Aaron Wissner (valuesystem) wrote,
Aaron Wissner

Difficulty in the face of Normal


Things can get difficult.

As a person in my mid-40s, I've seen and experienced difficulty. Some in my life. Some in the life of my friends and family. Some in the life of my students. Some from afar, from news, media and reading.

When things do get difficult, I often remember what normal is.

For a long time, several decades, I thought I knew what normal was. Normal was what was around us all the time. Normal was what I saw, and what I ate, and what I heard, and what I experienced.

In a personal quest to understand everything, I stumbled upon a number of clues which led me to learn that what I thought was normal was not normal at all, but only commonplace. That I had grown up, that we had all grown up, in a civilization that was anything but normal, and so our experiences were anything but normal as well.


There were a number of milestones in this life quest of mine, and I'll share a few:

* Learning that meat and animal products were the results of suffering and torture. I had a clue to this after reading "The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair in high school, but it was not until I read "Animal Liberation" by Peter Singer, that I learned the facts about factory farms, and how this civilization treats animals raised in captivity. Believing I was directly contributing to this system through my purchases and consumption, I stopped participating. I stopped buying animal products and I stopped consuming animal products. I became suddenly aware and interested in where my money was going, and what it was supporting.

* Figuring out how rising gasoline prices would impact my students and their families, especially those "low income" families. This led to learning about peak oil, the moment that oil extraction, globally, begins its inevitable permanent decline, and how that would impact the U.S. economy and civilization itself. This concerned me so much, that I spent years sharing this information with anyone who would listen, and learning a great deal about money, economics, and yes, this civilization as well.

* How this civilization is consuming (for lack of a clearer term) the living Earth and changing it, the climate, the surface, the oceans, and life itself. Eventually, I developed a mental model of how civilization itself was like an organism (a super organism, a "social organism) which consumed matter and energy, and for which energy is the master resource, which is always sought, and which fuels the ongoing consumption.

These might not be in order, and they certainly will not be abundantly clear in so few words, but there was a period there, roughly a decade, where my entire conception of life, difficulty, and normal changed.

During this time, the most important learning was about normal.

For this, the prime source were the few books of Daniel Quinn, also an educator, who wrote these books with the desire of helping people who were facing difficulty; and more generally, to help the great number of people to understand what normal is, and what normal is not.

Quinn's key works are Ishmael, the Story of B, and My Ishmael; which form an educational trilogy, and illuminate how this civilization is different from anything that came before, and was anything but normal.

Let's consider these ideas for a moment.


Humans evolved on this planet, along and among all the other living things here, for millions of years. Millions and millions. Here we are now, along with all the other living things that are here now, and we are all the ones that were "successful". An unbroken line can be traced from every one of us, back in time, through our ancestors, to the very first living thing(s). We are all here because our ancestors were successful, at every step of the way. Those living things that were not successful? They are extinct. For whatever reason, those lines ended. Perhaps whatever mutation, or adaptation, that occurred in each of those animals made it well suited for something, but when there was a change in the climate, this was actually a disadvantage.

For humans, our ancestors, our nth great grandparents, lived and evolved in small communities (bands, groups, tribes, etc.) and lived our lives in these small communities. Over millions of years, there were mutations, adaptations, changes both in humans physiology and culture, changes which provided them with advantages that made them successful, year after year after year. In fact, there are still communities in the world that live very successful way. They are few. They are the uncontacted peoples, primarily of New Guinea and the Amazon.

For humans who did not have these physiological or cultural changes, they were not successful, and eventually they died out.

Some time, about 10,000 years ago, totalitarian agriculture developed, and that led to the birth of this civilization.

Amongst the many differences, and perhaps the key difference, between the way our ancestors lived before this civilization, and now as part of this civilization, are these:

Eating. When our ancestors ate, they just reached out a hand, grabbed some food, and ate it. They might walk around a bit to see what looked the most edible and tasty, and then they grabbed it and ate it. They might go around as a group, and find some food, and eat it. They might even go out as a group, find some food, eat some, and bring some back to their families and friends. What they never did was to lock up the food, or try to sell the food, or to deny anyone food, or grow much food, or to store massive quantities of food, or to prevent others (including non-human animals) from enjoying the food that was growing.

