginning to fall away. Tomorrow we will talk about injustices that we take for granted today — ones that seem so entrenched in the way we do things that we mistake them for human nature.

All of these changes are the result of sharing ideas about better and worse ways to run a society. You and I are, at this moment, doing what ancestors couldn’t for thousands of years. We are sharing ideas, across class lines, across borders, even across language barriers. We are talking about who we are, what we value and where we want to go, and we could potentially include many millions of others in this conversation.

This sudden loss and gradual recovery of our ability to talk to each other leaves us with plenty to think about. [I highly recommend listening to the whole interview (and really any of Dan Carlin’s history podcasts — they are excellent.)] The subtext of Gwynne Dyer’s theory, as I take it, is that honest, inclusive conversation across a society will reliably lead to equality and higher quality of life, in any place it is allowed to happen.

It’s crucial that we recognize that many (most?) people today still live in rigid hierarchical slots, and they will remain there until we have all the conversations that still need to happen surrounding that ancient question: “Where do we want to go and how do we get there?”

Yet many modern-day Westerners — who will live their whole lives with freedom of speech and the means to talk to almost anyone about anything — remain convinced they are essentially powerless to improve human life around the world, and use their internet access primarily to share pictures of cats.

There’s nothing wrong with using our incredible communication abilities to share cat photos. But let’s remember that they also allow us to do what many of our ancestors could only dream of: to talk freely about how we can live together better than we have been.

Another way to think of it is this: Today we have a second chance to use the greatest gift we ever had, and there are good reasons to believe it’s our last. Let’s use the daylight while we have it.


Photo by Joe del Tufo

Garrett November 3, 2014 at 1:45 am

David, are you familiar with Dunbar’s Number or the monkeysphere concept? The first part of your article reminded me of those things. http://www.cracked.com/article_14990_what-monkeysphere.html

Anyway, I think Dyer makes a really good point. I also think it’s worth pointing out that, while social reform expands, access to more tangible goods is limited by a number of factors. For instance, due to happenstance (and imperialism, of course) those in my country of residence (the US) are sitting pretty in terms of resources, climate, population density, etc. Thanks to this latitude and longitude from which I’m typing, people in this part of the world will suffer fewer of the consequences of anthropogenic climate change in spite of causing so much of it. The Earth is finite with a finite amount of resources, so for some to have more others must have less. It’s impossible for everyone in the world to live like the average US resident, as that would require 5 or 6 planet Earths.

But hopefully social reform (including the movement to “live more simply so that others may simply live”) will contribute to people recognizing and combating some of those realities. Heck, we may even come to do away with arbitrary borders/national boundaries and things that are totally lacking in intrinsic value yet have a profound impact on day-to-day life (most notably that which we call “money”).

Using our means of communication to promote women’s rights is a great place to start, as it has a direct impact on things like population density. Doing away with superstitions/religion would help, too. Bangladesh has half as many people as the US but is the size of Illinois without the access to resources that Illinois has. It’s tough to wrap one’s head around a problem of that magnitude and to figure out what one can do about it.

David Cain November 3, 2014 at 8:45 am

Yes I am, and it is usually cited as the reason we lived in such small bands. It’s easy to imagine that peace was harder to maintain once there were so many people in the tribe that many would be strangers to each other.

Honest talk about consumption and climate change is one of the many conversations we have to have. Same with the relationship between religion, contraception, and overpopulation. It does seem like our problems are too big to solve, but our problems are interconnected and that means the solutions are too. Religion and superstition are particularly culpable in many serious problems in the world, from overpopulation to female subjugation to AIDS.

eddy November 3, 2014 at 9:24 pm

Great thoughts. Just wanted to share a book I’m reading called Small In Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered by E.F. Schumacher. It was published in 1973 and I think its one of the most important books for our problems of 2014.

Juanita Grande November 3, 2014 at 2:15 am

Great read, great photo, cheers, David.

Nothing better than seeing the Net used for good.

: J

David Cain November 3, 2014 at 8:48 am

This photo is one of many from the great Joe del Tufo, who has kindly offered his work for use on Raptitude. You can visit his site here:

Joe del Tufo

Jose Gabriel November 3, 2014 at 2:46 am

I wonder if this “freedom” narrative of history can be applied everywhere without resulting in the collapse of society by every group pulling in its own favor. Society has to be prepared enough to use freedom because freedom also means power, the power to be heard. It can be used wisely or unwisely, in the benefit of all or in the benefit of my kind.

