14 June 2014

Look Up

Recently a friend of mine and I who met through Aol Instant Messaging 13 years ago were chatting about the way kids today spend all of their time chattering away on phones, and I wondered if it was really so different from the way she and I, and other teenagers of that generation, would stay up all night talking on instant messagers and sending one another funny pictures or .wav files.  There are big differences, of course; we couldn't talk on MSN or Yahoo while we were at a dinner table with family, or while walking down the street If it were possible we certainly would have, I suppose.   In another way that direct connection with the phone is far more intense than the computer messaging programs; phones have become the default way people experience the world.  We navigate cities by phone, get restaurant reviews by phone, call cabs and reserve rooms by phone, take pictures of everything that happens by phone,  and those square codes that can be read by phones for more information are popping up all over the place.  They've become appendages. She responded by sharing this breathtaking video with me, a spoken-verse reading about the way technology impacts the way we experience the world and one another.  I've included the transcription below, but the music and visuals really drive the performance home.


'I have 422 friends, yet I am lonely. 
I speak to all of them everyday, yet none of them really know me.
The problem I have sits in the spaces between, 
looking into their eyes, or at a name on a screen.

I took a step back, and opened my eyes, 
I looked around, and then realised 
that this media we call social, is anything but 
when we open our computers, and it’s our doors we shut.

All this technology we have, it’s just an illusion, 
of community, companionship, a sense of inclusion 
yet when you step away from this device of delusion, 
you awaken to see, a world of confusion. 
A world where we’re slaves to the technology we mastered, 
where our information gets sold by some rich greedy bastard. 
A world of self-interest, self-image, self-promotion, 
where we share all our best bits, but leave out the emotion.

We are at our most happy with an experience we share, 
but is it the same if no one is there. 
Be there for you friends, and they’ll be there too, 
but no one will be, if a group message will do.

We edit and exaggerate, we crave adulation, 
we pretend we don’t notice the social isolation. 
We put our words into order, until our lives are glistening, 
we don’t even know if anyone is listening.

Being alone isn’t the problem, let me just emphasize, 
that if you read a book, paint a picture, or do some exercise, 
you are being productive, and present, not reserved or recluse, 
you’re being awake and attentive, and putting your time to good use.

So when you’re in public, and you start to feel alone, 
put your hands behind your head, and step away from the phone. 
You don’t need to stare at your menu, or at your contact list, 
just talk to one another, and learn to co-exist.

I can’t stand to hear the silence, of a busy commuter train, 
when no one wants to talk through the fear of looking insane. 
We’re becoming unsocial, it no longer satisfies 
to engage with one another, and look into someone’s eyes.

We’re surrounded by children, who since they were born, 
watch us living like robots, and think it’s the norm. 
It’s not very likely you will make world’s greatest dad, 
if you cant entertain a child without a using an iPad.

When I was a child, I would never be home, 
I’d be out with my friends, on our bikes we would roam. 
We’d ware holes in our trainers, and graze up our knees; 
we’d build our own clubhouse, high up in the trees.

Now the parks are so quiet, it gives me a chill 
to see no children outside and the swings hanging still. 
There’s no skipping or hopscotch, no church and no steeple, 
we’re a generation of idiots, smart phones and dumb people.

So look up from your phone, shut down that display, 
take in your surroundings, and make the most of today. 
Just one real connection is all it can take, 
to show you the difference that being there can make. 
Be there in the moment, when she gives you the look, 
that you remember forever, as when love overtook. 
The time you first hold her hand, or first kiss her lips, 
the time you first disagree, but still love her to bits.

The time you don’t need to tell hundreds, about what you’ve just done, 
because you want to share the moment, with just this one. 
The time you sell your computer, so you can buy a ring, 
for the girl of your dreams, who is now the real thing. 
The time you want to start a family, and the moment when, 
you first hold your baby girl, and get to fall in love again. 
The time she keeps you up at night, and all you want is rest, 
and the time you wipe away the tears, as your baby flees the nest.
The time your little girl returns, with a boy for you to hold, 
and the day he calls you granddad, and makes you feel real old 
The time you take in all you’ve made, just by giving life attention, 
and how your glad you didn’t waste it, by looking down at some invention. 

