The story we tell ourselves about our past as humans reveals a lot about our beliefs and values. How did we come to live the way we live? What do we think is important to remember? Where does “history” begin? All of these questions must be carefully examined, and our answers revised, if we want to shift into a new paradigm.
The following two stories are about how our culture came to be the way it is, with all its vast imbalances. One is told from within the predominant values system, as it is told to children in schools all over the world. The other is a rewritten version, intended to reflect a different set of values and to help us see a more balanced perspective.
The following is a description of our history as told by our currently predominant cultural perspective, which values productivity and power. This version of the human story is taught in schools, detailed in historical documentaries, and told again and again in conversation.
Ten thousand years ago, there were many different tribal peoples living in various states of hunter-gatherer and simple horticultural community worldwide. People lived before that, but history really begins 10,000 years ago in the area of the fertile crescent in Mesopotamia. Most of the peoples living there at that time only grew enough food to live and spent the rest of their time in unproductive idleness, making primitive music and ceremony. Then, by a small miracle, humanity made a great leap into a totalitarian agricultural way of life. We realized that if we put the strongest people in the group in command of the food supply, they could get the weakest to work long hours each day for access to the food. This was an incredible advance, as we no longer wasted idle hours in tiresome song and dance and child’s play but instead utilized every hour of the day. We were able to get so much more done with all that labor, convert more land into food production, and the result was a great surplus of food. Our population boomed. We expanded, and that was good. With more people, we had more labor, more workers for the overseers to manage in the fields, and we grew more food.
Soon our population grew too big for our ancestral lands which had been our home since the beginning, and this fueled a second great cultural leap. Even with all our land cleared and converted into food production, we needed more space for the burgeoning population and we needed new lands to cultivate since the old ones became depleted. We had to expand in order to sustain our new way of life. But where were we to go? All the lands around us were inhabited by other tribes that had lived in relative peace with us for millennia. It was then that we realized our way of living was better and that our neighbors were wasting their lives and their resources. With our efficient method of working all the time, we had enough resources to supply a larger army on smaller lands. So we took them over by force and put their people to work in our now-larger fields. This was absolutely essential for our survival, since our high-production methods tended to deplete and salinize the soil until nothing grew there anymore. With new lands to transition into production, we could let the old fields rest and move on to new lands.
It may seem strange, but very few other peoples were willing to embrace our intelligent and sensible cultural belief system. We only grew slowly for the next 1000 years as we gradually educated the new members of our culture and took over their lands. But we expanded, and that was good.
We had made two great cultural leaps. First, we created a hierarchical social system of overseers who control the food supply and workers who work all day in trade for their food, which enabled us to utilize all the earth’s resources to our immediate advantage and produce much more food more quickly, and a powerful standing army. Second, we realized that our improved way of life should spread to other peoples, and that it was our duty to enlighten our neighbors.
There were many problems that occurred during the formative years as people kept rebelling against their overseers and wanting to go back to the more simple life. These rebellions had to be quelled, by force if necessary, as a matter of our survival – with no one working the fields, food production came to a halt and we could not support our burgeoning population! We did try peaceable means. We strongly promoted the idea of personal ownership of land and animals among our workers. This helped them understand the importance of private possessions so that after we overtook their ancestral land, we could sell it back to them if they agreed to work very hard for us for a while. Even though only a relatively small percentage of the population could ever afford to buy back their old lands, the hierarchy we set up among workers enabled a worker slave to have the hope of advancing into an overseer position. This kept rebellion to a minimum.
We began telling our children stories that ours was the best way to live and every other way amounted to savagery and ignorance. It was, after all, far more productive, and allowed hard-working and tenacious individuals to control vast amounts of property and people. We told our children about humanity’s flawed beginnings, that humans are simply born mean and prone to avarice by nature, and that we can’t help but compete against each other for power and money. We formed overseer-sanctioned religions to further extol the virtues of work and suffering as an antidote to our human tendency toward wrongdoing and greed, and to assure the people of the rewards promised to them if they devote themselves to hard work and self-sacrifice.
With these cultural tools, our beliefs became widespread and we lived sometimes peacefully and sometimes at war over resources as we toiled together towards an ever-brighter future. We accomplished great feats with the excess food and resources we were able to generate. Our population and our economy continued to expand, and that was good. We still, of course, have the same genetic makeup as the few primitive peoples still remaining, but theirs is an outmoded and dying way of life and will soon give way to the growth and light of civilization.
The following is a different description of the past 10,000 years of human life as told from a cultural perspective which values emotional maturity and harmonious relations.
Over millions of years, humans developed lifestyles which were generally cooperative, as it was imperative to collaborate with each other in order to survive and thrive emotionally as well as physically. Humans developed thousands of different ways of life, some more peaceable and others more violent, some agrarian and some foragers, but most nurtured cooperation by supporting individuals’ growth through the stages of human development. All these cultures developed tools to address the particular needs and strengths of each phase of a human’s life, from ego-based childhood to co-creative adulthood and on into wise elderhood. Although every culture was different, all followed the law of the good neighbor: there is no one right way to live. Under this law, conflicts arose between neighbors, but for hundreds of thousands of years of interacting with each other, guidelines had been set forth to heal the rifts and minimize damage to groups and individuals. Most people recognized the necessity for the youth and even young adults to have games of play, raiding the neighbor peoples to prove their prowess, and this was for the most part expected as a phase in human development. When one group caught one of the neighbors’ youth trespassing on their grounds, that person was usually humbled and shamed and sent home. Harsh punishments were generally avoided because that would only be reciprocated by the neighbor peoples. A few times each year, group get-togethers happened for trade and intermarriage. If one group of people went against the law of the good neighbor, then all the others would come together to address the transgressor.
Then in Mesopotamia there emerged a people who for some reason lost their elders or role models, likely through natural disaster or disease. These people, led by youth who had not yet fully matured emotionally, developed selfish and competitive habits like those sometimes practiced in children’s play before kids learn to cooperate. They developed a way of life based on outcompeting each other: those who “won” gained power and prowess and could put the “losers” to work. This competitive lifestyle generated food surpluses and unrestrained population growth which outstripped the resources of the land around them. Their lives were overcome with hardship as ceremony and ritual, once the focus of life and the group’s method for nurturing emotional development, were stripped away.
This emotionally stifled tribe broke the law of the good neighbor and began to take their neighbors’ resources by force. Where usually the neighboring peoples would band together to stop this, an unprecedented event happened when all the other peoples came against the transgressor: the one triumphed because their life of suffering had made them strong and they had many food stores and extra people for a prolonged campaign. Their simple neighbors had only what they needed, so the suffering tribe grew on the flesh of their neighbors and remade the children of the defeated in their image until they slowly spread to cover the world.
As the people suffered, their generosity and joy faded. Where once all was shared, now a person worked all summer carrying water in the hot sun for their share of wheat and went to sell what they felt they owned. They came to believe more and more that owning possessions, be they land or food or wife or children, was more important than nurturing life and enjoying each other. They believed it was honorable to trade most of the working hours of one’s life for the right to control other people, and they pursued pride and ego over kindness and wisdom. In the race to outcompete each other for power, it came to be that immaturity and selfish pettiness brought reward while kindness, patience, and emotional skills were devalued. As their population grew and their way of life spread exponentially across the world, the people of this culture shunned the lessons offered by peoples who follow the law of the good neighbor, calling them barbaric and primitive. In so doing, they denied that there was ever another way to live or that any humans had ever behaved differently toward each other.