Are humans living up to their full potential as a species? I’d be willing to bet you think not. If you’re like most of us, you think humans are aiming their sights pretty darn low. In some ways, barely above savage.
Humanity makes it hard for us to be optimists. The higher the potential you see for humanity, the more likely you are to receive pain for your troubles. It would be so easy to become a cynic, just throw up your hands and think the worst, and have the comfort of being “right” all the time. Trouble is, you just don’t feel that way. You know, on some level, we are capable of so much better. The good news is, you’re not alone. There are other crazies like you, and we get it. You feel a sense of disconnect with society, as if it’s slipping along on rails toward a precipice with the bridge out, heedless to your cries that we’re all wearing wings.
Marx called it alienation. We can think of it as a disconnect between the life you imagine and the life your society presents to you. We toil away, day after day, feeling the pain of this disconnect, imagining how our lives could be. At times we feel powerless, under the grips of forces greater than ourselves. When we talk with others about how we feel, we get responses like: “I try not to think about it,” or “What’s the use of even thinking about how life could be?” or “What are ya gonna do?…It is the way it is.”
And this “way” gets reinforced, over and over, by society’s institutions (media, business, government, education, etc.). “Them’s the breaks,” we are told, by nearly every facet of society. “Like it or lump it.”
But therein lies the clue. When society’s institutions team up to make people feel powerless, the thinking person gets suspicious.
Whenever I hear “It is the way it is” I think of the line from Walden: “There is only one way, we say; but there are as many ways as can be drawn radii from a single point.”
It’s such a clear, mathematical description of infinity, but also of potentiality, and the unfortunate tendency for humans to stifle their own thinking.
We blind ourselves to possibilities. We take what we see, day in and day out, as given. As necessary. We think what is “possible” is limited to whatever happens to be right in front of our noses.
If that happens to be a TV, then TV becomes our authority and reality. The people on the box tell us what to think, how to live, what to praise, who to scorn and vilify… and we accept it as gospel, without giving it a second thought.
That ability, to give something a second thought, the ability to hear something and say, “Hmm, wait a minute…,” is not something many adults in our society seem to possess. And it’s no wonder. We do not teach critical thinking in schools. It’s not something we tend to pass from parent to child.
What we do pass to our children are heaps of scorn every time they challenge received wisdom, and heaps of praise every time they tow the line. We like to believe education is about imparting our children with valuable life skills, particularly thinking skills. But the fact is, all institutions, education included, protect themselves above all. (And authorities within those institutions protect their positions.) Challengers and thinkers are an irritation, swatted like so many flies.
By the time we reach adulthood, the “valuable skills” we’ve gained from our superiors are these: how to obey and please the masters, and how to not stand out from nor upset our colleagues too much. Critical thought is the second to least of our concerns, the least being what we think is true or right. Spouting what we hear on the TV becomes a very convenient, easy way to show that we belong to the herd. A passive nightly download, and we are ready to go on belonging.
But it’s not only TV that we unthinkingly accept. We accept what we see all around us, every day, as “necessary” or “inevitable”. For example…
We are trained from an early age to think that our sole purpose is to get and keep a job. We “must” work for someone. We “must” beg for our existence from an employer, and do whatever they say, even if we hate it. We think life is fine and secure, so long as we have a job. We think it is the end of the world when we “lose” our jobs, as if they were some possession granted to us from a loftier being, a thing to be coveted, now ripped from us.
We forget that the fundamental issue of existence never has been to “find work”. There has always been work to do. The fundamental issue is, and always has been, how to survive. We forget there are many ways to survive, including being a nomadic herder, or a hunter-gatherer, or a self-sufficient farmer. In fact, these are how most humans have survived, ever. We forget that by electing to work jobs we have simply exchanged self-sufficiency to become traders. That we have chosen survival through co-operation. That what we must do, under this system, is be valuable to others. That’s it. We must trade our time, focus and energy to others, and they to us. We forget that this is a capacity we never lose, despite a change in employment or economy. Congratulations… you have a “job” for life, whether booming economy or zombie apocalypse: be valuable.
We forget that doing a job for someone is not the same thing as being their slave. We forget that the word “boss” means “master”, and no one in this country has had a “boss” since slavery was abolished. (Stop using the word to refer to the person that signs your paycheck. Just see how your attitude changes.) We forget that we are not beholden to a single employer; that all of us can, and should, have multiple streams of income. We forget that fully one-third of the economy consider themselves freelancers, beholden to no one (except maybe their coffee makers). We forget that, when it comes right down to it, we are all business owners, and our employers just one of our clients. The strategy most of us adopt to run our businesses is to deal with a single client… but is that smart?
