Photo by Waldemar Brandt

A trip to my childhood home and the memories it triggered got me thinking about how hard it is to be human. Even as a relatively advantaged person, I was thinking about the rocky path between where I started, the seeming miracle of where I am now, and wondering about the path ahead. Fortunately, my mindfulness training has revealed that this one precious human life is also filled with possibility and potential, no matter the challenges we face.

We’re born into this world, often unintentionally and certainly without our informed consent, with just some basic conditioning and hopefully at least one benevolent caregiver to help us survive. For many years of our lives, we’re all survival instinct and no wisdom. So right away we begin learning how to avoid pain and seek out pleasure, without a broader view to guide us. We understandably make a lot of mistakes, small and large, that harm ourselves and sometimes others. And if we don’t have skilled teachers in our lives who can help us develop wisdom – or if all our time and energy is usurped by survival needs – this period of ignorance lasts much longer and we must learn (if we ever do) through the school of hard knocks.

Our actions are often not rational, but are contextual and relational, designed more to keep us alive in the short term than for our own long-term good, or for the continued health of our planet… – Rachel Lilley

I’m reminded of an analogy I learned in graduate school of the elephant as the emotional mind and its caretaker as the rational mind – the emotional mind is much older, so its stronger and more deeply established than the rational mind that begins to develop much later in life. Therefore, it takes a lot of befriending and practicing for the two to work together effectively. Mindfulness can help us with this process, but first we have to wake up to the reality that something isn’t working. There are lots of societal factors stacked against this type of awakening, which is why many never do so.

Just the basics of being human are hard. So it seems almost tragic that, as a society, we compound this suffering through the consequences of our mindless collective preferences and choices. We don’t see our fundamental interconnection and we continue to elevate short-term reward (or relief) at the expense of long-term wellbeing. We begin to accept this narrow-minded and short-sighted strategy from our leaders as “normal”, sometimes due to what James Baldwin called moral apathy or what Sarah Schulman coined mental gentrification – “letting our common sense and decency be colonized by privilege”. We stop questioning, we lose our moral compass, and our diversity and inventiveness of thought. We forget and repress outcomes that feel dissonant – we may even defiantly celebrate the qualities that support short-sightedness as we seek to survive – to assimilate – amidst mainstream cultural demands and values. Over generations, this is compounded. Just as with neighborhood gentrification, the cost of rent in our minds just keeps getting higher and higher.

…systemic change in policy making is prevented, at least in part, because politicians and civil servants do not understand the very thing they use to do their job, their own embodied minds. This is not a spiritual or a therapeutic issue, it is basic lack of education and self-awareness, something mindfulness interventions can, if designed well, do something about.” – Rachel Lilley

After a period of suspended animation during the pandemic in which those who could “sheltered in place” as much as possible, the inequities and the challenges of being human continue to be highlighted, even in our reemergence. I visited home to care for an elder after a major surgery – one that was put off due to pandemic-related complications in our health care system. This experience made me reflect on both my privilege and the cruelty of our fragmented systems. It seems “normal” to us that our health system turns our elders out on their own a day after a knee or hip replacement surgery. It seems “normal” to accept poor outcomes for those who can’t get adequate support at home after a major surgery. And it seems “normal” that we deny the gift of mobility to those who can’t afford this type of surgery. It’s a slippery slope of normalizing what appears almost obscene from the outside, given that the US at this time possesses almost one third of the world’s wealth.

I’ve also been reflecting on the growing number of friends and acquaintances who have considered or initiated crowdsourced fundraisers for themselves or a beloved in the aftermath of pandemic related layoffs and health challenges – or even to cover final arrangements after a death. Some of these are folks who are working, have a support network, and have health insurance, yet they still cannot afford basic necessities. As a mental health professional, I’m experiencing the crush of the resulting backlog of need. And the health care system is just one example of the cruelty and short-sightedness we accept as normal in this country.

Fortunately we are also hardwired for connection and affiliation and we are gifted with a large cortex that allows us some control over our attention and emotions. We have the capacity to override our baser instincts when it makes sense to do so and we are rewarded by feeling good when we do good. We can capitalize on these natural assets through intentionally cultivating these qualities – just like a person who has an inborn talent might seek out programs and teachers to nurture their gift. And these qualities, when collectively cultivated and enacted, can actually make a difference in the world. Being human is hard, but it’s also an opportunity. Will we take advantage of this one precious human life?

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