Living With Civilization Disease

Bayt Abdullah Children's Hospice

image above: children’s hospice in kuwait, from the website of the architects, nbbj

“It’s easy to get buried in the past, when you try to make a good thing last”
 Neil Young, Ambulance Blues

There is, of course, only the present moment. The past and the future, who we ‘were’ and who we ‘will be’, are just inventions of our minds. Yet many of us live as if they were real — more real and more important than the present. These are perfectly understandable coping mechanisms. If the best part of our life seems behind us, if we’re grieving the loss of someone who seemed our only reason to live, it’s easy to get buried in the past, to live in the past.

And if the current time seems impossible to bear — the stress, the suffering, the inhumanity, the crises that seem never-ending — it’s easy to invent a story of the future, a better story for ourselves or at least for our children and grandchildren, and then to live in the ferocious hope of that future dream coming true.

In order to make ‘sense’ of the world, our minds create a very simplified representation of reality, one that enables ‘us’ to make quick essential decisions about what to do, now. This capacity evolved because we were fortunate enough, as we made the transition from a spontaneous, present species to the one we have become, to have space in our crania to construct useful representations of reality, and a diet sufficiently rich in proteins to fuel this construction.

So we have evolved from a species that lives presently to one that lives representatively, from one that makes simple decisions in the moment in the real world, to one that makes sophisticated decisions based on a model of time and space that represents the real world. That evolution confers great survival advantages — it allows us to make decisions based on inference and logic, rather than just instinctively. But this evolution comes at a huge cost: We no longer really live in the real world. Our minds have so preoccupied us, from shortly after birth, that we have come to believe that the representation of the world that they (our minds) have constructed for us, is, somehow, reality — not just a representation, but the ‘real’ thing.

Much of this illusion comes from the ‘stories’ we come to accept as ‘true’ and ‘real’ — stories about who we are, about others and the world in which we live, about the past, and about the future. Stories are the most memorable ways of synthesizing all of the sensory inputs we receive into ‘truthful’ representations about the world. Our stories represent reality much the way motion pictures represent ‘real’ experiences. Some of them are reasonable representations; others are pure fantasy, that we believe ‘true’ because of misinformation or misinterpretation or because we just want to, or have to, believe them ‘true’ in order to cope with our cognitive dissonance, trauma, fear, rage or grief. If enough people come to share what they believe to be a similar story, whether it be a ‘true’ representation of reality or a complete fantasy, we call that story a myth.

These representations require us to believe in an invented, fictitious space-time framework of reality, and to believe that this collection of trillions of cells our mind imagines to be ‘us’, separate from the ‘rest’ of reality, somehow exists integrally and moves integrally and smoothly through time. We are, of course, not individuals, and not separate from the rest of the universe, and time is just a mental construct — even scientists now acknowledge that time does not exist and that their models of reality are more accurate when the entire concept of time is jettisoned.

Living largely in our minds, in this fabricated and absurdly simplified representation of reality, this grand illusion, believing that the stories we are told and the stories we invent are somehow ‘true’, it is not surprising that we have become physically and psychologically ill from struggling with the massive disconnect between these stories and reality, from suffering with this tragic frailty of the human mind I call Civilization Disease.

So instead of seeing a loved one die and accepting their death for what it is, for example, we construct this massive story about whether that life and death had meaning, whether that loved one’s cells have been and will be somehow transmogrified into other ‘lives’ in space and/or time, and that their love for us, and vice versa, will transcend space and time and be eternal. It’s the only way we can cope with the sudden, unbearable loss of this intricate story, the wrenching away of this invented representational connection between them and us — when we cannot relate to that death in the real world that neither they nor we ever really lived in.

When we are mistreated, or terrified by some real world event (or even just the threat of it), we have no choice, cloistered in this fictitious world inside our heads, but to assign blame and/or self-blame, evil intention, supernatural cause, inevitability, permanence, and other ‘purposeful’ qualities to this occurrence. We do this by inventing stories about ourselves, others, the world, the past and the future that somehow make sense of the occurrence within the model and representation of reality we have constructed and been told is ‘real’ and ‘true’. We can’t just acknowledge it for what it was, past tense, and let it go, immediately and forever, the way creatures who live free of the scaffolding of artificial represented reality we inhabit, can.

Similarly, we cling to fond memories of the past, longingly, nostalgically, and get buried in that past, and even more disconnected from the present and the real.

And just as we can’t let go of the fiction of the past, neither can we let go of the fiction of the imagined future. We strive, we hope, we dream, we intend, we want more than anything for the imagined future to be better than the imagined present, and we dread that it could be worse. That dream is what, more than anything else, drives our behaviours, actions and decisions. Unable to just be in the ‘real’, no longer accessible present, we live in that imagined future instead, with the lottery winnings, the perfect partner, the never-ending ecstasy, and most of all, the sense of peace, love and joy that so eludes us and fades so quickly from our sad, fictitious representational lives, this motion picture whose plot we can’t follow and whose ending we hope will bring resolution but fear will bring tragedy, that seems real but yet unreal, missing something absolutely essential, some whole dimension.


Five years ago I was still working, living with my ex (because although separated we’d been unable to sell our house) in another province. My dream then for today was to be living alone, on Bowen Island, in some beautiful place with lots of privacy and quiet and a view of the forest and ocean, retired from paid work, and free to do anything I wanted each day when I woke.