Whether you’re running a home business, or in a wage-earning job, or the CEO of a major corporation, if you choose to deal with a single client, you’re placing yourself at their mercy. That client could turn off your livelihood tomorrow. If you cast your net widely (meaning, make yourself valuable to many) you never need to beg for your existence from anyone again. Look at it this way: when we consider a job offer, our employer is considering our “labor offer”. They need us as much as we them. We offer our time and effort, at a price mutually agreed upon. If the price or the work (or the uncertainty) are not to your liking, you are not obligated to accept them (or go on accepting them) any more than you would from any other client. Thank them for their time, and move on. We forget that we are equals in this trading game, and that no one can give us, nor take away our existence.
Products and Gadgets and Belongings
We see products and toys and gadgets. We think we “must” have them. We say things like “I could not live without my phone!” We become obsessed with gadgetry, and the easy endorphins they give us at a touch of a finger. We become roomfuls of soulless screen people. We see a commercial for something we do not have and we think “I may not be happy now, but I will be when I have that!”
We forget to look into people’s eyes. We forget to laugh and enjoy good conversations. We forget that we have been perfectly happy without these things in the past. We forget that we are happiest, not with things, but with experiences, especially those shared with loved ones. If the product facilitates the experience, well and good, but the experience is what we were after, not the product. We forget that it is in someone’s interest to sell us things, but not necessarily in our interests to have them. That their m.o. is to make us feel the pain of not possessing, which we are led to believe can only be anesthetized by holding their product in our hands. We forget that our happiness is not contingent on having, but on becoming—on growing into the type of person we want to be. Is our highest vision for ourselves really something that would cease living if we were to lose possession of a gadget? We forget that having a handheld convenience is not the same thing as needing. Not even close. We forget that we are complete beings without any real need for most of the gadgetry and toys we are sold as “necessities”.
We see grocery store shelves lined with packages. The processed edibles in these packages constitute 70% of what we ingest for sustenance. The writing on the packages invariably expounds on the supposed healthiness of the contents in big letters, and lists the actual ingredients (many of which are known carcinogens and toxins) in tiny letters. This… stuff is what we think we’re supposed to eat. After all, it was made by food manufacturers and scientists and they wouldn’t steer us wrong, right?
We forget this packaged stuff is not food. It’s called food, but it’s really just laboratory-engineered food proxies. Edible, yes, but laden with sugar and chemical additives, highly processed with industrial methods that add toxicity, and storage methods that eradicate what little nutritive value the original ingredients once had. We forget that food, real food, grows on plants which were made from minerals and water and sunshine. Or it walks or swims around and eats those plants. It goes from the land or sea into our mouths, with little or no storage or processing. We forget that it is in the interests of food manufacturers to sell us what is cheap, addictive, easily-produced and possessing an unnaturally long shelf life, rather than the real deal. We forget that the awesome complexity of nature which goes into producing something real for us to eat, that actually delivers the body the nutrients it needs, cannot be replicated in a laboratory. That our attempts to do so only result in toxicity and disease and spending the latter half our lives in a medical nightmare.
Which leads to something else we believe is “inevitable”…
Sickness, Disease and Pharmaceutical “Cures”
We have come to believe, as a society, that a steady decline into sickness and pain is “inevitable” as we age. That pharmaceutical drugs are therefore “necessary”, and the older we are the more drugs we will “require”. We believe that our doctors are guardians of our health during this decline.
We forget that pharmaceutical drugs, all by themselves, are the fourth leading cause of deaths in our society. We forget all the truly horrifying list of side effects the drug companies are required to list, which are often far worse than the symptoms. We forget that painkilling is not the point; that pain is an enormously valuable signal from our brain to change what we are doing. We forget that the pharmaceutical “cures” are the furthest thing from it. That a “cure”, in the true sense of the word, is not something which masks the pain, making it invisible to our nervous system, but actually helps the body regenerate and heal itself. We forget that the point of medicine should be restoring us to a point where we no longer need medicine, not reducing us to a dependency that we need for the rest of our lives. We forget that the pharmaceutical industry, has a pretty huge, glaringly obvious, interest in making us think otherwise. We forget that our diseases are not inevitable, but the product of lifestyle: environmental toxicity combined with highly toxic edibles available to us with little to no physical effort.
