Culture

Do Ants Have Selves?

I had a mental experience the other day that seemed, at the surface, completely inconsequential but upon further inspection revealed itself to be rather interesting. I was sitting around idly while my partner did something routine and uninteresting. The specific thing he was doing isn’t actually important at all. What matters is that the activity had nothing to do with me and there was no usefulness or benefit to my being there. Now, I am a very impatient person. In most situations like this I would be perturbed that there was nothing useful I could be doing or that I hadn’t brought a book. Or I would be thinking about all the different ways I could use my time off, or how I’d rather be spending “quality” time with my partner instead of just watching him do some mundane task. But this time, strangely, there was none of this mental chatter. I remember simply gazing at him passively and thinking, “It’s good for him to be getting this out of the way. So, it’s good for me.”

Now, this may seem unremarkable. When you’re in a relationship with someone, you’re supposed to want what’s best for him or her, right? What do I want, a pat on the back for being happy for my partner? We all like to see our partners happy, and we all should cheer at the thought of them accomplishing things or improving their lives in some way. But although we’d like to assume this comes from a place genuine care and concern for another person, it’s often a little less romantic than that. Evolutionary psychology suggests the overwhelming majority of our thoughts are about ourselves.

Even thoughts that seem to be about other people still tend to revolve around how those other people make you feel. Even in the case of your romantic partner or best friend. When you carefully examine your positive thoughts about this person’s accomplishments you may discover they carry a much more selfish hue than you’d be willing to admit up front. Perhaps seeing them happy directly imparts happiness on you, or their success clears obstacles from your relationship. Though these thoughts are not selfish in the sense that they prioritize you over your partner, they are selfish in that they still revolve around your personal experience or happiness. Though the ability to feel genuine happiness upon witnessing another’s happiness can easily be attributed to what we call love, it doesn’t necessarily equate to altruism when that person’s life and emotions directly impact your own.

Now let’s bring it back to my seemingly unremarkable thought. In this case, I was not cheering a personal success for my partner or witnessing a big smile on his face. I was watching him do an errand, and a boring one at that. Yet I was still able to simply and convincingly tell myself, “This is good.” Contrary to what you might be thinking, I am not using this occurrence to make some grand statement about the validity of my love for this person. Again, the thought I had was still completely hinged on my own personal experience with the world. What’s interesting about the thought is the dissolution of the individual self it suggests. The essence of the thought was almost exactly the same as one I’d have while completing an errand of my own: “This isn’t particularly fun but I’m glad I’m getting it out of the way and will appreciate it later.” It’s interesting to me that though I could, at the time, cite no direct reason why my partner’s completing this errand would benefit me in the foreseeable future, I still felt convinced by the thought and was not perturbed by any need to examine further why I was spending my time sitting idly.

To me, this is perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of sharing your life with someone. Your lives become so entangled that you (hopefully) start to realize that your interests are aligned in ways you can’t even consciously perceive. The lines that separate the two of you may seem to blur a bit, and the chatter in your head begins to accommodate the needs of a person who was originally recognized as “other.” The concept of boundary dissolution and the questioning of the personal “self” have deep ties to Buddhism and modern psychology. Still, most people don’t experience a release from the concept of self in their daily lives, and might not even understand what that means. However, I think many people could attest to having thoughts such as mine. Thoughts that simultaneously encompassed the needs, intentions, or desires of another person as more or less “second nature.”

When I was in college I read an interesting book in my animal behavior class titled Baboon Metaphysics. It was a chronicle of a multi-year behavioral study of baboons that sought to determine how the primates handle their social lifestyles. Does their behavior stem from complex thought and concepts of identity or is it predominantly instinctual? The findings of the study were rather inconclusive, as metaphysical awareness is a pretty hard thing to judge; there are no philosophical pH strips. The researchers observed that the baboons seemed to fluctuate wildly between moments of near-human social awareness and primitive anarchy. But it’s the character of the question that interests me more than the answer. What are we seeking to prove when we want to find out how an animal views itself? Do we want to establish how similar they are to us? How “intelligent” they are? We often question whether animals (specifically mammals) view themselves as individuals but seemingly neglect the alternative. What would it mean, for instance, if many animals did not recognize the boundaries of the self like we do?

