Since ages past, scholars have argued over what exactly it means to be alive; but what they never seem to do is offer any practical guide by which we could use to navigate this tricky mess we call being alive. It’s rather sobering when you realize just how fast you can find yourself careening off one of life’s many cliffs. And it can be downright frightening with just how little effort it often takes to initiate the launch. Oftentimes, we aren’t even aware that something’s wrong until well after we find ourselves picking our way out of whatever it was that just fell on us. And if this wasn’t bad enough, you can even find yourself plummeting to the proverbial rocks below by something you either had no control over, or by something you didn’t even take part in.
Since I’m not a big fan of watching my fellow human beings suffer — especially when that suffering is needless — I feel that if I could potentially alleviate some of this suffering with a touch of instinct, a dash of intuition, and a smattering of research, then I should pick up where those old farts left off and write something that could actually be of some use to someone. Like, perhaps some kind of practical guide to this whole being alive business. Or something. This may all sound rather silly and irreverent at first, but when you realize just how often our basic needs are ignored, pause must be given at the fact that most of us are all sick, dying and overweight. Well, if everyone obviously knows to do all those obvious things that keep us alive and healthy, how then do you explain these escalating, pervasive maladies? We’re angry. We’re exhausted. We’re fed up. We’ve overworked, and undernourished. There simply isn’t enough time in the day. Stress is literally killing us. It’s looking more like life’s so-called basics aren’t obvious enough.
Being alive is easy. It’s staying that way that’s the hard part.
I think it’s time to stop, take a deep breath, and step back a bit to assess the battlefield without you in it. Allow me then, to entertain you with a novel perspective that is designed to take a fresh look at what it means to be a living, breathing, human being. Stuff that’s so obvious, it’s easy to understand how it was overlooked in the first place. This new perspective will serve as the prism that paints the chapters to come. If you’re still with me at this point, let’s take a moment then to look at some of life’s “basics,” shall we?
Without even getting into the other higher level human needs, such as the emotional, intellectual and spiritual ones, let’s just simplify things for now and take a quick review of the “base” of the basics: Human beings are extremely complex, multi-cellular organisms, that, at the very least, require food, water, sunlight, rest and exercise — now, please allow Captain Obvious here to explain himself before you roll your eyes so far up into your head that they pop out the back of your skull — how frequently do you ignore or neglect your body’s most obvious and basic needs, such as proper nourishment, clean water, ample rest and commensurate exercise appropriate for your lifestyle?
- Food, nourishment, diet: ignored, neglected, put off or abused
- Sunlight: ignored, neglected, misunderstood or abused
- Clean water: under/over consumption, or replaced by soda, coffee or tea
- Rest: ignored, neglected or overdone
- Exercise: ignored, neglected or overdone
- Bacon: essential
Packing biomass into that hole in the middle of our faces is essentially what makes us go. Yet, it’s astonishing how overlooked, underestimated, or misunderstood this simple act of acquiring energy really is. Everyone seems to understand that if you put garbage into your car’s gas tank, your car will break down. And a car is a relatively simple machine. But yet, the mindbogglingly complex machine that is the human body gets a shrug and a “meh.”
In order to understand how to get to wherever we’re going, it’s essential to understand where we’ve been. This isn’t just a tired cliché that can be summarily dismissed — I cannot stress how important this is in regards to the body you inherit — especially now in an era where not only is our health under constant assault, but it is actually tolerated due to its expectancy. I don’t know about you, but just because I expect to stub my toe doesn’t necessarily mean I should continue walking around in the dark.
I’m not just preaching moderation here, either. That’s been done to death. Recall, also, that I mentioned a novel perspective. Advocating moderation is hardly a novel approach, considering I’m writing a guide that’s surely been done to death as much as a treatise on moderation has. No, I’m speaking of that whole “understanding the past” thing I just mentioned.
You see, it may appear that once you are born, you are a nice, little, compartmentalized, complete and isolated human being. Nothing could be further from the truth. You are the authoritative culmination of information wired together by your parents collectively and individually. And, your parents are also piles of information coalesced by their parents (your grandparents). Each of your grandparents, in turn, were also the culmination of the genetic soldering of their parents. So on and on it goes so far as your beliefs allow. You are the product of countless generations. You are literally and figuratively linked to your ancestors, because there are no arbitrary cut-off points by which they cease to matter.
What this means is that human beings have been living a certain way for a very long time, perhaps hundreds of thousands of years, and our bodies (and probably even our minds) have not yet had the time to adapt to the abrupt, virtually over-night changes in lifestyle we began to experience more or less around the industrial revolution. We spent a hundred thousand years picking berries and hunting game to exclusively buying chemically treated and often genetically modified food from grocery stores. There are people out there who will tell you with a straight face that this is all perfectly fine and natural. I don’t care how safe the chemically treated food the experts say is, nor how more efficient our farming has become. People are still starving, and our bodies simply haven’t had time to adjust from hunting and gathering for hundreds of thousands of years to driving to the store and back to buy food that’s been engineered in a laboratory. I go berserk when people tell me there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the way we live today.
We are still inextricably linked to our ancestry, whether we like it or not. Would you ignore a family history of diabetes? Or heart disease? What about cancer? Of course not. But why stop at your parents? Where do you think they got their genes from? We went from living a certain way for a very, very long time, to having that lifestyle abruptly and profoundly changed over the course of a handful of decades.
