Introduction: Learning to Be Human Again

Learning to be Human Again

“If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.
– Albert Einstein

 For the vast majority of our history, humans across the world ate a healthy and varied diet, got appropriate levels of exercise, and had plenty of time for rest and leisure. They also supported each other to develop high levels of emotional stability, peace of mind, awareness, and joy. Contrary to popular images of cave-men and savages, overwhelming evidence from the personal accounts of elders who still remember the old ways, anthropological studies, and the simple fact that many of these cultures survived for so long indicates that they thrived. It is only in the past few thousand years that most of humanity has abandoned the ways of life that sustained us for so long and adopted an ultra-competitive lifestyle of overwork, possessive accumulation, and fear wherein high levels of trauma, disease, injury, and chronic emotional distress have come to be considered normal. This shift in humanity corresponds with a drastic decrease in the overall diversity and health of the plants and animals on earth.

We know that people from both lifestyles are genetically the same. Why, then, is the quality of life for modern “civilized” people so unsatisfactory, and what tools and ideas enabled our ancestors to live for tens of thousands of years in relative peace and harmony? At the root of our discontent are stories. Ultimately, our ideas, beliefs, and values – the stories we tell each other and ourselves – shape our way of life and create our day-to-day experience. Until we change the way we view ourselves, our species, and the world, there is no technology or policy we can apply that will really make us happier. Yet if we can change our stories, we might just be able to experience greater levels of joy and satisfaction while still making use of the technologies, infrastructure, and innovations we’ve created under our current paradigm.

What ideas and values have led us into a story and way of life that isn’t working for anyone on an emotional level, rich or poor? Our current culture tells a story that the ill-health, inequality, and unrest we commonly hear about on the news are simply part of the way life inherently is, largely due to humans’ innately flawed nature and propensity to damage ourselves, each other, and our environment. We are simply a fallen species too weak to control our darker side or the more sinister individuals among us. We cannot trust others to take care of us, so we must run the “rat race” to obtain enough power, possessions, and money to gain a sense of safety and security by using those tools to coerce others into working to meet our needs (for food, health care, a place to sleep, etc). Rich and poor alike fear the loss of power and money, and strive to gain an upper hand. “Work” is holy in our culture and largely entails the giving over of our life force and will (doing someone else’s bidding, or commanding other people) in exchange for money to buy what we need. When problems arise in our daily lives or in our society as a whole it is because someone or something outside of us is causing the problem. We believe suffering is a necessary ill: basic needs such as having a safe place to sleep, taking time to rest and enjoy life, and eating healthy food are luxuries that must be earned through long tedious hours of hard work. In everything we do, productivity is the bottom line. Relaxation and leisure are for the lazy (who should be punished) or the retired (who have earned it). We are always pushing ourselves to do more, faster. Getting things done is what life is about and we are content when we feel we have accomplished something, even if we felt irritated and exhausted or had to force ourselves to do it. We approach the rocks, plants, animals, and even people around us as objects that should be put to good use in our ever-larger production efforts.  We must increase our accomplishments and productivity in order to outcompete other people, other countries, other towns, and other businesses. Competition is the nature of life according to our culture, and it is a battle to the death. We must give our all or else risk losing in this “dog-eat-dog” world.

Every institution and aspect of our culture follows this story, in schools and colleges, in all forms of the workplace, in business, in private homes and neighborhoods, and even in many activist circles. And we are convinced it is the truth, the only right way to live, and that it brings out the best in us – except that it really isn’t working for so many of us who are struggling with exhaustion, digestive disorders, self-loathing, and family strife. As long as we go on telling the same story, we will go on living the same way.

Despite our discontent, it is very important that we resist any temptation to demonize this cultural story. It is only one, among many, ways to describe human life, and it is not bad or evil. Indeed, much of this story fits very naturally in the adolescent phase of life. Young adults yearn to prove their capabilities and uniqueness, achieve something great, and can become competitive against each other without careful guidance (although that is more likely to happen if they haven’t received enough love and attention as children). The productivity mentality is perfectly natural for the young 13 or 14-year-old who is ready to endure a test of manhood or womanhood and step into the more respected, and more responsible, role of the adult provider. However, there is more to the role of the adult than simply producing items needed by their family. Adults are role models in every regard, scrupulously watched and imitated by children and youth, and it is vitally important that they model responsible emotional behavior and impeccable self-care as well as a humble and cooperative mindset if that is what we intend to teach our children. Actions speak louder than words, and simply telling children to share (for example) means little if they see covetousness benefiting their role models. That is where we stand to benefit from the example of many ancestral peoples who supported emotional maturity and cooperative behavior with real rewards (such as being offered a wife or husband, or being chosen to go hunting, participate in an important ceremony, or make a basket for trade).