In this civilization, this is a defining difference. Here, all the food is grown by civilization, shipped, stored, and sold. Where grown, it is "owned", which means that by force, others will be prevented from getting any, and this even includes non-human animals. And, it is not just grown, but the land is literally conquered in order to grow only food for this civilization, and none others. There are mono-crops, and factory farms, and an entire system of distribution that ensures that everyone that has "money" can get some.

Normal is not this. Humans did not evolve for millions of years in civilization. In fact, the physiological evolution which has occurred in humans in the last 10,000 years has been minimal at best. Before that, millions of years, millions and millions, of living as one with the world and the rest of the community of life, and living in communities, which ate together, lived together, shared together, played together, and experienced the world together.

This is normal AND this is what makes us happy. Happiness, of course, is emotion, and emotion is chemical, and chemical is due to evolution. We evolved in small communities, and we were happy. Another way to say that is that animals that enjoy the company of their species are successful because of the mutual advantage of living together. Those human offshoots that might have enjoyed solitude more than community, so much so that they went off to live alone, well, they did not survive.

That was normal. That still is normal. We are physiologically the same as our ancestors, and what made them happy, it also makes us happy.


Contrast this to life our families evolved as part of for millions of years, to what we now experience as commonplace.

* Spending much of our time indoors. Not just indoors, but isolated from the moving air, the sun, the plants, the odors.

* Sitting down, and staying quiet, for not just minutes, but tens of minutes, for hours.

* Interacting with people who we have not known since birth. Not just one or two, but dozens, or hundreds. Being together with dozens or hundreds of strangers for hours and hours and hours upon hours.

* Eating off a plate, in a building, food unidentifiable from its plant or animal origin, mixed together, mashed, fried, pulverized, colored, flavored, sterilized, chemicalized...

* Sitting still and staring at a flat screen, perhaps wiggling our fingers a bit, tapping or twisting, sitting, sitting, sitting, staring, staring, staring...

As a parent of two young children, I think of how their life, especially at school, is anything but normal. They are stuck, in a single room, for most of the day, with a number of other children, of almost exactly the same age, who are very, very restricted in what they are allowed to do, and have a very regimented plan for the day, day after day, and if they do not conform, are given some artificial consequence designed to make them conform.

Yes, this is commonplace, but that does not make it normal.


Some do seem to enjoy this. As a student myself, I did seem to enjoy school, but what I enjoyed about school were tiny bits of school, the bits that were in common with what my ancestors might have enjoyed.

I enjoyed being with my friends, who I would talk and joke with, and who I'd been with for years. (I came from a very small school.) I enjoyed doing something well, for myself. Figuring something out. Seeing my friends. Being listened to by them. Hearing interesting stories. Trying new things, experiments. Thinking interesting thoughts.

And all of this despite the building, and the civilization, not because of it. Notice, I did not mention how much I enjoyed sitting all day, or looking at a blackboard, or reading stale textbooks, etc. I enjoyed the things that anyone would enjoy, despite the not-normal, but commonplace, context.

As the most studious in my class, the things to be enjoyed, I was able to find enough of them to make going to school okay, and sometimes enjoyable on the whole, and I certainly did mostly what I was expected to do in school. For my classmates, some of them at least, their enjoyment level was possibly less, and I suspect in some cases, much less. And, for other students, going to other schools, especially large schools where one knew only a few, if any, other people in the classroom, the enjoyment, I imagine, might be much less, and in fact the opposite, but downright depressing, stressful, tedious, etc.

School, the way it is done here and now, is not normal even if it is commonplace.

How did people evolve to learn? By experiencing things first hand, of course, in youth, surrounded by other youth, and parents, and all experiencing things together. Through exploration of the world. Through going out with the olders and seeing what they were doing, and trying if for oneself. Interacting with others, of all ages, and learning from them. Spending, and enjoying, lots of time together, and lots of time of just play, and joking around, and chasing, and being rambunctious.

