CAERS SUBSTACK ARTICLE #70
CAERS Substack Article #70
At some level every living thing realizes its own vulnerability: it ‘knows’ it is susceptible to forces that are not always within its control. These include weather, natural disasters, normal aging and deterioration, among others. In particular, the biggest risk for most living things is other living things. Most, if not all, creatures have therefore developed mechanisms to protect themselves from being someone else’s lunch. These help, but by no means do they eliminate the fundamental insecurity intrinsic to being alive; peril never completely disappears.
Homo sapiens are no different. Whether we choose to admit it or not, we have the same very powerful reflexes for self-preservation as all other creatures, and they operate very quickly through the most primitive parts of our brain, including the limbic system and brainstem.
I believe that a significant component of maturation for humans involves learning to use the newer and more advanced parts of our brains to control those instantaneous reflexes. We can afford to do that in the modern age because we face far fewer lethal risks than any other species, and even our ancestors of a few hundred years ago.
However, the powerful brain that is responsible for this increased safety comes with a price: we are constantly seeking and probing, ‘pushing the outside of the envelope’. Do you think a tree ever dreams of being something other than a tree? Or does a mouse ever yearn to be something bigger? I suspect that for most living things such questions never arise—they seem to be content with their lot in life. They don’t pretend to be something that they are not because that would be dangerous.
But we humans are different. Because we have tremendous mobility and the ability to alter our environment so significantly, we have not ‘found our place’ in the grand scheme in nearly the same way as other species. We are to some degree still growing as a species, so despite our greater safety we still have considerable insecurity as we constantly venture into uncharted territory.
The more capable we are of controlling, but likely not eliminating, the fear that such insecurity produces, the better we can behave. As we come to accept our imperfections and vulnerability, we can learn to feel more comfortable in our own skin. For example, envy and jealousy are often reflections of our innate insecurity; we are afraid that we don’t have enough or matter enough. If we can get past that worry, we can instead feel happy for those who have things that we do not possess at the moment, and feel gratitude for what we do have. I become more convinced that our obsession with our insecurity is at the root of much of our worst thoughts and behaviours. Maturing past the anxiety that this vulnerability produces by letting go of the idea that we may not be worthy (low self-esteem) will make us better people. In other words, we stop trying to be something that we are not and accept, as Desiderata states, that ‘you are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here’. If we can believe that, self-esteem becomes largely irrelevant.
Similarly, we all have needs, but desiring more and more even once our needs are met can deteriorate into greed and addiction. Combined with jealousy and envy, greed has been at the root of so much of the violence exhibited in our history; we want something that someone else has and we may even kill to get it. When we can be content with having ‘enough’, our tendency to primal greed will wane.
I often hear people speak of ‘corporate greed’, but there is no such thing. A corporation is an abstract construct; it does not exist in any real sense. You cannot show me a ‘corporation’; but you can show me the people who run them (CEO’s, Board Members, Shareholders, etc.) who can be greedy, just like the rest of us (even though we may not want to admit this to ourselves). All creatures are hardwired to go for the low hanging fruit, and to hoard when there is plenty in order to balance for when supply is scarce. We humans are no different; who doesn’t like free stuff? However, despite the tempting near-limitless supply of seemingly everything today, we have the capacity to override this tendency for greed.
I think that coming to peace with our intrinsic insecurity involves nurturing true humility: accepting our ordinariness, being at peace with our limitations and just being ourselves. Although in nature creatures are constantly competing simply for existence, our higher brain means that life need not be a competition any longer because, at least today, we are capable of safely getting our basic needs met for the most part. It is difficult to tame our competitive nature; greed does not just mean wanting more, it also means wanting more than everyone else. But there is no grand cosmic scorecard of who wins and who loses, or who has the most ‘stuff’. In fact, how many people defined as ‘poor’ in our society today still have far more than most people who have ever lived on this planet?
FOMO, fear of missing out, has always been a powerful driving force for us as a species. We judge ourselves and our lives relative to the rest of our tribe or other tribes that appear better off. Although it is common for us to become invested materially through greed, we can also be emotionally invested in certain ideas or outcomes. We have a tendency to define ourselves by specific narratives or worldviews, often developed by our tribe. This is not altogether bad, but our insecurity can drive us to always want to be right or to think that we are better than others. If that is accompanied by uncontrolled passion, and then coupled with our natural fear of change, a dangerous stubbornness can result: we can be so sure of ourselves and so unwilling to change that we would prefer to torture or kill those who offer alternative perspectives. Our insecure and fearful egos are so reluctant to admit that we could be wrong that we engage in what is referred to as ‘the killing certainties’.
We are surrounded by evidence that we are a very emotionally-driven species. That is not a problem per se, provided that we allow our rational and non-rational selves to monitor and control our passions. For example, we often use avoidance and denial to our detriment. Our leaders prefer not to give honest bad news, in part because they know that we prefer not to hear it. It is more palatable to engage in ‘happy talk’, no matter how inaccurate or even harmful it may be. We prefer to be liked than to be truthful. We don’t step on bathroom scales for similar reasons. However, when I was practising medicine, I had to provide the truth to patients
the best I could because doing otherwise would ultimately not have been in their best interests. We avoid difficult discussions and painful realities at our peril. ‘Get out of jail free’ cards only exist in board games.
I want to be clear that emotions are not bad, nor should they be avoided; they are an important part of what makes us human. But they should not go completely unchecked, for a reason we all knew when we were six-years-old. At that age, if five of us were sitting around a table and a cake was to be cut into 5 pieces, even though we secretly may have wanted a larger piece for ourselves, we knew that we should all get an equal-sized piece. Even at that tender age the idea of fairness made sense to us—it was not right to let emotional greed drive the decision-making because if it did, we knew that would not be fair.
Fairness is a rational concept and it is a critical one in ethics. Sometimes we have to let go of being popular or getting what our emotions urge if we desire to behave ethically (truth-telling, transparency, compassion, to name a few). That can be difficult and painful, and can require considerable courage. For example, telling someone what they want to hear (a hero will rescue them or there is a magical answer to fix their problem) when it is clearly not the whole truth nor in their best interests is seldom ethical or loving. As a doctor, I occasionally had to explain to patients that their symptoms were a normal part of living and that their real problem was overly focusing on them and worrying excessively. Sometimes that is why discussion about mental health can be so awkward, and why there can still be such a stigma around it; it has a tendency to feel humiliating even though it should not.
I suspect that many of us have felt vulnerable at some point during the pandemic; I know that I have. That may have resulted in us feeling alone or insignificant. Maybe some of us even felt demonized. It is understandable when times are tough for our innate insecurity to manifest, and sometimes intensely. But the sooner we let go of this and accept that we deserve to be here and then make the best of what we have been given, the better our world will be.
It is said that gratitude is the closest thing to heaven that we can experience here on earth. To again quote Desiderata, ‘And whatever your labour and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul’.
J. Barry Engelhardt MD (retired) MHSc (bioethics)
CAERS Health Intake Facilitator
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Desiderata was a favorite in my teens. It gave me a sense of peace in the midst of the turmoil of those years. Thank you for the reminder. I'm going to share it with my teen grandchildren. Perhaps the words will be a balm to them as well.