Though the process of natural selection demands animals place their own needs above others’, social animals present a bit of a snag in the evolutionary machine. How can organisms compete to survive, yet simultaneously arrange themselves in a cooperative group? The science of animal behavior has generally assumed that supposed altruism comes in two flavors: kin selection and social bonding. Basically, animals do things for others out of instinctual concern for their own genes in relatives (kin selection) or to pay into a social bank to reap rewards from their comrades later (social bonding). While this description does a lot to explain apparent altruism from a functional standpoint, it doesn’t do much to explain how the animals themselves view the interactions. Does a baboon think, “I’m going to groom my friend so he will groom me next Tuesday” or does he simply feel some instinctual urge to comb through his neighbor’s hair?

I think it’s pretty obvious that certain forms of life do not have much in the way of metaphysical awareness. Ants likely do no “view” themselves as anything, let alone individual members of a group. Their “thoughts” are probably more like electrical impulses that give explicit instructions like “turn right” and “search for food.” Ants operate much like an interconnected network of individually operating but interdependent bodies. They are closer to neurons in a brain than individuals in a community. But what if the experience of an ant wasn’t all that different from that of a baboon? What if, like ants, baboons didn’t always recognize each other as independent “selves?” The neurological limitations that exist in ants may not exist in baboons. Baboons likely have the full mental capacity to recognize their individual bodies and distinguish their intentions from those of other baboons. But perhaps the conditions under which baboon social structure evolved formed a much more malleable version of self than we currently experience in human society. Perhaps baboons waffle back and forth in their metaphysical capacities not because of a lack of intelligence but as a symptom of their social evolution.

Though my proposal is completely exploratory and hypothetical (I am not an evolutionary psychologist or and animal behaviorist), it does have interesting implications as a thought experiment. If other social animals operate on a different understanding of the “self,” or even operate without one at all, couldn’t we feasibly will our minds to do something similar? Weren’t we forged by the same evolutionary fires that gave us ants, dolphins, chimps, and baboons? Perhaps our obsession with ourselves—our identity, our emotional lives, our aspirations, our appearance—is not so much an innate product of intelligent life but a vestigial mental module from a time when we weren’t so reliant on others. And maybe it’s our individualistic culture that has simply fanned the flames of this obsession, ever widening the gap we perceive between our interests and others’.

Though it’s common knowledge in Buddhist and meditation circles that the temporary dissolution of the self is achievable through practice, I do not believe the general populace recognizes the availability of this experience. From the first day we come into contact with the world outside our mother’s womb, we are treated as individuals and taught to perceive and categorize the boundaries of other people and objects. To go against this conditioning is not merely a difficult task, but a mythical one. Many might assume the experience comes only from the ingestion of psychedelic drugs or in the midst of a psychological “break.” We are limited by what we believe is possible and we will never try to dissolve a boundary that we do not inherently recognize as optional. But billions of people experience what they would define as love for others every day. They make choices that prioritize others’ needs with or even over their own, and the others don’t always share their genes or reciprocate favors. Though the content of their thoughts may still be inherently “selfish,” it is possible that their concept of self has been warped by their interconnectivity with another person. Could it be possible for people to use their own observation of love for others to open the door to an experience they didn’t know was possible: an experience of self that does not end with the boundary of their skin?

 

 

Further reading on the subject of the self, Buddhism, animal behavior and evolutionary psychology:

Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright

Waking Up by Sam Harris

The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts

Baboon Metaphysics by Dorothy L. Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth

Categories: Animals, Culture, Humanity, Philosophy, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Big City Probs

As my time living in a large US city comes to a close, I’m reflecting on my experiences and general observances of life here. Setting aside the astronomical (and totally not worth it, in my opinion) price tag, I found Washington, DC to be clean, well laid-out, and often charming. So why would I almost never consider living in a big city again? People are dicks. 

Are you surprised? Probably not. Everyone says people in New York can be rude as hell, and DC is just a smaller, lamer New York with politicians. Gross. But I think this rule probably applies to almost every large, ambitious city on the globe.

