As the clouds reach the coast, storm-like winds push more and more of them onto the shoreline, where they are compressed against the mountain range that has been watching over the ocean since this continent was first created. Resisting at first, the clouds give in to the constant pushing winds and ascend against the mountainsides. As they rise their temperature falls causing the vapour to thicken. From microscopic droplets the water turns into tiny raindrops, less gaseous, more liquid, but still buoyed up by the buffeting winds that chase them up against the mountains.
The vapour rises quickly into the sky and joins billions of other water droplets making the same journey. The droplets stay separate, however – unlike the oneness of the ocean water – to form a different kind of unity: intricately complex, constantly moving, almost intangible, shape-shifting clouds. Mere wisps at first, barely noticeable against the deep blue of the sky, they steadily grow in size and density, until they are big and solid enough to cast their dark shadows over the water. Like ghost ships sailing high above the ocean the clouds are driven forwards by the wind towards the land.
Clear blue skies over an endless ocean, basking in the merciless light of a hot yellow Sun. As the water warms it rises to the surface, to be warmed even more. There is power in being part of an ocean, comfort and a sense of belonging, of being home. And yet, on the surface, directly exposed to the blinding light of the Sun, the dark soothing vastness of the ocean loses some of its attraction and the sky, equally vast, but filled with light and lightness seems to call, promising new experiences of a faster and more varied kind: the prospect of a new existence. And so, some of the water separates itself from the oneness of the ocean, becomes vapour and gets lifted up into the separateness of being a tiny droplet in an infinite sky.
It seems an inevitable truth that we are defined by where we come from: our country, our city, our religion, our upbringing, our culture… So many forces shape and confine us, knead and define us, mould and refine us, I sometimes wonder if any of us can say we are ourselves, truly our own individual self, rather than just an amalgam of everything that was poured into us from the moment we were born. Maybe what we call our ‘self’ is just the emerging complex of thoughts, beliefs, and behaviours rising up from the chorus of voices from our past – not something we can claim as ours, but something that claims us for itself and its own sense of identity. “You are what we made you into” those voices from the past seem to say, “There is no escaping your cultural heritage.”
And that poses a dilemma for me, a struggle that seems to become more prominent the more I feel the need to find a voice of my own; a voice that feels genuine; a voice that I can stay true to because it feels like the voice I would adopt if I had been free to create my own identity from the start. For many years now I have been trying to find that one true voice inside me by systematically extracting all the influences I could identify as coming from outside, studying them, and deciding what part of each of those influences I felt close to, or – on the contrary – did not want to be part of anymore. My hope has always been that by stripping away everything I objected to, everything that didn’t feel completely right and fitting, I would end up only with the parts that I could truly own and agree with: my own true and genuine voice.
But is that even possible? Aren’t the very preferences I am guided by in choosing what feels ‘true’ as much a product of all those past voices I’m selecting from? Can I claim my choices as my own?
And why do I even bother?
What is wrong with letting go of this elusive genuine self I’m chasing and just accepting the self I have ended up with? What is wrong with being a product of my past, my upbringing, my culture, and my history? Why not be content with the collected wisdom and experience of all the generations that came before me; the countless men and women that lived, struggled, and died so that one day I could be born and be who I am today? Isn’t that ungrateful and selfish?
Possibly. Maybe there is merit in just accepting the wisdom of the past and the collective learning of my ancestors and the culture I was raised in. Maybe I should just let go of my fixation on being an individual, let go of my ego, and go with the social flow.
But… and herein lies the struggle for me … my cultural heritage is a mixture of great deeds and horrible crimes, heroes and villains, sages and fools, merit and malice, greed and generosity, angels and demons, all woven together into this complex tapestry of contradictions, conflicting assumptions and dubious certainties I see when looking at ‘my’ culture.
Am I supposed to mindlessly accept all of this heritage? Must I accept the horrible deeds of our history’s villains and call them heroes, because that’s how they were seen and portrayed by the chroniclers of their time? Do I have to be proud of my country’s past achievements and accumulated wealth, knowing that these accomplishments often came at untold and barely imaginable suffering of millions of unfortunate souls born on the wrong side of history? Am I supposed to adopt my culture’s self-righteous and self-aggrandising image of itself, when even a cursory look at the facts shows that there is as much wrong as there is right about our values and practices, as much stolen and appropriated as actually genuinely produced by our ancestors themselves?
I don’t think so.
I think it should be perfectly reasonable for individual to look at their culture and history, critically examine that mixture of good and bad, and make their personal judgment of what they want to adhere to and what they want to distance themselves from. That should not just be permitted, it should be actively encouraged, so that the culture can actively learn and improve itself by the conscious choices made guided by the conscience of its members.
But that is not how it works, is it?
