Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Civilization Weakens Us

One thing I miss the most being in Australia is mountains. It still beats Houston’s pancake landscape, but the luxury to hop on a plane and go summit a peak isn’t here. I recently read Peter Jenkins’s AWalk Across America, in which he famously walks his way across the US with his dog in the 70’s from Connecticut down to Texas and up to Oregon over 6 years. Peter comes across a man named Homer, who lives and breathes mountains alone in a cabin after having an epiphany that he wasn’t cut out to succumb to domestic life. After spending a few days with Homer eating food caught with his own hands and reflecting on conversations which you could only describe as primeval and real, (i.e unclouded by civilization and its pretentious ignorance), Homer warns Peter he would be back because “once you get a taste of mountains, it’s in your soul.”

Last year in Colorado I lost myself in the mountains attempting to scale Mount Elbert on my own. I veered off the path for 2 hours only to realize the faint path I was on completely faded and I was on the wrong face of a mountain in bush 7 feet high and sizeable shit I could only assume belonged to a bear. It took me another 4 hours of fear-induced exploration to find the path again, but it was revealing and forced me to tap all of my resources to do so. I had to mentally trace my path out, conserve my energy without any food left, ration my water and use a compass to get my bearings to find my way back before it got dark. While I wouldn’t wish that situation necessarily upon myself again, it was the highlight of my trip to utilize survival skills and find my way out of a hairy situation. It felt natural to explore and avoid a potential predator like our ancestors have always done.

Civilization and its comforts make us weak. Processed food, temperature regulation, soft beds, hand sanitizer and a means to relieve any form of suffering can be mitigated too easily. Accompanying ailments as a result of such lifestyles are diabetes and depression, just to shortlist a few. Last year my friend and I passed through the Redwood Forests of Northern California only to find abandoned souvenir shops, desolate roads and abysmal crowds surrounding the largest trees in the world. People are no longer getting in touch with their evolutionary desire for nature and instead sitting couped up switching from monitors to television screens, worrying about Netflix queues. The US, which makes up approximately 4% of the world’s population, consumes 25% of its resources. It goes in hand with the fact that we have some of the fattest, sickest and unhappiest people as well.

In Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud argues the same. He advocates that civilization makes us unhappy because we’re forced to subdue our primal instincts to comply with laws and extend the utility of civilization as an object, not as something composed of beings. He theorizes the human desire to maximize happiness by increasing modes of pleasure while minimizing harm initially led to the advent of civilization, allowing us to survive amongst one another with strong community bonds. As civilization has progressed, however, our animalistic selves haven’t, leading Freud to conclude our ability to be happy has diminished and continues to do so (counterintuitive to its original aim). The beings therefore suffer on behalf of extending the perversion of civilization with more money and power. But money and power are inanimate. Striving for it feeds the beast of civilization, which as Freud states, makes us unhappy. Freud doesn’t seem intent on solving this issue, which is evident in the shortness of the work, but he wants to inform us of civilization’s shortfalls and its ability to cause unhappiness.

Our fears of Mother Nature and death have more or less been overcome with the building of shelter and creation of religion, respectively. What haven’t been quelled, however, are our natural primal and aggressive drives, which civilization cannot allow running rampant or it would lose its grip on its citizens. It does, however, wage wars on other countries and feel animosity toward neighbours as an outlet for this aggression. Religions can be classified in its own category for doing the same by alienating other faiths through mass violence (The Crusades, anti-Semitism). By living our lives in such civilized manners without recognizing it and finding the wrong outlets, we develop compensatory mechanisms such as guilt, extreme order and cleanliness and consumerism to temper these drives and comply with the bleakness of domestic life. Eat a myriad of food, work like a monkey, follow routines, church, birthday dinners, drunken nights, get sick, buy crap we don’t need, repeat.

So if you’re driving and feel aggression to the person driving too slowly or you feel like beating on ignorant people, don’t kick yourself in the head and think something is wrong with you. Your primal outlet is speaking out naturally and balancing the civilized things you have to do the majority of your time to comply with stringent standards. By finding ways to sublimate your aggression (without retorting to violence or abuse), you can balance your civilized life without developing neuroses. I’m not trying to advocate a life of seclusion on a mountainside, but on my giant quest for truth through scepticism of all things taken at face value by the majority, it’s my hunch that too much of what we’re doing and striving for is unnatural to our evolutionary roots. We need to temper our primal instincts with time away from it all and practice self-sufficiency – my Achilles heel being mountains.

Ishmael describes this feeling beautifully at the beginning of Moby Dick, where he lays out a typical setting in New York City where men gather around on their days off contemplating the ocean and dreaming of a life at sea. He explains this as the reason he goes to find the elusive whale because like these men, he feels emptiness in his soul which he knows could only be quenched with adventure. The rest of the novel follows in tow and is a reason it’s still a timeless book. That idea is so pervasive and can’t be contained within man too long without dire consequences. So go explore!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Look Harder

"Let me tell ya something. You're suspect! Yeah you. I don't know what your reputation is in this town, but after the shit you tried to pull today you can bet I'll be looking into you."