The time you hold your wife’s hand, and sit down beside her bed 
you tell her that you love her, and lay a kiss upon her head. 
She then whispers to you quietly, as her heart gives a final beat, 
that she’s lucky she got stopped, by that lost boy in the street. 
But none of these times ever happened, you never had any of this, 
When you’re too busy looking down, you don’t see the chances you miss.
So look up from your phone, shut down those displays, 
we have a finite existence, a set number of days. 
Why waste all our time getting caught in the net, 
as when the end comes, nothing’s worse than regret.

I am guilty too, of being part of this machine, 
this digital world, where we are heard but not seen. 
Where we type and don’t talk, where we read as we chat, 
where we spend hours together, without making eye contact.

Don’t give in to a life where you follow the hype, 
give people your love, don’t give them your like. 
Disconnect from the need to be heard and defined 
Go out into the world, leave distractions behind. 
Look up from your phone, shut down that display, 
stop watching this video, live life the real way. 

16 May 2014

To Make Much Use of Time


A little over a year ago I experience my first death, that of a friend in town -- a musician, beloved by the entire city, whose funeral saw a mass choir from five different churches. I'd known people to die before, early in childhood, but their disappearance from life didn't leave an impact. Since witnessing his funeral, I have been haunted by the thought of death. It makes plain the inevitability of age, previously a thing more theoretical. I look at the faces of people I know, I realize: one day I'll have to bury you, too. What a thing to contemplate, an adulthood marked by the funerals of friends. No wonder immortals in fiction are always so horribly depressed.

I lost my grandfather last week. We knew the end was coming; he had been on dialysis for seven years. For most of my life he was a tired, ailing old man, and my chief regret is that I have so few memories of  him in his prime. It's hard for me to imagine him even standing on his own feet, without aide of a walker. Yet I made the most of the time we had left, I hope, and the garden at his home I planted under his tutelage still stands, still flowers. It's a reminder of life in a month now marred by death.

It struck me recently that part of  my mourning has been obscenely selfish; I have wept not at his absence, but for the death of my childhood, or most of it. The most poignant words I've ever heard come from Kurt Vonnegut:

Where is home? I've wondered where home is, and I realized, it's not Mars or someplace like that, it's Indianapolis when I was nine years old. I had a brother and a sister, a cat and a dog, and a mother and a father and uncles and aunts. And there's no way I can get there again.

Home, indeed,  for me is the 1990s, when my sister is a teenager and I am a child, and my mother is in the kitchen burning fries and every week ends with a ride up to my grandparents' house to sit in the porch swing in the summer or inside in the winter. Part of that childhood died in 1996 when my sister graduated high school and moved out; another part, an enormous part, was buried only a week ago.  I realized while out on a drive in the rain a few days ago that it's just a rite of passage we all have to endure -- the loss of grandparents, and then of parents, and then of our friends. It's easy to say a thing like that, to appreciate it mentally, and another to experience it, to know it in your owns. I always knew my grandfather would pass away, but I never realized it would leave this impression. I've never been more impressed than now with the reality of the epitaph, "As you are, I once was;  as am I, so shall you be", or that poem touched on so effectively in The Dead Poet's Society, "To the Virgins, To Make Much Use of Time".


GATHER ye rosebuds while ye may, 
  Old Time is still a-flying: 
And this same flower that smiles to-day 
  To-morrow will be dying. 
 
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,         5
  The higher he 's a-getting, 
The sooner will his race be run, 
  And nearer he 's to setting. 
 
That age is best which is the first, 
  When youth and blood are warmer;  10
But being spent, the worse, and worst 
  Times still succeed the former. 
 
Then be not coy, but use your time, 
  And while ye may, go marry: 
For having lost but once your prime,  15
  You may for ever tarry.

His funeral was a Christian affair,  in which both guests and the minister preached at the mourners. The Christian promises of eternal life have never meant much to me, and still do not. I'd like to imagine closing my eyes one day  and opening them in the presence of a man who looks startlingly like me, yet different, a man in his prime, with the strength and confidence of adult manhood, but I can't believe that will happen.  As a skeptic, I believe the grave is the end:  his and my atoms may scatter to become new things, just as they were scattered part previously before being drawn together by physics and biology to give us life,  but those atoms aren't quite me.  Never before I have I so appreciated the  bond of family, the continuance of genes and family-specific traditions. Eventually they too will perished, like an echo fading after the voice has gone silent, but that eventuality is so far in the future that it needn't matter.  Eventually the entire human race will perish, the Earth, even the universe -- but who can imagine a thing like that in full? I certainly can't. I can think about it, but I can't feel it.  I live now, in this life, and for me death is conquered not by theology but by a standing garden, by a host of cousins who bear his name, by  stories he told that we now tell, by the furniture he built with his own hands while he had the strength to do it. What I hope to take away from this meditation on death is to find a way to leave something of myself when my own time goes -- to gather my own rosebuds. 


