We all know people who seem to be miserable for what seems like no good reason. But what about people who ought to be miserable, but just aren’t? Are they delusional, or might they have something to teach us?
I was listening to a recent Freakonomics podcast on suicide and was introduced to the Pirahã tribe of the Amazon jungle by Dan Everett. These “poor” people live life under very harsh circumstances, yet seemed filled with joy and good humor. When a storm blows over a hut in the middle of the night, they all have a good laugh and the family is welcomed into someone else’s hut. They’ve been taught how to preserve meat to insure food for the future, but are not interested in the trouble. And most interesting to me, I believe Everett says the child mortality rate is about 75%. By just about every measure of the meaningful life that makes sense to my American mind, these folks ought to be a mess, but they are not.
The closest thing to a rational explanation for this? The Pirahã live in the present. I mean, they live radically in the the present. They keep no history, and have no interest in it. The closest they come to thinking about the future is when considering how to finish a job started today. Mothers give birth, and then see more of their children die than reach maturity. It seems to not even occur to them that this should be painful, at least not past the next day. As Everett points out, these people have their problems, and they know it, but they seem to have inoculated themselves quite well against the sort of suffering I’ve always assumed is unavoidable.
My introduction to this tribe is particularly interesting in light of the new book Milton Horne and I have just published. Whirlwind: Journeys with Job through Grief, Anxiety, and Pain is our attempt to confront all of the ways religion not only fails to bring meaning to suffering, but sometimes contributes to it. (The Pirahã, incidentally, have no interest in religion, and have gracefully resisted all attempts to convert them.) A core theme of our book is that while mature religion calls people to fully embrace the present, most religious people remain entrapped by the cultural values of produce and consume. My experience is that people connect with living in the present more often in the therapist’s office than at church. We hope that our effort will help others begin a journey toward a life characterized more by contentment than pain.
I don’t want to have the lives of the Pirahã, but their experience supports the idea that anxiety about the past and future is something that we learn. And if it is learned, it can be unlearned. I recall hearing Woody Allen say he would never go to therapy because if he actually got over all of his neuroses, he’d lose all of his creativity. I appreciate his honesty. If I were this honest I’d have to face just how much of my own motivation is fear-based. But I also know what it’s like to motivated by joy, and I’m pretty sure you can taste this as well.
peace (no… really),