Alienation, Community, Cultural Change, Cultural Traits, Culture, Evolution, Goals, Happiness, Health, Human Nature, Meaning, Play, Purpose, Quality of Life, Society, Spiritual Alienation, Spirituality, Values, Work

Out of Our Element

Extremely colorful sunsets are rare in this part of Colorado.  The mountains begin about ten miles to the West, and the sun usually slips down behind them without doing much to set the clouds on fire.  A little color is typical, a lot of color is not.  Yet, the other day, we had one of our rare truly colorful sunsets.

It was a riot of color just as I was entering a neighborhood store for a quick purchase.  No one but myself and the cashier was in the store at the time, and I mentioned it to her.  Her eyes lit up, she got a huge grin on her face, and she started towards the door.  But at that moment, two customers arrived, so she retreated behind her register.  I went on my way.

It would be easy to make too much of that one incident, but it seems to illustrate — albeit in a very small way — a problem many of us have with “modern” life.  That is, in some ways our lifestyle conflicts with our simply enjoying life.  On the most trivial level, we might wish to see a fleeting sunset, but we cannot take the time for it.  On a perhaps more meaningful level, we might wish to spend more time with our children, but we have to dedicate our days — and perhaps even many of our evenings or weekends — to work.

Of course, it would be absurd to suggest our species has ever been absolutely free of such conflicts.  But it is not absurd to suggest that such conflicts might have dramatically increased about 6,500 to 5,500 years ago.  That’s when “modern” life got its start on the plains of Sumer.  And — apparently — modern life meant for most of us a longer working day.

Before the rise of civilization, we lived in small groups and made our living by hunting animals and gathering plants.  According to some scientists, those groups fortunate enough to live in the richer territories where there was a lot of available food had to work as few as two hours a day to sustain themselves.   Yet, after agriculture and hierarchical civilization replaced hunting/gathering and its relatively egalitarian social order, most people found themselves working dawn to dusk on the farm.

Now, I do not wish to look at this in black and white terms.  After all, none of us, so far as I know, are TV pundits.  There are clear advantages and disadvantages to any lifestyle, whether hunting/gathering, early farming, or one of today’s lifestyles.  But the thought occurs to me that our species of super-ape evolved to live in a much different world than we now live in.  That is, we are — psychologically, biologically, sociologically, and so forth — out of our element today.  At least in some ways and to various extents.  It might be interesting, then, to understand all the consequences of being “out of our element”.

17 thoughts on “Out of Our Element”

  1. I wish we could learn to watch the sunset, or breath in the air, it would do everyone good. I wish we could live in a place of utter silence, even if only for a short time, but they are hard to find. I just finished reading CLOUD ATLAS which points out that we will ultimately destroy ourselves, and return back to simpler times because we will have no choice.


    1. I wish we could live in a place of utter silence, even if only for a short time…

      I spent an afternoon in a high mountain pasture once some years ago. It seemed that nothing stirred — not even a breeze or an insect — for hours. As close as I’ve come to being outdoors and in silence too. Normally, something is always happening in nature.


  2. We are out of our element in so many ways. I do spend time wondering what the long term consequences are. As hunter gatherers we face a health crisis due to the abundance of unhealthy and enormously portioned food at restaurants and grocery stores everywhere as well as the relative lack of physical effort required to gather this food!

    I certainly sense a discontent within myself when I’m unable to spend time in nature.I don’t know what the consequences are, but there have to be some for those of us shut up indoors and so surrounded by buildings that we can’t enjoy sunsets, fresh air, birds flying about, etc. It lights up my day to watch goldfinches at my sunflowers or to sit and contemplate a rippling pond.

    I don’t comment much, but I have appreciated discovering your blog. Very interesting and unique place to be.


    1. I get to feeling the same way, DoOrDoNot. If I stay away from the wilderness for too long, I begin to feel out of sorts, discontent, and a bit overwhelmed.

      Thank you for your kind words.


  3. When I was around 20, the 2000s were heralded as the period when man would be released of much of his work by robots, long hours toiling in the kitchen would be replaced by pill meals, cars would drive themselves and we were to be in an age of leisure.
    Granted some luxury cars now park themselves, some workers have been replaced by robots and we have food supplements…but leisure time is very far away for most people not retired and the economy sets retirement age ever further away. Welcome to “freedom 75”.


    1. From what I understand, Paul, it would be simple enough to bring about quite an increase in leisure and income. All that would need happen is any increases in productivity got split half and half between owners and labor. But that’s not going to happen now that the unions are gone.


  4. I wonder if Seasonal Affective Disorder is caused/exacerbated by the fact that we maintain pretty much the same sleeping/waking/working schedule during the short days of winter as we do during the long days of summer. Maybe we feel “depressed” and want to go to sleep because our ancestors did sleep through more of those dark hours than we do today.


  5. Very wise and thoughtful post.
    One can derive from this an understanding of how and why religion has evolved among us. Primitive man-like creatures lived in a dangerous and frightening world, spending every waking hour in trying to avoid disaster, while still needing to find anough food and water to sustain themselves and thir offspring. When circumstances developed wherein the need to find food became less demanding, they were able to try to find better ways to avoid being eaten themselves. This led to efforts to control their environment, culminating in the “need” to propitiate the “gods” they had created in their own minds to explain why, for example, the sun “went away” for long periods of time or why many of their children failed to survive in spite of thier best efforts to sustain them.
    We still live in a dangerous and frightening world, the only difference being that we have and continue to create many of the dangers, even as we have gained more control of the natural ones. The price for this control has been our self-imposed “need” to work, at the expense of our ability to enjoy any of the benefits of leisure that our societal advancements may have provided.


  6. The problem I see is that we’re just not a species that is used to working in large social units. Most of us have a few friends, relatives, and so forth we keep in touch with. We value these people far more than we value most others. The less we know people, the more likely we are to not care what happens to them, or to be hostile to them.

    Back when we were HGs, that was a pretty good way to organize social thinking. There was your band, any bands they might be friendly with, and potential or actual adversaries. There was no reason to think about all those other folks, because they were either adversaries or not important.

    That sort of thinking doesn’t translate very well to trying to be part of a nation state, but that’s what we’re doing, I think.


    1. Very well put.

      I live in Pittsburgh, which is friendly city on the whole. However, it can be hard to “break in” socially. There are still a lot of multi-generation extended families in this town, sometimes with two or three generations of adults sharing the same home. It’s great that people have so much support, but I see how some individuals limit themselves. On several occasions, people well into their thirties and forties have told me, “Well, I really just spend time with my family and cousins and some people I went to high school with.”


      1. I grew up on the other end of the state, in the Lehigh Valley area (near Allentown). It’s much the same there. The town I spent my teenage years never felt like home – I was always an outsider.

        There’s a lot of that sort of thing in Pennsylvania. I think that’s one of the reasons I’m so familiar with this aspect of human nature.


    2. It’s certainly one of the key problems with our species that we now live in societies vastly larger and more complex than anything we evolved to understand. There are so many other problems are either derived from that one or influenced by that one.


  7. A friend of mine swears that the story of Eden and the Fall was written to describe the move from a hunter gatherer society to an agricultural one. I think he has a point, and thus, “original sin” becomes moving away from our evolutionary hertiage of hunter gatherer society. As you say here, that move is certainly the cause of many of modern man’s “sins”.


    1. BrandonE,

      Thank you for sharing that. I never stopped before to think about why there is a conflict between a shepherd, Cain, and a farmer, Abel. Cain may kill Abel, but Abel prevails morally. I wonder if there were earlier versions of the story where Cain was a hunter.


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