That dream has come true in all respects. But it was not an unreasonable dream. Lots of good fortune, but nothing insanely unpredictable or unexpected. The trajectory that took me from there to here was quite plausible, and much of it intentional, given how blessed my life has been.

Only a tiny percentage of the planet would not be thrilled to live the life I live today.

So now I think about what I would like my life to be like five years from now. I dream of living in a warm place all year round, mostly outdoors. I dream of making love several hours a day with lovers who are content with their own lives and content just to do that with me, and who then go home to do whatever they choose to do when we are apart. I dream of spending much of the rest of my time in various forms of play with people who are bright, attractive, articulate, imaginative, creative, thoughtful, emotionally grounded and joyful, or in solo activities, writing, composing, practicing. I dream about not worrying about people (even loved ones, suffering) and things (even cruel, destructive ones) I have no control over.

These are unreasonable dreams. There is no perfect place to live, even if I were to surrender the enormous security of my Canadian health care coverage. Warm places are crowded, expensive, mostly impoverished and made violent by rich corporations and rich individuals displacing the poor, stealing their resources and barricading themselves behind walls. Or they are overrun by gangs and warlords and wracked with suffering that cannot all be hidden from view by resort fences and barbed wire.

There are no perfectly healthy people either, or even people healthy enough to leave their baggage at the door for long and frequent trysts, even if they had the time and inclination for them. Those I would find stimulating enough for play and deep conversation are caught up in their own immediate journeys and struggles, and exhausted from supporting all those even sicker of Civilization Disease than they are. As for ceasing my worries and grief, that could only happen if there were no longer cause for them, which is an impossibility.

And even supposing some of these dreams could be realized — then what? Would I simply long all the more for those not realized, and new dreams even more perfect, even more unreasonable?

A study done by Daniel Gilbert showed that, one year after they lose a limb, people are on average as happy with their lives as those who, one year earlier, had won a major lottery prize. We accommodate. If things are bad, we make the best of them and imagine they could be worse. If things are good, we want and expect them to be better. That is what it means to be human.

If I could escape this representation of reality, this hologram inside my head, and just live in the moment, the way creatures not burdened with this synthetic scaffolding, this veil, are able to do, then it wouldn’t matter where or how or with whom I lived and spent my time. My ‘past’ wouldn’t matter. My dreams of an ‘even better’ life wouldn’t matter, or even ‘occur’ to me. My perceptions of myself and others and the state of the world would just fall away, along with my illusions of control over them, and all the anguish that goes along with all of these things.

But I cannot escape. I cannot be other than who I am.

So what, then, might I do to dissolve these stories, these fictions of my mind, that cause me to be unhappy with my incredible good fortune, that fill me at times with anger, grief and sorrow, and constantly with anxiety and fear, that bury me in feelings of nostalgia for an imagined past or longing for an impossible future? Why can I not be free of these stories when I know that all that I am, and all I need be, is right here, now?

It helps to be clear that my stories of the future are impossible dreams or imagined nightmares. It helps to know that I am not “all of a piece”. It helps to appreciate that time is an invention with no basis in reality, and that my negative emotions are figments of my imagination, artifacts of my mind’s propensity for absurdly oversimplifying pattern-seeking and sense-making, symptoms of Civilization Disease. It helps to know why I am suffering, and from what, and why I am disconnected from reality. But knowing all of this doesn’t make it better. Cognitive behavioural therapy, psych meds, meditation and many other ‘solutions’ are being tested on us, all of them vaunted but (for different reasons) highly suspect treatments with dismal success records. We seem to have invented a uniquely incurable disease, and made the world our hospice.

So maybe I, and others suffering from this ghastly disease of our minds’ making, just need to make peace with our lot, this terribly human and ubiquitous incapacity to just be, here, now, real, healthy and free. Perhaps making peace with our illness is the first step towards grace.

Thanks to Bowen photographer Chanelle Walker for my new blog photo, in the right sidebar.

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3 Responses to Living With Civilization Disease

  1. Philip says:

    Like that line of yours Dave – If things are bad, we make the best of them and imagine they could be worse. If things are good, we want and expect them to be better.
    If I cannot be other than who I am, then at least I can be nobody but myself? Only the context often gets in the way.
    The ego always resisting fate. The ego loving time. The ego mediating between conscious and unconscious. The collective ego of a collective disease.
    “By nature volatile and discordant, the human animal looks to silence for relief form being itself while other creatures enjoy silence as their birthright” -John Grey
    Our illness is the way it is. The shadow self of a civilisation that eats the future.

  2. Poor Richard says:

    “If I could escape this representation of reality, this hologram inside my head, and just live in the moment, the way creatures not burdened with this synthetic scaffolding, this veil, are able to do, then it wouldn’t matter where or how or with whom I lived and spent my time.”

    I’ve been learning to accept my chronic depression “as is” with equanimity, without any “synthetic scaffolding” of narrative or drama. The only drama that refuses to leave my house is my sense of humanity’s failure to live up to its potentials and to live in better harmony with the world. I feel it my duty to keep the shame of that always near to mind.

  3. Andrea Niedermann says:

    There is no way back. It is a curse to know (Ross Gelbspan). And it’s a curse to imagine the unachievable.
    But it’s also a joy to know. A lot of joy only is possible because we dream or we think of the past. There are very good memories to think of and many things to look forward to. I don’t want to give up this.

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