In reality, the moment a member of a culture (be it team, company, region, country, class, ethnicity, or even hemisphere) openly questions the past deeds and implied merits of their culture they will inevitably encounter fierce opposition from their fellow members. Just by not blindly accepting all that their culture contains, it seems, they are placing themselves if not outside then most certainly at the fringe of it. And from that fringe it is a small step to being outcast and ostracised completely. Apparently we – as a species – so much need a collective identity we can feel part of that even the simple act of questioning some of the constructs of that identity is felt like an attack on our very lives. To protect our collective identity the person raising doubts must be made an outsider, so they can be dehumanised, made into the “other”, the lesser being that does not deserve to be part of the cultural identity that makes us feel strong, safe, and special.
I think I understand the instinctive reaction that drives this fiercely defensive behaviour. And I don’t want to unnecessarily antagonise people or cause them to feel less safe and special. I also want to genuinely admire the good things my cultural heritage has to offer: to acknowledge the heroism of the past, the sacrifices that were made by our ancestors, the victories, and the sheer determination to survive and thrive. I want to learn from and lean on the wise and holy men and women that lifted their culture above the merely material and immediate and brought us science, philosophy, spirituality, and morality.
But it seems that one cannot receive the blessings of one’s past without having to accept its curses as well. If I am to believe the cultural arguments I observe around us, you don’t get to pick and choose. You’re either with us or against us. Any attempt to be discerning, to ask questions, to point out the darker sides of being us automatically voids your membership of us. By trying to be selective I have forfeited the right to claim a place inside that circle.
I am human, too. I, too, want to feel proud of all the forces that shaped me and brought me to where I am now. I, too, want to show gratitude and respect for the countless generations that lived, struggled, and died so that I might have my moment under the Sun. But I cannot do it unconditionally and I cannot simply ignore the darkness that is there as well. And so I struggle with my cultural heritage: wanting to be part of it, learn from it and benefit from it, but by its own rules apparently doomed to be apart from it the moment I dare to question things.
And if there’s one thing I know it is that I will never stop asking questions.
We pride ourselves on being self-aware; of being capable of observing our thoughts and actions as if from the outside; of expressing those observations in language and abstract construct we can then manipulate, express, and share. We consider this a typically human capability, and one of the things that sets us apart from other species. While it may be true that our type of self-awareness is unique, does that make it good?
What must it have been like to live like a pre-human hominid? Not yet capable of speaking; of sharing complex abstract thoughts and ideas with others of your kind; of bonding by telling stories and listening to the stories of others; of planning far beyond the immediate future, of imagining things that don’t exist so clearly you can turn them into images on the walls, floors and ceilings of caves and shelters?
There must have been a period when our ancient ancestors developed the first tentative versions of the traits we now recognise as fundamentally human, but not yet developed enough to lift them from being very clever animals to being tentatively human. There must have been a budding awareness in those early minds that moved beyond the immediate to the remote: remote in time, in place, in abstraction, in reality even. A moment when an individual could not just observe something outside and respond to it, but could observe herself observing, and become aware of herself as the observer, not just of what was being observed.
Imagine that transition: one moment there is just one world, observed by but not separated from the observer, reality experienced as an extension of the self that moves through it but not outside it; the next moment reality splits apart into the observed and the observer, and now there are two things in the world, related but not the same, inseparable but not a single unit. The moment the first of our ancestors found herself separated from the reality she had previously been part of must have been a terrifying and lonely moment. Not only would she have found herself apart from the world she previously had been an indivisible part of, she must not have had, being the first to reach that threshold, anyone to share her experience with; no-one to comfort her and tell her it would all be OK.
I wonder if those first moments of self-awareness came and went like the hesitant first flames in a starting fire – little sparks of knowing, but brief and fleeting, almost immediately pushed away into sub-conscious memory – or if awareness, once the door had opened, came rushing in like a deluge when a dam gives way to the pressure of the water behind it. However slow or fast it came, self-awareness stayed with our earliest human ancestors and became the source of our greatest achievements as well as the root of our deepest suffering.
Self-awareness creates separation, and separation creates fear and desire. It gives rise to fear of a world that is other than ourself and cannot be trusted to not turn against us. Fear that a world that is separate may not need us in it, may move on and disappear, leaving us behind. Because it is not us it can, and one day will, destroy us. And it equally create a desire to impose our will on that world that is not us. Desire to create, shape, and destroy to show ourself that we have power of that separate reality, that ‘something’ outside us. It may not be us, but we can bend it to our will.
As long as we stay stuck in the duality that self-awareness has thrown us into, we will be slaves to this constant battle between fear and desire. On the one hand setting ourselves bold and ambitious goals – challenges we set ourselves, expecting to find happiness when we succeed; on the other hand constantly fearing we will fail sooner or later. We know, deep inside, that there is no permanent victory, and that the external world we have separated ourselves from through our self-awareness will one day come to claim us back, to absorb us, and erase all traces of us ever having been here. So no victorious achievement is ever going to bring that final happiness we crave for. Because we know we cannot keep out-achieving reality.
