Papaloa Beach, Kaua’i, photo by the author
Imagine you’re in this situation: It’s a half hour before sunset, and you’re in a lovely home in an exceptionally beautiful place. A small group of people is preparing a group dinner, and that number includes a stunningly attractive, cheerful and provocatively dressed person, who is not interacting with you particularly (you have never met), but not ignoring you either, and is very close by.
You know that, from where you are, it’s a short and gorgeous hike through the woods to the seaside where you could sit on the shore and watch the sun setting over the ocean, and still be back in time for dinner. Or you could just stay and chat with the group and enjoy the company of this very attractive person.
Which do you do? And why? For most people, I think, the choice would be one of relative scarcity and rarity: If you lived in a paradise every day, or lived with a stunningly attractive person every day, you would probably choose the rarer opportunity. But if both opportunities were equally rare, I’m guessing most people would choose to hang around and skip the hike.
What determines how we decide what we do? I’ve argued that our decisions are driven by what I call Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour:
We do what’s urgent (what our personal priorities of the moment tell us we ‘must’ do), then we do what easy, and then we do what’s fun. There is never time or energy left for what is merely important.
So every day when we get up we do what we must — breathing and eating, our ‘jobs’ at work and home, exercise and medications and other things we believe essential to our health, duties essential to those who depend on us, or on whom we depend. And then, exhausted (because we don’t even have enough time for the never-ending list of urgent things), we squeeze in some things that are easy and/or fun — TV or Internet or reading or listening to music, a drink or a toke, sex or snuggles or substitutes therefore, some impulse buying, picking up a lottery ticket, a casual chat by phone or online. And then we sleep and get up and do it all again the next day.
There is never time or energy left for planning that exotic trip we always wanted to take, or for that course we always wanted to take, or for that important but difficult conversation we keep putting off, or for that activity we think might make us a better person, or the world a little better place, if only we would just get it started.
And when we retire, the things we do change, but they’re still governed by Pollard’s Law. We have more time when we’ve retired, but we also have the sense that there’ll be more time tomorrow too. Somehow we never get around to the things that are really important but not urgent and not easy and not particularly fun. That’s not procrastination; it’s basic human nature. It’s engrained behaviour that has enabled our species to survive very successfully on this planet for a million years.
I believe we are all damaged by the inherent brutality and violence and trauma of modern industrial civilization — disconnected from our true feelings, senses, instincts, and all life on Earth, and in the process we’ve become, physically and emotionally, chronically ill. So we are all trying our best to heal.
And that attempt at self-healing, I think, plays into our ‘choices’ of which easy and fun activities to squeeze into each day once we’ve done what we absolutely must. We tell ourselves we deserve a break, a reward for what we’ve done. We’ll do easy things because it feels good to check some things off the list. And we’ll do fun things because, damn it, we deserve it. Even when we beat ourselves up for the “shoulds” we haven’t gotten around to (because they didn’t make the Pollard’s Law cut), we still don’t do them.
Our bodies, in their effort to optimize the survival of our trillions of cells, obey Pollard’s Law quite scrupulously. To get us to do ‘fun’ stuff (so we’ll want to get up tomorrow and perpetuate the species instead of sinking into illness and depression and killing ourselves) they’ll churn out a bunch of hormones and other chemicals to reinforce fun behaviour.
While the clueless neuro-’scientists’ (those modern-day phrenologists who presume to tell us who we are by interpreting parts of our brains ‘lighting up’) can’t seem to figure out which chemicals do what, it seems clear that some chemicals prompt flirtation and infatuation and sex, some prompt us to run and play and thrill-seek, some prompt us to get high by ingesting substances, and some prompt us to cuddle, to watch the sunset, to meditate, or to eat certain foods. And some reward these behaviours after the fact and/or charge us up at the next opportunity to repeat the behaviour, until we are, supposedly, ‘addicted’.
These chemicals mostly work on us when we’ve finished the urgent ‘musts’ of the day and are ready for the easy and/or fun stuff. There’s a good reason for this: In prehistoric societies (anthropologists now believe) we had very few ‘musts’ — we lived a leisurely life of an hour or so gathering or hunting food (and even that was pretty much fun), and the other responsibilities of adulthood were shared among the community so that they were collaborative, low-stress, social, and not at all arduous. So those chemicals were at work most of the time, not just in the few hours a day we modern humans steal for easy/fun activities. Nothing much was urgent or important.
So those chemicals were hard at work during our ancestors’ easy, joyful lives, getting us to procreate, to nurture, to exercise, to eat foods with essential nutrients, to appreciate and want to preserve beauty, to love life and want to continue doing it, to handle the occasional stresses (mostly carnivorous predators) quickly, instinctively and effectively, and to play (play being the means by which, for most of our time on Earth, we have learned delightfully how to survive).
These ancestors wouldn’t know what to make of the situation I posed at the start of this post. They couldn’t fathom having to choose between erotic, sensuous, aesthetic or spiritual delights — they had lots of time for them all, often simultaneously.
We’re not so lucky. We live in a time of manufactured scarcity and chronic stress, where the chemicals in our body designed to prompt quick and appropriate action during brief times of fight/flight/freeze threat, are at a loss trying to guide us through lives of constant and intense stress and disconnection from our instincts.
Modern human behaviour is primarily dictated not by our bodies, but by our culture, which tells us (under the threat of serious and even lethal social sanctions) what we ‘must’ do urgently (i.e. what we must spend most of our waking hours doing). Our culture also presumes to tell us what are not acceptable ‘easy’ and ‘fun’ activities, even as it tempts us, for commercial purposes, with unnatural stimuli (e.g. violent media, false ideals of ‘perfection’) and unnatural products (e.g. artificial drugs, gambling, processed sugars) that exploit our bodies’ chemical propensities, to addict us ruinously to what the culture asserts is only socially acceptable in moderation. Our blame-the-victim culture addicts us and then makes us pariahs for those addictions.
Our bodies, thinking we’re still living in a natural world, grab on to these addictions to fill our ‘easy’ and ‘fun’ moments as a coping mechanism to try to relieve the relentless stress that fills the rest of our days, inadvertently making us sicker instead of healthier.
We can’t help ourselves. We’re only human. We’re already doing our best.
What we can do, I think, is be a little more self-aware: Aware of what’s going on, what our culture is making us do, what our bodies are making us do. Not to change those behaviours, but to appreciate them, and perhaps, little by little, realize that some of those urgent culturally-dictated ‘must do’ things aren’t urgent after all, and stop doing them (reducing both the stress on ourselves and, just a little, the damage to our planet). And to realize that some of those easy and fun things aren’t so healthy, and that some other easy and fun things might be better for us (but not to beat ourselves up if we can’t change them — many of them are addictions, after all).
Most subversively, I think such self-awareness might help us give up trying so desperately to sustain this massively destructive, debilitating, sickening civilization culture, and let it go enthusiastically, let it collapse, as it is inevitably and already doing. We’re meant to be wild, not civilized.
And it might help us realize that, after collapse, the next human societies might once again inhabit a world of ease, of abundance, of health, and of joy, where what our bodies are driving us to do will once again be good for us, making us healthier, happier, and more connected. Liberated societies in which we don’t have to choose between erotic, sensuous, aesthetic and spiritual delights, because we’ll have them all.