Coming to terms with human nature in the 21st century is no straightforward task. We are equipped with the most primitive of biologies, a physiology that compels us to do two things: Survive and spread our genes. But teetering o’er top that eatin’, sleepin’ and er, copulatin’ machine, there balances an extremely sophisticated control center. It’s complex enough to get us interested in things like algebra and ethics, and when surveying the two dimensional desires of the hulking load of anatomy it hauls around, is led to beg the question “Is this really all there is?” Consideration of the answer to that query can lead to attempts to complicate what otherwise appears to be far too mundane of a purpose for superior beings such as ourselves.
When comparing yourself to say, a squirrel, there are similarities and there are differences. The wiley way that little rodent runs around gathering nuts in the fall bears a striking resemblance to how you behave at half off fajita night. Hey, food is plenty and it’s cheap, better stock up now while the getting’s good. That’s just Survival 101. Here’s the difference. If the squirrel eats one too many nuts, he doesn’t berate himself for it, and then find comfort in an extra grueling mile or two on the treadmill the following day. See, the squirrel, moron that he is, hasn’t the brain power to worry about things like maintaining a lean physique. The squirrel hasn’t decided that he won’t be happy until he reaches his goal of bulging biceps and a narrow waist. The squirrel is just eating what’s around and trusting his body to make the necessary adjustments, which he will be alerted to through signals like hunger or increased energy. He will follow these signals and allow nature to take its course. And I ask you, I beg you. Show me an obese squirrel.
We do, of course, live in a different landscape than the squirrel. Nuts aren’t only plentiful in the fall for us humans, they’re plentiful all the good year through, along with the Dollar Menu, Dairy Queen and Dippin’ Dots (yes the disgusting ‘Ice Cream Of The Future’, I was looking for a “D,” sue me).
And the same brand of human genius that brought you food on demand has also introduced a corresponding neurosis about these readily available delights and their perceived consequences. And it ain’t just food. Since we’ve become conscious enough to observe ourselves running around like animals in search of sustenance and sex, we’ve made every effort to lasso these drives into something more presentable we can take home to mom and dad.
In just about every religion, the holy men and women regularly abstain from food in ritual purification fasts, and often relinquish their sexual selves entirely, as a means of trading out their animal passions for connection with something “higher.” Even for mere lay people following a faith, there are still regular restrictions on the carnal desires. For example, Catholics can have no sex outside of marriage and no meat on Fridays during Lent. And although masturbation has recently been recognized by the Catholic church as a natural part of the development of human sexuality, it is nonetheless viewed as an “intrinsically and seriously disordered act.”
St. Catherine of Siena, one of two patron saints of Italy, died at the age of 33 from stroke, following many years of anorexia. Catherine swore herself to celibacy as a youth and decided she needn’t eat her family’s food as her table was “set for her in heaven.” Though urged by clergy around her to eat properly, Catherine refused, subsisting on the Holy Spirit, or perhaps, catecholamines, until her early death.
But let’s not just pick on Catholics. Frankly, I love the Catholics. Buddhism seeks to free the follower from attachments- the inevitable rises and falls of seeking and satiation are a fruitless act, to the Buddhist. The goal is “nirvana,” the elimination of wants (and incidentally, the greatest band of all time). So that means that the next time you cruise past a Krispy Kreme and behold the ethereally luminescent “Hot Now” sign, your pulse won’t quicken, your mouth won’t water and your arms won’t suddenly jerk the steering wheel into the parking lot anymore. You could take it or leave it. You have no earthly wants, thank heavens. You’re off of that karmic wheel of pain! Yep, go you. No more Krispy Kreme’s. You’re beyond all that…hoo-ray.
Now that I’ve offended the faithful, let me just say that I’m not getting down on religion. Rather, I bring it up as an example of how humans have been doggedly doing the work of modifying nature- outside themselves and within- for eons now. Architecture, cinched waists, bound feet, landscaping and my personal favorite, bikini waxes, are all examples of how we’ve sought to tame the chaos into something more “ideal.”
What’s considered ideal varies depending on where you find yourself on the globe, and when. The practices associated with achieving these ends are subject to change as well, as much a part of the fashion as the vain goals they’re geared to achieve. Perhaps you’re seeking not to live on bread alone, and you will tame your waist and your spirit through fasting. Or maybe you “eat clean” and absolve any carefully controlled indulgence into the dirty with penance at the gym and various “purification” tonics. And perhaps you’re happy doing that. No judgements here.
But I’d like to point something out. Though we’ve put our stamp all over the world and modified it to our liking, that doesn’t mean that the world has lost it’s ability to healthfully maintain itself. If you were to leave your lawn alone for twenty years, your idea of order would be destroyed, that is true. But a new order would spring up in it’s place, right? There is an ecosystem of weeds and trees aching to spring forth all over your evenly trimmed carpet of Kentucky Bluegrass. But every few days, you’re out there on your mower, repressing the natural, voluptuous sprawl of flowers and foliage. Fine. So you like a manicured lawn. You think it’s presentable and acceptable and provides a nice place for you and the family to have presentable and acceptable barbecues, nevermind the fine your municipality may see fit to levy on Grass Gone Wild. But if you did decide to let it go, after you got over the shock of watching the chaos absorb your artificial prairie, you would see a new, wild beauty arise from the ashes of the death of control.
I own an old field that once upon a time grew crops. Long after it was used to produce buckwheat, it’d still get mowed down to fend off the encroachment of bordering woodland. Maybe out of habit. Since I’ve owned this field, I haven’t mowed it once. And what has come up? A smattering of flowering Dogwood trees, a thorny patch of huge, juicy blackberries and in late summer, fragrant Bergamot blooms.
Similarly, beneath the obsessions and efforts to control our figures, there lies an intrinsic intelligence that is not in fact, trying to make you obese and sick. If you were to let yourself go and follow your desires as they bubble up, you may be surprisingly pleased to find that you won’t instantly turn into a hideous ogre. You might not be 2013 picture perfect (whatever the hell that is) but you would be thoroughly you. Half the time, people get themselves into trouble with their weight through metabolic damage incurred during prior attempts to cut their flowering, fruiting field into a fashionable lawn- only to find that they can’t enjoy a single day off the mower without their nature reclaiming control, and with a vengeance.
Now of course, life in the 21st century isn’t always so simple. In relation to sex, desires acted out untamed can result in unwanted pregnancies and transmission of disease, things that might be easier to deal with if we were as pea brained as squirrels. But we’re not.
In terms of appetites for food, hidden ingredients like MSG and oxidized seed oils should cause you to think twice about some of the treats your instincts are urging you to shove down your gullet. Reasonable care and concern for oneself is not the problem. But perhaps obsessiveness and total distrust of one’s own nature is. We humans could take a day off from trying to control the forces of the universe every once in awhile, you know. Life was moving along just fine before we decided we had to micromanage every little thing, right? So you might not end up as thin as your “thinspiration” or excuse me, “fitspiration.” So what? With all the energy and brain power we’d save by not dumping it into excessive workout routines and the production and consumption of any magazine article with the word “cellulite” in it, I think we could solve some big problems, make incredible discoveries and dream some really beautiful dreams.
Why not forget the hard slog of attaining an image of perfection and see what springs up in its stead. Juicy berries, anyone?