The luxury of living in Perth is the pace of life is slower here topped with sunny dry weather, so it affords a lot of time to read under the sun. Recently, the topic of choice has been religion (Christopher Hitchen's "god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything") with its associated deception, irrationality, foundings etc. After you take a hard look at the evidence (something monotheistic religions lack a lot of), it gets harder to ever justify faith based arguments for religions which point its followers in multiple directions and contradict its own dogmas.

Examples such as Marjoe Gortner, who made an Academy Award winning documentary of how he fooled millions of Americans for money posing as a revivalist, which were tactics his parents raised him to learn, ultimately taking $3 million from hard working people. He's no different from Joel Osteen or other members of the clergy. Why do churches get tax breaks for teaching people how to judge others and implant a conscience which fights innate human instincts like sex?

Monotheistic religions were ultimately founded by us mammals as a means to cope with our fear of the unknown. Even remote islands such as Tanna, with little influence from other cultures, still praise an American WWII GI named John Frum and hold annual celebrations awaiting his return. People will say it's different from other religions, but it's really just a modern day account of what humans naturally default to in the face of unanswered questions. Eventually with a new era of techtonic plate collisions, John Frum could very well become geographically placed as a cometitor to Jesus. When a religious belief is something you grow up learning and it's ingrained in your culture, everything else looks suspect, which is why Judaism, Islam and Catholicism (to name a few), alienate one another. The fear of potentially beliving what so much of your money, effort, youth and trust has gone into as FUBAR is what keeps the engine running.

So I challenge you just to take a step back and face that fear head-on and see what you conclude on your own - not according to what the church, society and childhood roots expect you to take verbatim. If god is just and your faith real, you won't forego any forgiveness from him after some real soul searching.

Friday, March 11, 2011

A bit of catchup on my personal life

I decided to move back to Australia in late November and after much patience with the visa process, here I am sitting at the Singapore Airport a few hours before my flight to Perth.

If you asked me a year ago, when I was itching to move, this would have been a no-brainer. As the year progressed, however, it became a lot tougher to make the decision as I settled back into my comforts zones in Houston. Buying things (as Americans do) became more common. It's funny how the mentality shifts to make us feel like we need so many things here in America and I found myself bored, browsing Amazon and making useless purchases far more as my hesitancy to move became stronger. My itch to travel abroad waned, and I became more cynical. I don't think this is a coincidence. During my time back here, I went through the same motions. We get so accustomed to our conveniences here that we expect so much out of the things we buy or consume, which makes it easier to become disappointed and unhappy.

I'm not saying Australia is much different but in the end I know this decision is right for me to get me out of the comfort / consumption zone I wanted to avoid falling into again so quickly.

Fear also began creeping in more but fear is bullshit when we try to envision the future based on present circumstances.

One thing I've noticed is I approach America now w/ a broader eyes wide open view. There's so much in Texas itself to appreciate and America’s 50 States practically makes it its own continent. Numerous landscapes, cuisines, cultures and history are beckoning to be explored. America is a melting pot of it all and no matter how different you think you are, you can always find your niche here. That's the beauty of it. While Americans get lambasted for not travelling I can’t really blame us because there's enough to see here in a lifetime. The work culture of extreme capitalism to supplement lavish lifestyles without time for leisure is more the issue.

If anything I'm glad it played out this way. During my first stint I realized the friends I value the most back home so I made an effort and dedicated my time to spending more time with those people when I came back. Now that I'm moving again, I feel I've successfully solidifed those relationships more that there's no hesitation those few are in my back pocket for anything.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

RIP Grandma

My grandmother passed over the weekend. In a way the family isn't mourning deeply because she had been suffering the past 8 years. She was bed-ridden from numerous strokes and eventually lost the ability to move her limbs or even talk.

I have fond memories of visiting her has a child to indulge in food she cooked. She married young and never worked since my grandfather provided well, so she told me her duty was to feed her children and grandchildren.

Then she had a stroke. My dad had one shortly after at a young age. His brother followed years later. I never want to suffer like they have, which is a big reason I stay so active. My dad's brother was a successful millionaire but soon after his stroke, his finances went down the drain. Heart disease is miserable.

My sister and I visited her a few years ago and found her lying down in bed crying and moaning because this was the state she'd been in. She made a huge smile for us, which was the first my aunt had seen in months. Grandma could only respond to us through blinking to yes or no questions. It was the antithesis of where I ever wanted to land myself.

While I felt deep remorse for the state she was in, it hit home to me then that maintaining an active lifestyle would be at the top of my priorities. You can accumulate wealth, possessions and notches on your career belt but their alleged powers diminish drastically once your health begins to deteriorate. It places a large burden on your family, finances, your ability to work and most importantly your well-being.

Take care of your health and (most) everything else will fall in line.