Respecting Ourselves – Part I

For a year, I worked at a wilderness therapy program, interrupting teenagers who were in the process of sabotaging their lives. Drugs, sex, violence, crime, and idleness were among their preferred methods.

Core to our therapeutic method was the concept of self-respect. You cannot respect others, I taught, unless you first respect yourself. Respect can be a difficult idea to convey to teenagers who have not experienced much of it themselves. So we presented it this way: In respectful relationships, people get what they need.

As a counselor, I constantly inquired, “What is it that you really need?” For any number of reasons, these kids weren’t getting what they needed out of their relationship with the world. Some were withdrawn. Some were abusive. Others had been abused, or worse, coddled. The host of problems demonstrated by these teenagers all had their roots in an inability for self fulfillment. And so the question “What do you need?” forced them to examine and confront the behaviors and relationships at the core of their problems.

As someone only slightly older, having faced many of the same struggles, I had to wonder — was I living my own lesson? Did I respect myself? Was I getting what I really needed? Examining my own life, it was painfully evident that I did not.

Even though I had a good salary, a loving partner, a supportive family, and caring friends, I often felt I was coming up short.

For starters, there were the things I did to my body. At times, I’d made my living at crippling blue-collar labor, even work with hazardous chemicals. But this was hardly better than the lack of exercise, eye strain, and slouching I survived as a student and a white collar worker. I was treating my body like a maligned machine. I refueled with the cheapest available supermarket gruel. I sacrificed recharge time to the alarm clock. Illness and injury were malfunctions, and procrastination delayed needed maintenance. My body didn’t have it much better than my rickety second-hand car. Both served primarily to get me from A to B and to keep the paychecks coming. One day I realized that the coordination and athleticism of my youth were deteriorating into utilitarian awkwardness, and I’m not even thirty yet.

My mind wasn’t much better off. Work often deprived me of all but the most meager stimulation. In one case it was my sole purpose to sit all day in a small shack, observing a ski-lift, prepared to punch a big red button if anything went wrong. At other jobs, over stimulation could be the cause of great stress. Inability to shoulder all of the responsibility sometimes led to depression and a lack of motivation. Also, the shear amount of time I spent on the job severely hampered most intellectual pursuits.

There were similar themes in my emotional life, my social life, and what I regarded as my ‘spiritual’ life. It seemed I was making painful sacrifices in all of these areas, just to pay the rent and buy the groceries. I expended tremendous energy daily for the right to exist in my society.

However, compared to others, I had it good. Plenty of people around the world would sacrifice much more to lead my cushy American lifestyle. I didn’t have kids to feed, or a debt.

I’m definitely not the only one who has felt strained. If we look around, we see a whole civilization of deprived people, fighting bitterly to satisfy what few needs they can. Still worse, we know that many of our endeavors are actually harming the planet’s ability to continue to meet our needs. It is clear that our culture is a culture of disrespect. We do not respect our home, we do not respect each other, and we do not respect ourselves.

If it is true that self-respect must precede respect of others, the social and environmental problems of our world will not be solved until we first solve the problem of our self-image. In their zeal to save the planet, some have cast mankind as the villain. Many have concluded that humans are inherently destructive, and that saving the world is a cause of sacrifice and self-restraint. This is no different than the outlook of a teenager who believes he is inherently bad because he abuses drugs. If such a youth continues to devalue himself this way, he will never quit drugs. If he can learn to respect his own needs and demand better for himself, only then will he find to strength to quit.

We have hurt each other and the planet with our actions, but guilt may only perpetuate this abuse. We can only respect the needs of the earth, and our fellows, when we have learned to respect our own needs. It seems that all of us could demand better for ourselves than the status quo.

If we are to respect ourselves, as a culture, there are obstacles to overcome. The obstacles seem to fit the following categories:

  • Our needs are not known
  • Our needs are not met
  • Our needs are met ineffectively or at great cost
  • Our needs are met unsustainably

From the human point of view, these obstacles are the shortcomings of our civilization. Many speculate on of the collapse of industrial civilization, but we should realize that it has already failed. It has failed us, the human being. Millions of unhealthy, bored, stressed, sad, and lonely people are proof enough of this. Do we consider health of an infrastructure before our own health?

Each of these shortcomings is worthy of further investigation.

Needs not known

Our civilization plods onward knowing remarkably little about the needs of human beings. As we move further from our roots, we leave behind more of the free health benefits nature once provided. It often takes centuries to discover what we’ve lost, and the consequences of those losses for our health. Vitamins, for instance, weren’t known to science until the late 1800s. Vitamin B9 (Folic acid) wasn’t discovered until 1941. The role of omega 3 fatty acids, in the healthy function of our bodies, wasn’t discovered until the 1970s. Science has only recently revealed why sunlight deprivation can lead to chronic disease. Before these discoveries, generations of people unknowingly sacrificed their health by partaking in developments like grain based diets, unnatural fats, and artificial lighting. History yields similar examples of substances found to be harmful in excess, long after coming into popular use (asbestos, lead, PCB’s).

A step behind the developments which cause them, science is likely to discover more health gaps in the future. What else are we denying our bodies? What common substances will be found hazardous next?

If we are on a path to self respect, we cannot wait, until after the fact, to see which lifestyle shifts are harmful and which are benign. We need a smarter, more proactive way to learn about our needs. Perhaps we should examine where our needs came from in the first place.