08 February 2014

The Emperor Drives an AT-AT

Next year is an election cycle in the United States, and the airwaves will be filled with congressmen and other officials demonizing their rivals and hurling invective, promising change or restoration, before sweeping into office to do what their predecessors have done for dozens of years previously: very little of worth. A few years ago I wrote that the American political system had been ruined by finance-driven election campaigns. I still believe this, but in recent years I've begun to see it spoiled in another fashion. When considering how vast the government has grown in attempting to tackle complex problems, I suspect it has gotten too big to be effective. I consider it a truth that the greater the complexity in a system, the greater its fragility.

In 2008, I was  joyful that Barack Obama had been elected president. Not that I voted for him; that was out from the moment I learned he had supported the PATRIOT Act.  But -- in addition to dreading Palin and the bellicose McCain -- I had become fascinated with popular political movements, direct action,  direct democracy -- the politics of people congregating in mobs and forcing the government to respond to them, as with the Civil Rights movement.  Obama's language indicated that he believed in that, too; his best political speech to date was one given after he was beaten by Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary; he told a story of America that featured ordinary citizens as the agents of change, the central actors in the drama:

It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation: Yes, we can.
It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail towards freedom through the darkest of nights: Yes, we can.
It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness: Yes, we can.
It was the call of workers who organized, women who reached for the ballot, a president who chose the moon as our new frontier, and a king who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the promised land: Yes, we can, to justice and equality.

Save for the mention of JFK's enterprising vision, , the people in this story were not civic leaders, and certainly not politicians; they were ordinary people effecting changes themselves. Maybe he had voted for the PATRIOT act so he wouldn't be criticized as soft on terrorism, I thought. In view of his emphasis on grassroots campaign financing, I dreamed: maybe the man and the vision were one, maybe he was a leader who wanted to empower people to help themselves. The president of the last six years hasn't been that man, however; he has instead been like the last man to sit in the big seat:  frightfully comfortable with its power. The chair in the oval office is one that molds the occupant to its contours, rather than being molded by theirs. I do not believe Obama is malevolent;  I believe the NSA scandals and the like simply bear witness to the fact that power is corrosive. People weren't meant to wield the power a president has;  there's a reason lawmaking was supposed to be the province of a Congress that would spend its time arguing instead of doing things, because our brains can't handle the rush.  Although I am woefully disappointed in the dream, the failing is in the system and not the man. Simply put, I do not believe Obama, Bush, or any congressman is actually in charge.  The systems controlling American politics -- banking, economics, etc. - aren't under the control of any one man.  Perhaps these systems aren't even under the control of a group of men, perhaps they're plowing along under their own inertia.

We look to the President or to the Prime Minister to do stuff because at heart we are chimpanzees whose idea of a leader is an alpha who can take direct, immediate, precise action. He can say "move", and the troop moves; "attack", and the troop attacks.  Modern political leaders aren't in that position. Even if they sit in the big seat and amass power, , they can't do it because the things they're trying to do are too vast.  A president can't dictate food prices, or alter the atmosphere. They can try -- they can pour enormous subsidies into agriculture, for instance -- but they won't necessarily get what they want. At that level, they're using so much power they can't predict what will happen. Nixon wasn't trying to create a nation where obesity and diabetes were more common than health, or where the life of rural and small-town American had been destroyed by agribusiness, but that's what he did.   The politics of the modern state put a leader in a position of having to exercise enormous power that he can't really control;  he is made captain of a runaway locomotive. The tracks dictate his course;  he can blow all the whistles he likes, but the machine is moving on its own inertia.  This brings to my mind -- my SF-addled mind -- the image of someone trying to drive an AT-AT.



