TEDx: Why We Struggle
Faith traditions offer conflicting beliefs about our inner nature and challenges. Fortunately, a knowledge-based view is emerging that offers fresh and realistic hope for improving the quality of our lives and relationships.
Ignorance of our inherited drives has been one of the greatest causes of suffering throughout human history—individually and collectively.
Every religion offers mythic beliefs about our inner workings. But until recently, we had no measurable knowledge about how our minds and emotions actually work—what drives us, and why.
Now we know, through a wide range of evidence, that the powerful biological instincts we inherited are “mismatched” for the supercharged environments we have created. Honoring this now indisputable fact can help us channel our deepest drives in ways that serve, rather than sabotage, our joy in life and the quality of our relationships and legacy. As well, we can appreciate how this inspiring, science-based perspective REALizes, or naturalizes, ancient mythic insights.
I delivered the following TEDx talk in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in May 2012. Beneath the video player is a brief description of some of the main points I covered.
Most of us, including evangelicals, know that our trials and temptations, our inner struggles, our troubling habits of thought and behavior, our personal and relational challenges, are not literally the result of our great-great-great-great … grandmother eating an apple.
Within each of us are instincts molded by millions of years of evolution to have us think and behave in ways that certainly benefitted our ancestors. Indeed, all of us alive today owe our existence to those very same instincts. But what have they done for us lately? To be blunt, they’ve made many of us fat, some addicted, and most of us in denial about how we are impacting the planet.
Our instincts can hardly be faulted. We are surrounded by “supernormal allurements”: processed foods, feel-good drugs and alcohol, Internet porn, and media sources that are no longer tethered to reality. Our ancestors faced none of these challenges.
Our ways of getting news, interacting with friends, and dealing with enemies have been altered beyond recognition by modern technologies. Our opportunities for indulging romantic or sexual urges, or wasting time and distracting ourselves, would be unrecognizable even to our great-grandparents.
The cultural contexts have changed enormously—but our brains and bodies have not. We still have the same fears and desires as our ancestors, but now those instincts are out of sync with life conditions.
Compounding the problem is that we’ve all inherited exquisite skills for self-deception. The human brain not only distorts perception and memory; it then uses its extraordinary powers to rationalize or justify the distortion. In essence, our brain regularly tricks us—and then masterfully hides the evidence!
Consider: Prior to microscopes, it wasn’t just difficult to understand infection; it was impossible. Prior to telescopes, it was impossible to understand the universe. The same is true of our inner world. Without an evolutionary grasp of why our instincts and emotions are the way they are, it isn’t just difficult to wisely choose and live our priorities in this fast-paced, modern world. It’s effectively impossible.
Our long history of living in primitive conditions and in small tribal groups did not give us instincts or equip us to deal with the supernormal allurements surrounding us today.
Especially for the young, trying to master one’s animal urges (physical or social) without first learning why they evolved, and without appreciating the purposes they once served, is like trying to figure out why your car is running poorly when you’ve never been taught what’s going on under the hood.
As Edward O. Wilson has written, “We exist in a bizarre combination of Stone Age emotions, medieval beliefs, and god-like technology.”
We cannot, of course, change our instincts—but we can change how we relate to them, how we manage them. Thanks to the evolutionary sciences, we now can understand our instincts and finally face our challenges with a measure of lightness and compassion and with practical tools that actually work.
The process begins with distinguishing fault from responsibility. We can thereby free ourselves of the burden of guilt, shame, and self-condemnation from choices we’ve made in the past, while stepping up to the responsibility of making amends for our wake and fashioning a better future.
When we honor our inherited drives (which is nearly impossible when referring to them as “inner demons,” or our “shadow” or “ego”) we can feel our heart expanding in gratitude, generosity, and compassion for self and others—and our inner state will not only match but strengthen the ways in which we already are serving our community and the world.
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NOTE: My 27-year-old son, Shane (an athletic trainer and life coach), and I are in the process of creating an online support structure for men who want to explore this subject more deeply, individually or collectively, titled, “Men Evolving Men.” If you’d like to be notified when this is available, email me at [email protected]