Authenticity, Being True To Yourself, Community, Creativity, Culture, Environment, Ethics, Freedom, Goals, Happiness, Human Nature, Idealism, Ideas, Ideologies, Intelligence, Life, Living, Meaning, Morality, Morals, Obligations to Society, Political Ideologies, Purpose, Quality of Life, Reason, Self, Self-determination, Self-Integration, Self-Realization, Society, Spirituality, Talents and Skills, Values

My Ideal Adult Human

(About a 9 minute read)

Now and then, I ask people on the internet what their ideal adult human is.  Almost inevitably, at least one or two people respond by asking me why there should be an ideal adult human.  It’s a good question.

There seem to be three major reasons — and possibly a fourth — for thinking about what one’s ideal adult human would be.  The first is to get a clearer and perhaps more insightful view of what one thinks would by the best possible society to live in — the good society, so to speak.

For instance, it would be inconsistent to hold optimizing personal freedoms as the hallmark of a good society if you also thought the ideal adult human was a mindless cog slaving away to support and grow the economy.  One of those would not lead to the other in any practical scheme of things.

Continue reading “My Ideal Adult Human”

Authenticity, Being True To Yourself, Consciousness, Cultural Traits, Culture, Don, Environment, Human Nature, Life, Meaning, Nature, Quality of Life, Self, Self Identity, Self Image, Society, Spirituality, Wilderness

Along the Phantom Canyon Road

(About a 5 minute read)

Earlier, Don and I drove out of town south into a hazy fall afternoon. We speculated the haze could be coming from the large California fires, for there seemed no other source for it. It’s happened before that smoke has drifted hundreds of miles into Colorado from large fires as far away as California. Was that happening today?

No way of to be certain. But the distant mountains to the south and west were obscured by the haze while above us the sky still embraced the royal blue depth of a perfect autumn day.

I hadn’t driven south of Colorado Springs in well over two years. You forget how beautiful the hills and canyons are. The colors are mostly understated and subtle in the fall. Olive junipers dot the yellow grasses, cling to the sandy red cliffs like freckles. The deeper greens of ponderosa and pinon pines crowd the junipers, and the scrub oak has copper leaves. All respectable earth tones. But then along the water courses, the light bursts as it falls onto the luminous yellow leaves of the cottonwoods.

Gorges and canyons, mesas and buttes. The land seems eternal here. It’s hard to believe people own it — you think more of the land owning them.

There’s defiance of the land in some of the houses people have built. Houses whose architecture is traditional in distant parts of America — in the northeast, for instance — but not here in Colorado. You can’t look at those houses without imagining some newcomer has tried to transplant a bit of the lush eastern United States, complete with well watered bluegrass lawns, to the rocky, thin soils of the arid west. Maybe he got homesick for a more congenial landscape. Maybe he’s in denial he no longer lives in Massachusetts, Georgia or Kentucky. Whatever the case, it’s not really your problem — yet in this land, his home is an alien.

Some miles south of the Springs, Don and I turned off the main road and, after a few miles, entered Phantom Canyon. Phantom Canyon is a narrow gorge whose rock walls rise 150 or 200 feet. It winds for miles up into the Rocky Mountains — right into the heart of the high gold country. The road changed from asphalt to gravel, and then from gravel to earth. The walls were mostly red rock deeply fractured by the weather, like an old man’s face; and brilliant cottonwoods lined the floor of the canyon.

It’s strange how in some parts of Colorado you can see everywhere the evidence of people — you are after all, traveling a road built by people — and yet you almost feel you are the first person to explore the land. Twice in the Canyon cars passed us coming from the other direction and each time the occupants waved to us as if we were the first people they’d seen all month. I think that feeling of being a little bit beyond the boundaries of society doesn’t just come from the scarcity of people on the Phantom Canyon road. I think it comes from the way the world rises up 150 to 200 feet above you. I think it comes from the way the trees, the grasses, and the brush obey their own laws — not some gardener’s laws. I think it comes from the uncivilized quiet that confronts you when you finally stop and step out of your car. But whatever the source of it, the effect is to give you a slightly different perspective on yourself.

