Be More Like the Animals
Elephants Stroking the Bones of the Dead
Living as we are designed to live
On a long drive a couple of weeks ago, we were listening to a podcast of the TED radio hour that focused on the question of whether or not animals grieve for lost loved ones. I found it to be kind of a strange but typically human question. We humans seem to have trouble grappling with the possibility that we are not unique among the creatures of the earth. Sure, our brains are more advanced than any other creatures (that we know of) that have ever walked the planet. And yes, flies, frogs, goldfish, and other egg laying non-social creatures do not grieve about dead parents or children. But there is clear evidence that social creatures - elephants, killer whales, chimpanzees - grieve for dead offspring or lost members of their packs. There are also plenty of reasons to believe that other emotions - fear, boredom, joy, love - are not uniquely human either.
Sometimes, when our dog has nothing better to do, we will see her sitting in the backyard near the door staring off into the distance. During those moments, I sometimes wonder if she ever stops to ponder the meaning of her existence? Does she wonder where she came from, ask herself the purpose of her life, or wonder where she is going when she dies? Unless we humans learn to speak dog, I guess we won't know for sure. But I suspect that she is probably staring into the backyard looking for some lizard or bird to chase or is looking for more opportunities to get some food out of those two-legged members of her pack that she is forced to rely on to survive. Like animals out in nature preoccupied with the basic issues of survival, our dog is too focused on living to bother asking questions that don't have any clear answers anyway. Mother nature may have been wise in only creating one creature with the capacity to reflect on the meaning of life. Or maybe we are just some evolutionary fluke, a mistake soon to be corrected when we are either wiped out by some natural catastrophe or destroy ourselves.
I have spent a fair amount of my life pondering the big questions. There have been periods where I was engaged in reading some of humanity's great books. At other times, I spent a great deal of time debating with people online or grappling with difficult subjects in blogs like this one. Through much of my life, I have been annoyed by people who were not engaged in similar pursuits because they either seemed too stupid or too preoccupied with the details of their petty little lives: work, family, friendships, romantic relationships, etc. Now I am starting to wonder if I have been the bigger fool. While I was spending all this time trying to answer unanswerable questions, I possibly missed out on a lot of living. And worse yet, it prevented me from making real connections to all those people who I believed were not as smart as I. It is difficult, after all, to feel compassion or empathy for people who you think (mistakenly) are fundamentally different from yourself.
I have gone through a few different spiritual phases in my life: Catholic; evangelical Christian; and for lack of a better term, Unitarian agnostic. On some level, I suppose I will always be an agnostic since I will never have enough information to know if some form of the supernatural exists. But more than ever before, I am leaning these days toward atheism. The world, after all, is such a brutal nonsensical place, a world in which so many forms of life can only survive by killing other forms of life. Humans and other creatures of the earth are destroyed by completely random events. And people, at their core, seems as animalistic as all of the other creatures of the earth.
As I keep opening up to the likelihood of a godless universe, I once again find myself asking the big questions. If there is no ultimate purpose to this thing we call life, what is a creature with the capacity to think about life's meaning to do? The answer might actually be pretty simple. If in the end, we humans are just another pack mammal predator, then maybe we should look to the animal kingdom to find the key to what we call happiness. Just as pack mammal predators are apparently designed to focus their energies on hunting, playing, breeding, and forming tight relationships, we might be advised to stop sitting around so much staring at screens (or doing whatever the hell it is that we do) and instead get outside and start living. Clearly, we did not evolve over tens thousands of years to live like a modern "civilized" person. We need to move, make direct connections with others, and find outlets for all of those animalistic fears and urges lurking beneath the surface. It's no wonder that so many people in advanced societies, in spite of being the most materially comfortable humans in history, are so freaking depressed.
And while I like to ponder life's great questions as much as the next guy, it is probably best to not spend too much time thinking about all this stuff. Animals are designed to live in the moment, and we apparently function best - or, if you prefer, are most "happy" - when we let go and allow ourselves to do what we are designed to do. This is why I will probably not be spending as much of the remaining years of my life on philosophic pursuits as I once did. I need to catch up on some living.