I intuitively know that this is the crux behind why we are all sick, dying, overweight and unhappy today. We simply haven’t had enough time to physically adapt to modern life. What we’re eating and how much of it we’re eating is only a very small (though, no less important) part of a larger, vastly complex problem that’s comprised of so many lesser problems no one seems to want to tackle it, but on rare occasion, should someone take on a smaller problem within the larger, it’s almost always guaranteed to be ineffective. Planting a pretty flower in a garden is a largely meaningless gesture when there’s an unseen manufacturing plant a hundred miles away silently contaminating the soil and the water table beneath it.
Allow me to indulge in a largely unpopular (but satisfying) anecdote: if human beings have been smoking tobacco for thousands of years, why is it that smokers are only now all suddenly dying off from cancer? Is it the chemical additives? Is it that we’re simply living longer now than we did back then? There’s got to be something else going on, and I think I’m getting pretty close to figuring out what it is.
Modern life and the conveniences it brings has shifted our focus away from living to the illusory idolatry of purpose.
For hundreds of thousands of years, our “purpose” was to survive. The focus was on our life — that, which made us live. Everything else had a lower priority. Today, this is reversed, as nearly everything that has nothing to do with keeping us alive now takes the priority. That which makes us live, and live well have fallen to the wayside; effortlessly taken for granted just as the air we breathe is so readily available. We are beginning to see the consequences of this today. For hundreds of thousands of years, we would use the energy from the food that we had just eaten in finding and eating our next meal — there was no down time except for sleeping and mating. The energy from that meal would then be used again immediately for searching out the next meal after that. Lots of energy was packed in stuff that took lots of energy to acquire, so, lots of energy was spent acquiring that high energy food. What I’m trying to say, is that the energy we got from food was used almost exclusively for acquiring new food. We don’t do this anymore. What we do instead is acquire and consume those high energy foods without the natural commensurate physical exertion that naturally comes along with acquiring that high energy food. We have effectively “short-circuited” our biological cycle of life. Evolutionary biology simply hasn’t caught up with this paradigm shift in the way we now “hunt” and “gather.”
Let’s wrap it all up into a logical syllogism:
If man is an animal, and all animals spend the majority of their energy acquiring food, then man must spend the majority of his energy acquiring food. He must tailor his physical exertion output around his dietary input, or, conversely, he must adjust his dietary input around his physical exertion output that would be commensurate in nature.
Let’s say, for illustration, and for the sake of argument (actual real numbers aren’t important, you’ll get the point) that the food energy yielded in one cookie is equal to the food energy in one zebra. Well, nature designed that zebra to be worth the energy spent in chasing it down, killing it and eating it, with some energy left over. You could rest, and then use that left over energy to hunt yourself down another zebra. Now, having said that, imagine sitting down and eating a box of cookies — a box of cookies that you didn’t have to hunt down. Then going to bed. Then getting up the next day and driving to work. And sitting behind a desk all day, except for the time where you stop working long enough to choke down a coupla hamburgers, a large soda and some fries. Then going home to relax, watch some tv and go to bed early because you’re tired. Over time, this cycle will invariably kill you, or make you very, very sick, because you’re loading up on energy that nature intended you to work for.
Nature designed every living thing on Earth to operate within an energy economy: The energy it costs our bodies to acquire food and how much energy that food returns back to our bodies. I do not understand where we got the idea that human beings are somehow immune to this immutable fact of life — everything you put into your mouth was supposed to have had an energy cost associated with it! By driving to the store to buy food, we’re circumventing a cyclical rule of energy evolution has spent millions of years tempering our bodies to abide by. No, this does not mean that we should all drop everything and go back to chucking spears and wrestling bears. It just means that we must compensate accordingly, and within reason, to replace the divots modern living has effectively carved out of our natural lives. Simply maintaining some sort of energy-balance certainly seems like one of those no-brainers, but you might be surprised to know just how counter-intuitive some of nature’s responses can be if you happen to underestimate her.
All life on Earth has been programmed to take the path of least resistance, because energy is everything. You need it to get it or you’ll die. Simple as that. No creature wants to spend it unless it absolutely has to, or unless energy is in clear abundance. This is why some animals will scavenge and why humans will steal. Conserving energy is a biological directive: don’t spend it unless you have to. This is where our “big brains” come in: to resist the natural instinct to conserve energy. We must do this because we aren’t spending the natural amount of energy we normally would to acquire our food.
Always look to nature, and be mindful that for hundreds of thousands of years, human beings (yes, YOU) have been, and always will be, natural animals of this planet Earth. Just because we have these big brains that grant us self-awareness does not somehow magically erase the biological requirements beset upon all living creatures. Your family, your job, your toys, games and hobbies, your worries, your fears and problems no matter how great or small do not immunize you from your bodily obligations. Ultimately, you will only bring disservice to the things you enjoy as your health wanes. Conversely, you will only fuel and exacerbate the things you don’t, all by neglecting your body of its basic, fundamental, obvious needs.
Being alive means that we are living, breathing, human beings that not only are individual entities capable of independent thought, but are also equally interconnected to our pasts, each other, the environment, nature, and the future.
I haven’t read any books by Darwin, Nietzsche, Plato, or any other one of them high-brow guys. I just know this by observing nature, and noting the points at which humanity deviates from it. I instinctively know that our problems are in direct proportion to how far we separate ourselves from nature. The further and further we get, the more combustible and compounded our problems become. In my opinion, I believe that everything I have stated on this page is non-debatable, immutable fact. I don’t really care about charts, graphs, data points and plots after the fact, because that type of research will not somehow go back in time and magically change the facts. In all honesty, we shouldn’t even be conducting research in the first place on whether or not we should be consuming chemically treated foods.
Let’s move on now to Chapter 2: The Energy Crisis, where we’ll evaluate how we’re spending our energy on everything but ourselves, how we can focus it, and how to redistribute it.