The AT-AT, introduced in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back,  is the largest, most stupidly-contrived war machine one might imagine.  They are enormous and under the direction of men sitting in their heads, who are somehow expected to move four clanking legs and direct fire from the head while being unaware of anything happening behind them. In the movie, the machines are not destroyed by weapons, but by their own clumsiness: the rebels trip the legs and the great terrible machine falls down.  Imagine how destructive these machines would be in action, even without their guns;  the clumsy 'feet' would constantly smash things on the ground even if the drivers weren't aiming to.  AT-ATs are too big, too removed from the action, too sluggish to respond -- they are doomed by their own size, either to blundering or to eventual destruction.



For this reason I have lost interest in national politics, because it doesn't matter who is captaining the AT-AT: it's going to ignore important matters,   crush life underfoot, and stumble ever-forward intending destruction.  The state, I think, is a machine that answers to no one's direction, and takes would-be commanders of it along for a ride. National politics, because it seems to be an exercise is spending money, and arguing, neither of which fascinates me. What I am interested in, what I think we need all over the world, are healthier places and more fulfilled people. My politics are local, limited to my home, my neighborhood, my city. Beyond that governance is too abstract to bother with.  I don't know how this emphasis will be expressed in my life; presently I am researching local, sustainable agriculture. There is a great deal of interest in that in this area, for we are an agricultural region and still peopled by those distrustful of those in power, from corporations to the state.  Whatever the expression, I believe localism is going to be at the heart of my thinking, and both the end and the means have to be local.  Living in a town with the painful history and lingering problems, I know we have to effect its healing on our own. Industrial agriculture can't restore topsoil and heal the land;  that takes the careful husbandry of a few people on the ground, people with a stake in restoring it. The same is true of other political problems; we have to build on personal, civic responsibility. I am no longer interested in people forcing the government to respond to them; people ought to effect the changes themselves and let the AT-AT stumble about as it will.  We have to create our own pockets of civic health everywhere.




26 December 2013

For an Old Kentucky Anarchist

I never thought one could have a favorite song, but having discovered this one a year or so ago, it is hard to imagine one that speaks more true.There's a lot bound up in it for me, but essentially it seems a celebration of an authentic life against an artificial one. It falls within the fascinating and delightful realm of music known as 'folk punk'.

High upon a mountaintop, lay a garden untended and dry
'Twas a yard that hadn't felt children's feet runnin',
for the mother long ago taught her children how to fly
Within a simple cabin, untouched by industrial hands,
sat the aged mother in her home.
"You can't escape the picture frames -- there's too many," she said.
"They keep me from bein' alone."

Well, she spoke -- "He was an honest man, he worked hard to put food on our plates
"Well, we had more babies than we had arms -- we struggled all our lives, but the rewards were great
"And when my son came home from the war, he rested his head on my breast, and said:
"'Ma, I'm tired of being used and grinded down, I feel so low -- can you make me feel like I'm the best?'

"Well, my best friend truly wed a savage man -- he wore her like a bad tattoo.
For his only love was for a bottle; she said 'There's only thing left for me to do.
'To be wild once again, to take back my life, ran away and set flames to his truck
He won't ever know what he's been missin', I did every day -- joy, freedom, dance and love
Joy, freedom, dance, and love..

These are the stories this mother spoke to me as I brought her garden back to grow
I was rewarded with a warm meal, tales never to be told --
Some call it poverty, but they'll never know.
She said, "All I got's my stories and this old guitar.
"My crops have all come and gone away
 "I got a head full of recipes enticin' to the taste,
and a likin' to wake up and greet the day
"Got a bad back from raisin' my children,
"From huggin' my husband so tight
Hell, I never much for any government --
" -- and I got my Jesus when I feel the time is right
"Singing, 'I'm the richest I'll ever be --
"I embrace the world I have all around me
"So sing a dying song and slap your knee
"Have a taste of true anarchy!"


07 December 2013

Accidentally Evil: Considering Libertarianism


For years my operative definition of 'libertarian' was 'someone with all of the vices of a Republican, and none of the virtues'.  That is, I regarded them as people who not only wanted to let the beast of the free market run riot over people and the environment, but who at the same time denied the wisdom of government maintaining systems too important to turn on profit - like education and healthcare. The appeal of libertarianism, I thought, must be limited to big business and psychopaths.