When we live in big cities, we are surrounded on all sides by people. This is what we would traditionally call a “community.” But if you consider yourself part of a community in a big city, it’s likely your neighborhood or profession, not the greater population. It’s literally impossible to befriend everyone who crosses your path in a day, let alone everyone who lives in your city of choice. You can’t possibly remember the details of 600,000 lives. There’s an important difference between being introverted and just recognizing the futility of your social advances. In big cities, people stop being people and become hordes, numbers, and statistics.

Quite often, I just have no interest in talking to other human beings and would rather focus inward. But on rare occasions (typically when I’ve had a good amount of sunshine and food), I could fathom the idea of striking up on conversation with a stranger. Yet I still almost never do. The times I do, it’s with an individual I’m highly likely to see again. The concierge of a building I work at frequently, a person who lives in my apartment complex, you get the idea. The reason behind this is obvious: building relationships with people helps us to not only enjoy our interactions with them more, but to win their favor in the hopes it might benefit us someday.

This is what being a social animal is all about. But what happens when you force human beings together repeatedly, but remove the reward of these relationships? Rudeness. That guy on the subway who takes up two seats for no reason, the person who collides with you on the sidewalk while looking at their phone without so much of an “excuse me.” Anyone who’s lived in a city will probably complain that the people they cross paths with every day just don’t seem to give a fuck.

But why should they? For the vast majority of human history, we lived in small, nomadic hunter-gatherer bands or agricultural communities. Each individual’s survival and wellbeing relied heavily on his or her relationships with others. Be a dick to one of your neighbors, and it would almost certainly come back to bite you in the ass. Be a dick to everyone, and risk ostracization—a prescription for a swift and definitely not painless death. Much like small living spaces force people to pick up after themselves, small communities literally force people to value positive interactions with their fellow humans. Don’t shit where you eat. Once a society or gathering becomes large enough, individuals stop caring as much about how they treat one another. The likelihood that you will have to deal with someone you’ve been unpleasant to shrinks dramatically.

Still, some people in cities seam to be interested in friendship and communication, while others are walking nightmares for everyone around them. It’s not uncommon for city-dwellers to point out that upper-class folks tend to be more dickish. This goes to show that the old rules of human social structures may still apply, but only for those below a certain economic threshold. As a pleb, be a dick to your roommates, boss, or a police officer, and you’ll find yourself in a world of pain and financial trouble. But for many (a shrinking number, I’ll point out), a steady supply of magical green paper ensures beyond any doubt their needs will be met regardless of whom they piss off.

asshole

The recipe for a community of dicks goes like this: Take a bunch of people from all over the world and put them very close together. Add in the privacy obsession of sex-negative and body-shaming cultures for some reclusiveness and paranoia, if desired. Stir in a heavy dose of the individualistic ideals touted by capitalist economics. Simmer for at least a half-century.

Cash flow has replaced social support as a means of overcoming challenges, thus success and independence have eclipsed social interaction as the prime directive. Even lower class individuals will often turn to crime rather than ask family or friends for help. In capitalist society, pride is not a deadly sin but a central aspect of a person’s self worth. People respect “the hustle” more than vulnerability, honesty, and friendship. With no dollar sign on politeness and little opportunity to build lasting relationships, where does the incentive even lie for the average person to be kind? The poisonous result of this cocktail of individualism and population density does not just cause the wealthy to condescend and the impoverished to resort to crime however. It entices absolutely everyone to only look out for number one.

I’m sure many will throw up their hands in frustration and proclaim that I’m ignoring the silent kindness that goes on every day. The people who, to no apparent benefit of their own, are continually kind to every stranger they meet. These people are emblems of altruism, and the true representation of human nature. The others are just assholes. This leads me to two unsavory logical conclusions: 1) the majority, if not vast majority, of humans beings are assholes and 2) kindness is some sort of mental disease suffered by a small, but noticeable, portion of the population. However, these individuals are to be held up as “correct” human beings.

