Updated: Jan 31, 2020
The six metaphors I discussed in the previous post are not the only ones that people have held. Metaphors used in other times and places are quite different: we are plants in a garden, growing, blooming, bearing, and dying. We are demi-gods. We are bees in a hive, we are drops in the ocean, we are links in the great Chain of Being. We can try these and other metaphors on for size if they are useful – and I think they are. But for a minute, let’s get away from the metaphors altogether and just look at ourselves with the naked eye. This is what I observe.
Humans are physical beings. We have physical senses, designed to teach us constantly about our surroundings. We pick stuff up, put it in our mouths, smell it, toss it up in the air, shake it next to our ears and listen for what it does. At least, we did before we could just search for it on the internet.
Humans feel physical pain and pleasure. Those are both monumentally important sensations to us, and we direct our lives – if we are sane – to decrease pain and increase pleasure. All of the acts that keep us alive give us pleasure; things that are dangerous to life give us pain. On some level we know this, even if our appetites for pain and pleasure are disordered.
All humans have evolved ways to respond to our natural environment. We have evolved intelligence to recognize what is edible or poisonous, friendly or hostile, safe or dangerous. We have reserves of strength and speed that enable us to do extraordinary feats when we need to. We can discern the color, temperature, shape, texture, size, and speed of things around us and make snap judgments of what to do about them. And we are energized and exhilarated by using the mental and physical tools we’ve evolved, even if nowadays we only use them in Jeopardy or flag football. Unfortunately, modern Westerners seem to be hellbent on undermining these abilities and ceding them to machines and artificial intelligence, but we have not yet eradicated them. They are still there to be revived.
We create culture around us the way a snail grows a shell. And culture in turn shapes who we are and what we can do. We can no more live without culture than a snail can live without its shell. The nature-versus-nurture argument may be useful in a laboratory as the parameters for a particular experiment, but it is an irrelevant question in the real world. The only answer to the question, “Is this trait genetic or does it derive from how we were raised?” is “Yes.”
Humans must have other people. We may not always like them, but we cannot live without them. A baby raised with all the warmth and nutrition it needs will still “fail to thrive” – generally it will die – if it doesn’t have a human body and human voice to interact with. And human contact is not only intellectual but also physical. There is no such thing, really, as an online community.
Humans have an inner life. We think thoughts about things that are not in front of us and imagine things that have never existed. We wonder about the past and the future. We have an innate sense that there are things that are right and wrong, even if we don’t always agree about what those things are. (And if you want to object that the moral sense is not innate but is culturally imposed, then see nature versus nurture point above – it doesn’t matter.)
Humans generate language. We name things. By the names we give things we categorize them, judge them, and explain them. All languages have systems that make inherent sense to us, even as we recognize their inconsistencies.
Humans make stories. We tell jokes and laugh at them; we perceive ironies in the universe around us. We sing and dance and paint. All of us make things that are “unnecessary” for life – we grow flowers as well as food, we decorate our functional items, and we spend as much time and energy and creativity on making musical instruments as we do on “practical” inventions. Beauty moves us to tears. In fact, we cry for many reasons.
We know we’re going to die, and we don’t want to. We wonder what is beyond death. We try to imagine a system other than linear, chronological time to give order to the universe. We ponder beginnings and endings and ultimate causes. This starts very early in life.
If this is what human beings are, then our current metaphors fall far short of capturing us in our complexity. And if this is what we are, what should our institutions look like? In thinking what size and shape our culture ought to be, we have to measure ourselves, just as the shoemaker, to make a comfortable shoe, must measure the foot. In upcoming posts on this blog, I want to look at aspects of our culture and try to imagine how they could change to fit us.
Most current systems of reform or innovation start with some measure other than the human being – they begin with wanting to save money, or increase efficiency, or serve some ideological or philosophical model that has just occurred to thinkers who will probably not live to see the results of their ideas. I take the person as my measure; because people do not exist in a vacuum but are part of the larger natural environment and have evolved to respond to it, I also try to suggest institutions and practices that are sustainable within the limits of nature. Try, if you can, to set aside the inevitable questions of “How can we afford this? Or “What will we do with all of our current infrastructure, then?” or “How drastically do I have to change my life?” Just imagine; play with the ideas. Discover what’s truly important.