Evolution must have favoured self-awareness, for it allowed a physically weak and defenceless species to end up taking over and dominating the planet far beyond what any other vertebrate has ever achieved. Maybe self-awareness enabled us to learn faster, and be more flexible in times of change. Maybe it was the combination of self-awareness and language, which not only made us better learners individually, but also enabled us to scale that learning up beyond tribal limits and across many generations. But evolutionary success does not automatically mean it’s good for us. Our DNA doesn’t care about our pains. If it were up to our DNA we would just keep suffering, as long as it helps making more and more copies of itself.
So, perhaps it is time to set ourselves the ultimate goal; to aim for an achievement that will outlast all other achievements. Maybe it is time to use the very self-awareness that causes us so much conflict and suffering to lift us out of the duality it inflicts on us. Maybe that is what enlightenment is: the first glimpses some of us may get of an awareness beyond what we normally experience, an awareness that lifts itself beyond the duality self-awareness created.
Maybe our descendants will look back and wonder what it must have been like to be one of those first individuals to experience this. Maybe they will struggle to understand what it must have felt like to be stuck in a pre-enlightened state of awareness but to have glimpses of an awareness beyond that.
We do not have an accurate perspective on what the past was truly like nor do we look very far beyond our time into the distant future. So when we claim we’re making progress, which past are we measuring that progress against, and which future do we create by the improvements we think we’re making?
It is hard to say anything definite about human history more than a few generations ago. Human beings have always relied on forms of oral transmission – such as songs, stories, myths, and poems – to preserve their history, but those forms tend to evolve with the people that carry them. As our cultures change and adapt, so do their histories, and much of their original content gets buried under layers of reinterpretation, merged with stories borrowed from other cultures we interact with, or left out altogether, when later generations can no longer relate to or understand their relevance to their ‘modern’ situation. With the advent of writing, at least more of the original material was preserved, and became less malleable, but it didn’t stop the retelling and reshaping process of the cultural narrative completely. At best it slowed it down and helped it spread deeper and wider, but it has not seemed to improve our collective memory of our deeper history. And the faster our cultures change the faster our true history slides out of our reach.
And that is unfortunate.
Because of this continual retelling of our history we have very limited access to what it was like to live in past times. We continually replace our real history with an imaginary one; a fictional version that is more mythical than factual, more symbolic than historic, more a fantasy than a memory. This gradual replacement of true history with a fictional reinterpretation creates a strange kind of collective short-sightedness: we imagine both the past and the future in simplified terms and drastically shortened time-frames. So when we measure our ‘progress’, we measure it against a reduced and largely imagined past, and project it forward to an immediate and overly linear future. But we don’t see the slow, deep changes that gave rise to our current situation and we don’t see how short-term, immediate actions and solutions could make things much worse in the long-term, even when seemingly improving things in the here and now. Because of our limited sense of what the past was really like we may feel we are making progress, when in reality we are just barely recovering from the damage past ‘progress’ has done to our world and may still be far behind the positive qualities that made life beautiful and meaningful in the past. But we may equally make the mistake of longing for a return to an imaginary simpler and happier past, and in clinging to that illusion stop true progress from happening or in trying to restore a past that never actually existed prevent a more beautiful future from emerging.
If we want to make sure that improvements and solutions for today’s problems constitute actual progress, and not a convenient, quick-and-easy cure that will become one of our future’s ailments, we must learn to distinguish true progress from momentary relief. We have to learn to think of progress in terms of long-term consequences, and of improvements as something that can only be measured over longer time-frames. We must rediscover our distant past and the lessons we can learn from that. We must stop oversimplifying our past: either as a paradise from which we have fallen into darkness, violence, and suffering, which would continue to get worse if not for the forces of order and constraint such as religion, laws, and moral principles; or as a primitive, savage struggle for survival we only recently have begun to make our escape from through the forces of enlightenment such as reason, science, and technology. We must understand that the past was most likely never so simple and straightforward, but was in reality a complex tapestry of happiness and agony, suffering and bliss, progress and decay, order and chaos, war and peace, all intertwined and moving in currents and time-frames much longer than our shallow stories encompass.
Let us learn, therefore, to discover both our deep past and ponder our long future, both at the same time. Let us try to measure progress not as a simple improvement over present day problems, but as an attempt to mix the best of our past with the best for our future. And let us carefully consider such attempts not just for our own brief lifetime, but project them forwards to the future of our children’s children’s children, and track trends and long-term consequences to make sure today’s improvement does not steal from future generations. Perhaps, even, if we learn to step out of the urgency of our own brief moment, we can learn to see time as a long unbroken flow from past to future, as full of valuable experience and knowledge as it is of as yet untapped but very real potential. And then learn to weave the two together and become part of it, dance with it, rather than constantly cutting it to shreds and pieces in our attempt to force the world into our incomplete and broken fictions.
