What You Need To Know


We arrive in this world knowing surprisingly little.  Many creatures are born with a basic set of knowledge that helps them survive, but that’s not true for people.  Humans lack instincts for even the most basic needs and are profoundly helpless for a prolonged period of time after birth.  We have to learn what to eat, what to drink, that fire burns, and that it’s a bad idea to walk in front of cars.

Unlike many believe, we do not have an instinct for survival.  If we did, none of us could commit suicide.  We don’t naturally fight or flee when faced with danger, and, instead, react with a wide variety of behaviors, depending upon our training and personality.  During World War II, a study done by Colonel S. L. Marshall found that on average only 15% of combat riflemen actually fired their rifles in battle.  The rest were hiding and hoping the carnage would pass them by.  The same was true for fighter pilots, the vast majority of whom never shot anyone down.

Forget the John Wayne movies.  Unless you’re a sociopath, most of us have to be trained to kill, even when someone is pointing a gun at our head.  Defending yourself is not simply something you know how to do, and that goes for everything else in life.  Strange as it may sound, we learn to be who we are.  We learn to be Americans, or Russians, or Chinese.  We learn to be men and women.  We learn to be human.

The rare cases of feral children who have been deprived of contact and socialization, due to abandonment or abuse, prove the point.  One girl known as Genie, discovered in 1970, had been raised in near total isolation for the entire thirteen years of her life, harnessed to a potty chair or tied into a crib.  She could not talk; she could not chew food; she was incontinent.  Her eyes did not focus and she was unaffected by extremes of hot or cold.  Even with intensive training, Genie eventually needed to be institutionalized, because she was never able to adjust to human society or speak more than a few words.

Life would be much simpler, of course, if all we had to learn, as humans, was how to eat, talk, and use a toilet.  But those basic fundamentals of social life do not go far enough to provide a meaningful existence.  Our unique human consciousness requires more.  We need a sense of purpose, of relational depth, of personal significance, and acquiring those essentials is much more difficult.  I think it is safe to say that most human unhappiness is rooted in a failure to learn that kind of vital and demanding knowledge.  Learning how to care for our physical needs is one thing; learning how to care for our emotional and spiritual needs is another.  Happiness involves the latter.  A person can be replete with all the physical necessities and have an abundance of luxuries, and still be a miserable human being.

The movie The Wolf of Wall Street is a stunning depiction of a person who is, emotionally and spiritually, the equivalent of a feral child.  Jordan Belfort may own a mansion and yacht, but his relationships are shallow, his emotions stunted, and his spirit bankrupt.  He knows how to cheat people and make boatloads of money, but he doesn’t know how to live, beyond ingesting copious drugs and accruing glittery possessions.  He goes to great expense to avoid the loneliness and hollowness of his existence, to pretend that he’s happy.

Most people don’t have the wealth of Mr. Belfort, but many share the same ignorance concerning life.  Their masks may be less exotic, and their means of avoidance more mundane, but they suffer from the same loneliness and hollowness, and from the same failure to have learned how to live.  They lack a meaningful sense of purpose once the games in which they engage become stale.  Disneyland wears thin, and people discover their existence is built on fakery and imitation.

If learning how to live was more easily accomplished, we’d have much less greed, and intolerance, and hard-hardheartedness in our world.  But that’s not the way it is.  Learning the keys to a meaningful existence is difficult.  In fact, I think learning the keys to a meaningful existence is itself the purpose of life, the one essential task that God requires of every human, and the sole accomplishment upon which everyone will be judged.

That task can be broken down into two smaller goals.  God asks each person to learn how to love and to learn how to die.  Because once you know how to love and how to die, then you will know how to live.

About Bucky Dann

I teach religion, sociology, and psychology at Southwestern Community College in the Smoky Mountains. I have worked in the United Methodist ministry and in the substance abuse field. I possess a Masters of Divinity, a Masters of Philosophy, and a PhD in the sociology of knowledge.

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