I eventually learned the difference between libertarianism, which had 'good' (read 'left') roots, but had been hijacked by the right, and Objectivism, which was what I took the former to mean. For most of my life, I regarded socialism and communism as functions of a coercive, oppressive State:  those words were synonymous to me with Stalin and Mao. Thus, while the idea of equality and such was very nice, it wasn't workable because that kind of power cannot be trusted to human hands. If growing up under an authoritarian god and religion, and later revolting from it, had instilled in me anything, it was a contempt for force and coercion. Emile Carles' A Life of Her Own introduced me to leftists who believed in peaceful, democratic communism -- a government in which the ideals of communists were realized through democratic, not autocratic, means. They saw communism not as an ideal that had to be enforced from the top down, but which was a perfectly logical application and extension of democracy: self-rule. How could any one be at liberty when they did not have economic self-command?

This, for me, was the most valuable idea in Marxist thought. The labor theory of value was fine, the historical dialectic made sense enough, and class struggle was simply the human way of the Darwinian struggle for existence. But economic independence? It was an idea that took on momentous importance. At this time same, I was studying the life of Gandhi, whose commitment to nonviolence was seductive -- but his thinking was not limited to that. He stressed the importance of economic self-reliance for India and for Indians in general: they should not be swallowed up by the state economy or the world economy, but function as as people living in thousands of largely self-sufficient communities. For him, this was of spiritual importance -- and for me, a new student of Stoicism who now put great stock in self-command and independence, it was part of the allure. The essential reason for economic self-reliance, however,  was practical:  if you can fend for yourself, you won't depend on the Leader, or his Army, or the government. This I thought key to keeping endeavors at equality from being the victims of power. Keep the power distributed among the people, and you can have your revolution without simply replacing one tyrant with another.

All of these ideas -- Marxism, Stoicism, Gandhigiri -- mixed together in my mind, and I emerged from my university studies someone who thought of himself as a left-libertarian. I made no association with the so-called libertarians of the right, the Americans who were simply dressing up free market profiteering with the principle of liberty,  but I shared with them a sharp disdain for authority and force. This was where the libertarian label came from in the first place: I didn't think I or anyone else had the right to order anyone about. Although I shared the ideals of communism in part, in truth my ideal community was a bit more old-fashioned. While thousands of communes in a world republic was fine, I'd be happy if the people in a given town owned the businesses in that town, and they bought their food from people who grew it just outside of town, and the people growing that food likewise lived just outside of town. The idea, for me, was that each community was independent and nominally self-sufficient. Though connected to a world economy that it purchased goods from, it was largely self-contained: people who know one another and be responsible on that basis.  This is an old-fashioned notion, of course, but it was mine and it remains mine.

 I've been mourning the loss of small-town communities, the kind described above,  virtually all of my thinking life without knowing it.  Early on I developed an obsession with cities of the early 20th century. At first I thought this owed to my wanting to live in a big city, but eventually I realized it was because I saw in these cities of the past a shadow of what I wanted in the present: to live in a town of healthy buildings filled with people whose lives connected to one in a myriad of ways every day. I realized this after I moved to my university town of Montevallo, whose setting evoked that feeling quite strongly.  But before I realized that, I was obsessed with cities in general, and this has lead to odd interests in the details of transportation, energy, planning, infrastructure, and the various systems and technologies and practices that keep cities alive.  Since graduating from the university, I've been engaged in private study of the holy trinity of urban civilization: food, energy, and infrastructure, which includes transportation.  This is how I became slightly evil.

Without realizing it, studying the history of these subjects lured me into the dark side: the Other Libertarianism. The American libertarianism. The market-obsessed libertarianism.  When I studied urban planning, I came to realize how the government promotes city-destroying urban sprawl through zoning codes and highway and housing subsidies. When studying food, I grew disgruntled after realizing how successful regulations and subsidies are to letting corporate giants monopolize farming and make it an industrial enterprise, reliant on disaster-inviting monocultures and cheap oil that destroys the land.  Every field I studied attentively,  I found regulation in the way. I was a big fan of regulation: I viewed big business with fear and wanted a government that would keep a pistol pointed in its face all the time. I wanted the lion of the market to be chained and caged. But now I was seeing instances of it hurting people -- and not just getting in the way of productive endeavors, but promoting power accretion. At first, I merely winced -- oh, here's bad regulation, we should remove it and make new regulation, regulation that will be good -- but as I continue to run into those bits of bad regulation, I realized they were popping up with unfortunate regularity. They weren't exceptions to the rule; they were the rule, an example of what happens when we ignore the limits of our knowledge and assume we can make things so by legislative fiat. I believe these community-destroying forces of sprawl and big business would hoist themselves on their own petards were they not on the life-support of public funding.