Like many bad logical pathways, this one’s error lies in an assumption early on in the reasoning: the assumption that kind people are selfless. The truth is that kind people have simply decoded the truth about the world: that independence does not make you happy,  relationships do. Many people misunderstand this to mean happiness lies in a perfect romantic partner, family, or the right number of friends. They focus on having “their people” and often end up saying “fuck you” to the rest of the world. They still fell under the spell of self-reliance and isolation that tells us there is no inherent value in non-repeatable positive interactions. And they have been severely misled.

The truth is that positive interactions, be they with strangers or long time friends, have both immediate and lasting effects on happiness. I know this because science. But I also know this because of my own day-to-day struggles. As a severely introverted and under-confident person, I typically avoid social interaction as much as possible. Conversations with people, especially strangers or casual acquaintances, are so stressful and taxing, that I feel I need an hour of solitude to recover from every one I have. However when I’m forced to let this wall down, either by work or an activity I’ve chosen to take part in, every positive experience I have improves my day.

Using cognitive behavioral therapy tactics often referred to as “taking in the good,” I dwell on these positive interactions and they create lasting impacts on my brain, helping to battle the depression and hopelessness I struggle with each day. My motivation for being kind to people could not be any more selfish. I am literally doing it to improve my own mood temporarily and my life as a whole. As far as I know, the person I have been kind to has received nothing tangible from our interaction (except for maybe some awesome customer service at the place I’m working). Yet, when I’m kind to people, they are (almost) always kind in return. My guess, which isn’t really a guess, is that they are receiving a boost from this interaction too, whether they know it or not.

Many people may never realize the degree to which they have isolated themselves. They may have a family, a good job, and friends so society tells them they’ve done everything right. But they continually search for a nonexistent community. Many find supplemental happiness in the tribal institutions of sports teams, churches, or political parties. It definitely doesn’t hurt to have a group to associate with. I know I find serious healing power in the community environment of small music festivals and artistic gatherings. In today’s world, a common interest is often the only tool we have to sift through the masses of people who exist around us, and help us decide who is worth investing our social energy in.

But what these groups really do is take the community process and turn it on its head. They allow us to decide we like people’s hobbies or opinions before we decide if we like them as people. Meanwhile these “friends” probably don’t live near you, and they probably value you more for your utility as someone to spend time with than as a trustworthy and caring member of their extended family.

Perhaps this is part of the reason so many people in the United States struggle to make friends in adulthood. While their school years gave them plenty of time to sort through the people they interacted with, deciding if they were a good fit for them or not, their work life or social group friends are just kind of, well, there. I wouldn’t exactly tell someone to drop everything in their life to pursue their old high school or college mates, but I think everyone could stand to be a little more invested in the community they build around themselves.

And hey, if you do live in a big city. Stop being such a dick. It can’t possible be worth shoving an old lady down the escalator to make your metro car. The place where you’re standing is VERY CLEARLY a thoroughfare and you’re impeding dozens of people a second with your idle chitchat about the weather. It’s rude to stare. Give a homeless person a fucking dollar while you’re standing in line to get into a overpriced club and buy drinks for people you hate. Give someone a hug. A real one. With both arms.

Categories: About me, Culture, Humanity, Lifestyle, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stop Trying so Hard to Finish Everything

Your accomplishments mean nothing. No really, I’m serious, nothing. You will die and your titles, bank accounts, possessions, and relationships will disappear, be liquidated, or slowly fade away. The end result of everything you strive to do in life is inherently meaningless.

I’m doing it again, aren’t I? Making grandiose pessimistic claims. Clearly this is the familiar writing tactic known as the hook: Draw my reader in with something dramatic, be it inspiring or deeply disquieting, and they’re stuck reading whatever nonsense I choose to follow it with. Though I won’t say I’m not using this tactic, I will say it has a greater purpose. The above statements, in my mind, are true. But only if you interpret them in the way I intend.

No one can really argue with the fact that material possessions, status, and other fruits of human life cease to mean much once the person they belonged to is dead. Your bloated bank account may go on to support generations of trust fund babies with your last name, but your decomposing ass won’t be around to know the fucking difference. I recognize that people have trouble with the concept of nonexistence. If you think human souls consciously reside in some ethereal nothingverse before and after death, that’s your own problem. I’m operating from the seemingly logical standpoint (as there’s no real evidence to the contrary) that nonexistence is just what it sounds like: the absence of the ability to experience the world. It is literally impossible to be aware, let alone enjoy, anything in the known universe when your consciousness does not exist. Moving on.

