What We Gave Up When We Gained Abundance
We’ve gained a lot through modernity and abundance, but we also have lost the one thing that really matters…ourselves.
We went camping the weekend before last and managed to do so without injury. It turns out that slowing down to a sustainable, mindful pace and going with the right tools makes a huge difference.
If that were all I had to talk about, I probably would have tweeted it. There’s more, though…
This was the first time that we’ve been camping in a few years, and since then my intuitive and metacognitive faculties have blossomed to a degree that has really surprised me. It was interesting to be aware of what I was thinking as I was doing things, rather than just doing things. The recurring theme that kept bubbling up for me is what we, as a society, have lost with our new-found abundance.
Firewood vs. Meaning
At one point, we were running low on processed firewood of a certain size. In that moment, I recognized how different of an orientation to tasks this was for me, compared to my normal orientation. I didn’t ask “What do I need to do?” or “What’s the most meaningful thing I can do right now?,” because what I needed to do was very clear: I needed to get off my ass and cut some more firewood.
The choice was easier and clearer, but the work was harder — and the consequences of not doing the work were much more obvious. This is the exact opposite of my current daily activities, where the choices are harder, but the “work” is easier; furthermore, the consequences of not doing what I need to do are much less obvious. This reinforced to me how much the paradox of choice is a problem that only comes with abundance; in a context in which you’re just trying to survive or maintain your resources, you don’t spend much time worrying about all the (conceptual) things that need to be done or thinking about meaning. You just do the things you need to do to survive.
At the same time, many of us get caught into thinking that keeping up with the Joneses is surviving and thus continue to do the things we don’t want or need to do. We have two cars because we have two working adults and both need cars. But cars are expensive, so we both have to work more hours, or spend more money, on those cars. Rarely do we ask “Do we really need this?” — instead, it’s just written off as the cost of living in our society.
Of course, cars are an easy example. The size of our homes, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and the gadgets we buy are all choices that we either make or have made for us. If we were more mindful of what we really needed, as opposed to those things that we think we need, we would make other choices — choices that would probably lead to a greater sum of happiness.
The irony, of course, is that we’d be exchanging the difficulty of working to maintain a way of life that’s easy — since it’s given to us by our societies — for the difficulty of actualizing our true selves and doing work that’s easier for us.
When Time Becomes a Foreign Concept
Back when we used to camp more often, I was adamant about not wearing a watch. With our normal days so regimented and time-driven, why take that life with you when you’re trying to get away from it?
This time around, I did the same thing…mostly. I wanted to check what time it was at a few points during the day because I was testing my intuition; I didn’t really care what time it was, but I was curious to see how my experience and awareness of time matched “reality.” (Aside: time is a human artifact — you don’t find it in nature. Hence, checking my intuition against time is not equivalent to checking my intuition against reality.)
When you’re not marching to the beat of time, you have to become more intuitive and aware of things. You don’t make lunch because it’s 12pm — you make lunch because you’re hungry. You don’t cook something for 5 minutes and turn it; you cook it until it’s golden brown, then you turn it. You don’t wake up in the morning at 7:00am — you wake up when the sun comes up…or earlier, if you’re as miserable as we were. The passing of many moons has changed the reality and consequences of sleeping on the ground for us.
While I’m grateful for what progress and technology has brought us, we have to recognize what we’ve lost. It’s so hard to listen to ourselves any more because, in large part, we’ve abdicated our intuitive capacity to the regimentation of human artifacts. Before we decide whether we start or stop working, we ask what time it is. We wait until certain times to eat. It goes further: Angela let me know the other day that over 80% of births in Lincoln happened between 8am and 5pm, which means that our newborns come into the world nice and tidily on schedule. “Welcome to the world…here’s your watch!”