Though I've begun to appreciate the market as a means of sorting things out, I'm only slightly evil.  I do not believe the chief end of man is self-satisfaction, or that money is the measure of  a good life. My roots remain in simple living and the  cultivation in myself the best fruits of the human condition.  However much I might admire Emma Goldman's individualist stance, I don't know if it is one I share, for we cannot escape our biological status as social creatures, and more importantly as mortal creatures -- creatures for whom a connection to the group, to a community, to a folk of our own is our  hope of living beyond the grave. If we live, it is because we are remembered. The philosophical mind may know there is no sting in death, but the animal flees from it as the instincts of million years triumphant urge it to. Not for me is the atomization of humanity into billions of self-absorbed creatures,  who sit in a puddle of time and space and think themselves masters of the cosmic ocean. The older I get the more I recognize the importance of our connections to one another, connections perhaps more important than an idealized notion of liberty.


14 August 2013

Skepticism's sound and fury

I must admit to being impressed by the prowess of the nascent skeptics movement, which in the US has managed to collapse into schism without even a credo to argue over. If you consider yourself a skeptic or rationalist and frequent the blogs and websites of the American movement, you're probably familiar with the ongoing debacle, starting from the initial ginned-up scandal of Elevatorgate and continuing as the two sides become increasingly shrill and entrenched.  If you have spared yourself the misery thus far, I hesitate to be the one to inflict exposure:  in general terms, the war wages over sexism in the skeptical movement -- how serious it is, and how firmly it ought to be combated. The  tenor of controversy baffled me at first, and has since completely soured me on the American skeptics. The Center for Skeptical Inquiry,  to my knowledge the oldest and most accomplished skeptical organization in the United States, has been the loser, seeing contributors and staff desert it after its inadequate response to the call of the witch-hunt revolution.  Point of Inquiry,  once the most laudable of the skeptical podcasts, is now on hiatus. I'm sure Paul Kurtz and Carl Sagan would be quite proud of the skeptical movement: absent George Bush in the White House to rally against we have apparently decided to self-destruct.  Bravo, skeptics.  I am sure once the CSI has fallen under the ragefest of the puritans or its seeming inability to realize there are  concerns to address,  the American movement can be maintained by PZ Myers posting octopus pictures and pissing in the face of the Catholic church like a petulant schoolboy.

For years my concern with the skeptical movement has been that it limits itself too much to simply attacking religion, attacks which inspire nothing but defensive reactions and do little to apply the discerning blade of critical thinking against more pliable foes, improving the lives of people by arming them against consumer fraud (for example), establishing that skepticism is a useful tool for everyone, and not just the Foe of Religion, for which so many people have a sentimental attachment for. This skeptical schism is erasing whatever credibility we ever earned by broadcasting to the world: skeptics are just as irrational as the people they attack, and are willing to butcher one another in civil war to prove it.  The New Skeptics are not the vanguard of a revolution that will create a humane world: we are doggedly working to become mere footnotes at best.  Far from enlightening the world, from spreading reason's flickering flame as a candle in the dark, we are making skepticism to be a tale told by an idiot -- full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.

20 July 2013

au Natural



Both the Stoics and the Epicureans advocated living according to nature, though each sought inspiration with different eyes. The Stoics believed in a universe bound up by a divine plan, and that a life of virtue meant living according to that plan, accepting what happened as the will of God -- or cosmic fate.  Deities and their wills were more immaterial to the Epicureans, however, who saw more chaos than order in the cosmos and believed virtue lay in making the best of what we were given, of enjoying life while it lasted. There is wisdom in learning to adapt to whatever life throws at you, just as there is wisdom in enjoying it fully and not getting too distracted by mental chatter -- but there is more to living naturally than either.

What does it mean to live naturally? Outside of culture, beliefs, and ideology, human beings are fundamentally members of the animal kingdom in full standing. We use ideas to put distance between ourselves and that kingdom, but we are its subjects at every moment of the day whether we think we are or not. We are motivated by the same needs and instincts as every other animal on the planet, even if we dress those instincts up as feelings.  Our instincts and needs are the products, not of perfect creation, but of imperfect evolution, of millions of years of trial, error, fix-it-on-the-fly biological compromise.  To live naturally, first, is to respect that fact.