We forget that nearly every other society that has ever existed, while having their share of problems like famine and warfare, has never experienced anything like our lifestyle diseases. Even the few hunter-gatherer societies that we know of today, have no incidence of things like cancer, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, or depression. We forget that the body is a biological system, which means it is a healing/regenerating system. We forget that it has functioned for millions of years without the intervention of pharmaceuticals, which have come into widespread, chronic usage, only in the last thirty or forty years. (Retail sales of prescription drugs have jumped 250% in the last decade alone). We forget that there are elderly people even today with good diets and active, pain-free lives, that can do things like jog and ride bikes and do pushups. We forget that doctors have become, unfortunately, practitioners of the match-the-symptom-to-the-drug game. That even if they are sincere in their desire to help us heal, they have become the unwitting extension of the pharma companies’ design to have us use their products from cradle to grave. We forget that we must be our own health practitioners, doing the research, getting the proper nutrition, and questioning the necessity of drugs for every possible circumstance. We must become what our doctors used to be: the guardians of our health.
And so it goes for every other type of authority and “expert”…
Authorities, Leaders, Experts, and Gurus
We see authority figures all the time, and they sure seem to have all the answers for us, don’t they? We think they must know things that we do not, or that they have special access to insights and wisdom unavailable to the rest of us. We think we “must” do as they say, since they are clearly wiser than us. If our society experiences a problem, we think the answer is to elevate the next authority/leader to power as the panacea for everything. We go through an endless cycle of disappointment as the next hope fails us, and so does the next, and the next…
We forget that people in positions of authority were placed there by us, either by ballot or by forking over our dollar. We forget that the only “wisdom” they are privy to is to how to appear responsible for what is good, and how to blame someone else for what is bad (and how to collect on our believing them). We forget that this is a game of appearances, what I like to call “the business of seeming”. We forget that “experts” have an interest in being perceived as experts so they can jealously guard their turf, parceling out knowledge to us as they see fit, like medieval priests. We forget that the most crucial insight of the Renaissance, the thing which liberated most of humanity from serfdom, was that knowledge is available to all of us, not just a select few. (More true now, than ever). That our brains are just as capable as theirs at accessing the truth. That, to the extent experts or authorities are part of institutions of power and money, they may, in fact, be blinded or afraid of the truth. That their version of the truth is inevitably a story, which means they are the protagonist of that story, whether it is true or not. That we don’t have to buy the version of truth they are selling. That everything… EVERYTHING can be questioned, by anyone. We forget that our birthright, if it is anything, is to say “I disagree” to anyone, no matter what position they hold. To hold virtue in awe, but never authority.
We think organizing ourselves into groups to oppose and clash with other groups is the inevitable way of life on this planet. We constantly dive Us from Them. We form political parties. We identify with like skin colors, or language groups, or sexual orientations, or religions, or nationalities, or income brackets. We form institutions and draw borders and enact laws that permanently divide one other, and we make wars upon those who are Not Us. We make sure to pass our hatreds and prejudices down to our children, who grow up, in turn, learning to distinguish Us from Them.
We forget that these supposed differences are just labels, invented by us, often based on fictions. We forget that when we identify an Us we immediately bring into existence a Them, who will, just by virtue of being so identified, require exclusion, proselytization, conversion, or killing. We forget that such conflicts are stories that exist only owing to narrow, label-based thinking. If we have a story about a certain type of people, say, a race, or a gender, or a sexual orientation, or a class, or a political party, and we repeat it often enough, pretty soon we become crusaders in service of that story. We stifle and oppress tellers of different stories. We enact laws to make our story true. We even launch ships and armies and drones, and kill each other to make them true. We forget that Us-Them thinking (or “camp-thinking”) is just one way of thinking, and a particularly unsophisticated one, at that. That we also have the option of thinking without identity labels, i.e., independent thought. We forget that we can shift our perspective and the tribes disappear. We forget that history makes all of our labels obsolete anyway (so why not do it now and save some bloodshed?) We forget that what ought to matter is not what groups we belong to, but what we share in common and can overcome together. Ultimately, we forget that if we expand our view, we are capable of seeing only an Us, a single species with the same problems, trying to make its way in a immense and often hostile Universe. That our time should be focused on how we survive and flourish as a whole, and not on seeking advantage for one particular identity-group over another.
Force as the Only Means of Getting What We Want
We constantly hear people clamoring for more laws, regulations, gags, and punishments. This is supposedly the solution for everything. Everything will be fine, once some law is passed. If they aren’t saying “There oughtta be a law!” they say: “People like that should be shot!” We think this is the inevitable way of the world. We think the only way to make our way in society is to force others to conform to our will.
