I am ever restless for comfort, yet when I find it, I am restless in my comfort.
I am not like the bear that can hibernate in a cave for dark months on end. My limit is about 30 minutes (if you don’ t count sleeping at night).
Yet my mind easily imagines winning the lottery, or getting a big contract or having one of my projects draw national attention. I play out scenarios of what I’d do with such imagined affluence and the comforts it could buy me. But being a highly social animal, I also imagine the anxieties of such a windfall, including the potential shake up of my relationships with the rest of my primate troop of friends, family and community. The conclusion I come to is that it would be a real needle to thread to enjoy wealth and the comfort it could buy in a way that would not sacrifice the web of warm relationships that have grown around me in my current life.
I don’t know how many other people think about the downsides of comfort. Perhaps they consider them trivial compared to the desire for the power to make every waking moment an exercise in ease and pleasure. But the truth is that too much of anything — even a seemingly clear-cut good such as comfort — is not really “good” for an animal. Any animal. And that includes us. For in the case of a living organism, the most complete state of rest is, well, death.
It seems to be a paradox — that the very things we desire most are often the things that will, in the end, hasten that death.
The obvious examples around us are food, tobacco and stimulants. Of course we now know from evolutionary science why we crave sweets, fats and salts: we evolved in environments where these could often be very rare life-giving commodities, so we could get away with gobbing up all that we could when the opportunity arose. Their scarcity provided a natural check on our appetites, so we didn’t need to evolve any self-limiting mechanism of our own, with the end result being that many of us have little capacity to battle the addictive tendencies of sugar, alcohol and the rest.
From the day our species first put hoe to earth, our ever-advancing technology has enabled us to develop ways to feed ourselves and our neighbors that has — too a large degree — liberated us from the population-limiting forces of nature. Modern medicine has ameliorated the scourge of disease. And our tools and machines convey us, cool and warm us, and entertain us according to our desires and schedule. In short, we have it really good.
Normally this would be the point where the writer would launch off into a moralistic critique of ease, reflecting more than a touch of virtuous superiority as he or she describes their simple, rustic habits and how they make him/her a better, more noble human being.
Nah. I enjoy the many comforts of modern life, even as I ponder their darker aspect. I can reflect that it’s a small miracle that I can cook a meal at home on an electric stove (with energy provided mostly by burning primeval buried forests), in a metal pan coated with a high-tech non-stick surface. That meal might contain fresh vegetables from a local market, beef from a Nebraska cow, olive oil from another country, salt from the sea and clean water from a tap. I can cook it up in a big pot, and sit down in front of a television, in a comfortable chair, and eat my fill. I can eat a piece of fruit from another state (or country, if I’m willing to pay the shipping). I sit in a moderately comfortable room, in my factory-made clothes (themselves the product of generations of invention and innovation to make them durable, easy to wear and fasten and clean). I don’t worry about a bomb falling on my house, or bandits or saber-toothed cats invading my cave to steal my dinner. I can hold my fork with my left hand that, if not for modern antibiotics, would likely have been taken away by a serious infection years ago (assuming that infection — or the many others I may have avoided thanks to inoculations or surgeries — hadn’t also taken my life).
Yep, by any human or historical standard, I live like a king.
Besides, I don’t think we can roll back technology any more than we can roll back time. I think the die has been cast, and we are on this ride to the end.
From an evolutionary point of view, our current obesity epidemic is clearly understood as occurring at an intersection of technology, food supply and culture all being consumed by an ice-age mammal with few tools for resisting the allure, taste and comfort of modern life. There is nothing moral to be judged about it.
As a culture, however, there is still a strong tendency to see such things as questions of character — an almost religious demand of resisting sinful temptation. But a cursory familiarity with lab mice will tell you that most of them, given the chance, will sugar (or cocaine!) themselves to death given the chance. We’re no different on that score.
So I don’ t pass moral judgement. Or, at least, I have no moral grounds to. I know all too well that I have one of those addictive personalities. That’s why I had to cut some things out of my diet. That’s why I exercise as much as I do (I started going to a gym years ago to have something to do in the mornings so I could more easily not drink alcohol at night).
And I’ve also had to adjust my diet because of food allergies and sensitivities. In that I consider myself lucky, as it cut out many of the things that put on the most pounds.
But there is another consideration besides weight and vanity. We are animals. Everything about us evolved in an environment of movement as we hunted and gathered. The biological reality is that our bodies don’t do well when they stop moving. Add to that the enormous boost in calories we got when we learned to cook our food (which enabled us to evolve smaller guts and much larger brains compared to our primate cousins), and many things about our current easy lives are actually nearly perfectly designed to kill us off early.
It seems an almost cosmic joke on us: that our ability to fashion into reality our primal fantasy of plenty has built a heaven for us on earth that is also part hell.
So what do we do? Hell, who am I to say? Go back to picking berries and eating tender shoots? Some people do that, but it’s a often rooted in a fantasy that ignores that our bodies long-ago adapted to cooked, soft foods (we aren’t apes anymore). Reject technology and become Luddites? Like I said, we can’t put that genie back in the bottle.
Besides, many of us are alive today only because of the very technology, or medicine, or surgery that our kind has developed (which is another paradox, in that our very desire to save as many lives as possible has allowed many of us to sidestep natural selection — for a time, at least — which will have ramifications for our species as we travel further down the road).
I’m not a utopian in the sense of believing that there ever was a time when we humans were in perfect harmony with nature. I don’t believe there ever was harmony (except in temporal passages, as in music). There is always only balance, and even that is never static as populations rise and fall, resources are plenty or thin, weather patterns change, ice sheets advance, plagues appear then recede, and on and on.
It is what it is (whoa! That’s deep). The best I can do for myself is to respect the restless animal that I am, and keep moving enough to keep my body operating at a reasonable level of efficiency. Isn’t it telling that this kind of behavior optimizes my capacity to handle stress, and keeps the “happy chemicals” flowing in my brain (which provide a much more even and enduring buzz than any chemical I could ingest)? I do enjoy my comforts, even as I recognize the anxious animal in me that fears getting too soft, too slow, too depressed. (On that note I’m convinced that a large percentage of our physical and mental health issues would resolve themselves in a matter of months if every human animal on the planet started moving and eating more like the animals we really are (imagine the implications for national health-care costs!). Of course that’s not going to happen, because we are also comfort-seeking animals, and some of us would clearly be quite content with bear-like hibernation).
Once again, an evolutionary view helps us make sense of issues that mystify the moralist. History is not a script that we are acting out: it is a book that we are writing as we live it. We giddily embrace our shiny new innovations and leave the scientists to analyze the aftermath. We are animals that have found a way to forget that we are animals. In a recent e-mail exchange, my anthropologist friend Gaea McGahee said it beautifully:
“The human animal is most unsettled, especially about being an animal – which makes every soul less human until they get comfortable in the natural world, in the garden of life and death.”
Part of that “comfort in the natural world” is the recognition that we don’t always thrive in captivity, even in a most comfortable enclosure.