Before going forward, however, there is the matter of the naturalistic fallacy to address. Just because something is Natural does not mean  it is good, or to be desired.  Wariness and hostility toward strangers might be a natural instinct, but in modern times, chances are that the sudden arrival of group of strangers will not be a raiding party intent on killing your young,  eating your fruit, and kidnapping your sisters -- a scenario our genes may be expecting when they produce anxiety in us at the appearance of an unknown person.  Here is the wisdom of philosophy, in teaching us to overcome instincts that work to our detriment.  However, we will presumably function best in the environment in which we evolved. That environment is not limited to the physical climate, but includes the kind of behaviors we're allowed to enact, the relations we engage in. Thus, humans are happier with one another than alone; we are happier sheltered from inclement weather than exposed to it; we are happier eating fresh food than rotting.

We must be conscious of our status as natural creatures, because instincts will manifest themselves with or without our permission.  Hierarchies are ubiquitous among social animals, for instance, and in mammals there is often an alpha individual who rises to the top through strength, cunning, or in the case of certain primate species, cunning. Why then are we so surprised at the regularity with which political systems produce strongmen, and our easiness in accepting them?  That monarchies persisted for so long, and that democracies become oppressive, is less a condemnation of political organization and more a mark against the systems which allow our natural weakness to lead to unnatural brutality. If Hitler had been the alpha male of a group of hunter-gatherers,  the same strengths which brought him to power might have let him lead the tribe against threats -- and if they did not, or if those strengths failed him, he could have been displaced with ease.  Civilization, however, has given alphas armies to expand their own power beyond natural limits, and given them means (like tradition or media outlets)  to control by influence what they cannot touch by brute force.

We cannot turn back the clock and become hunter-gatherers. We must learn to work within the limits of our biology. In the realm of politics,   the most rational response to our hierarchical weakness is to decentralize power as much as possible. Charismatic, strong, and cunning individuals will rise in every population and hold influence over people, but there is no reason their power must metastasize and become cancerous, dementing and corrupting them while abusing the public. Despite the lessons of the 20th century, political power, especially in the United States, is tending to become even more centralized, a trend that needs desperately to be reversed. Equally problematic is the power amassing in corporate entities, who are just as liable to tyranny as politicians, but who are even more wily, turning the very chains of regulation that we try to bind them by into weapons to whip their rivals and opponents with.

There is more to 'natural living' than politics, however. Evolution is starting to guide medicine more than in years past: we are now realizing that dropping anti-biotic bombs into our guts isn't the wisest course of action  given our dependence on some bacterial species for basic processes like digestion. Some researchers suggest that our bodies need 'hostile' bacteria in them just to give our immune system something to do: otherwise, it attacks its own body.  Or take matters of diet:  just as a cat would not fare well on salad, or a dog on plankton,  or a koala on anything other than eucalyptus leaves, so do we not fare well on  many of the modern 'foodstuffs' filling the grocery store.  In recent  years a 'paleo' diet movement has arisen, maintaining that people should eat what we evolved to eat: meat, fruit, nuts, and some vegetables, leaving behind artificial food products like snack cakes, rolls, margarine, and imitation crab meat. 

Many of the problems we face are caused by our attempting to live as something we are not, as creatures in a world of our choosing. We cannot drastically change our circumstances of living and expect the consequences to be marginal.  We create an environment filled with fake food and no opportunities for the physical exertion our bodies were designed for, then wonder why obesity and diabetes have soared. We allow children to keep themselves overly stimulated with games on their tablets, or force them to sit in a box for seven hours a day quietly listening, and then label mark them as having attention deficit disorder.  Perhaps it is our way of living, not ourselves, that are disordered. Maybe if children were taught the way they were evolved to be taught -- in the field, through the experience -- and played as they evolved to play,  skin on skin with physical playmates --  they would not be bundles of neuroses. Perhaps if adults spent more time with one another and their families, and less time slaving at jobs producing profits for other persons, or stuck in traffic, they would not be as easy marks for depression and energetic religions.

Truth be told, I don't know what it means, entirely, to live naturally. I have some ideas, which is why I eat real food,  voted libertarian in the last election, and practice simple living.  In abstract, I can only say: to live naturally is to embrace our humanity -- to guard against our weaknesses while revelling in the experience of being human.