It’s not the beauty of nature that most inspires me to reflect on myself. Nature is not always beautiful. But nature is always indifferent. And it’s that indifference that inspires both thought and feeling about the human condition.

You can never really put what you learn about yourself from nature in words because what you learned, you didn’t learn from words. Rather, you simply experienced a truth. You can write all the commentaries you want about your experiences, but you cannot recreate them through those commentaries. Words never brought a fractured rock cliff into existence.

At times, it seems that societies revolve around the ego. Perhaps it can even seem they are huge conspiracies to make the ego primary in this world. I think the ego is just as much a part of us — of who we are as a species — as our eyes and noses, and I reject any ideology that calls for the permanent annihilation of the ego. Yet, I don’t think the ego is of primary importance. I think it has its place, but that place is not central.

I believe I see that most clearly when I am out in nature, away from society, away from its tendency to make the ego primary. Yet, it is also out in nature when I feel I am being most true to myself. Is that a paradox?

Originally published October 28, 2007.

Authenticity, Authoritarianism, Bad Ideas, Class War, Cultural Change, Culture, Environment, Ethics, Free Spirit, Freedom and Liberty, Happiness, Human Nature, Hunter/Gatherers, Idealism, Ideologies, Life, Morality, Morals, Obligations to Society, Oppression, Political and Social Alienation, Political Ideologies, Politicians and Scoundrels, Quality of Life, Religion, Religious Ideologies, Self, Self-Realization, Society, Values

The Limits of Being True to Yourself

Like most Americans, I devote far too much time to thinking I’m a grizzly.

Grizzlies are a solitary species who can survive by themselves without the aide of any other grizzlies, and — as the world knows — most Americans believe themselves to be rugged individualists who can survive alone without the aide of any other Americans, excepting only the 90% of their lives when they can’t.

Despite any appearances to the contrary, I was born resenting authority, social pressures to conform, the powers of both the government and the uber-wealthy, and leash laws for dogs.  I have only grudgingly come to an understanding in middle age of the legitimacy of many of the claims society makes on us.  But I still rebelliously ask, “Why must it be this way?”

Of course, the short answer to that question is: Human nature.  Some pretty conclusive science shows that our brains are to an extent hardwired to deal with living in groups, and there is even a theory now that the very size of our brains is an evolutionary result of social living.  Annoying as it might be to us wannabe grizzlies, the evidence is substantial that we are a social species.

Yet, the recognition that we are a social animal can be taken too far, for we are not even close to being as social as some species.  Mole rats and honeybees are both far more social than us.  No, humans are more like an improbable mix of social and solitary animal.  That mix is the root of much conflict.

History shows a perennial tension between the rights or claims of society and the rights or claims of the individual.  Homo sapiens have been around for about 200,000 years.  During most of that time we lived in relatively small, more or less egalitarian groups of hunter/gathers.  Those groups left no historical records, but from what might be known of them by studying the last very few hunting/gathering groups left on earth, they not only tended to be egalitarian, but they also leaned towards individualism.  There wasn’t much difference in power or authority between people.  Everyone had a voice in group decisions.  And even leaders could not typically compel people to follow them, but usually had to persuade them  to do so.

All of that began to change about 5,500 years ago when the first complex, hierarchical societies were invented in what is today Southeastern Iraq.  Now you have distinct, hereditary ranks in society: Royalty, nobles, commoners.  And you also have the invention of alarming, new ideologies justifying the ranks.  These ideologies almost always take the form of “The social order was created by the gods, and the gods want us to stick with it”.  In general, these complex, hierarchical societies have tended throughout history to lean unpleasantly towards the social conformity side of human nature.   Which is a mild way of putting the fact that, for the most part, they have trod very heavily on individual human rights.

Of course, the rights of the individual are crucially important to anyone concerned with being true to his or herself.  The tragedy has been not merely that complex, hierarchical societies have trod heavily on human rights, but that they have for the most part done so unnecessarily.   For instance, in many times and places, cheerfully suggesting that the ruler was an imbecile could easily get you murdered by the government.  And it still can in some places.  But today we have many examples of societies that somehow manage to endure and even thrive despite the fact nearly everyone in them is absolutely convinced their rulers are imbeciles.  Criminalizing such things, and murdering the people who indulge in them, is not only immoral, but unnecessary to protecting the social order as well.  Yet overall, doing so has been largely the norm for complex, hierarchical societies.

