In 1963, the Bronx Zoo introduced a curious exhibit, which indubitably garnered visitors’ attention. It was labelled “The most dangerous animal in the world.” Turns out, it was a mirror! Underneath, there was another interesting sign reading, “You are looking at the most dangerous animal in the world. It alone of all the animals that ever lived can exterminate (and has) entire species of animals. Now it has the power to wipe out all life on earth.”
Sixty years later, this statement continues to resonate with many people. Its power has only grown! But, let’s dig deeper into another curious element of the label – we were called animals. We are, even though some may argue otherwise. As humans, we have consciousness, we have restraint, we are capable of rational thought, and we can envision ourselves in the future and thinking abstractly… impelling some of us to contend that we are far more superior to animals. These statements are not devoid of truth, but an honest introspection would reveal we have a lot more in common with animals and our primal ancestors than we would care to (or like to!) admit.
If we look back at everything we have achieved as a species, from fragile inhabitants of the African savannah to where we are now, and all we can do today, our journey has been nothing short of spectacular. Our accomplishments become even more staggering when we realize that much of the progress we have made has accelerated through the 20th and early 21st centuries. Technologically and culturally, the world has changed a lot more in the last 200 years than it did for 10,000 years before that. If we generally accept that the first Homo sapiens appeared 300 000 years ago, it took us 300 000 - 118 years to fly in the skies, when the Wright brothers invented the first plane in 1903. The flight lasted just 12 seconds.
Mere 58 years later, Yuri Gagarin not only took to the skies but also went into space. Likewise, it took us 300 000 - 85 years to create the first computer (Alan Turing 1936). It can be safely concluded that over the past 85 years, computers pretty much control our lives today, having permeated everything we do daily. Add the automobile (which didn’t become a practical way of transportation until the 20th century despite being invented in the late 19th century), the light bulb, nuclear power, penicillin and antibiotics, television, the internet, and so much more. This technological revolution has inexorably brought about a gamut of educational, scientific, cultural, and social changes, which shape the world as we know it today. Often, our brains and bodies simply cannot keep up with the pace and intensity of these changes. Paradoxically, we live in a world where everyone, including you and me, is increasingly demanding more. That’s right. The technological explosion has created countless possibilities, but also countless expectations, which go hand-in-hand.
We are supposed to live in the most liberal, permissive, and accommodating time the world has ever seen. We are supposed to be free, happy, satisfied with what we have. In many ways, we really are. Yet, we also live in a time, which is more mentally and psychologically challenging than any other before that. Given everything we have achieved and the comfort of the 21st century, it sounds counter-intuitive that, in some ways, we have regressed as a society – both emotionally and psychologically. We are not generally happier than our ancestors were a hundred or five hundred years ago.
More people suffer from stress and stress-related diseases today than in previous centuries, which is especially prevalent among the youth. We try to do too much, to do a few things at a time, to stay constantly connected, to absorb an endless influx of information, to conform to countless societal norms and pressures. There is an incredible amount of pressure on women to be pretty and fit into society’s definitions and norms of beauty; on men to be successful and wealthy; on children to take on a countless number of courses and activities to fulfil their parents’ own unfulfilled ambitions; and generally, on anyone to act rational, to be always liberal and understanding, to effectively disregard a lot of the very feelings and emotions which make us human. Astonishing as we are, here’s a truth we would do well to come to terms with: we are not equipped to meet the never-ending expectations of society and our own.
We, as humans, have conquered the land, the sea, and the sky; we have tremendous power over the processes and lives of everything and everyone else in the world. We are capable of incredible feats. Yet, despite our greatness, we also have a long list of shortcomings and limitations. We are egoistic and irrational, our decision making and judgment are far from being infallible, we are quick to judge others, we have a proclivity to egregiously repeat our mistakes, we fail to consider the underlying complexity of the world, and most importantly, we have a massive blind spot for these. To be fair, there are various reasons for that. Each one of us is, after all, a unique by-product of millions of years of evolution, cultural, environmental, and social factors. Taken together, they make us what we are. These are limitations, we hardly ever ruminate upon, do not fully understand, conveniently ignore, or deliberately develop selective amnesia for. This is understandable because all of the above help us perpetuate the illusion of our own infallibility and greatness, which are paramount for our inner peace if we function as normal beings. Yet, that doesn’t make it true.
I am writing this book as an apologist for humanity. This is not because we are unworthy, unsuccessful, and generally bad people, but because we have grown to expect too much of everything and everyone to conform to various pressures of society and the so-called modern way of life. It does not matter if we believe we are the result of Darwinian evolution or a Godly creation. We came to exist and are a combination of good and bad, success and failure, strengths and weaknesses. In the following chapters, I will cover some of the most common shortcomings and ugly sides of our psyche, not because I do not believe in our capacity to be better, to do, and achieve more. Quite the opposite. Throughout history, we have demonstrated countless times that we are capable of extraordinary feats and achievements. But the fact of the matter remains that we are far from perfect as a society. For better or for worse, we are only humans. The sooner we accept the bad, the sooner can we start living a happier life and enjoy the good.
Well, let’s read on. I hope you enjoy the book and will find it useful by the end unless you have dropped it because you are too smart already and there is nothing more you could learn. For this, I cannot blame you, as you are only human.