Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Hunger

Question: What is the single greatest tragedy to befall humankind?

The Holocaust? Darfur? The tsunami of Christmas 2004?

I believe the greatest tragedy to befall humankind is the creation of "want".

I was watching the Today Show this morning, and as part of the set, the staff constructed a 40 foot long aqarium, in which they placed the usual suspects for a North American reef: surgeonfish, a moray eel, a stingray, a couple of horseshoe crabs, and a black tip reef shark, along with a plethora of other reef fish that, to put it bluntly, are herbivorous. Bait, in other words.

You might think that this would make for some compelling television. After all, Shark Week on The Discovery Channel gathers some of their highest ratings each year. People like to tune in to see nature in the raw.

Surprise, surprise: no one got eaten. Why is that?

Animals eat when they need to eat. Period. There's no forethought that, gee, in five hours, I'm going to be hungry so let me pre-feed. Animals live in the moment, mostly because otherwise their watches would be wrong.

Only humans seem to demonstrate the capacity to think about the future, and to plan for an abstract event. Similarly, and I think hand in hand, humans devised a clever precept: "want."

Humans have the same basic physical needs as any animal: food and shelter (we need clothing too, but that's more because we find hairy backs repulsive), and procreation of the species. Once you've satisfied those basic needs, the human mind can kick in and explore its environment. It's this "mind" place where things get tricky. Suddenly, we've constructed a mass of neuroses and paranoids: does he like me? Will she have sex with me? Can I keep this job? What about the people dying in Iraq?

Does any of this matter? Well, yes, some of it does: global warming is a very serious threat to the sanctity of both food and shelter. So is having sex and passing along your genetic material, which means a bigger shelter and more food.

Most of our day to day concerns are pretty abstract, though, and speak more to the comfort of our existence as opposed to the singluarity of it. Just look at any war if you want an example.

There's a book and a movie that are very popular now called The Secret. I confess, I spent ninety minutes and downloaded the program. It's pretty interesting stuff, all about the power of intention and how just asking for what you want can bring it to you, if you clear negative thoughts from your life.

And that's where I started laughing and haven't stopped. "Negative thoughts" are....what, precisely?

For isn't "wanting something" in itself a negative thought? Life is, after all, a zero sum game, and for every Nintendo Wii I buy, that's a) one less Wii for others to own, b) all those lost resources and clean air and water spent to provide me with that Wii (plastic doesn't grow on trees, you know!) and c) money spent that could have been spent elsewhere or better still, saved for a real need.

Now, I know what Rhonda Byrnes (and her carafe of teachers) means: negativity=hatred, to be replaced by love. And yet, it's still about want. It's still about that mass of neurons called a "mind". It's still about ego. And it's still about weakness, a desire that is overpowering your better sense.

The secret of The Secret is that by disciplining yourself to let go of what is holding you back, you will magically (and I do mean magically) find yourself being what you want to be and having what you want to have.

OK, nothing wrong with that, except...what do you want to be? What do you want to have? Is being rich, or having an Academy Award, or marrying the most beautiful mate, something you really want?

And if it requires a carrot at the end of a stick for you to undergo the self-examination needed to find out what you want and to put aside the things that hold you back, then what kind of discipline are you really pursuing? Emotional brainwashing?

It sounds like this to me. Humans are, well, human. We're all kinds of feelings and emotions. We're "beings". And this kind of stuff is about "doing". And it scares me a little to see that we're encouraging this in a society that needs less wanting and more being. All around us is a world that cries out for our participation, and yet here we are, cocooning ourselves in a blanket of self-indulgent pseudoscience, and pulling the covers over our heads. And paying for the privilege of doing so.

Better we should get out in the world, and as our long-dead ancestors risen from the veldts of Africa did, explore. In the exploration, we will discover who we are.

And what we want.