Half Awake

by Dorian Minors

March 29, 2021

Analects  |  Newsletter

Excerpt

Humans possess this kind of extraordinary flexibility to thrive. We are the dominant force in almost every biosphere on the planet. We create communities and cultures that outlast catastrophe to span thousands of years. And we are each maps of the scars that brought us to where we are. Human stories invariably speak to our capacity to endure the changing fortunes of time. Yet there is no doubt that much is wrong with the world. I have an idea about why.

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In many things, humans are no more special than any other creature. Our incredible flexibility is borne of one thing: of all the animals, we have the greatest capacity for nurture.

Humans possess this kind of extraordinary flexibility to thrive. We are the dominant force in almost every biosphere on the planet. We create communities and cultures that outlast catastrophe to span thousands of years. And we are each maps of the scars that brought us to where we are. Human stories invariably speak to our capacity to endure the changing fortunes of time.

Yet there is no doubt that much is wrong with the world. Our maps of scars only grow with time’s passing. Our communities and cultures may flourish, but many feel increasingly alone. And the catastrophes are more frequently created by us. There is an old story that is told to explain why.

This story tells of a people who, despite their best efforts, are deeply flawed: prideful, jealous, greedy, destructive. Think of Pandora’s fateful curiosity; the Buddists’ concept of Taṇhā; the ever-present stain of biblical sin. Consider the selfishness of the baby boomers; the entitlement of the millenials; or the nihlism of the new generations. In all cases it would seem that we are fated to take more than we deserve.

This story is laced into our allegories of the many and the few, the in-group and the out-group, the weak and the strong. Caesar’s slaughter of the Gauls; Hobbes’ war of all against all; today’s reflections on the myriad relationships between the oppressed and the oppressors. And no modern story is complete without lamenting the state of the capitalist system: the opulence of the rich, the misery of the poor, and our ceaseless yearning to join the caste of the unjust, laying waste to our forests, our oceans, and our fellow travellers to that end. Our nature is one of survival and competition and thus, for all our strength in coming together, we are destined to be alone; at war.

These narratives trend toward indictment. They condemn us to failure while simultaneously condemning us for failing. For our weaknesses, we are doomed to walk this perpetual cycle, “the halt, the lame, half-made creatures that we are”.

But there is another narrative.

William James called us “half awake. Our fires are damped, our rafts are checked… the human individual lives usually far within his limits”. It is this peculiar deadening that is the true source of our trouble. You see, in many things, humans are no more special than any other creature. Our incredible flexibility is borne of one thing: of all the animals, we have the greatest capacity for nurture. We thrive because we adapt, and we adapt because we have the ability to come together and share ideas. But there is little in the world this capacity of ours has produced that encourages us to do so.

Today, our culture slots us increasingly into narrow bands of opportunity, even as our ability to communicate and explore ideas grows. We spend our formative years in a primary education system that systematically fails to develop our potential. We go on to invest time and debt into tertiary institutions that are increasingly ill-suited to the needs of the world-at-large. The successful outcome of this process leads us to occupations that require only the tiniest sliver of our capacities, but, as technology intrudes into every quiet space, the maximum amount of our attention. What little attention remains is routinely directed towards the economy of shame, outrage, yearning, and terror that floods our media streams and away from any form of real connection or meaningful pursuit. And all along this hectic path we find our friends, our families, and our mentors have been pushed to the margins.

We are assigned roles that we never signed up for, surrounded by people who don’t understand us, encouraged to engage with issues that don’t concern us, and left no choice but to vote for leaders who misrepresent us. We are made automata, built to serve the needs of a system we never agreed to contribute to and unable to reach out or grow because we were never granted the tools.

But we, more than any other creature, have the capacity to step outside these bounds that have been laid down around us. Not alone and at war, but together, on the heels of those who came before and in the arms of those around us. This is, after all, the defining quality of the human condition.

So, we must rise from our lethargy, and embrace our capacity to nurture ideas and in doing so, nurture each other. We must uncheck our rafts, stoke our fires, and cultivate the domains of our capacities that have lain dormant. We each pay a price to live with ourselves on the terms that we will. When those terms are spelled out clearly, that price doesn’t have to be so costly. This project is about waking up.


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