David Cain November 3, 2014 at 8:51 am

You are right to wonder that. It is a common historical question, and is essentially the question asked of Dyer by Dan Carlin. Definitely listen to the podcast. I’ve linked it in the article above and it’s free.

mmKALLL November 3, 2014 at 4:02 am

The target on the outbound link about Dharma talk at wikipedia is not set to _blank.

If I comment about just that, I’ll just feel stupid. Thus, here’s a thank you for the great work you do! I’d guess that much of the time used to write these posts is behind-the-scenes in one way or another. :)

An excellent read, as always.

David Cain November 3, 2014 at 8:56 am

Whoops! Thanks for the heads up. Should be fixed now.

This one was a long post, and it took a long time. I know some people don’t like the long ones, but it’s a crucial topic and I’m so grateful there are still people patient enough to read a 1,500 word post. Thank you for reading!

Duška Woods November 3, 2014 at 6:33 am

Great post David, thank you. As e result of internet communication we are seeing people all over the world trying to overturn the governments that oppressed them for years. Communication will trully be the major factor in bringing people together with one goal, to live in a better and more just societies. It will expose the tyrans and their deeds, pressure companies like Monsnto to change their profit only oriented practices. As a result of shared information Monsanto’s products are baned in most European countries for example. So, the world is changing rapidly as a result of shared information, and yes there are people’s cats and dogs inserted to add some humanity and spice people lives, but the communication still continues to flow and spreads in a way that no one will be able to hide from or not be effected by it…it’s brave new world!

David Cain November 3, 2014 at 8:59 am

One thing I didn’t expand on in the article, but which you suggest here, is that information-sharing is still not totally unimpeded in the democratic world. Preventing people from knowing about (and therefore acting on) the truth is still a common tactic employed by big business. Just try to take a video of an animal processing facility in the US and you’ll probably be leaving in handcuffs.

BrownVagabonder November 3, 2014 at 6:47 am

Somehow this article gives whole new meaning to why I blog. Sharing my thoughts with others isn’t just a narcissistic way to toot my horn, but a way to engage the readers, and make a personal connection with the people around me. The fact that you can share this article on something like communication and give it a completely new twist, and that I can read this article and change my perspective on communication, is the ideal outcome. We are all looking to change the world in our own little way – blogging and communicating about the big issues is one way. Sharing cat pictures might be another (sharing laughter and joy).

David Cain November 3, 2014 at 9:06 am

Good! The interview did the same to me. It gave me a sense of urgency and moral importance to using the voice I have (and have always had, to one degree or another.)

I do think it is important, though, to think about the likely effects of the information we choose to share. Although sharing cat pictures does spread joy, it is unlikely that it will result in the overthrowing of tyrants or the freeing of oppressed people. But it is true that not all of our constructive talk needs to be political or global. Teaching compassion, meditation, literature or writing itself can all be major contributors to a better world.

Dragline November 3, 2014 at 9:01 am

The ability to communicate easily with thousands or millions is indeed a gift, but also a double-edged sword.

There is a real historical question over whether such technology leads more to Enlightenment or to Conflict. I think the answer is “both”, but the Conflict usually comes first.

The first widespread use of the printing press, for example, was to promote propaganda: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Propaganda_during_the_Reformation

This culminated in the 30 years war, which was the bloodiest conflict in Europe until World War I.

On the positive side, it also led to the development of science and republican forms of government. But that took awhile.

One could draw parallels with the emergence of the internet and the current conflicts and revolutions in the Middle East. But that’s above my pay grade.

In the end, I think Enlightenment wins out, but not without some costs.

David Cain November 3, 2014 at 9:25 am

> In the end, I think Enlightenment wins out, but not without some costs.

I agree with you, and I do address this in the article. The French Revolution, for example, was extraordinarily bloody and cruel, and I don’t know how many people were served by Napoleon’s subsequent rampage through Europe. But it did end a long, oppressive tradition of religious monarchy in France, and inspire intolerance toward totalitarianism in Europe ever since.

The internet absolutely had a central role in inciting revolutions in the Middle East, and at this point it’s hard to say that life is clearly better now in Egypt and Syria, for example. But the principle at work here operates on the long scale of history. They know there is a better society out there to be had, and they won’t forget it.