Whenever the topic comes up of the need to help the less fortunate and disadvantaged, invariably someone will bring up the ‘free rider’ problem: that there will be people taking advantage of such assistance and get undeserved benefits from it, at the cost of those providing it. I don’t deny that such people exist and that they throw an unfortunate blemish on the genuine desire to help people that really need assistance. But is that a reason to stop such assistance? Even more important is to stop for a moment and wonder if people taking advantage of help offered by people that are better off are the only ‘free riders’ in the equation, or the ones we should worry about most.
I believe most people want to be good and do good. And most people want to help people in need. There is plenty of evidence that helping others is more than a cultural imperative – a learned behaviour – but a much deeper, instinctive behaviour, genetically programmed into us because it has proven beneficial to our survival as a species. Yet when we look around we see plenty of people in need, plenty of people not getting help, and plenty of well-to-do people not really sharing their wealth freely with others. Why?
One reason often given is that freely helping people is a sure-fire way to end up being taken advantage of. Whether the help is given by an individual or a collective (such as the state), so runs the argument, people will abuse anything that is too easily given to them, and profit unfairly from it, at the expense of the donors. This is often referred to as the ‘free rider problem’, and brought up as the reason we cannot simply go and help people in less fortunate circumstances than ourselves.
Free riders are everywhere and unavoidable, it is claimed, and would profit from the hard-earned wealth of other people, without having done anything to deserve this, and without giving anything back. It is because of those free riders that we cannot expect hard-working people to share their wealth with just anyone: that would not be fair. Instead we need to be really careful with any help we may want to give, and make sure that the recipients are made to feel that they are in no way entitled to that help, should feel guilty for needing it, and are actively discouraged from seeking it.
The sad thing is that such reasoning doesn’t distinguish between people that just need some help; that have fallen onto hard times through no fault of their own; that simply drew the short straw in the big lottery of Fate; versus the – in my observations minority – who rather take advantage of other people’s naive good nature than make even half an effort to fend for themselves. So help is withheld on the basis of a generalization that does grave injustice to a large number of people.
But there is another assumption underneath the free rider problem and the way it is used to stop or hinder assistance to those in need. And that is that it is always the weak that profit from the strong, the poor from the wealthy, the sick from the healthy. After all, the weak are in need of what the powerful have in abundance, so they are the only ones that can take advantage of that fundamental inequality.
That is a dangerous assumption, and deeply flawed. Dangerous because it ascribes to the needy not just weakness but envy as well. They are not just needy, they are also greedy – greedy for things they did not earn. Deeply flawed, because in reality the direction of advantage runs as easily from the needy to the wealthy, as the other way round. It is probably easier for the rich to take from the poor than the reverse; easier for the healthy to profit from the sickness of others; and easier for the powerful to suppress and disempower the powerless.
There are at least as many, if not more – because it is easier – free riders amongst the people that are well-off than amongst those that are in need. People that have taken advantage of other people’s misfortune; slaveholders getting rich from the suffering of people that lacked the power to defend their freedom; industrialists coercing masses of workers to spend dismal, long hours in dangerous and dark factories, because those people had no other means of income; pharmaceutical corporations raking in massive profits from people desperate for medication; banks taking advantage of people caught out by natural disasters or economic downturns; … the list goes on. And don’t think I am just talking about some small group of evil-minded people we could single out and blame for their greed and avarice. If we take an honest look at ourselves, our Western society, our own wealth and relative power, how much of what we at present consider our birthright and product of our ancestors’ hard work and diligence was in reality stolen, under threat of violence or worse, from people that had no way to defend themselves?
So, here are my three reasons to reject the free riders problem as a reason to limit or stop help to those in need:
Psychologically, once you can master your fear of scarcity and lack of control, giving is more likely to make you happy than receiving or hoarding. By clinging to your wealth you are denying yourself a chance to feel that happiness;
Amongst those seeking your help there are more genuinely needy people than free riders. Most people don’t actually like asking for help, and will hesitate to do so, unless they feel they have no other choice. By pre-judging anyone asking for your help as a free rider you are probably doing them a grave injustice, not just not helping them, but contributing to their psychological suffering of feeling helpless and unwanted;
If you are amongst the wealthy people in your society, you are probably a free rider yourself, taking unfair advantage of many people all over the world, that are exploited and suppressed to provide you with the many luxuries you surround yourself with. You may not do so on purpose, and oppose these practices in principle, but since our society is built on these practices and you are part of these systems, you are profiting from it, and thereby complicit. So the least you can do is to share more of those profits with those in need, and help, if not to abolish this unfair advantage completely (which may be beyond any individual’s power anyway) at least to somewhat alleviate the pain and suffering caused by them.