What’s Going On (Thoughts on a Train)

injuredimage: creative commons CC0 license from pixabay

The mass of [humans] lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called ‘resignation’ is confirmed desperation. Unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of [human]kind. There is no play in them, for this comes only after work. [And the work never ends] — Henry David Thoreau, Walden

This body is on a train. Like most of what passes for infrastructure, at least in this part of the world, the train, the tracks, the staff and their training, the internet service, the electrical outlets, and the cafeteria with its ghastly non-nutritious menu, all are unreliable. I don’t count on getting where I’m going anywhere close to on time, or even arriving on this vehicle rather than a replacement.

When I left this morning, the main elevator in my apartment building remained out of order for a third week, waiting for parts to be shipped from who-knows-where-or-when. Across the street at the mall, the main escalator has been out of order for almost a month. Several stores in the mall are closed due to lack of staff. Many ferries have been cancelled, for the same reason, or because a ferry broke down despite ‘preventative maintenance’, and there are simply no replacements until it gets fixed. Everything seems to be slowly falling apart.

This body, by comparison, seems to be operating very well, especially considering it’s now well past its ‘best by’ date.

My last post of each month is usually a meandering story about my recent travels in the community where I live, but this month, until today I haven’t been out much, thanks to seemingly endless heat waves and smoke from nearby forest fires. And there’s nothing terribly interesting happening on the train.

So instead, I am contemplating, and now writing about, what I think is going on in the world. I’m thinking about how someone from the distant future, or from a far-off planet, might summarize what has been happening on this planet since the emergence of our species. Not with the goal of predicting ‘what comes next’, since there seem to be few possibilities left, and all of them start with the letter C. But rather just to place what’s apparently happening in some kind of context, to see how we ended up in this strange situation, with 8 billion seemingly traumatized and slightly deranged apes running around in funny costumes, unintentionally, collectively, and rapidly destroying the environment on which our health and existence depend.

So: What’s going on here? How did we get to this hopeless point?

My sense is that what we are seeing is behaviours stemming from ubiquitous mental illness; we are a species that, like a cancer, has lost its bearings, its connection to the rest of life on the planetary organism of which we are merely a part.

The mutual conditioning of our species, which for a million years kept us thriving as a well-fitting part of the ecosystems in which we emerged, is now driving us to behave in dysfunctional ways — producing extreme overpopulation, endless violence against each other and against the planet, fierce competitiveness, mindless and unsustainable consumption, and desensitizing us from acknowledging the harms and suffering that are happening everywhere.

How did that happen? I have a number of theories, but my two current favourites are:

1. The maladaptation theory

Our forced exodus from the tropical rainforest (destroyed by massive prehistoric cosmic radiation) where we once fit naturally and comfortably into our environment, led to a situation of extreme, unnatural and chronic stress as we spread across the globe in search of the kind of way of living we had lost. To survive in these places we had to construct (and we had the brains to do so) completely prosthetic environments. But these environments alienated us from everything we were a part of, and forced us to live in ways which, though we could ‘successfully’ live in them (ie physically survive, until we run out of space, air, water, energy, soil etc), they were not the way we were ‘meant’ to live — by which I mean that, since that time, we’ve had to live in ways we were never naturally suited, evolved, and adapted to live (in trees, as scavengers, like bonobos and chimps). Primatologists have claimed, for example, that if you filled a small space like an airplane with 50 members of any primate species, even if it were equipped with abundant food, the primates would begin killing each other within hours.

Our maladaptation to these prosthetic man-made environments has left us lost, scared, bewildered, and ultimately mentally ill. Our conditioning of each other now reinforces this mental illness, seeing the resultant behaviours (war, self-domestication, and civilization) as somehow ‘normal’, since it’s all any of us has ever known. Like wild creatures locked forever in small, unhealthy cages, we beat our heads against the bars, sensing something is terribly wrong, but with no idea (or possibility) of righting it.

