…cont’d from pt. 1
Two proposals, for me, have clarified just about everything we struggle through in our day to day psychological lives, and they have to do with formerly necessary survival instincts outliving their usefulness. They have become a liability in that they cause stress that is pre-programmed and unavoidable. However, it is manageable when we can come to terms with the reality of what these stressors are, and catch ourselves before we stumble into an instant gratification sinkhole in an attempt to escape them. We can, on occasion, learn to stay in the present. But it takes practice, and it doesn’t always go smoothly.
I am paraphrasing these proposals in order to apply them to my own understanding of the stressors to which I am referring.
#1 — Historian Yuval Noah Harari indicates in “Sapiens” that nature’s great predators are majestic and confident — all the time. Tigers are a great example. They embody the essence of a successful predator. One doesn’t look at a tiger and think, “Gosh, he really looks worried about his day.” Prey animals, however, display a very different energy. Our neighborhood is full of rabbits, so I’ll use them as an example. Everything about these rabbits exudes anxiety. “Is that gonna eat me? What about that? Where are my kids? Are they being eaten? CAR!!!” The best analogy I can think of is when you’re playing chess or tennis with someone who is significantly better than you. You will constantly be on defense, and never have the opportunity to mount an offense. That is the rabbit. Always reacting, never plotting. Harari’s proposal is that humans very rapidly transitioned from primates who were both predator and prey, into the ultimate predator. The transition happened so quickly that we were never able to fully evolve out of the anxiety and mistrust that defines the rabbit’s existence. Harari argues that this makes us extremely dangerous — The predator instincts of a tiger in direct conflict with the prey instincts of a rabbit. One doesn’t have to think for very long to recognize that this can be a horrifying combination. An extreme case would be Hitler, for example.
#2 — In an interview with NPR, evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright discussed our ceaseless general dissatisfaction…with everything. For instance, “This house is too small. I need a bigger house. Now this bigger house is too small. I need a bigger house…and so on…” Wright explains that this drive is what kept us from becoming extinct. If we stuff our bellies at Thanksgiving, and our brains tell us we’re full for 6 months, we will starve. If we have sexual intercourse one time, and decide that it was so satisfying that we never need to do it again, we will simply vanish as a species. One can see how these things can run haywire in a society that is not only marked, but plagued, by abundance. We are biologically programmed to eat until we are as full as possible, and as a result we see obesity and type 2 diabetes becoming epidemics. I am not making any specific moral value judgments about pornography, as that is not the purpose of this discussion, but it is clear to me that the required survival instinct for existence occasionally (if not often) becomes a self-destructive obsession when pornography is available 24/7 for free.
If we throw all of these anachronistic survival tools into the modernity pot and stir it up, it becomes rather obvious why our collective mental seam is splitting:
“Tom loves his wife Julia, but he can’t stop thinking about his secretary Heidi. He isn’t in love with Heidi. He just wants to have sex with her, one time. But he knows that he must pretend to be in love with her in order for Heidi to consider any such proposal. Tom hates himself for this. He sits in church, ashamed. He becomes more withdrawn from Julia because he doesn’t want to hurt her, but he can’t stop obsessing about Heidi. Julia suspects that Tom no longer finds her attractive, but she’s too afraid to confront him about it. She decides that it’s because she has gained too much weight. So she goes on a diet, which fails. Soon, she transitions into binging and purging. Suddenly, she loses interest in her suspicions about Tom, because the binging and purging cycle has become her first priority. She buys a gym membership, and starts working out 7 days per week. A 20-something bond trader named Dan begins flirting with her on a regular basis…and so on, and so on.”
It has become crystal clear to me that this entire scenario is a direct result of the exponential rate at which the human mind adapts intellectually, while being simultaneously imprisoned by biological survival instincts which adapt and modify much more slowly. The intellect and instinct go to war with one another, and both sides lose. In my totally unscientifically tested opinion, this results in increased rates of depression, anxiety, and addiction.
I don’t want to get into an abyss about whether or not we have free will, but neuroscientist Sam Harris indicates that, for the most part, we do not. For the purpose of this discussion, it is relevant in that, for me, it explains many of the paradoxes and neuroses associated with trying to resist our instincts in order to function in a modern, civil society. I’ll use myself as an example. “I won’t drink today, I won’t drink today, I won’t drink today. Alright, fine, I won’t drink tomorrow.” I spent so much time obsessively trying to fight the urge to drink, that all I could think about was drinking. The misfiring instinct to fill myself up with something that I “needed” was fighting me back harder than my “will” could overcome it. As far as I can tell, the instincts always triumph in a battle of pure will. How many of us recognize that we are eating too much, and yet feel powerless to stop it? In that case, we are losing the battle with our instinct to ingest as much energy as we can to ensure successful procreation. It is like building a dam to block the water, but the water keeps rising infinitely. We have to learn to dig a new channel for the water to move in a different direction. It is a futile endeavor to try to restrict it entirely.
cont’d in pt. 3…