There is also an aspect of our cultural story which very clearly indicates brokenness, regardless of the phase of life. The belief that we are fundamentally flawed and undeserving makes otherwise healthy people willing to push themselves constantly and live a life of chronic stress and exhaustion. Even children, for whom it is natural to experiment with competitiveness and power and to be generally “childish”, will exhibit levels of peace and cooperation many of us have never seen if they are supported by their parents and elders to develop a healthy level of self-worth. Most people in our culture have not received the level of affection and love we require as infants and children in order to develop a healthy, secure level of self-worth. This is due in part to a lack of parenting information and role models, but much more-so to the lack of time and energy parents have for their children when they work 10 hours per day just to provide shelter and food for their families (8 hours at work and 2 at home cooking, cleaning, and other bread labor). In this way, our culture’s emphasis on material possessions and achievement has created a cycle of brokenness: parents are too tired or busy to spend time with their children, and children grow up to feel that they must prove their worth by working harder or otherwise calling more attention to themselves. In general, our culture does not teach us to value people, or to put our energy toward supporting people, unless it is in the service of productivity and accomplishments.  The result is that none of us, or very few of us, have the experience so vital to our emotional well-being of feeling fully worthy and loved simply for being alive.

What if our story was different? For tens of thousands of years, most of our ancestors told a story (or many stories, more accurately) that humans are naturally social beings who, with the appropriate cultural training, are capable of cooperating. We can choose to re-adopt this story. It tells us that humans have a supportive and beneficial but not superior role to play in a healthy community of life. It tells us that our sense of security and safety come from knowing deep-down that we belong on earth, that everything we need will be provided, and that we are surrounded by loving companionship from all forms of life, especially a supportive and nurturing human tribe. It tells us we can choose to take responsibility for the situations we create and take action to change our lives, individually and collectively. It tells us that we are capable of building relationships of mutual benefit in which we trust each other to offer kind and honest feedback that is in our best interest, as together we strive to see the world and ourselves more clearly. It tells us to appreciate the process of what we do and enjoy the quality of each moment, because the energy we put into everything is our quality of life. It tells us that our reason for being is to experience and share as much joy as possible. It tells us that we deserve to take care of ourselves and in doing so can cultivate an atmosphere of good humor in which laughter is increasingly common. It tells us that it is our birthright to have a place to live, healthy food, and loving touch and that the world we live in is abundant with everything we need if we are only willing to pay attention. Finally, it tells us that competition is merely part of an adolescent phase of development which is important for us to experience but which, with cooperative role models and cultural training, naturally gives way to a more cooperative mindset in adulthood.

If this story sounds idealistic, it is because we are so well-versed in the language of scarcity and its attendant fear and powerlessness. Most of us have never experienced a society founded upon this empowering story, but that doesn’t make it impossible. It is very easy to focus on what is not working. Many eloquent writers beautifully articulate what is wrong with our culture and way of life (see Thomas Hartmann, Daniel Quinn, and Charles Eisenstein), many of whom go so far as to suggest that our stories are what needs changing the most. This book carries the baton forward by actually telling a new story and showing how to apply it in our lives right now. We don’t know that all the pieces of the new story will work, but we do know that we need to try something different in order to move forward.

That is the purpose of this book: to open up a way forward by illuminating new stories for humanity and providing practical tools to apply them in everyday life. If a genuine change is to occur, it will be through extended periods (years) of sharing a process-oriented value system and a daily routine which supports physical and emotional well-being. In order to make a true shift, we also must understand that we are much more likely to meet our human need for birth-to-death security through our contributions to our community, or “kin-unity”[1], than from the hope of hoarding enough money and possessions to coerce others into caring for us in sickness and old age. Lucky for us, the excess of infrastructure and tools produced in the past few hundred years might offer us a material buffer zone during which we already have most of the things we use daily (i.e. stainless pots, textiles, etc) and can devote our time and energy to changing our stories and developing our emotional skills.

