Stimulation Or Sustenance?

Why we invariably make the wrong choice.

Image credit: Texas Hill Country

When we’re under stress we generally look for ways, consciously or otherwise, to reassert our control over the situation. Very often our actions then make the situation even worse but we generally feel better, at least for a while, because we’ve created for ourselves the illusion of purposeful action.

As this is a hardwired piece of human behavior it’s not surprising that we respond positively when purported authority figures likewise seem to be acting decisively, even if their actions are in reality guaranteed to make everything worse than it already is. We’re suckers for action. Inaction is anathema.

The wisdom of inaction is something that has to be learned, and it’s never easy.

Many years ago I had the privilege of training alongside a particular group of soldiers in a small regiment of the British Army. Early on, during the induction and selection process, a senior member of the Directing Staff addressed the room. We were all young men ranging in age from early twenties to late twenties and in superb physical condition. We were excited and primed for action. We were about to push ourselves past our limits and, along the way, learn a great many highly “kinetic” skills.

The senior NCO looked us over, his face a mask of neutrality. “Right, you lot,” he began, “you’ve all got visions of rappelling down the outside of some building, all kitted up in black and ready to shoot everything in sight. But here’s the fun part: if any of you actually pass Selection, you’ll spend a lot of your time as a trooper doing fuck-all. A lot of what we do is covert surveillance. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? What it really means is lying motionless in a concealed OP day after day, bagging your shit and living on hard routine while you wait for something to happen. Which it probably won’t.”

His point was that learning to do nothing is an essential skill. It’s easy to rush in, guns blazing, feeling that we’re making a difference. But that often leads to a lot of the wrong people being shot. Far better to wait, observe, and orient before acting. Unfortunately that’s at attitude very few people ever acquire. Mass entertainment is all about immediate action, blasting away in scenarios where magically the protagonists never run out of ammunition and their rounds never go stray and hit innocent bystanders. We learn from the cartoons of infancy that action is, well, where the action is.

And so we go through life acting on our frequently misguided impulses. The observing and thinking parts are omitted. Usually we’re not even aware that we’re omitting them. We’re too busy rushing around doing things. Because doing things, no matter how foolish those things may be, feels oh-so-much-better than observing and thinking.

I spent my entire childhood moving from one country to the next. This was in the days before many countries installed television broadcasting equipment; in fact, we usually didn’t even have a telephone. Every couple of years we’d move to a new country, a new language, and a totally new culture. As a letter could take more than a month to go from sender to receiver, old friendships were sundered and new ones had to be forged. There was a whole new set of rules about “how we do things around here” to be discovered.

As a result I learned two things. The first was that nearly all human beliefs are arbitrary, based entirely on the location and its unique local history, and usually quite mistaken. The second was the ability to observe and consider before acting.

I now regard myself as very fortunate to have avoided television until the age of twelve (when it was briefly available during a short sojourn in the UK) and thereafter avoiding it again until the age of eighteen. At the time it seemed like a deprivation but now I understand it was a blessing. As I didn’t grow up gawping at a screen I never properly acquired the habit in later life and as an adult I haven’t owned a television for more than thirty years. Even today I regard my phone as a tool rather than as a companion that ceaselessly offers me the means to avoid even rudimentary thought; my phone spends far more hours per day turned off than turned on, and I have none of the apps everyone else seems to regard as essential to their existence.

It’s a strange thing to be in a coffee shop or on a train and see 90% of those around me with their heads bent over their screens, swiping and fingering frantically in order to obtain their tiny dopamine hits, totally oblivious of the real world all around them. It’s depressing to listen to endless conversations that are all about the same meaningless shows and games and apps. We’ve reached a point of mass conformity unknown in human history: a time where, thanks to the addictive properties of our communications technologies, we’re all repeating the same memes we’ve been fed by organizations that generate their revenues from making us passive and thoughtless recipients of their endlessly-repeated simple-minded messages.

It reminds me of watching the adults around me in the early 1960s: every one of them was a chain-smoker. Even all those decades ago, people knew that smoking was truly awful for health, but they were addicted. They couldn’t stop. So they invented “reasons” why chain-smoking was OK. Today we have “reasons” why we’re perpetually interacting with our phones rather than living in the real world. Indeed, we’re so addicted to our devices that a great many people are eagerly awaiting low-cost virtual reality that will enable them to distance themselves even more.

Many years ago a highly revealing experiment was conducted that showed the degree to which addiction can be all-consuming. Rats, whose level of intelligence and self-awareness is at least equal to a great many of the humans I’ve encountered in my life, were put in boxes containing two levers. Pressing one lever resulted in delivery of a food pellet; pressing the other resulted in the delivery of a liquid containing cocaine. Very quickly the rats became addicted to pressing the cocaine-delivery lever. In fact the rats became so addicted that they ceased pressing the food pellet lever even when literally starving to death.

Addiction is a dangerous thing.

We already know what happens when people become addicted to junk food. Obesity rates increase dramatically everywhere Cola and McSlop become available. We now have more obese people in the world than underweight people, and 86% of US citizens are overweight. Elsewhere nations are rushing to catch up with “the American Disease.” As a result of mass obesity, rates of Type II diabetes have skyrocketed, as has cardiovascular disease, emphysema, various cancers, and a host of injuries caused from over-stressing bones and joints due to excess weight. Obesity also lowers the immune system and is a factor in early-onset neurodegenerative disease.

What we put into our brains is just as important as what we put into our bodies. It’s not surprising that if we’re incapable of making adequate choices regarding what we stuff into our mouths, we’re equally incapable of making adequate choices regarding what we allow into our brains. We binge-watch mindless entertainments, we fixate on the two-dimensional characters of popular shows, we gawp at so-called reality TV. We stroke our phones, endlessly distracting ourselves with intellect-free games and interactions. And always, everywhere, we absorb the sensationalist fear-mongering that the mass media relies on to ensure strong ad revenues.

You’d think that if people found they were waddling uncomfortably everywhere, can’t climb even a short flight of stairs without feeling like they’re about to expire, and have to buy XXL clothing, they’d stop cramming McSlop into themselves.

You’d think that if people found they were perpetually anxious, fearful, and unhappy they’d stop gawping endlessly at their screens.

You’d be wrong. We humans, just like the rats in the experiment, can’t stop doing something even when it’s clearly harming us. For all we pretend that we’re in control of our lives and have free will, we’re actually captives. We’re trapped by hardwired biochemistry that controls nearly all our behaviors.

It takes a significant effort of will to change the way we live. Very few people can be bothered even to make a vague attempt, no matter sticking to their resolution until they’ve conquered their addiction and can go forward into a richer and far more fulfilling life. It’s much easier to do something (cram a burger and fries down our throats, stroke our phones and wait impatiently for a response, make a facemask) than to do nothing.

Yet in our deeply unhealthy frantic world where the media controls what we think, how we feel, what we believe, what we do, and what we tell each other, abandoning bad habits and learning to do nothing is essential.

We’ve accidentally created the perfect recipe for global sickness, both physical and mental. All because we feel the need to do something, anything, rather than face up to the awfulness of purposeful inaction.

So from Australia to Azerbaijan and from Zacatecas to Zimbabwe, we humans will remain glued to our screens as they feed us ever more fear and unhappiness, which we’ll a attempt to assuage by stuffing ourselves with even more slop. Hardly anyone will turn off their devices and step out into the real world to live a more healthy, sane, and happy existence.

It’s a strange old world, isn’t it?


Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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