Friday, 30 March 2012
Prosperity and happiness would be easy to achieve if we could make correct decisions all day long. Imagine how efficient we would become if we never succumbed to seductive lies. How far could we go if we never got distracted by irrelevancies? How much would we profit if we never wasted time chasing what cannot be accomplished?
An exalted view of permanence and safety can be a constant source of erroneous choices. Human beings seem to suffer from a persistent cognitive distortion that makes them favour all things that are tall, wide, and long. If you think about it, you will find few exceptions to this misconception.
The groundless preference for tall, wide, and long applies equally to space and time. In cities, residents like tall buildings better than small houses. In the countryside, hotels are built next to wide lakes, not little streams. In literature, readers prefer long novels to short stories.
Our belief in permanence and safety is the culmination of our cultural bias towards everything tall, wide, and long. Children stories such as Three Little Pigs teach infants the desirability of solid homes. Career advisers encourage youths to choose well-established professions. Dietitians recommend patients to keep a constant weight.
Safety is presented as the perfect answer to all questions. It is the one solution that fits all types, the one preference that always satisfies. Temporary approaches are considered unwise. Anything transient is to be revised; anything incomplete, despised. Long live the mirage of permanence and safety.
How wrong and how historically false. The truth is that human beings have been leading predictable lives for less than 10.000 years. During the ten-times larger period that preceded agriculture, men and women had few routines and were, in certain aspects, much better off.
Prehistoric hunter-gatherers moved around frequently, carrying their household items with them. A varied diet and daily exercise kept them healthy. Tribes rarely stayed long in one place; their changing habitations made them difficult targets for parasites.
In those days, man lived on the alert. The world was unsafe; the environment, disorderly; man's attitude, entrepreneurial. Each season brought him new challenges, each territory fresh scents and herbs. To danger, he reacted with prudence; to opportunities, with self-reliance.
Safety made its entrance in man's life together with agriculture. Land cultivation and animal domestication brought us a steady supply of wheat, rice, corn, and cheese. On the other hand, they also brought us smallpox, influenza, malaria, measles, lice, and vermin.
As soon as human beings built permanent dwellings, rats became their companions. Insects multiplied fed by our blood. Bacteria found a fertile ground to grow; viruses procreated and mutated. Sickness turned to epidemic, illness to pandemic, and disease to morbidity.
Safety possesses a downside of which many people become aware only when it's too late. Routine has advantages, but it can blind you to innovation. Predictability has benefits, but it can render you passive. Steadiness has charms that can make you forget to profit from the present day.
Viewing regularity as supreme virtue can lead to the demise of independent thinking. The idea of permanence will keep you down if you let it overrule your perception of reality. If you trust routine too strongly, you will develop tunnel vision. If your entrepreneurial skills wane, change will find you unprepared.
Our world looks orderly because we have trained ourselves to disregard inconsistencies. Familiarity does not necessarily breed contempt, but it often renders individuals overconfident. Immigrants that arrive in a new country make observations that puzzle those whose ancestors have lived there for generations.
Watch out for the entrapment of safety so that you do not fall asleep. Our two most precious assets, our health and our mind, depreciate with excessive comfort. Our two most valuable qualities, ambition and persistence, vanish as soon as we take them for granted.
Once a man is born, he is tested and contested until the day he dies. Permanence is for the greatest part an illusion to which we cling too avidly. Most things we do are meant to be temporary; attempting to make them last too long is unnatural and counter-productive.
Civilization has brought us a million gains beyond what prehistoric hunter-gatherers enjoyed. Those benefits should be preserved and enhanced. Let us savour modern life without relinquishing our entrepreneurial spirit.
Science has reduced the impact of sickness so that we can remain free-ranging adventurers. Technology has enlarged the scope of our activities so that we can explore unknown territories. Do not let your longing for permanence and safety paralyse your initiative.
The price that we pay for the pretence of orderliness is too high. Human beings function best when their mind remains flexible and alert. A wise man attains certainty by overcoming contradictions, not by avoiding action.
Security is a desirable goal because it allows individuals to develop their abilities and achieve a comfortable life, but it should not become an excuse for immobility. The purpose of a home is to have place to rest, not a prison to restrain our action. Independent thinking and entrepreneurship lead to personal effectiveness, from which safety is just a side effect.
[Image by Fr Antunes under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us]