So in my last post I made a kind of depressing statistical analysis. To balance that out I’m going to (hopefully) take a more optimistic approach to analyzing our existence as humans. In advance, I would like to acknowledge that I am absolutely biting off more than I can chew, and the thoughts I ramble off here are still largely incomplete, they’re just things I mull over every once in a while.

At college this past semester, I took a course on biological anthropology. Being an anthropology major, I figured this was a good way to get some requirements out of the way, and I had heard that the professor was a great lecturer anyways. I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. Apparently, a course on biological anthropology encompasses everything from basic cell anatomy and function, to human evolution and adaptations. It was a HUGE amount of information to cover, but it was fascinating nonetheless.

One of the biggest takeaways from the course–at least in my opinion–was that we are incredibly lucky to have become the species that we are today. Natural selection is not merely ‘survival of the fittest’ (in fact, that was a term which apparently Darwin himself disliked) but rather it is differential reproductive success. The fact that we were able to survive as a species isn’t based on the fact that we could essentially kill off our competition. We survived because of minute differences in our physiological make up which advantaged us over others.

What’s important to keep in mind is that we didn’t evolve to dominate, we evolved to adapt to our environment. Bipedalism–perhaps our most lauded trait–was really formed as a response to increasing grasslands and decreasing forests, mostly in south-central Africa. Lucy didn’t triumphantly step out of the trees in order to conquer her enemies, she skittishly darted from tree to tree, eventually cover greater and greater distances which required her body to adapt to become more efficient. We’re all about efficiency, not just making sure we thwart our challengers.

What’s perplexing to me, is the fact that some people cannot reconcile evolution with ‘intelligent design.’ While most people go about blaming radical theists for wanting to offer up intelligent design as a comparison to evolution, I think ‘radical atheists’ are just as ignorant as their Bible-thumping counterparts. Sure, there’s absolutely evidence to support biological evolution, but I don’t understand how the presence of that evidence necessarily precludes the existence of a higher power. To go about claiming that there absolutely is no god is just as naïve to go about claiming that god is the only explanation for our existence. The evidence (both scientific and spiritual) suggests there is quite a lot of leg room.

Of course, there are plenty of people who see my point of view. Unfortunately, as with most contentious issues in this world, it is the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. The people with the most polarized opinions are the ones getting the attention, and those of use who are able to rationally reconcile science with spirituality are left by the wayside.

My biological anthropology professor was the kind of guy who like to say things like “you know how you’ve always hear that–insert commonly heard explanation for phenomenon–well that’s completely wrong” and then follow up with some other explanation. While this sometimes ended up sounding arrogant on his part, most of the new theories he presented to us were actually incredibly thought provoking. The one which stuck with me the most is the theory as to why modern humans were able to essentially replace Neanderthals when we both inhabited the same ecological niche at roughly the same time. While most people believe it had something to do with intelligence, strength, or other self-promoting traits, my professor presented the idea that it really only had to do with articulation. The way the back of our throats evolved versus the way the backs of Neanderthal throats evolved resulted, by chance, in modern humans having more vocal range and articulation. This led to more complex speech patterns, and probably more effective hunting methods. Though the difference was slim, it resulted in a 1-2% increased reproduction rate (if you are more adept at hunting, you can provide more food for your family and drive the competitors away) and over millions of years, that 1-2% better success rate would eventually lead to humans overtaking the terrestrial niche they shared with Neanderthals.

So if our chances of survival as a species were so meager, how can an intellectually honest person truly rule out the possibility that there is some higher power out there who has our back?

Every girl dreams of the day when she is swept off her feet by a dashing prince who flashes a smile as they gallop off into the setting sun. Okay, maybe that’s just my undying love for Disney talking, but I think we can all sympathize with wanting to be told that we’re “that special someone” whose “1-in-a-million smile” completes someone else’s life.

But let’s dissect that admittedly self-indulgent need for attention on an unnecessarily annoyingly analytical level, shall we?

If you’re really ‘1 in a million’ then, in our nearly 7 billion person planet, that means there are about 7,000 others just like you, right? Now before all you hopeless romantics out there write me off as being a hardened cynic, let me just say that I realize this is a figure of speech, merely meant to make someone feel special (although you have to admit it is almost too clichéd to even accomplish that nowadays, isn’t it?)

However, I still find this little math equation–or at least the musings behind it–provoking. If there are ~ 7,000 other people just like you, then there are 7,000 other people who, for example: don’t like little round foods like peas or corn-off-the cob, or who were inexplicably obsessed with David Spade for 3 years of their life. If we can manage to overcome our largely individualistic American egos, I think it can be quite comforting to think that you are probably never alone in your thoughts or actions. I don’t think this has to mean that you can never be unique, but rather your uniqueness can be fostered through the discovery of how it is exactly that you are connected to the rest of the world.

Of course, we could flip this scenario another way: if there are ~7,000 people just like you, then that means there are ~7,000 people just like everyone you hate, too. Hate is a strong word, I don’t like to use it….but let’s face it, everyone can think of at least one person in the world that they wouldn’t mind never hearing of or from again. If you don’t want to admit it out loud, at least admit it to yourself. This doesn’t mean that you wish ill-will upon this person, but you just…think your own personal existence would benefit greatly if it didn’t involve them. However, if there are 6,999 other ‘thems’ out there, you’re going to have to learn how to deal with them somehow, right?

