"Existence is a strange bargain. Life owes us little; we owe it everything. The only true happiness comes from squandering ourselves for a purpose." ~ William Cowper
Years ago, I would have emphatically asserted that I ‘don’t do’ poetry. I think partly thanks to being forced to read and study volumes of war poetry during my English Literature studies at college. I’ve nothing against war poetry, but it’s not the type of prose to evoke much except the ravages of, well, war. And there’s only so much of that one can take.
In recent times I’ve found my views towards poetry softening, like butter on a hot plate, spreading out to discover new, brilliant wordsmiths who dabble with this literary form.
During this journey, I came across the Instagram account @poetryisnotaluxury. Sharing daily beautifully evocative words from global poets, the account, somehow, always manages to offer up just the right piece with the insights one needs in the moment.
They recently shared this poem by Mikko Harvey, and it struck a chord in my mind:
Pure brilliance. Is it any wonder it’s stuck in my mind?
One of the things I love about contemporary poetry is the way many incorporate the title into collaboration with the verse - it sets us up well for reflection and opens up the door to what else the poet is attempting to convey. The Intelligent Animal perfectly articulates our ongoing human condition ~ the challenge of paying attention to the wrong things, giving away our energy without thought, realising this somewhere down the line and yet, continuing to repeat the cycle.
It got me thinking about what the ‘gemstones’ might be in my current life and how I’m giving them away. Whether this is a cycle I’m caught on, perpetually giving my time and energy to things that don’t serve the higher narrative I’m starting to piece together for myself.
And then, of course, there’s the big dreaded question of why.
Why am I stuck on this cycle?
Why am I continuing to give away my proverbial gemstones when I know there’s something else I want - need - to focus on?
Why am I holding onto old ideas that help perpetuate this squandering when I know they’re no longer relevant?
According to much of psychology, the answer comes down to one not so insignificant truth: We are by and large creatures of habit.
According to Alex Pentland, a computer scientist and director of MIT Connection Science, human beings suffer from an “advanced case of self-delusion”. While we might like to believe we live with choice, free will and self-governing actions, the truth is we operate somewhere much closer to instinct and habit.
In an article for New Scientist, Pentland describes a study he and his colleagues conducted. They fit custom-made electronic ‘black boxes’ to various individuals across the university at MIT to monitor them going about their day. The devices recorded all kinds of data about the individuals; where they went and how fast, tone of voice and how often they communicated with others, movements and other subtle body language gestures.
The result? 90% of what people do on any given day follows a set routine, so complete and predictable that the researchers were able to begin predicting their behaviour with just a few mathematical equations.
The findings are part of a quietly expanding area of psychological work emerging since the early 2000s, casting human behaviour in a mechanical light (it’s also the area that’s leading much of the psychological aspects of AI).
John Bargh, a social psychologist, currently working at Yale University, where he has formed the Automaticity in Cognition, Motivation, and Evaluation Laboratory, advises:
“It’s difficult for people to accept, but most of a person’s everyday life is determined not by their conscious intentions and deliberate choices, but by mental processes put into motion by the environment.”
In other words, we live mostly by reacting instinctively to the world around us, responding to the routines we can carve out in a world that remains predictable and unpredictable in equal measure.
Before you feel disheartened - don't. This is the reality of the human mind. Acknowledging and accepting this can actually be incredibly freeing and fundamentally help you shape the ways you behave, react and respond for the better.
Yes, we are complex emotional beings with a higher sense of consciousness, BUT we are also creatures, mammals, driven by our need for structure and routine. The most significant task our brains do daily (without us realising it) is to shift, categorise and find connections between the sheer amount of data we consume. If we didn't find patterns, routines and habits in the chaos, we'd quite simply go mad.
I would also add we’re pretty super at convincing ourselves we have changed or successfully ruptured a particular narrative about ourselves when the reality for most is we’ve become better at managing our environment, so we’re faced with fewer confrontations around the fact we haven’t (yet) successfully changed or broken away from a cycle that no longer serves us.
How does this relate to our gemstones? I guess it’s a way of explaining why we often become trapped in these cycles, which may be harmless but do not offer us the growth we might seek.
When times are challenging, demanding or painful, it is our nature to return to the paths of least resistance. Giving away certain gemstones of life, in hindsight, may make us want to kick ourselves, but we keep doing it because, in all likelihood, it’s easier to keep doing the same thing than dive deep into what changes we need to make to stop giving them away.
A common (I suspect) example from my own life; despite having a strong idea of what I wanted to do for a career, I started down another path. I gave away all my gemstones on this path - my time, energy, finances for professional study, my sanity on many occasions - I tirelessly kept giving everything away to this path. And while it fulfilled me somewhat, and I found moderate success, once a year or so, I’d find myself questioning what I was doing. Why was I so committed - squandering my gemstones - when I knew what I wanted to be doing instead?
Again, the answer is it was easy. It was easy to keep walking down that path, even when it got difficult because taking my gemstones and starting in a new direction would be more difficult. The change I wanted would completely change the make-up of my life, my routines, my habits - it would be hard.
But we all know the platitudes about how nothing good in life is easy.
I like the framing of seeing these qualities in our lives as gemstones. We tend to take them for granted - our time, energy, passions, willingness, commitment, creativity - even our love. Elevating them to gemstones, these precious, shiny things with awe crafted directly into them can help us treat them with the status they deserve.
When we do that, we might be able to keep them a bit closer to our hearts, less willing to squander them, except on the things we truly want and deserve in life.
Then - and only then - might we get closer to being what we aspire to be - an intelligent animal.
The Intelligent Animal is taken from Harvey's latest collection, Let The World Have You.