We were never meant to live this way.
We have more than we have ever had, but also have less; less community, love, understanding, health, quiet, rest, and connection. Constantly bombarded and overwhelmed , we are surrounded by excess information, bright lights, blaring sounds, noxious smells, giant crowds, strange new places, and seemingly infinite choices. We live in a foreign land, each of us wondering why we are struggling and suffering. Why none of it seems to make sense, and why each day brings more and more irreconcilable paradoxes.
This sensation can be defined and diagnosed in many ways, from generic ennui or existential angst to major depressive disorder or generalized anxiety, sensory integration deficits to attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
Or, we can think about it in another way. Not as a disease or condition, a defect or consequence of characterological weakness.
We live in captivity.
Think about it. When wild animals are captured and placed in zoos, they typically do not respond well. Used to navigating long distances and worlds without walls, audiences, or externally imposed structure, they decompensate into odd and maladaptive behaviors, harming themselves deliberately, abandoning their young, or simply wasting away.
As an intellectual experiment, I took the Wikipedia entry for “Behaviors of animals in captivity” and replaced every instance of the word “animal” with “human.” Other than a few other semantic changes, I left the remaining content the same. The results are both humorous and startling:
Behaviors of humans in captivity
Captive humans, especially those not domesticated, sometimes develop repetitive and purposeless motor behaviors called stereotypical behaviors. Examples of stereotypical behaviors include pacing around, biting themselves, retracing their steps, and self-grooming. These behaviors are caused by stress and boredom. Many who keep humans in captivity . . . attempt to prevent or decrease stereotypical behavior by introducing novel stimuli, known as environmental enrichment.
A type of abnormal behavior shown in captive humans is self-injurious behavior. Self-injurious behavior indicates any activity that involves biting, scratching, hitting, [or] hair plucking that may result in injuring oneself. Although its reported incidence is low, self-injurious behavior is observed across a range of human[s], especially when they experience social isolation in infancy. . .
The proximal causes of self-injurious behavior have been widely studied in captive humans; either social or nonsocial factors can trigger this type of behavior. Social factors include changes in group composition, stress, separation from the group, approaches by or aggression from members of other groups, . . . and removal from the group. Social isolation, particularly disruptions of early mother-rearing experiences, is an important risk factor. Studies have suggested that, although mother-reared humans still exhibit some self-injurious behaviors, nursery-reared humans are much more likely to self-abuse than mother-reared ones. Nonsocial factors include contact [with strangers] and frequent habitation visitors. Captive humans often cannot escape the attention and disruption caused by the general public, and the stress resulting from this lack of environmental control may lead to an increased rate of self-injurious behaviors.
I propose that humans are no different than animals in this regard. Our species did the bulk of evolution’s heavy lifting in what is commonly known as our evolved evolutionary niche. In this setting, humans lived in small groups of band or subsistence hunter-gatherers, relatively small in number and varying little in its cast of characters throughout one’s lifespan (save for changes brought about by births and deaths). Threats to survival were concrete and ominous, combatted by cooperative efforts to raise and protect children and band together in strength. After spending a few hours foraging or hunting, days were spent largely in leisure, with much time spent walking, socializing and playing with all members of the group (regardless of age), and engaging with the natural world. Nights were spent sleeping communally under a bed of stars.
Compare this to the modern Western lifestyle. From birth, we are segregated into same-age groups. We prize and promote movement away from the family of origin and in order to meet the demands of capitalism and private ownership, after which we must outsource much of the care of our children, who are again segregated into same-age groups. We witness neither birth nor death until they strike our immediate circle. Absent real-world communities, many of us seek communion via screens. We eschew the natural cycles of day, night, and season for the pressure of 24-7-365 on-demand living. We are tired, stressed, unwell, and largely ill at ease.
Although many of these greater trends in civilization—such as consolidation of wealth, agriculture, and non-nomadic living—have taken place over thousands of years, some of the most dramatic shifts have occurred in the last 250 years, since the Industrial Revolution, with its double edged sword of technological innovation. Speaking in evolutionary time, this shift is the sudden and dramatic equivalent of whiplash.
And as a result of this abrupt shift in lifestyle, humanity suffers. Each person suffers as well; however, especially in the West’s absurd culture of radical individualism, each suffering individual is left to believe that he or she suffers alone due to personal flaws, weaknesses, and moral failings.
In over a decade of work as a psychotherapist, I have witnessed myriad permutations of this illusion of personalization. The work toward healing almost always begins with deepening the context of each person’s suffering, locating it instead in a more universal predicament of human civilization. Generally, once people shed self-blame for the sequelae of captivity, it frees up space for responding creatively to the very much non-ideal setting in which we find ourselves.
In many ways, I have arrived at the notion of living in captivity as a result of my personal journey to make meaning around my own malaise, especially as I brought a child into this world. The wide-ranging journey encompasses nearly every aspect of human living I can imagine, including but not limited to childrearing, physiology, kinesiology, health and illness, psychology, diet, technology, religion, music, play, and love. The journey takes some important detours into zoology and zoomorphism (the opposite of anthropomorphism), as well as archaeology and anthropology.
The purpose of this journey is not, as you might be wondering or fearing at this point, to implore all of us to sledgehammer our smartphones and laptops, strip naked, and go live in the forest. I recognize that this is neither possible nor practical, and as a person who is fond of my phone, clothes, and comfortable indoor habitat, I personally eschew these options myself. No, the new world order is here to stay. Instead, the “solution,” as one might wish from such a potentially ominous work, is more subtle.
Mainly, I seek to build awareness. As in The Matrix, this journey will involve choosing whether or not to become aware of this disturbing, all-encompassing reality. If you wish to stay blissfully unaware (but still stressed and angst-ridden) in the matrix of captivity, please stop reading. But if you wish to educate yourself about the captive environment in which you and several generations of ancestors have been trapped, read on. The “enriched environment” of our captive reality may lose a great deal of its luster, and the deal of modern life may feel much more raw than it ever did before, but I argue that this awareness is not only necessary but also revolutionary. Indeed, it is a critical step in our finding a more mindful, more deeply human way to live. Once we know and recognize our species’ optimal survival factors, as evidenced by the legacy of our evolutionary niche, it becomes harder to ignore them and the detrimental, life-threatening impact their absence has on our existence.
Awareness of the more deleterious aspects of our captivity and the more salubrious aspects of our freedom will offer us unprecedented access to the human destiny of belonging, meaning, and wellness: something our ancestors knew, and that could be called our birthright. Imagine such qualities embedded in a society that has learned, in many instances, to conquer disease, harsh habitats, and early death. What, then, might our species be capable of? The possibilities defy the imagination. However, it is my hope in presenting this thesis to my fellow humans that, together, we will generate these possibilities toward the goal of achieving and building upon our birthright as never before in the history of our species, creating a better, more beautiful, more peaceful world, albeit still a captive one.