My point is not to drill into you that you will lose everything when you die. It’s an important concept to be aware of, but it doesn’t necessitate repeating at this point. What I would like to do is place emphasis on the phrases accomplishment and success. These are the end caps of journeys and experiences. The little star you get when you turn in your paper. The trophy. The diploma. You get the idea. People are obsessed with accomplishing things. Most of us would probably skip to-do in favor of instant to-done if we had the option. When people are obsessively goal-oriented, you get millionaires who can’t stop being entrepreneurs and folks who pay thousands of dollars to have sherpas carry their shit up to Everest base camp so they can get the “climbed Mt. Everest” star.

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Fucking cool: Now what?

I’m lazy so I would never fathom trying to climb a mountain. But I did notice my own obsession with accomplishment in the compulsion to finish books. If I didn’t get to the appendix, it was like I might has well have not even opened it in the first place. I needed to finish it to mark it off as done. I needed the accomplishment of reading that book. What I realized after some time is that nothing actually happens when you finish a book. When you turn the last page, you just close the damn thing and put it back on the shelf. No fireworks. No accolades. No one even knows you finished the book unless you tell them. Often, these accomplishments aren’t just meaningless after death, they are meaningless in life unless you decide to make a big deal out of them to other people.

One of the most liberating decisions of my adult life was to decide I didn’t have to finish books. I could read a book until it no longer felt interesting or important, than put it back on the shelf and possibly never look at it again. I no longer waste my time forcing myself to get to the end of a work of nonfiction that kind of fizzles out, or past the excruciatingly slow beginning of a novel (though sometimes this is worth it if you know something great is coming). There are literally millions of books out there. Why deprive yourself of a good one by using your limited attention on a bad one?

The obsession with finishing things comes from our focus on accomplishments, instead of the actual act of doing something. It has a lot to do with concept of the “disease of more,” which pushes us to constantly strive for new goals without even enjoying the ones we already surpassed. Yet, it’s hard to tell someone to revel in their success without encouraging them to act like an ass. How exactly do you enjoy success other than thinking about or telling people how awesome you are? I would challenge people to go a step further and not even focus on enjoying the success. Focus on what happens before. Focus on the struggle to make incremental improvements towards your goal. Focus on the, well, focus of your mind and/or body it takes to work on your goals. Revel in the fact that you are actually doing something with your life, when you could literally just sit around for 82 years and then die.

It’s not just the obsession with success that causes this problem for people, but our culture’s failure-phobia. Americans love inspirational quotes about never giving up and persevering against all odds. This culture is useful in much the same way teaching everyone to be a leader is useful (spoiler alert: it’s not). If you teach everyone to be a leader, you end up with a bunch of loud people who think they should all be giving orders while no one can listen their way out of a cardboard box. If you teach everyone to incessantly pursue their goals until an endpoint, because “failure” is not an option, you end up with a bunch of people killing themselves to finish things with very little benefit to themselves or society (and probably not enjoying it along the way).

Sometimes you just have to give up. But I would argue that giving up is synonymous with failure only in rare cases. To me, the word failure only applies when you actually eroded yourself in the attempt. Quitting rehab and relegating yourself to being a crack addict would be considered a failure. Letting your friendships atrophy when you move away to a new city would, in most cases, be considered a failure (unless your friends really sucked). In most situations though, the only things “lost” by a supposed “failure” are time and/or money. As I’ve previously stated, money is inherently meaningless and while I can’t say the same for time, chances are if you were wasting it before you quit you sure as hell would have been wasting it if you hadn’t. Payouts at the end of a struggle don’t give you back any of your time, they only serve to make you feel as if you haven’t wasted it.

Unless your goals are really out there, you probably have to do some learning and personal growth to attempt to achieve them. This doesn’t all evaporate when you end the pursuit. My experience working in a startup wasn’t erased from my brain the second I left. Sure, quitting a job you hate after two months doesn’t really look good on a resumé. But people often delude themselves into thinking career prospects are their only reasons for staying, when in reality it’s pure failure-phobia.

