Humans aren’t evolution’s greatest success story, and Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari has the historical facts to prove it.
Doesn’t seem like your typical self-help book, right? In fact, it even sounds like a depressing overview of humanity, one that paints a bleak and savage picture of the past, present, and future, where we Homo Sapiens devour the world with our greed and/or ignorance.
However, the underlying message is rather different. It’s not really that humans are destroying the real world (trees, rivers, animals) in favor of the imaginary (gods, nations, corporations). To me, it’s more about the power of human choice: when we choose the imaginary, we also choose to destroy what is real. But what do you do when imaginary concepts are ingrained in everyday life?
Embracing reality: Putting the knowledge in Sapiens to action
The natural world simply exists, and we are constantly evolving the language we use to describe it. Since language can be so subjective, how do we know we’re growing in the right direction? I like to practice this simple mantra: biology enables, culture forbids. The natural world nurtures and grows, but the language of cultures is often limiting and restrictive. This mantra reminds me to re-evaluate any negative thoughts that I have: is this thought enabling me? Or is it limiting me? Reality simply is, and it’s us humans who pass judgment based on imaginary standards we have internalized. Is this judgment really necessary? Or is it what brings the most pain to humanity as a whole, and us as an individual? Ultimately, humanity and its various cultures are made up of individuals. Embracing reality means acknowledging everyone you meet as an individual with a unique life experience. Everyone has something of value to contribute, and anyone can experience disadvantages in life. This includes you too!
Being a positive force
One way to really see the person in front of you is to use the mantra to evaluate your opinions: “biology enables, culture forbids”. But I like a different approach - every time I have an opinion of someone, I ask myself, “Will this lift them up or bring them down?”
If it’s not going to lift them up, I remove that opinion from my mind. Whenever I think of it again, I remind myself of all the ways it may not be true. It’s not enough to simply refrain from verbally expressing the opinion, we have to let go of judgment entirely. Even the slightest hint will show in our actions and temperament. We rarely really know what’s going on in someone’s life. Reminding ourselves that we don’t know can help us be comfortable in not knowing, and allows the people around us to simply exist without our judgment. Why is this so important? Well, one thing I’ve learned is that it’s quite hard to show compassion to ourselves. There’s always a reason we need to work harder, do better, achieve more. Whether this reason is internal or external is irrelevant. The reason is pretty much always there - and even when it brings us pain, it’s hard to say no.
Showing compassion and understanding to others is what helps us eventually show the same to ourselves.
When you can smile at your coworker and not think anything judgmental, even when their hair is a mess and they’ve got huge bags under their eyes, you’ll start to treat yourself with the same compassion whenever you don’t look your best. When you can do your friend a favor without wondering how they got into the situation, the next time you hit an obstacle, you’ll help yourself out of it without engaging in unproductive negativity.
Everything we need is within us, Sapiens argues, and I fully believe in this. Our mind is our most valuable possession - it’s the only thing no one can ever take from you. So, I nurture mine by reading books that get me to think critically, I take long walks in nature to relax, and I allow myself to feel without judging myself for it. I believe that anything that takes care of your mind is worthy of your time.
Everyone walks a different path in life, but the broad strokes are the same. Sapiens is a compelling essay on how destruction tends to follow us humans, however, it leaves me wondering - is destruction an innate human quality?
Or, is destruction simply the natural result when individuals feel uncared for and unsafe?