People, and other living things, recognize need through the use of the senses. The sensation of thirst, for example, indicates a need for water. Similarly, the sense of exhaustion indicates a need for rest, and the sense of loneliness indicates a need for company. We evolved these senses because they help us choose circumstances which favor our survival. It would be wasteful for nature to equip us with senses that weren’t important to our well being. This is why cave-dwelling fish species, descended from familiar fish, have evolved to have no eyes. The energies of such species are better spent developing senses of smell and touch. Thus, every sense we possess corresponds to a need.

By this same logic, we can see that all of our needs correspond to elements of the environment in which we evolved. It is very unlikely that a fish would evolve to depend on chocolate, or to crave chocolate, since chocolate rarely occurs in a fish’s environment. Life adapts to use what is available. In other words, everything we need has been consistently available over the course of our evolution.

We can infer then, despite the many deprivations humans suffer today, at some time in the past, our species occupied an environment which offered us everything we needed. Actually, scientists have a word for such an environment: it is called the ‘environment of evolutionary adaptedness’ or EEA. All creatures have an EEA, an optimum habitat, and will not thrive if removed from it. Some creatures are so enmeshed with their environment that they cannot perform even basic life functions if removed. Such is the case of pandas and cheetahs, which are known to struggle just to reproduce in captivity. Conservationists know that the best way to ensure the well being of any species is to protect it within the context of its habitat.

Science indicates that the human environment of evolutionary adaptedness is environment of the Pleistocene Epoch, a time in which all of our ancestors were hunter/gatherers utilizing a Stone Age level of technology. Our ancestors made the first stone tools about 2.5 million years ago. The time span of the hunter/gatherer way of life eclipses relatively recent advents such as agriculture (only about 10,000 years old), industry (a mere 200 years running), and the microwave oven (invented only about 60 years ago). A few small populations around the world remain hunter/gatherers to this day. This is the lifestyle the human body and mind are best adapted to. Understanding the Pleistocene and the hunter/gather way of life is key to understanding our needs, and respecting ourselves as a species.

For instance, knowledge of our EEA helps us to discern our real needs from the artificial needs instilled in us through advertising. This knowledge helps us know — scientifically, not just philosophically — that microwave ovens and automobiles are unnecessary to our fulfillment. Although some deviations from the EEA may prove benign, recognizing them as deviations will help us to avoid their potential harms, whether direct (as in auto accidents) or indirect (as in climate change and sedentism).

We can also use the EEA as a baseline to evaluate changes to the modern environment. Constructing a housing development around a riparian area might offer increased shelter capacity over the EEA, yet it might degrade the environments’ capacity to provide other things like clean water and food. A hunter/gatherer would never build his home too near to the spring which he drank from, or on top of his hunting and foraging grounds. Too often, our society takes one step forward and two steps back; and sometimes this is difficult to see without a point of reference. Should we embrace changes which are not, in every respect, an improvement on the Stone Age baseline?

Knowledge of the EEA also helps us to trace our modern problems back to their very roots. Instead of tracing the problem of widespread obesity and diabetes to the latest soft drink, we might trace it instead to the proliferation of agriculture, and our shift from a mixed diet to a grain based diet.

Outside of our EEA, which we can also think of as our habitat, our natural inclinations may lead us astray. For example, our instincts guide us to gorge on foods high in fat, sugar and salt. These foods are abundant today, but were not so prolific in the environment we evolved in. Obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are examples of harm wrought by a sudden change in our environment. Wild animals, like bears, following similar instincts, may become habituated to eating garbage and human handouts. We know that these animals become unwilling or unable to live healthy natural lives thereafter. We’ve come to respect wildlife enough to outlaw feeding them our junk food in many places. This is not a respect we presently show ourselves. While we fight to preserve the habitat of threatened species around the world, there is no refuge for human beings. When our natural inclinations lead us to ruin, rather than to well being, we should suspect a severe deviation from our EEA.

In recent history, archeologists, paleontologists, and anthropologists have made leaps in our understanding of our ancestral environment. The public is just beginning to understand that the bulk of our evolution on this planet occurred before written history. This growing awareness of prehistory is what author Daniel Quinn calls ‘The Great Remembering’. After centuries of speculation, we now know, with scientific certainty, many things about our natural diet, lifestyle, social organization, population density, and ecology. We are remembering that we have a niche; the living world, a habitat.

Becoming aware of our habitat, and having the self respect to demand its protection, will change society in fundamental ways. Perhaps, the area most in need of this deep perspective is the area of human rights. Our modern concepts of human rights have been based on religious and philosophical thought, and skewed by commercial and government interests. An understanding of our real needs, based on our EEA, provides a more solid foundation for establishing a set of human rights.

In today’s most democratic nations, people retain rights to personal sovereignty (such as freedom of speech and the right to vote) which seem fragmented in comparison to the prehistoric norm. Beyond this, only rights to participate in the monetary economy are protected (such as the right to ownership, employment, and housing). Our participation in the monetary economy, after all, is the primary way that governments and corporations profit from our lives.

What if, in a supreme act of self respect, we demanded access to our normal environment, as a right? For most of human existence our kind knew freedoms which no citizen of a modern nation enjoys, such as:

Perhaps we can’t expect governments to embrace our rights, as a species, any time in the near future. But if we respect ourselves, we will learn about our needs, and demand their fulfillment.

Continue to Part II.