Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Caves.

I am walking across the campus of UNCW late on a Monday evening, cutting through on my way back from the store, content with the sultry evening air and the twelve bottles of PBR by my side, breathing deeply and trying to block out the pain in my aching left knee, which is probably ticketed for a date with a surgeon’s knife that I can ill afford right now. I am inhaling and exhaling, taking it all in: the rhythmic chirping of the cicadas, the stately conifers which dominate the campus, the humming of the utility lights and a generator in the distance, the smell of the earth and the trees, the frogs exploring the night in search of food. I am feeling calm and serene, quintessentially alive and present. I adore these meditative, solitary moments, in which I am myself and not the bundle of neuroses and expectations that I so often allow myself to be made into.

A strange thought pops into my head: Early Man got to experience these moments so much more than I ever can, in those pre-verbal days of branching out across the valleys and savannas of Africa. I feel the oddest sensation of envy for creatures that lived and died 100,000 years ago. They actually knew what it meant to be alive, and I only get it in fits and starts, moments of lucidity between epochs of confusion and disunity.

Don’t get me wrong: I am grateful for the marvels of technology that mean that I will sleep in a sound structure with air conditioning on this hot night, that I have lived a healthy 32 years due to the wizardry of modern medicine, that my torn ACL is not the death sentence that it would have been so long ago, when constant movement was essential for survival. I do not envy Early Man’s stomach full of parasites, his painfully short existence, or his near total ignorance of the world surrounding him. But I envy the wonder of discovery that each day must have brought, the profound focus that must have been the everyday when humanity was still very far from the top of the food chain, when daydreaming was not an idle luxury as it is now, but an invitation for large predators to consider you fair game.

The power of memory, of imagistic storage and abstract thought, has been, without question, an evolutionary boon to us. It is what allows information to be passed from generation to generation, for glittering cities to be built, for science to move forward. It is what makes us a unique animal, one that can improve its own condition extraneous to the intolerably slow drip of natural selection. That can’t be a bad thing, right?

But it is also what makes us think about what we’re having for dinner while we’re cutting the grass, spend the entire day fuming over a perceived insult that happened hours earlier, wake up angry and discontented about things that transpired before or, even worse, haven’t occured yet. In the dizziness of abstract and mnemonic thought, immersed in the distant, bygone, imaginary worlds past and future, we so often react to the people and activities that we are dealing with in the here and now as an irritant, a nuisance—a distraction from our distraction. It’s the hurried, harried kind of thinking that makes us rush out the door without our car keys, bang our shins on things that have been in the same place for time immemorial, forget about our loved ones and our obligations because we’re too wrapped up in ourselves. And that can’t be a good thing.

So I’ve been studying Hindu scripture and practicing meditation, on someone else’s suggestion, to try to maximize the frequency of those here moments, when I’m looking at what I’m looking at, talking to whom I’m talking to, and not being bothered or pleased with something that happened ten minutes or twelve years ago, or might happen tomorrow. This is the fourth time I’ve gone the route of seeking out spiritual practices to correct my naturally whiny, selfish, petulant temperament, and each time teaches me something that the previous ones didn’t. Well, obviously, since I discontinued all the previous attempts.

But Early Man didn’t need this route. Before language, he couldn’t translate sensory input into words, and hence didn’t have to go through elaborate rituals to stop himself from conceptualizing and compartmentalizing immediately compelling and fascinating phenomena. Before the word “tree,” there was just a mass of cells standing in front of you that had to be dealt with on its own merits, much like when, today, we watch our cats sniffing for enthralled minutes on end around new additions to our household like, say, a cardboard box on the floor, which we dismiss in seconds as mundane and forgettable. Early man lived with a perpetual and assiduous sense of wonder, the riveting focus of nothing—not food, not shelter, not safety, not health—being guaranteed.

I feel it significant to note that I do not wish to join the folly of others, typically silly, spoiled, misguided college students, in romanticizing tribal existence. Those that live in it now, like those folk in the dawn of prehistory, live brutal, hard, brief existences. I would change places with them for a spell, for the amazing perspective that it might convey, but at the end of the day am happy to have shelter and utilities, stable government and the blessings of Western modernity. I am no leftist moonbat, crowing about a lifestyle I know almost nothing about and probably could not stomach, preaching a gospel that I have no intention of living. But as I walk across the mini-forest of my university, taking in the residual wildness of a tiny piece of the American South, I am alerted to a truth: Early Man and those that have inherited his desperate, clannish poverty in the modern world, may not live long—but they certainly do get a chance to live. Would that we all have that.

As William Wallace, at least in the version Mel Gibson created of him, once said, “Every man dies. Not every man ever lives.” Wise words.

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