Changes take years, and things often get worse before they get better. The Protestant Reformation led directly to a long, atrocious period of the worst religious inquisitions we may have ever seen, and this violence fueled the rational backlash that was the renaissance. But as a result, religion is politically hobbled in the West, and we do not tolerate theocracy in the way the Middle East still does. This process took many lifetimes (and millions of lives) but we could not possibly be where we are without it. History is ugly as hell, but there seems to be a human trend towards egalitarianism that can be identified when you zoom out.

Graeme November 3, 2014 at 2:43 pm

In this sense, I see a lot of parallels between the ability to communicate widely and evolution. Overall, it’s going to be a huge benefit to humanity, even if it results in occasional problems or missteps. As our understanding of these new technologies improves, we keep what makes our lives better, and discard anything that doesn’t work. It’s a slow process, but it works in our favour in the long run.

Rob Thilo November 3, 2014 at 11:16 am

Another wonderful article, David. Triggered and united a stream of ideas and recent experiences for me. Film I viewed last night: Particle Fever, see it and become willing to be wrong, (learn something!). Provocative on many levels!

Today’s thought from Tricycle:
“The myriad dharmas, absolutely everything, are within the nature of all people. If you can regard all people, the bad as well as the good, without grasping or rejecting, free of any clinging, your mind will be like empty space. Thus, it can be called ‘great,’ maha.”
– Huineng, “Prajna”

Talk, listen, adjust. Listen, talk, adjust. Repeat. Breath in, breath out, let go. Repeat. Simply sit and see what happens.

May the “Raptitude Tribe” be forever learning to connect, let go, and become a path to happiness and fulfillment.

Jmu November 3, 2014 at 11:27 am

Thanks for another great post that made me think, that’s why I keep coming back. It made me think about a struggle in my milieu, which is a 12 step program. Our 2nd tradition states:
For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority—a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern
I get the resistance here to ‘religion and superstition’ but it seems to me this tradition harks back to an indigenous decision making method. There are many struggles involved, including; people don’t know how to be part of a decision making process, so they don’t care (30% voting participation would be REALLY GOOD), and there is a tendency for ‘know betters’ to assume central control, and most members to acquiesce.
It is great to see technology (internet and phone conferencing) starting to make inroads to turning back the clock to decision making that is natural to our species.

Arthur November 3, 2014 at 12:24 pm

Good write up David. You’re correct that a lot of people view themselves as being powerless to change their situation, yet they carry around expensive smartphones watching cat videos and keeping a close eye on what their friends are eating. They just need to be told what they are capable of accomplishing and simultaneously believe it.

Nick Hilden November 3, 2014 at 1:39 pm

Great post. I somehow ended up spending ten days at a silent Buddhist retreat in Washington State several years ago, and suffice to say it was something of a surreal experience.

Bailey Parrish November 3, 2014 at 1:50 pm

I’ve been following Raptitude for a while. This was around the time I started writing about my own ideas on how to live a better life. Sometimes it feels inappropriate to speak ones mind about what drives our best version of ourselves– especially as young people. Your bravery is contagious. Going on two weeks of writer’s block, I needed this.

Also, thank you for an earlier article addressing young men. I shared it with my mother and teenage brother. “Knighted by Ronald MacDonald”—- keep it up.


Jean November 3, 2014 at 1:57 pm

Hi David,
Are you familiar with Swiss landsgemeinde or Icelandic thing?
They consisted in a yearly reunion of all family father in the area (a swiss canton or iceland), so about 10’000 persons, who discussed all political matters for about a week before heading back home.
Two swiss Cantons (Glarus and Appenzel Inside-Rhode) still have it, they now include every adult. In Swiss villages, it’s still how political decision are made, but assembly is four times a year.
That’s quite close to what you described.
I mention this, because the athmosphere at a landsgemeinde is quite unique, you should see one if you have an opportunity.

John November 3, 2014 at 4:03 pm

Just finished “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.” The one point that blew my mind was no. 11: Imagine that everyone is enlightened but you. What an awesome/radical way to be more accepting and peaceful with the world! Our culture (essentially our egos) work so hard to prove the opposite: I’m right in this instance, he/she was wrong, look what I have to prove to this other person.

So readers of this fine blog, imagine that everyone is enlightened except yourself. And spread the word about these conversations as we’ve never had such powerful means of conversation!