This is where the ‘perspective’ part of this entry comes in. You can’t just ignore something and expect it to disappear from your life ipso facto. Additionally, if you go through life thinking that you can simply vanquish all those who stand in your way, you better be prepared to fight an army of 7,000 every time you go out to battle. My point being, it is important to recognize where other people are coming from. Most of us are rational beings (despite what mass media may lead you to believe) and therefore, we form our opinions and morals based on some form of logic. Just because my logic may not coincide with your logic does not mean that either one of us is intrinsically wrong, or stupid–rather, we have just formed different conclusions because we have been researching different sets of data.

I realize that this may sound frustratingly Buddhist. Praising empathy and reflexivity can sound incredibly high-and-mighty. But that’s not what I’m trying to say. It’s absolutely normal to simply wish to write someone off as being irrational, stubborn, or just plain dumb when they won’t give into logic which seems so iron-clad in your mind. It’s much easier to do that than to actually try to see where they’re deriving their logic from. And even if you can dissect where they’re coming from, then you often run into another, even messier issue: morals. Morals tend to go beyond, and run deeper than logic and rationale, and as such they are even more difficult to shake up.

It is morals, then, which truly create most of the impasses and disconnects we experience with people around us. And while I may have been suggesting earlier that you should try to empathize, or at least recognize other people’s logic, I don’t think there’s really any suggestion to be made when it comes to trying to understand another person’s morals.

This brings me back to my original contemplation for this entry. If it’s comforting for you to think that there are 6,999 people out there who would have your back in any moral debate, then you have to be prepared to realize that there are thousands of others willing to fight your army to the death. And really, what would that accomplish?

I wish I had a one-size-fits-all solution to this dilemma, but if I did, I expect I would currently be accepting a Nobel Prize for finding a way to reconcile all the global conflicts…not writing a blog on my couch in my pajamas at 7 pm on a Saturday evening.

Lend an Ear

June 4, 2011

Some days, I wake up wanting nothing more than to tune out the world…today quickly made its way into that coveted category of days.

After being rudely awoken by an unforgiving cellular alarm, I stumbled off to work, finding dissatisfaction with a solid 15 minutes of songs which came up on shuffle. Work itself was no sound for sore ears either–I suspect it was the combination of the quotidian pestering by certain coworkers (something which usually roles right off my back) and the Howie Day Pandora radio station which was chosen as the coffee shop theme music for the day.

I like to think of myself of someone who can role with the punches. Things don’t usually bother me because I’ve gotten pretty good at deflecting unsavory remarks and attitudes by trying to empathize with the people from which they are coming. If someone is being uncharacteristically sour, I generally chalk it up to the fact that they have something difficult going on in their life which has been manifested through curtness. Some may say that it seems like I’m setting myself up as a sounding-board for emotional abuse, but I like to consider it more as being a voluntary punching bag–and if you think about it, punching bags are able to absorb the shock and are no worse off in the end really, so where’s the harm in helping someone blow off steam every once in a while?

That being said, I have my limits.

Sometimes I need someone else to be a punching bag for me. And if no one is willing or available to do so, then I just need everyone to shut up.

So today was one of those days. All morning I found myself wishing that I could just sit in a corner and not have to deal with people. Maybe listen to Taylor Swift tell me about how I, as a fellow adolescent girl, should be feeling while trying to navigate “the time of my life.”

Just as I was focusing on tuning out yet another banal rant by my coworker (who was obviously dealing with his own issues–sorry bud, the punching bag needed some repairs today) a woman in her mid twenties–not much older than myself–stepped up to the counter. I briefly caught her adjusting something behind her ear, and when she began placing her order for a 16 oz soy chai latté, I realized that she had been turning up the volume on her hearing aid.

Her speech had the somewhat monotonous, over-pronounced, almost forced tone which clearly indicated she was nearly deaf–and probably would be fully deaf were it not for her hearing aids. Taking her order resulted in a similar sort of panic which I experience when dealing with costumers who have thick accents or for whom English is clearly not their first language. I hate having to ask “I’m sorry, did you say…?” too many times. However, despite my initial suspicion that I would have to ask for multiple repetitions of her order, this woman conveyed her cravings with surprising ease…in fact, I was the one stumbling over my words when I had to explain to her that we were out of soy, and “would regular milk be ok?” because I was so wrapped up in a) worrying about whether or not she would understand me, and b) not wanting to seem like I was obviously trying to articulate my words in case she needed to read my lips.

After handing her her latté–“yes, regular milk is fine”–punching a hole in her coffee card–“6 punches and you get one free!”–and sending her on her way, I found myself reflecting on the annoyances which had seemed so egregious to me all day. Sure, it would be awesome if I could set a soundtrack to my life, and only have to tune in to people when I wanted, but at least I have the option of communicating with people through both listening and responding effortlessly. For a few brief moments I thought about how my grievances would be dramatically altered if I didn’t have that option, and rather instead had to truly work at being able to operate on a ‘normal’ (whatever that means) communication level. I suspect it wasn’t easy for the woman I waited on to learn how to speak in a way that most people around her could understand; additionally, were it not for the hearing aids, it may well have been impossible for her to have the luxury of hearing music, or laughter, or milk being steamed and coffee being poured.

So while I may wake up some days wishing my ears had a convenient dial on the back which allowed me to control their intake of sound waves, could I perhaps shift my perspective so that, rather than focusing on the static feedback which pushes me so close to the brink of break down, I focus on all the pleasant noises I take for granted? Like the melodic lull of my cat’s purr, or the satisfying pops of my tired knuckles?

As I stood musing over this query for a second or two, I heard a shout from the back room. It was my coworker oh-so-sweetly suggesting that I get back to work.

I began humming a tune and pretended not to hear him.