As a species that is completely obsessed with the superhuman it is easy to understand why we often forget that we are human. And maybe we forget because inherent to being human is the recognition that we are limitlessly limited. This is perhaps why we as a species have gone through so much trouble and time to exceed our perceived limits.
We invent planes, cars, and all sorts of transportation to cover more space in less time. We devise medications and procedures to circumvent the limits of our own individual health. Once limited by our means to procure food, we invent better ones, which we continue to modify in order to not only bypass our own limits but to overcome the limits caused by the very thing we created.
The best example can be seen with agriculture. What started with seeds, animal breeding, and good ole fashioned labor turned into a fully mechanized operation where the animals can be bred in test tubes and the plants can be finely tuned to resist toxic pesticides. So what used to be a shortage of food soon became an excess, but somewhere along the way the quality became diminished just to meet the demand of a rapidly expanding population.
But hey, at this point we already have all these contemporary devices and practices that grew out of a much simpler and basic attempt to surpass our biological shortcomings. We constantly find ways to circumvent our limits, but in doing so discover new ones. However, one limit continues to persist and that is the inevitable conclusion of life.
Despite death standing firm as the unsurpassable limit of humanity, we have managed a technical loophole with the creation of religion, spirituality, and any kind of belief that hints that life goes on in some way or another, which it technically does. Your body becomes food for new life, but that’s a sad fate to accept. We don’t care about the body as much as we do about our precious consciousness. We want to know where our soul and our personality goes, even though it’s something we can never know while on this plane of existence—and this might be the only existence we get.
Nevertheless, if there’s one great truth about us it’s that we do not easily accept our limits even it means believing in utopias in the sky or burning pits down below. Sure the limits of reality are something we can wrap our heads around given enough time, but when it gets down to the metaphysical we turn inward toward belief no matter how much of a reach it may be.
Ironically, faith in religious or spiritual beliefs about what’s after life brings about the strangest suspension of disbelief. In fact, that suspension of disbelief contradicts the very type of pragmatic and grounded thinking that allowed us to overcome most of our biological limits like flight and polio. Maybe that explains why some of the most violent and darkest eras in humanity came when religious certainty about the afterlife was at its strongest.
We currently live in a time where people are not as vehemently religious as in previous time periods. Obviously there are exceptions, but for the most part it seems like humanity has been embracing the uncertainty of what comes after we die more and more in the past fifty years. In turn, technology continues to advance at a rate never before seen, and what was a limit yesterday becomes a possibility tomorrow.
Yet at the same time it seems that while we’re more connected and enabled than ever thanks to technology we’re becoming more detached from each other in a spiritual and emotional sense. Selfishness has become such a pervasive part of our society that the percentage of sociopaths existing today is estimated to be around 4% of our population, which is roughly 12 million Americans.
That’s insane to think about, and while technology has allowed us to overcome the limits of our own productivity or our ability to attain information it’s done at the cost of the process. One click and you know more than you can ever need to know about any given subject, but all it is is a shortcut. When considering the notion that we’ve become a society of shortcut seekers, I’m reminded of a quote by the founder of the Patagonia clothing company, Yvon Chouinard.
In the travel documentary 180° South Chouinard says, “The whole purpose of climbing something like Everest is to affect some sort of spiritual and physical gain. But if you compromise the process you’re an asshole when you start out and an asshole when you get back.”
There’s great truth in that quote, well beyond its context. When we’ve become a society of shortcut takers how long before we’re just a society of assholes?
Getting back to the idea that we’re more detached from each other than we’ve ever been, it’s easy to see the connection between selfishness and all the technological shortcuts we’ve developed. After all, it’s a common impulse to look out for oneself, and everyone is guilty of it. However, no meaningful relationship can be developed when people succumb to that impulse constantly. It takes time and compromise to build significant bonds with others, and selfishness is essentially a shortcut that undermines the process of give and take, which is a vital part of any meaningful relationship.
This is essentially why as a society we’ve grown further apart from each other. We’re so used to the easy ways—the shortcuts—that we’d rather cling to selfish impulses that bring short-term gains rather than challenge ourselves to go beyond them. It would appear now that the limits we face as a species are no longer present in the world around us, but instead are internal and inside the mind.
In an age of growing uncertainty where the only apparent guarantee is the inevitability of our demise, it’s easy to see why most people are living entirely for themselves. But in doing so we’ll continue to grow apart, and once we’re completely detached from everyone but ourselves that is when everything will be undone. Then again, maybe that’s for the best. If we’re forced to start from square one we’ll relearn the value found in the process rather than the instant reward of the shortcut. After all, limits are not overcome with one giant leap but with many tiny steps.
written: Jan. 2013