Next time you find yourself struggling to finish something you hate, do an experiment and try quitting. See if the universe implodes. Obviously, don’t be a dick. You should probably finish writing that birthday card for your mom and scooping your cat’s litter box. But quitting things that don’t affect anyone other than yourself can be shockingly empowering. Accomplishing things can often feel like taking charge, but really you may just be stumbling downhill, gaining speed as you go but loosing the ability to stop or change course. Choosing to withhold your time, energy, and attention can bring back a sense of control and serve as a reminder that you’re driving this fucked up train called life.

Categories: Advice, Culture, Humanity, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Hello, I’m poor.”

The past few weeks I’ve been trying (and succeeding I might add) to sell my old playstation 2 and games since I don’t really play it much anymore and it’s just taking up space at this point. In doing so I’ve had more strangers visit my apartment than I would ever normally expect. It was interesting to observe the reactions of the people when they finally managed to find my teeny tiny remodeled motel of an apartment “complex” and then my teeny tiny apartment all the way in the back. More than one of the strangers said something to the effect of “I didn’t even realize these were apartments” or “I thought this was a motel”, which is totally to be expected, I thought the same thing when I went to visit the place before signing a lease.

I didn’t think anything of it really until today, when the guy who was coming in to buy my controllers had trouble opening the door with my ill-fitted draft protector from amazon wedged awkwardly beneath it. “Sorry” I said, laughing as I fixed the cumbersome thing, “I’m poor and this helps with the electric”. Before he left, he asked why I was selling my playstation. “Well I don’t really use it much anymore and I’m poor, so…” I said, laughing again. He seemed mildly taken aback that I was so fond of referring to myself as “poor” but laughed politely and took his leave.

After the encounter I thought to myself, why am I so quick to say that? By all rational consideration, I am not poor. I work a job that pays well above minimum wage, I live in a safe area of town in an apartment by myself, I’m never hungry, etc. I’m also not ashamed of my lifestyle in any way. I find extravagance to be far more embarrassing and hope that people never assume I’m wealthy or spoiled. I think me countering with “I’m poor” is a sort of shortcut because I don’t want to give the whole answer. I don’t want to explain why I’d rather have a little extra cash than things I don’t really need, or that my apartment looks like a motel because it totally is one and I love the location and size, or why I choose not to work full-time. It’s easier for people to understand my choices if I just communicate in the most clear way that I don’t have a lot of money to throw around.

Being poor in a developing country or in blighted inner-city neighborhoods here in the US can mean spending most of your day worrying about how you’re going to eat or where you’re going to sleep. For that reason, it seems utterly insulting to compare my lifestyle to that of someone who actually struggles with poverty. Yet our culture of consumption is so strong that if a person is not actively consuming as much as they can, people start to question your choices. Amassing things and space you don’t need is a sign of happiness and wealth so by this logic, selling off possessions and taking up as little space as possible must be sign of desperation and poverty.

I wish more people would develop the distaste for extravagance I have and embrace the liberating experience of discovering what you actually need to be happy. Once you start viewing runaway consumption for what it is—an act of violence on the rest of the resource-consuming world for taking up far more than your fair share—it is rather hard to go back to thinking you really need a hummer or three video game consoles. I think the tiny house movement and the “hipster” popularization of thrift shopping, local food, and other money and/or resource-saving escapades are steps in the right direction, but I also think they are often taken for the wrong reasons. Fads can only take a movement so far until they get watered down into completely appearance-based phenomena and suddenly you have people paying two million dollars for designer tiny homes and several hundred for used suits. When this happens, the movement’s credibility is lost entirely and everyone goes back to hating hipsters.

So the question really becomes, how do we make being “poor” acceptable, even cool? By this I of course mean that choosing to work less, spend less, and accumulate less isn’t viewed as being poor or even as being a hipster, but as being sensible and making choices that prioritize quality of life over quantity of stuff.

Categories: About me, Culture, Lifestyle, Money, Thoughts, Waste | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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