So are there any limits to being true to yourself that your society can legitimately impose on you?

Well, I think there are two general areas in which your society has a right to impose limits on your being true to yourself.  First I think it has a right to require you to be socially responsible even if that means you can’t always be true to yourself.

By “socially responsible” I mean that your society has a right to obligate you to (1) respect the rights of others, and (2) to cooperate in promoting the general welfare.  Basically, that means (1) that you cannot abridge someone’s rights merely because you would be true to yourself to do so, and (2) you cannot dodge your obligation to help in promoting the general welfare merely in order to be true to yourself.

To give examples: Your society can demand that you do not steal from someone, and thus deprive them of their property rights, even though stealing from them would be a case of your being true to yourself.  Furthermore, your society can demand that you pay taxes to support public schools, since public education promotes the general welfare, even though paying taxes might in some cases deprive you of money you could otherwise use to more fully express yourself.

Second, I think your society also has a right to require you in some circumstances to be environmentally responsible even though that might mean you cannot always be true to yourself.

By “environmentally responsible”, I mean your society has a limited right to obligate you to help create or preserve a livable environment not just for yourself and other humans, but for other species as well.  I say “in some circumstances” because I can imagine how giving your society an unlimited right to compel you to help create or preserve a livable environment could easily result in tyrannous acts.  “By the way, your government has decided to demolish your house and return your land to its natural state.  Please vacate by Saturday.”

So, to my thinking, those are the two general ways that society can legitimately limit our right to be true to ourselves.  Of course, it is endlessly debatable how they should be applied in practice.  But then, what isn’t endlessly debatable these days?

Every society has an image (and most often more than just one image) of what is an ideal human.   In all too many complex, hierarchical societies the ideal for the elites has been notably different from the ideal for the commoners.  The elites are encouraged to be true to themselves; the commoners are encouraged to suppress themselves in the interests of maintaining the social order.

At times in ancient Greece, the ideal for an adult male elite was to become a socially responsible individual.  That is, he was expected to fulfill certain obligations to his polis, or city-state, and also to develop himself as an individual in order to live a full and happy life.  Today it seems possible to build on that ideal by expanding it to include everyone — man or woman, elite or not elite — and adding to it an obligation to not only be socially responsible, but also environmentally responsible.  The tragedy is, as always, that governors, the uber-rich (who often own the governors), and other elites too often oppose the realization of such ideals for selfish reasons.  Hence, a perennial theme of human history has been — and perhaps always will be — the tension between the individual and society.

Environment, Ideologies, Late Night Thoughts, Meaning, Nature, Quality of Life, Religion, Spirituality, Suzanne

Instincts We Never Knew Before Were So Powerful

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

~Henry David Thoreau, 1854

It’s a minor mystery why we sometimes wake up with something on our mind that we haven’t thought about in a long while. This morning, I woke up to an especially vivid recollection of a small herd of mule deer that Suzanne and I spotted on a midnight hike along a wilderness trail some years ago.   The deer moved soundlessly, like ghosts, in the bright moonlight.

It is moments like that one during which I feel most alive.

There are people whose religion is nature.  Thoreau was most likely one of those people.  So, too, are quite a few of the folks I’ve met here in the Springs.

Colorado Springs is, in some ways, an undesirable place to live.   Local politics is dominated by ideologues whose knee-jerk opposition to taxes recently translated into the City cutting back on police and fire fighters, and even shutting off every other street light, in order to save money.  Yet, the Springs is superbly located.  The Colorado wilderness begins less than a 30 minute drive from the City’s downtown.  If you are among those people who can find a ground or center for themselves in nature, the Springs is a good place to live.

I don’t know why it is, but churches have never affected me like a wilderness hike, an afternoon spent soaking in a warm mountain spring, the play of sunlight on lake waves, or the call of coyotes to the red sun.

