The Song of Humanity

I’m reading the book The Evolving Self: Psychology for the Third Millennium which is by one of my heroes, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. You may remember him for his pioneering research into the “flow” state of mind. This book is a bit different, as it takes a look at the human psyche from an evolutionary point of view – a point of view that at first seems not terribly cheerful:

A rosy-colored picture of human nature cannot stand up to scrutiny for long. Those who expect priests to be consistently saintly, soldiers brave, mothers always self-sacrificing, and so on, are due for some serious disappointment. To them the entire history of the human race will seem to have been a huge mistake, or as Macbeth said so well, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Whereas if one starts from the assumption that humans are basically weak and disoriented creatures thrown by chance into a leading role at the center of the planetary stage, without a script and without rehearsal, then the picture of what we have accomplished is not so bleak. Paraphrasing what the trainer said about his talking dog, the point is not that we sing well, but that we sing at all.

How much more compassion would we have for ourselves if we realize that our nature is to be selfish, greedy, and prone to so many cognitive fallacies and biases? Or how much easier would it be to have compassion for others? It’s like the story of the scorpion and the frog, only this time the scorpion, through some miracle of self-discipline, manages to not sting the frog as it swims across the river. How miraculous is that?

The argument could be made that it’s setting the bar too low – that we should have higher expectations of ourselves and others. Yet that word – expectations – is also directly related to the principle of suffering. The measure of your suffering is simply the difference between the way the world is and the way you expect it to be.

Why Bother?

But if we accept that humanity is going to keep falling victim to its animalistic nature, what is the point of all this personal development crap? Self-help is revealed to be a scam after all, because in the end instinct will have its way.


Some priests are saints. Some soldiers are brave, and some parents are self-sacrificing. We keep on trying to improve ourselves, to live up to our expectations, because (to use Csikszentmihalyi’s analogy) some dogs do talk.

One of my favorite stories from the Sufi legend of Nasrudin seems applicable:

One day Nasrudin made a joke at the Sultan’s expense and when the ruler heard of it, he had the scholar arrested for sedition and thrown in prison awaiting summary beheading. Nasrudin pleaded eloquently for his life, but the Sultan was having a bad day and remained firm: Nasrudin was to be beheaded.

Finally, in desperation, Nasrudin said, “Oh Sultan, live forever! You know me to be a skilled teacher, the greatest in your kingdom. If you will but delay my sentence for one year, I will teach your favorite horse to sing.”

This claim was so outrageous that the Sultan was amused. “Very well,” he replied, “you will have a year. But if by the end of that year you have not taught my favorite horse to sing, then you will wish you had been beheaded today.”

That evening, a friend visited him in the stables, where Nasrudin was intently humming at the Sultan’s favorite horse. “Nasrudin!” he exclaimed. “You don’t really think you’re going to be able to teach this horse to sing?”

Nasrudin looked at him. “Probably not,” he admitted. “But now I have a year that I didn’t have before. A lot can happen in that time. The Sultan may change his mind. Or he may be killed in battle, or die of an illness. Perhaps his government will be overthrown, and I’ll be released. Or the horse might die, or be replaced with another favorite.”

He looked back at the animal. “And who knows? I’m a pretty good teacher. Maybe the horse will learn to sing.”

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