Birth, death and the life between

The minute we are born into this world we are also conversely dying. Cycles of life and death, where the death of one form enables other forms to survive is an integral part of this universe. What we do in between the stages of our birth and death is something that we have a lot more control over.

Over the millennia human societies have flourished in a wide variety of environments from colds of the arctic circle to the scorching heat of the deserts. Each developing their own mythological and sociological practices that were tied to peculiarities of the land they inhabited. There was a tangible dependence on the land for sustenance.

The emergence of towns and cities has enabled portions of the human population to become more removed from the vagaries of the land. More than half of the world’s population now live in urban settings where they no longer need to have knowledge of weather patterns or local plants and animals to survive.

With rise of the internet and home delivery it is quite possible to go a whole day or even days on end without even setting a foot outside of a climate controlled, human bubble that is largely devoid of any other life form. So we can perpetuate the illusion that we are separate and autonomous beings.

This false notion of our separation from our world has a heavy price including an increased fear of the unknown world out there. The scary Other. In recent decades there has been a noticeable increase in emphasis on risk management and security measures to keep us safe. The media and state feed this mentality of fear by disproportionately focusing on deaths caused by isolated, rare acts of violence or natural disasters. These are undoubtedly tragic and shocking events that need to be acknowledged. Yet selective reporting of only certain events related to human mortality creates a distorted vision of a world. In reality a Westerner is much more likely to be injured in a car accident, or die from air pollution or obesity related diseases, than in a terrorist attack or natural disaster.

This distortion of reality has serious repercussions for our Western society. In recent decades the increased talk of the terrorist threat has been used to justify the expenditure of large sums of money on so called preventative measures from increased security protocols at airports to the bombing of other countries. A number of draconian laws have also been passed in the name of keeping us safe from terrorism. At the same time investment in health services and environmental protection is being cut.

It also affects us on a more personal level. The bubble wrapped reality we are creating is stunting our growth and diminishing our experience of being alive. It has turned us into a Homo sapiens domesticus who has forgotten how to live on this earth. I am not suggesting that we go out actively looking for risky situations. Rather I am questioning why we invest so much in being safe when there are important life lessons to be learnt from being in difficult or potentially dangerous situations. We learn more quickly that a knife is a sharp implement if we cut ourselves, than if we are told that knives are sharp.

Sadly as a result of our fear of the outside world, Western children in urban areas rarely have the space to play and learn away from adult oversight. Yet studies show that the lessons learnt from playing without adult supervision is a valuable part of growing up. For instance a report published by the American Academy of Pediatricians concludes that:

“Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills. When play is allowed to be child driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue. Ideally, much of play involves adults, but when play is controlled by adults, children acquiesce to adult rules and concerns and lose some of the benefits play offers them, particularly in developing creativity, leadership, and group skills.”[1]

That at least some of this play occurs outside is also import, with studies showing that spending time outside is important for our mental wellbeing [2]. Most adults of the baby boomer generation will reminisce fondly about the times they spent playing outdoors with other children away from adult supervision. Yet today adults simply accept that this is not safe for children to do this anymore. So the necessary joy of running free in the outdoors as a child becomes another casualty of the contrived fear we are being exposed to through the mainstream media.

Like our domesticated cats, dog and cows, the luxuries we have gained have come at the price of the wild knowledge of the earth’s rhythms and how to live in accordance with them. Instead we rely on experts to tell us what to think and how to live. With this comes the fear that if these experts and all the monetised services we rely on were to disappear we would not be able to survive. Like a caged bird set free we would not last very long out in the wild.

Unfortunately our solution seems to be to build bigger and stronger cages to prevent any chance of being set free. Instead we should reclaim our wild knowledge, learning more about our planet and how to live well in it. Start small with something as simple as growing some food and thereby learning how to pay closer attention to the fertility of the earth, the seasonal changes in weather and the indigenous plants, insects and animals of our local area.

Playing outside is another way to connect with and benefit from being immersed in our beautiful living world. Recent initiatives like Nature Play and Free Range Kids have plenty of great ideas on how to get urban kids outside and playing. I suggest that adults too need to get outside and play. I find a walk in a park or on the beach seeing greenery, open skies, feeling the wind on my body and hearing the chatter of birds is a wonderful, free way to boost my spirits and get some exercise.

Getting to know our neighbours is another way to create places where we feel more connected and therefore less fearful. Certainly for myself knowing even a few of my neighbours well enough to share conversations, beyond the normal perfunctory hello, has given me a sense of security that raised fences and security systems will never do.

These might seem like inadequately small actions. Yet every journey starts with a single step. The more time we spend reconnecting with our planet and its inhabitants the more we will remember that we are a part of a wondrous web of life and strive once again to live well with the rest of the planet, instead of vainly attempting to lock ourselves away and force the rest of the world to do our bidding.

I will leave you with this stirring call from Jeanette Leblanc to live in a way that makes the most of our time on this Earth.

“Go now, and live.

Experience. Dream. Risk. Close your eyes and jump. Enjoy the freefall. Choose exhilaration over comfort. Choose magic over predictability. Choose potential over safety. Wake up to the magic of everyday life. Make friends with your intuition. Trust your gut. Discover the beauty of uncertainty… See goodness in the world. Be Bold. Be Fierce. Be Grateful. Be wild, Crazy and Gloriously Free. Be You.

Go now, and live.” – Jeanette Leblanc

(1) Ginsburg K R. “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds”. Pediatrics, 2007; 119 (1).

(2) There are numerous studies that suggest that being in nature (I am using this term in the way it is used in the literature) has beneficial effects of humans. A couple of references are included as a starting point if you are interested in exploring this area further:
Kaplan, S. (1995). “The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework.” Journal of Environmental Psychology, 1995; 15.
Richard M. Ryan, Netta Weinstein, Jessey Bernstein, Kirk Warren Brown, Louis Mistretta, Marylène Gagné. “Vitalizing effects of being outdoors and in nature”. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 2010; 30 (2).

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