It’s up in the mountains the risk of hypothermia is a more serious demand on our attention than all the world’s talk of salvation; it’s there the wind blowing through the ponderosa can roar like a river that carries our thoughts away; and it’s there when a lion looks at us, we feel the rise of primeval instincts we never knew before were so powerful.

It seems to me the “essential facts of life” are neither ideological, nor intellectual, but are instead existential.  And, perhaps, we are most often closest to those essential facts when we are “in the woods” or “up in the mountains”, so to speak.

Art, Beauty, Environment, Language, Love, Meaning, Nature, Quality of Life, Quotes, Spirituality, Ugliness

“A Language Older by Far and Deeper than Words”, by Derrick Jensen

There is a language older by far and deeper than words.  It is the language of bodies, of body on body, wind on snow, rain on trees, wave on stone.  It is the language of dream, gesture, symbol, memory.  We have forgotten this language.  We do not even remember that it exists.

~ Derrick Jensen


Abstinence Only Sex Ed, Adolescent Sexuality, Behavioral Genetics, Biology, Culture, Environment, Family, Genetics, Health, Learning, Nature, Psychology, Science, Sexuality, Society

Your Genes Could Influence When You First Let Someone in Your Jeans

Over the last few years, I’ve been deeply impressed with the understanding of human nature that is emerging from behavioral genetics.  When I was growing up, folks would passionately debate whether one or another behavior was inherited through our genes or simply learned.  There were many people who took the position that all human behavior was learned, and that only “lesser” animals inherited some of their behaviors.

Yet, nowadays, it seems behavioral genetics and related fields are demonstrating that nearly every major human behavior has both some basis in our genes and some basis in our learning.  The question seems no longer whether a behavior is genetic or learned, but how much it is one or the other.

If a recent study of twins proves to be reliable science, then our genes somehow influence the age at which we first have intercourse.  I don’t have access to the actual study, though, so I am only repeating here a little bit of what’s come out in the media.  Always a risky business.

At any rate, the study was conducted on 59 pairs of twins — some of them identical, and some fraternal.  I assume each pair of twins had been raised apart, which would provide the researchers with evidence of whether an individual’s behavior was the result of her genes or the result of the social environment that the individual was raised in.

The study found that about a third of the variation in ages at which individuals first had intercourse could be explained by their genes.  If that’s true, then genes have a much more modest influence on the age of first sex than they do on such things as height and intelligence.

I should note the study is not the first to find a link between genes and the age at which people first have intercourse — at least one earlier study found something similar — but this new study seems to be the first one to specifically focus on  how much of a role genes play in the timing of first intercourse.

Another thing to note is the study does not necessarily imply there exists a gene or genes that determine the age at which we lose our virginity.  Instead, it’s quite possible that our genes influence the age we lose our virginity in indirect ways — such as making us relatively more adventurous than others, which might then lead to our losing the Scarlet “V” earlier than others.

I wonder if this new study has any implications for abstinence only sex education?  What do you think?

Environment, Nature, Society

Chris Down from the Mountains

Some long time ago, Chris spent a month out of contact with the world most of us move in: The urban world.  Instead, he camped in the high wilderness, isolated by mountains.

What was that like? He told me once.

Or, rather, he told me what it was like to return.  It seemed the city assaulted him, he said.  He arrived in the evening, and everything seemed out of whack, out of tune.  The headlamps of cars were too steady and bright.  The orange streetlights were surreal.  The noises unearthly.

And the smells?  The pungent smell of burning petroleum dominated everything, he said.  It clung to the air, hinting of suffocation, no matter which way he turned.

Now, I’ve never stayed an entire month in the wilderness, but after just a few days camping out,  I’ve noticed many of the curious changes Chris spoke about — albeit in milder forms.  As near as I can figure it out, our senses are overwhelmed in an urban environment and respond by shutting down to an extent.  After some time in the wilderness, however, they become sharper and more acute.  Consequently, when we return to the city, our senses are for a while almost painfully sensitive.  At least, that seems to me part of it.

Has anyone else had a similar experience?

I wonder if there might be other ways in which we experience things differently after a long time in the wilderness?