This values shift toward prioritizing our well-being and finding security through emotional stability and kin-unity is the process of “learning to be human again,” and the “bridge” is a bridge of ideas and practices to carry us from where we are now into a whole new way of being human. Although arranging our lives around the new story is new for many of us who have been trained otherwise, we can take comfort in the vision of thousands of peoples for thousands of years living by these principles without question. As we embark upon the journey of story revision, we can take cues from the vast array of cooperative ancestral peoples who have developed cultural tools and incentives that support their people to effectively cooperate and to value emotional maturity. At the same time, we have the unique opportunity to create something altogether new as we attempt to apply ancient models of cooperation and emotional development in a brand new modern context. We can’t re-create the past – indeed, we can’t even see the past very clearly, especially given the wide range of diversity among human cultures and how heavily our perception of them is clouded by our cultural training. But even second-hand fragments that offer glimpses of a truly different set of values are enough to begin weaving a new story that may work better for us. All we can do is to try out different ideas to see how they affect the quality of our experience.

As we embark upon our journey of learning to be human again, it is essential that we clarify a few meanings to avoid the kind of distortion that makes old anthropology studies and explorers’ journal so difficult to interpret. What, for example, is meant by “cooperation”, “interdependence”, “emotional stability”, “mirroring”, “ancestral cultures”, and “cutthroat competition”?  In order to clarify these and other terms frequently mentioned, a glossary follows this introduction. Chapter 1 also addresses some common challenges such as the risk of romanticizing ancestral and indigenous peoples, the role of technology in changing our culture, the question of how to reconcile self-interest with cooperative values, and other dilemmas related to the project of changing our cultural story.

“Chapter 2: How Did We Get Here?” addresses another important question related to learning to be human again. Our current culture’s story is only one paradigm among thousands of different human cultural paradigms, the majority of which were of a more cooperative (though of course not conflict-free) mindset. Yet in the past few thousand years our one story has come to be the predominant version of reality among humans. How did this happen and why? We answer this question with a brief telling of human history from two perspectives: first the “his-story” from our current culture’s cutthroat competitive perspective, then a “her-story” version told from the perspective of a more cooperative cultural perspective. It is imperative to develop a story of the birth of our culture that avoids assuming our way of life is the best or only way to live, or that it was inevitable, pre-destined, or more evolved than the ways of life which worked very well for the majority of our ancestors for far longer than our civilized culture has been around. Even though we may not have enough information about life back then to be able to know what really happened, we need to have a story to explain it that allows a compassionate explanation for our ancestors who adopted the beginnings of our stressful and traumatic way of life.

After re-telling the birth of our current culture, we launch into a point-by-point breakdown of our culture’s story. “Part I: Seeing Our Beliefs, Choosing Our Beliefs,” illustrates each piece of the story and offers an alternative re-telling alongside it, with interactive activities and journal prompts along the way to help the reader get a feel for the practice of questioning fundamental cultural assumptions and trying out new ones.

After examining our cultural beliefs closely, “Part II: A New (Yet Ancient) Idea of Human Nature,” dives more deeply into the question of what it means to be human and what we can learn about this from the cultural practices of cooperative ancestral peoples. The story of human life is enriched and extended as we explain the behaviors, feelings, and needs that differentiate childhood and adolescence from adulthood and elderhood and show how humans can support each other to grow wiser and more mature. We examine the importance of rites of passage and draw from a variety of ancestral traditions to extrapolate key features of this cultural experience which seem to make such a ceremony effective.

To integrate all this story re-telling and avoid the pitfalls of living in our heads, “Part III: How to Get From Here to There” is full of hands-on practical tools to help “bridge” the gap between the old and the new paradigm. Given a new understanding, how does one apply it within a culture based upon the old paradigm? This section acts as a guide to anyone wanting to make a change, from the simplest one-time action to a complete restructuring of one’s lifestyle based upon a new set of values. All the storytelling in the world won’t help us unless our actions also reinforce new ways of being. This section is an antidote to despair and an invitation to take charge of our role as co-creators of our culture and way of life.

We are approaching the end of the age of individualism (every man for himself). The illusion of the successful and self-sufficient lone wolf no longer comforts us. Now we must recognize that a pack of wolves, although they must share with each other, can catch a lot more game through teamwork. Not only that, but they also enjoy companionship every day instead of isolation.

[1] kin-unity: community of people who are committed to each other like a tribe and who take care of each other, working together to meet all of their needs and to help each other grow into wiser and more mature people who support the good of the whole group.

[1] kin-unity: community of people who are committed to each other like a tribe and who take care of each other, working together to meet all of their needs and to help each other grow into wiser and more mature people who support the good of the whole group.