2. The evolutionary misstep theory

At some point thousands of years ago, probably as our local environments and hence our diet changed, our brains evolved (perhaps as an accidental ‘spandrel’ as the circuits of our brains morphed from bicameral to entangled cross-cameral) the capacity to imagine and conceive of unreal things as being real. At that point, we changed from being perceptual creatures (like most or all other creatures on the planet) to conceptual creatures. Among the first conceptions of this rewired human brain must have been the concept of the self being real and separate from ‘everything else’, and ‘everything else’ likewise being conceived of as being real and separate.

As soon as we saw ourselves (our ‘selves’) as separate and apart, it would not be surprising that we would find this terrifying. Suddenly, we were ‘responsible’ for this seemingly separate body we conceived our selves to be located in, and hence responsible for its safety, security, and beliefs and behaviours. This is a different form of mental illness, but its consequences are the same: Instead of just being a part of everything, we now became preoccupied with protecting our selves and ‘our’ bodies from everything else, every imaginable danger, in a competition to the death with others. Yet our belief that we can and do control ‘our’ bodies’ behaviours and actions is completely illusory. This had to be crazy-making.

Either way, our species went mad, went rogue, and the current state of our world reflects that collective insanity.

Whether this was a result of extreme chronic stress and maladaptation, or an evolutionary misstep in the development of the human brain, does not really matter. The malaise is not going to go away, and it is a predicament with no solution. And either way, none of this is ‘our’ fault. The dice rolled badly for our recent evolution, and now it’s playing out the only way it can.

It’s anyone’s guess, when, centuries or millennia from now, after civilizational and ecological collapse have hopefully led to some new equilibrium, and if there are any humans left, whether they will remain afflicted with a mental illness that renders them incapable of fitting into whatever new ecosystems have emerged at that time. We can only hope they won’t.

. . . .

Meanwhile, this body seems to be managing just fine, despite this self’s endless and futile attempts to affect its behaviour. It does what animal bodies do — it seeks pleasure, in its own peculiar ways, and seeks to avoid pain. It doesn’t much care or worry about collapse, or its inevitability, or about things already falling apart. As it gets older, its wants and its needs become fewer, and simpler. And of course, compared to most of the 8 billion human bodies, it is extremely privileged and fortunate.

So it will enjoy the music, and the scenery, and the comfort (most of the time) of the gently rocking train. It will engage in many types of play, from imagining possibilities and writing stories to flirting and wordplay, if and as opportunities arise.

This body watches the other humans on the train with a growing sense of sadness; they seem hopelessly dissatisfied, trapped, distracted, lost in the past or the future, uncomfortable, and worn down. Perhaps this is what Thoreau meant by “lives of quiet desperation”. This body is curious (circling them figuratively like the wild creature it has always been) and it is compassionate, but it is not terribly patient with those caught in these terrible traps. Maybe it thinks them lost causes. Too little pleasure, too much pain is found, it seems, in consorting with most people. More trouble than it’s worth.

There’s an opportunity for clever banter instead up there, at the front of the car, perhaps, or some new interesting learning about an unfamiliar culture back in the car behind us. This body gravitates to them, not to the majority seemingly caught up in struggle. So cruel, so selfish, this body! Why can’t it care about others’ apparent suffering? So insensitive! Uncivilized, even!

The hopelessness of what’s going on in this world no longer causes ‘me’, this self, any despair, either. This is not a Hollywood movie, after all, with that sad part just before the happy ending. What fills me with joy, and wonder, instead, is that there is no ending to Gaia’s story, even if you measure time in billions of years. This time we presume to be living in is just a blip, the curve of an apostrophe, in this story. We only get to glimpse one small part of one chapter. But wow, it has a Great Extinction event, and a lot of action! We might even witness how this part ends! But as for the longer arc, we can only imagine.

So this body and my self seem simpatico these days. Both are increasingly accepting of what is and is not possible. They’re not ‘resigned’ in the sense that Henry David Thoreau described. More like equanimous. Content with playing our apparent parts in this remarkable story.

Though perhaps it’s a good thing “what’s going on” is, apparently, maybe, only a story.

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