We forget that the majority of our day is spent doing exactly the opposite: communicating, reasoning, persuading, and agreeing. No matter what we do, whether it’s emailing our co-workers, negotiating a business deal, riding our bikes, taking the dogs for a walk, buying groceries, driving the kids to school, writing blog posts, whatever… we are involved in hundreds if not thousands of implicit agreements with our neighbors, with merchants, with teachers, with our fellow citizens, even with citizens of foreign nations. Think about something as innocuous as buying a bottle of water from the corner store: this involves coming to a peaceful, mutual, non-forceful agreement about things with thousands of people, including the vendor of the water, the bottle manufacturer, the importer, the truck driver, the manufacturer of the tires on the truck, the manufacturer of all the pieces and parts on your vehicle, the drivers of the other vehicles in your vicinity, all of the other people who will accept the money you use to buy the water as currency, etc., on to infinity. We forget that society functions on these implicit agreements, not because anyone is forcing anyone else to obey, but because they are to our mutual advantage. We forget that it works.
We forget that when we are frustrated by someone who doesn’t agree, pointing a gun (or a regulation) at them convinces them of nothing. We forget that if someone is spouting an opinion we don’t like, we are free to disagree and tell others why. Forcing them to stifle their opinion is a shortcut, nothing more; a convenience that gets around the trouble of reason and persuasion. We forget that of all the opinions we hold about what is good and right for our lives, not a single one was arrived at by force. We had to think, to reason, to decide, or be convinced by others (or by the aforementioned TV 🙂 ). Sure, some of it is brainwashing, but we are free to fight that as well (hint: the implicit point behind this entire piece). We forget that if we are capable of coming to some opinion by ourselves, so are others. Our desire to force them to believe is, at heart, really a mistrust of or feeling of inadequacy in our own powers of persuasion. We forget that laws do not produce anything, or conjure anything new into existence. They do not overturn the basic facts of existence. Pass a law against gravity today and we will still be on the ground the next morning. We forget that the vast majority of humanity’s problems are not solved by lawmakers posturing at one another across an aisle, or by convincing people that they are really “doing something”, but by people, making decisions, reaching compacts with one another, forming associations and groups and businesses and taking co-operative action. This is what we do. We forget that you and I do more good for each other before breakfast than ten back-to-back elected terms of lawmakers. We forget that while lawmakers pull off the sham of taking credit or laying blame, it is society, you and I, that figure(s) out the real solutions. We forget the beauty, and unassailable morality, of live and let live.
“Our attitude toward the possible determines what we try. If you believe you can run a mile, you will try. If you think you can’t, you won’t. Your mind will not let you. Your mind defines the limit of what is possible, and your body lives it out.” (Stu Mittleman)
The Seen and the Unseen
In short, what is holding humanity back is the belief that what is seen is inevitable. That the world before our eyes is the only possible world. We forget that the view presented to our eyes might be (and almost always is) limited by what we allow ourselves to see. That in the process of growing and becoming an adult human we are given what amount to several pairs of dark sunglasses and a pinhole to look through. Society’s various institutions (commercial, technological, education, media, religion, government, medicine, food manufacturing, etc.) have a direct interest in not allowing us to question their place or necessity in our lives. They want us looking through the pinhole, with the lenses they provide for us. These institutions train us to forget the unseen, and accept only what we are already being sold.
Is it any wonder we keep buying?
There is always an unseen element if we take a second to think about it. This is what critical thinking is: rejecting the seen, the ready-made, the given, and thinking about what is not obvious, not seen… including what else may be possible.
We forget that today’s “inevitable” was yesterday someone’s “impossible fantasy” (or nightmare). That this world had to be created, by people who thought it was good or right that it be this way, for good or ill. That it could (and can) be otherwise.
Humans are creatures of imagination. Above all, we are storytelling creatures. You might say it’s our purpose: we are here to turn ourselves inside-out. To turn our inner world into outer being, to bring our stories into existence. If you think about it, creating the life we envision for ourselves (our work, our families, our contributions) is what most of our lives consist of. But some institutions want you to forget it. They want you enacting their stories. If we hear their stories often enough we become incapable of distinguishing them from the truth. Pretty soon we start unwittingly spouting them. We go from a species that imagines alternate possibilities to a species that obeys; that does what it’s told so that someone else’s imagination can come to fruition.
What’s holding humanity back is the same thing holding anyone back in their own lives: the belief that you must accept and live according to someone else’s script for you.
The answer is throwing out the script, thinking for yourself, and striving for what you know to be possible. Commit this to heart and remember it any time someone says “this is the only way”: there are as many ways as can be drawn lines from a single point.
I’m reaching up and reaching out.
I’m reaching for the random or what ever will bewilder me.
And following our will and wind we may just go where no one’s been.
We’ll ride the spiral to the end and may just go where no one’s been.
Spiral out. Keep going…