“I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d, I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition, They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins, They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God, Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things, Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago, Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.” - Walt Whitman: from Song of Myself
Everyone has their favorite idea of what separates human beings from animals, usually not with Whitman’s humble perspective, but more an arrogance about what makes us so special. As a member of the homo sapiens species, I do appreciate our place in the evolutionary chain, but also am painfully aware of how what blesses us also curses us and spend my days both celebrating the blessings and lamenting the curses. Consider some of the commonly accepted turns in evolution that moved us from being a small population low on Creation’s list— not as fast as cheetahs, large as elephants, agile as monkeys, fierce as lions, numerous as cockroaches, etc.—to overrunning the earth at 7 billion plus. Note how each “advance” that has blossomed into our glorious achievements also carries the seeds of its own demise:
• The opposable thumb that makes it possible for us to invent the wheel, write like Emily Dickinson, play Chopin’s piano music and send loving e-mails to friends far and wide also can text hate messages, pull triggers on AK47’s and push the nuclear button.
• Bi-pedalism that allows us to stand upright frees our hands to work with tools, allows us to see further and lets us dance like the Nicholas Brothers also takes us further away from the earth, gives us fallen arches and back problems and reduces us to talking heads on TV standing at podiums.
• Language that makes Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech, Mary Oliver’s poems and Dickens’ novels possible also can incite hateful dolts to storm the Capitol Building and be like, uh, totally, I mean, awesome.
• Music that gives us the capacity for West African drumming, Indian raga, jazz be-bop, European symphonies and beyond also gives us Muzak on elevators, the 1910 Fruitgum Company and disco.
• Storytelling that gives us the Iliad and the Odyssey, The Ramayana, Shakespeare’s plays, Tolstoy novels, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Frank Capra/ Hitchcock/Fellini films also gives us The Valley of the Dolls and the recent movie Four Christmases. Our capacity to create the story of the life we live in can give us a narrative of a meaningful existence that accents beauty, justice, compassion, sustainability, living harmoniously with each other, plants and animal or a narrative that thrives on raw survival-I’m-number-one-get-yours-now subsistence in a cruel and meaningless world built on exclusion, hatred, abuse, escape through drugs, greed, selfishness, ignorance, distraction, sensation and violence.
• The neo-cortex layer of the brain that makes Bach’s fugues, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence possible also can conjure up theories of racial superiority, invent the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, dream up the notion of the Apocalypse.
In short, everything that was evolutionary with the development of these human attributes was also counter-evolutionary in terms of both the health of the planet and now the survival of the species. So where does that leave us?
Precisely where a fairly evolved storyteller named John Steinbeck placed us in his novel East of Eden: the territory of choice. As spoken by his character Lee:
There are millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do Thou’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But the Hebrew word timshel—“Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. And that’s what makes a man great, what gives him stature with the gods…a cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there. But we have the glory of a choice.
And of course, the responsibility to make a wise choice. Now more than ever.