Ironies, ironies. When you talk to experts in a domain, they’re able to intuitively come to sound decisions to a degree that amateurs can’t fathom. Professional chefs don’t really cook to time. When we experience Flow, we lose track of time and are at our intuitive peak. Remarkable sexual experiences — the type which we long for and have caused many troubles through the history of our species — are ones in which we lose track of time and are completely in the here and now, wherein the boundaries between partners dissolve and each is intuitively aware of how she and her partner are feeling.
Our excellence is found in sensing, not measuring, yet we’ve learned to only trust what we can measure.
Seeing A Dark Sky Anew
This weird thing happened later in the day. The sun went down, it got dark, and there was no light switch. We sat silently in the darkness.
Sure, we had a lantern, but they’re only really good for making sure you don’t stumble over chairs, sticks, and other people. Unless you want to do something by flashlight or other electric lighting, you’re pretty limited on what you can do. It boils down to poking at a fire and talking to those around you — which is yet again one of the beauties of stepping away from modernity for a while.
At one point, I happened to look up. Above me were some once familiar friends who were now strangers to me. The city lights and busyness of modern living had made the night just another time, but without all of those artifacts, and by complete chance, I looked up. The moon was hiding behind the Earth, so the only light to be seen came from the untold billions of stars shining back down at us.
The band of the Milky Way showed its faint light, and along the band, I saw collections of stars that I knew made the outline of constellations. I used to be able to name them and tell stories about them, but now all I could do was gesture towards them. They were there, waving at me — pulling at my imagination, whispering their tales to me; yet I could not hear their words or see their faces.
We took a while to soak in the breathless beauty of the night’s sky and watch shooting stars streak across the blue-black expanse. We imagined living two or three thousand years ago, before science and before you could just run inside and turn a light on.
Every night, those friends would be there, and what many of us don’t often think about is that the landscape of the night changes. Five of the lights walk around fairly obviously; in time, we came to know them as the planets of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The constellations shift through the seasons, so being born “under a sign” quite literally meant that you were born when one of the constellations was overhead. And every night, some of the lights streak across the sky and fade into brilliant nothingness.
In many ways, the night sky is more foreign to us than it was to our ancestors. We know about it — but it’s neither as familiar or as wondrous as it was then. You can’t help but look up at the night sky without being wonderstruck, and, for our ancestors, the lack of explanations birthed tales of gods and spirits. Not having an explanation for what they were seeing was just unacceptable, since they were as familiar with it as we are of gravity. Human curiosity is something that will always remain — I hope — but the questions we ask are different.
When we look at the night sky, we wonder about life “out there” or how big the universe is. When they looked at it, they saw life that was once here and looked for stories that related to them. Our stories are stories about strangers and distance; theirs are stories of family, friends, gods, and closeness.
The ails of past societies were vastly different than our own, but what I don’t see surface that often are stories about the effects of isolation and loneliness. Does the absence of stories and feelings of connectedness to everything play a role in the depression, sadness, and melancholy that are now so rampant? I can’t prove it, but I think so.
Abundance, Modernity, and Choices
Running water, indoor heating, electric lighting, and, later, air conditioning (and countless other small things) brought on a new way of orienting ourselves to the world. Rather than spending time on acquiring necessities, we started to develop technology at an unprecedented rate. Modern medicine, automobiles, airplanes, and computers all followed in sequence, and these are all things to be grateful for.
But in the meantime, we lost ourselves. We’ve abdicated the choice to become ourselves in order to maintain an abundance we don’t need. We treat ourselves like logical machines instead of the intuitive, organic beings that we are. And we no longer tell inspirational stories that remind us of our interconnectedness because we’ve shut ourselves away into increasingly larger homes with increasingly smaller perspectives and larger emotional voids.
By no means is this an appeal to the good ‘ole days — the past contained a lot of suffering, oppression, and tragedies that no reasonable person would wish to return to. And I also am not saying that we have to choose between abundance and the various benefits of yesteryear; in fact, I think we can have both.
We just have to be aware of the choices we’re making and the often unconsidered reasons why we’re making them.
I’ll let Jack take it from here:
This story was originally published on ProductiveFlourishing.com in 2009.