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The Human Condition

July 10, 2012

Not too long ago, my good friend Greg was in town and we went to our favorite restaurant, Alex’s Pizza, and did a little catching up.  We talked for a long time, as we often do when we’re together, and he began sharing his latest reflections on life and human existence.  We discussed different belief systems, primarily religious and political ideas, and after considerable reflection, we entertained an idea that there are always two “roots” buried deep within all human thought.  There’s either a pessimism, a sort of disapproval of the world, or there’s a confidence, a belief that the world is a good thing and a place where dreams can come true.

He’s recently revamped his website, and you’ll find this under his ‘Who is Greg Thompson’ section of his site.

What really makes us individuals at our core is what we believe and how we act in life. So I’m going to tell you what I believe in and how that affects what I do every day.

I, myself, and maybe even you, tend to view Reality as a Good Thing. A Very Good Thing… a playground for us souls to frolic in… to play in… to build inside of and with… to make real our dreams. To come true.

Sure, some other people choose to experience misery or even terror in their own personal reality. What Reality is to you all comes down to taste. It’s a good thing we have a choice, and I do hope you have good taste.

I’ve been seriously thinking about these things for the past months.

Is life a good thing?  It depends.  When we assess something like that, we have to think of the lives of all human beings throughout the ages.  When I study history, most people lived short and miserable lives.  They were surrounded by violence, plagues, and poverty.  Their average lifespan was next to nothing.  If you were to tell them, “Life is a place to frolic and play.  Make your dreams a reality!”  How would that work?  I picture a dirty woman cleaning clothes in the river, trying to wash out the lice and other vermin, her husband, covered in sweat and dirt, walking up to her and saying, “Let’s think positively, leave all this crud behind, and move on the bigger and better things.”  I suppose if they dreamed of making a life for their children that was slightly better than their own, they could be successful, but if they dreamed for anything much bigger, there’s no chance they’d have been successful.  Generations of hard work, by countless unremembered peoples, have created the world and opportunities available to all of us today.

Speaking of which, what’s different about our world today?  Why are there opportunities to escape that miserable, toilsome existence?  And where did those opportunities come from?  That’s the main question to ask yourself, and I don’t think it has an easy answer.  In short though, if you have no way of producing an abundance, you’re forced to struggle to survive and escape is impossible.   I’d recommend you read Jared Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel.  Or you can just watch the three part film series covering the contents of the book.

There’s an interesting story behind that book and film series.  Dr. Diamond is a biologist and during his travels to Papua New Guinea, while performing wildlife research on the island there, one of the natives asked him, “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo, but we black people had little cargo of our own?”  By cargo, he was referring to why we have so much stuff and technology while they have practically nothing.  To this day, they live their lives in toil, barely able to eek out an existence, working all day long.  There’s never been an abundance for them.  Why is that?

Diamond knew that the answer had little to do with ingenuity or individual skill. From his own experience in the jungles of New Guinea, he had observed that native hunter-gatherers were just as intelligent as people of European descent — and far more resourceful. Their lives were tough, and it seemed a terrible paradox of history that these extraordinary people should be the conquered, and not the conquerors.

To examine the reasons for European success, Jared realized he had to peel back the layers of history and begin his search at a time of equality — a time when all the peoples of the world lived in exactly the same way.

The answer is very complicated.  To list a few of the reasons, we had access to things like wheat and barley, which could be planted very easily and provided the nutrients we needed.  There were also docile animals living in our geographic area which allowed us to domesticate them and harness their labor for farming.  This led to an abundance of food, freeing people to do other things, furthering progress.  There are very few animals which can be domesticated, despite what you may think.  Also, as we interacted with our domesticated animals, we contracted their diseases and eventually built up immunities.  When we went to battle with other cultures, such as the Incas and Mayans, our diseases killed them all off, giving us huge advantages.  It had nothing to do with us being “better”.

As we were freed from the menial aspects of existence, people from all over worked to better the human condition, bit by bit.  Farmers set out and cleared the land and constructed the foundations of our first cities.  Trade began, and civilizations were born.  It wasn’t always easy, and wasn’t all fun and games, but they did what they had to do.  I don’t think that journey is over, but if we keep at it, future generations can truly live in a reality where they’re free to “frolic”, “play”, and “make real our dreams”.  We’ve made a lot of progress, but we have a ways to go still.

Before leaving this topic, I’d like to share problems I have with human existence.

1.  Our mortality and the frailness of our existence

Most of my own dreams go well beyond my own lifespan.  I get depressed thinking about how short life is.  I don’t want to lose the ones I love, but as young as I am, it’s already happening.  I’ve watched my uncle and grandmother die.  I’ve witnessed other friend’s deaths, and have attended their funerals.  I think I’ve attended some twelve or so funerals in my lifetime.  They all were people who meant something to me, and a handful were very important to my life.

The invisible hand of time is always pushing us forward, moving us toward an uncertain future. We’re unable to escape its clutches, always incapable of seeing the end from the beginning.  We’re thrown into this body, shot out of life’s cannon at a hundred miles per hour, and slowly try to take control of our trajectory.  None of us are ever completely successful in this process, and so far every man who has ever lived has died.

Also, when I stare in the mirror, I can’t help but be angry about how weak and frail I am.  This human body is a very delicate machine.  I long for a better, stronger body which can handle the brutal world around me.  I’m so often too hot, or too cold, having to take baths, brush my teeth, suffering headaches, hunger, sore throats, and the list goes on.  Technology will eventually fix these problems, but I don’t expect they will within my lifetime.  There’s so much pointless suffering.

2.  The Enigma Of Existence

When I think on this universe, I feel like I’m immersed in a giant ocean, so deep and so vast, no matter how far I swim in any direction, I can barely get anywhere.  My purview is so limited that we might as well consider it nonexistent.  I look up into the night sky and see countless stars, billions of galaxies stretching back to the beginnings of the universe.  Whatever this universe is, it’s far beyond what we humans are capable of imagining.  Though we’re slowly learning how to get around in our small corner of the cosmos, we’re still in our infancy, and we’re still subject to mother nature’s capricious whims, which have rarely been kind to us.

My mind is limited and I’m forced to make certain assumptions about the world.  All of my thoughts are based on these assumptions and I’m always finding out that my views toward reality are wrong.  Each time my mind is opened to a deeper truth, I learn that the ocean I’m immersed in is even more vast than I had imagined previously and I feel totally lost.  I have no idea where or what I am.  My very existence is a mystery to me.

If I were immortal, I could tell myself that maybe one day I’ll figure out the answers to these mysteries, but knowing how short my life is, and how I’ll soon die, I feel frustrated that I lived and died yet had no clue what I took part in.

3.  Endless Desires

Deep down, in some inexplicable way, some aspect of myself is infinite and can never be satisfied with anything finite.  There are major problems in the very foundation of the human mind.  It desires more than this reality could possibly give.

Our infinite nature demands impossible things from society.  Each of us requires an assurance that there is an unconditional place for us in this world, but our lives are wasted in a long series of petty compromises, slowly having to settle into life’s routine as a hard shell of surrender seals off the deepest aspects of who we are.

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