For students, now-a-days, school can be difficult. Bullying. Lessons that are boring, or too hard, or irrelevant. Classrooms that are visually sterile. Days which are repetitive, and run on a clock. Movement which is restricted and monitored. Being stuck together, all day, with strangers. Teenagers, moving every hour to a new and equally sterile room, with new sterile seats, and new strangers. Trying to understand about oneself, and life, in this "environment" is difficult at best.

For students, now-a-days, home can be difficult. Bullying. Chores that are boring, or too hard, or irrelevant. Rooms that are devoid of life or nature. Days which seem the same, and run by a clock, often one that seems broken. Movement which is restricted and monitored. Being stuck together, with a very small, a very very small number of people, who are isolated from those in the neighboring houses, and in fact, might never even interact with the neighbors. Teenagers whose only connection to one another might be through a screen, in tiny squiggles and wiggles, or flat images of unnatural places. Trying to understand about oneself, and life, in THIS "environment" is also difficult, at best.

Normal vs. Commonplace

Why can't you be normal?

Because nothing around you is normal.

Your life is not normal.

The life of those around you is not normal.

The "environment" you find yourself in is not normal.

Just because it is common, does not make it normal; or natural; or desirable; or okay; or right; or acceptable.

Everyday, people struggle because they think they are not normal, that something is wrong, that they aren't enjoying what other people enjoy, or that they are sad, or depressed, or they struggle, but they don't understand why.

Living in this civilization is the opposite of normal. It is no surprise that it is a struggle, and difficult, and depressing, and frustrating, and painful.

And thinking about this civilization, and what it is doing to the world, to the living planet, and all the species, and communities, and life upon it; that can be frustrating, and confusing, and infuriating as well.

It is not surprising that people turn inward, or to the few things that they enjoy, or for which they find relief, when everything seems to be confused, and to make no sense, and to be unfair.

The thoughts of "why me" and "is this all there is" are not uncommon, in this civilization.

This civilization is not normal, and so our lives in it can not be normal.

When things get difficult, remember what normal is.

The way people lived and evolved for millions of years, that is normal.

Nothing in this civilization is normal.

Don't confuse normal with commonplace.

This is how I make sense of things I experience, because without that perspective and worldview, everything can be difficult and a mass of confusion.

We live lives that are not normal, in a civilization that is not normal.

How I Live Now

So, given that, what I do is, to try to get normal back into my life, as much as I can

I plan time with people I know, my friends, my family, my children.

I eat real food. Fruits, and veggies, and plants that I can identify as plants and parts of plants.

I get outside, and look at the sky, and the grass, and the trees, and the clouds, and everything that moves and stays still.

I enjoy the things that all animals enjoy, like playing, and running, and tumbling, and jumping (dancing), and watching others going about their lives.

I try to rest, sleep, and not worry about the craziness of my day, or of civilization, or any of the craziness at all.

I think about things, in my own way, and write about them, or create around them.

I learn about whatever I want to learn about, whenever I have a moment to learn about it.

I take everything in this civilization with a grain of salt, and compare it to what normal really is, and then realize that the reason why something isn't working is because there is probably no way to make it work.

I enjoy the things that I know I enjoy, I try to understand what about them I enjoy, and I seek more of that.

It may not be a commonplace life, and I may not think commonplace thoughts, or do all commonplace things, but it is as close to normal as I can get. :-)


Daniel Quinn shared his observations and insights through Ishmael, The Story of B, and My Ishmael. He noticed the struggle people were having, living as part of this civilization, and wrote these works about how things got to be this way. I was so appreciative and curious about his seemingly unique perspective, that I did something I'd never done; I set up a meeting with him, bought a plane ticket to Texas, and spent three days talking with him, on camera, about the content of his books and about these sorts of ideas and beliefs. I came away feeling supported, and refreshed, and confident. Later, I published a session of that conversation to YouTube, so that others could learn as well. While I would not expect all who read those books to experience them in the same way, I certainly recommend them to anyone who asks. :-)
Tags: civilization, culture, culture change, daniel, daniel quinn, depression, fear, ishmael, life, quinn
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