Cinthia November 3, 2014 at 4:33 pm

Thanks for this post. I am beginning to think agriculture was the worst thing to happen to humans and the planet! Just half joking. If we can learn from our natural past perhaps we can circle back to it in the natural future.

eddy November 3, 2014 at 9:30 pm

I truly believe in the power of the internet as the greatest evolutionary tool we’ve ever built. I also believe that it would serve us greatly if we could return to those small groups of 50-100 people living in relatively self sufficient communities. Then we could have real conversations inside the groups and use the internet to communicate between groups.

Simon Somlai November 4, 2014 at 1:39 pm

You’re a great writer David, I’ve really liked all the posts I’ve read so far. Interesting insights as always.

” Suddenly, for the first time ever, a common person could speak his or her mind to a thousand people, and that is a very big deal.” – What would you say is the best medium these days to let your voice be heard e.g. have an impact?

Take care man

Justin November 4, 2014 at 7:27 pm

typo : double “and”

eroding and and beginning to fall away. Tomorrow we will talk about injustices that we take for granted today —

Eurobubba November 6, 2014 at 11:16 am

Care to elaborate on the “good reasons to believe it’s our last [chance to communicate]”?

David Cain November 7, 2014 at 9:45 am

That’s a good question. I suppose it depends on your estimation of our trajectory. There are a number of issues that seem destined to upset Western quality of life in a very dramatic way, sometime in the next few generations. We still have not come around on climate change, overpopulation is marching forward, destructive technologies are getting more destructive and more accessible to religious zealots who want to bring on the armageddon. The internet is under threat of censorship and tiered access, and Big Data is perpetually eroding our privacy and anonymity. I don’t believe we’re in danger of extinction or anything like that, but our continued freedom to communicate and live the way we do is by no means guaranteed. Many long-simmering issues are about to come to a head in our lifetimes. We just don’t know which ones will happen first.

Adam Kaningher November 8, 2014 at 11:32 am

This article couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I sat on a 12-person jury for a criminal trial all week long, and it seems like that is one place where this prehistoric idea of “everyone gets a say, no matter how long it takes” is still held as sacred by the American legal system. We had a roughly even balance between genders, ages that ran from college-age to retired, a variety of educational and income levels, etc… If even one person expressed a concern or doubt, we all took it upon ourselves to carefully examine the evidence and explain our positions, because unanimity is required. No one dissenter can simply be overruled or outvoted by the rest. Everyone needs to be in agreement, and the only way that can happen is for all viewpoints and interpretations to be offered and considered.

The judge impressed upon us the importance of this responsibility remaining in the hands of “reasonable” citizens with “good common sense”, despite the inconvenience it causes to our daily schedules. He told us that guilt or a lack of guilt (not “innocence”, per se) is not something the government wants to decide; it should be left to the people. It’s a perspective I never thought of, especially in this era of polarization in politics.

It’s easy to read the news and be disheartened by all the bad things that happen out there. But I looked at it with perspective. There was one bad apple in the courtroom (who was found guilty), but close to 100 people were called for potential juror service, there were several lawyers, numerous witnesses, a couple law enforcement personnel, and plenty of court staff in addition to the judge. All these people, save one, were committed to the proper functioning of our legal system and in my opinion were “good people”. When you see that ratio of good to bad, it can restore your faith in humanity, and the common sense of a group of 12 confirms that the old ways of human communication are still around.

Juliet Duncanson November 16, 2014 at 1:17 am

“Keep in mind that this is only the most recent fraction — maybe a few percent — of human existence. We live in this burning tip of the cigar.”

Homo Sapiens are older than you think; it is tiny fraction of a percent. (And, by the way, cigar ash is longer than you might think.)

David Cain November 18, 2014 at 9:05 am

Can you elaborate? Most sources I find place the emergence of homo sapiens at 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. The emergence of agriculture is consistently placed at about 8-12000 years ago.

You seem to be arguing that the “ash” is both longer and shorter than I think. What exactly are you trying to say?

Free to Pursue November 20, 2014 at 12:30 pm

This is the right blog for this type of discussion. I’m grateful you shared the interview with us.

Regarding mass media as a great equalizer and broadcaster of ideas:

p. 19 of George Orwell’s “The Lion and the Unicorn” (1941): “To an increasing extent the rich and the poor read the same books, and they also see the same films and listen to the same radio programmes.”

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