Simple and Hard vs Complicated and Easy
There exists a profound disconnect between how much our bodies, our brains, and our minds have been evolving. Each has been evolving on a completely different timescale. Our bodies have evolved over the past several million years, our brains have evolved over the past hundred thousand years, and our minds have evolved over the past hundred years.
During the first several million years or so, since we climbed down from the trees, we evolved physically to adapt and survive in this new environment. We walked more upright, we developed stronger legs, and we lost most of our ability to swing from limb to limb. This new environment offered a much greater variety of feeding options, but it also came with a price - more predators.
We were not physically equipped for this new environment, so we had to work as a team or even a tribe. This requirement for teamwork spurred and sped up the evolution of our brains, allowing us to develop tools and strategies that propelled us to the top of the food chain. Eventually, our brains figured out how to use our environment more efficiently and even control it. We transitioned, rapidly, from hunter gatherers to farmers.
As we tamed our environment, it created a social excess that allowed some individuals in society the freedom to pursue higher levels of thinking. The results of which echoed through society and fostered the far more rapid evolution of our minds. This allowed us to explore the sciences, develop processes for manufacturing, build magnificent cities, and eventual discoveries into the deeper workings of the body, the brain, and even the mind.
At the beginning of this evolutionary journey, from our position in the treetops, our existence was simple - find some fruit, some nuts, maybe some bugs to eat, find a mate to procreate with, and try not to be eaten by something else in the trees. It was simple and, for most, pretty easy. Then we climbed down out of the trees (we may have been pushed) and things got a little more complicated.
On the ground, with the greater variety of things to eat, and things that wanted to eat us, life became not only more complicated, but harder. But this adversity made us smarter (what doesn’t kill ya) and life became simple again (we just needed to hunt some game, find some berries, find a mate, and try not to die). Life became simple again, but not easy. Now life was hard.
For most of human society, this simple yet hard way of life endured throughout our transition to the agricultural age, then to the industrial age, but with the emergence of the information age, the promise of a life that was not so hard became very enticing and was embraced by most in the Western world. The problem is that while life became easier, it inadvertently became more complicated. And this complication of our world is continuing on an ever-steepening trajectory.
We evolved from simple and easy to simple and hard to complicated and easy (for some) and complicated and hard (for others). Most humans would choose a lifestyle that is simple and easy (utopia), versus a life that is complicated and hard. The problem is that we humans need some complication in our lives and we need some hardness.
Humans Need Hard
The physiology that we inhabit (our bodies) have evolved for millions of years (maybe hundreds of millions) to endure physical stress and then repair itself as much as possible. This repair and recover process allowed us to not only survive, but to get stronger and thrive in a harsh environment that we were not suited for. When things got too harsh, many of our ancestors died, but the ones that survived did so because they were stronger than the ones that didn’t. This is what got them through famine, through war, and even through pestilence. It sucks, but it’s why we can get through so much of what we face today.
For many people of the world (especially in the developed countries), we don’t have hard anymore. Farming is done by machines, and manufacturing is done by pushing buttons (mostly). And what hard jobs remain, will soon be done by robots.
The problem is that, without hard, we take away the opportunities for our bodies to experience the stress and even damage that is necessary for it to then repair itself and grow stronger. This may seem like a nice problem to have, but if we aren’t getting stronger we are getting weaker. If we aren’t growing, we are dying. It’s how we are designed.
If things are too hard, we will break down and die. If things aren’t hard enough, we will grow weak and slowly fade away.
Humans Need Simple
Our brains have evolved the ability to solve problems, it's not only what we do best, it really is just about all it does. At least the higher functioning part, the neocortex. It’s possible that if the neocortex can’t find a problem to solve, it will create one. You know what they say about idle hands and the devil.
While some of the problems we needed to solve were existential, most were merely difficulties in life that we desired to make easier. But as we progressed and life got easier, it naturally became more complex. We paid for our easier life, and the currency was (and still is) simplicity. This complexity, and our brains need for the stimulation that accompanies it, is the cause and the result of a self-perpetuating cycle of development and advancement.
We need the peace and tranquility that comes with a simple life, but we also need the mental challenges that come with the complications in our daily lives. But, if things are too complicated, we will develop anxiety, and if things aren’t complicated enough, our brains, our minds, will atrophy and we will lose our ability to problem solve, to thrive, and ultimately our will to survive.
We need to find a balance between these forces. We need to live a life that is simple and hard, but not too simple and not too hard.
Finding simple and hard in a world that’s complicated and easy.
For many of us, many of the complications we face are of our own creation. According to Abraham Maslow, we have our physiological needs (our deficiency needs) for food, water, safety, and security, and we have our higher needs (our being needs) for love and belonging, our esteem, and ultimately our self-actualization. For most of us in the developed world, our deficiency needs are pretty easy to satisfy, far easier than our ancient ancestors could have ever imagined. But over the past ten thousand years or so, our world has become an ever-expanding, ever-advancing, [ ] civilization. It has become very complicated and this has made satisfying our higher needs much more challenging.
Arguably, not many of us would want to go back to living life exactly the way our ancient ancestors lived. While they may have been strong and fit, they probably didn’t live much past their retirement age. The retirement age being the day you could no longer hunt - maybe 40? While our modern lifestyle may be more complicated than we would like, it has provided us with a means of living well past our retirement age (if we do the right things).
It would seem that the ideal way to live would be to take the complication out of it, but interject a level of hardness that would give us the benefits that our ancestors enjoyed without all the physical hardship.
Well, adding that hardness is actually pretty simple. We can still go for a run, or climb up stuff, or jump off stuff, or find some heavy stuff to lift. We can recreate any and all of the hardness that our ancestors “enjoyed” without all the hardship that would come with it.
Tracking an antelope for 30 miles? It’s called a marathon. Hunting wildlife in the mountains of Europe, try backpacking. Fighting off members of a neighboring tribe? Sign up for some martial arts classes, or lift some weights at the gym. Gathering nuts and berries all day? Anything involving cardio and strength training should suffice.
Elevators were invented to make our lives easier, so climbing a few flights of stairs can be a great way to turn easy into hard, or harder. Cars are here to make transportation easy, so walking or riding to the store is another great way to find hard. Hard is easily available and it’s all around us, we just have to be willing to do it.
In our complicated complex society, simplifying will be a little harder than hardening, and the answers could fill volumes, not to mention keeping therapists fully employed for decades. Ultimately, every one of us will have an entirely different approach to simplifying our lives, but there may be some common first steps to consider.
Satisfying needs is simple, satisfying wants can be much more complicated. Taking the time to divide our wants and needs into two different piles can go a long way in helping us figure out where we should be investing our time and energy. The more we focus on satisfying our needs, and the less we focus on our wants, the quicker we can get working on our higher needs and eventually our self-actualization.
Wants can be cleverly disguised as needs, making their satisfaction unsatisfying, short-lived, and easily replaced by the next cleverly disguised want. Reassessing the things we spend our time and energy acquiring will help us figure out what to eliminate, enabling us to declutter and simplify our lives.
Getting a better idea of who we are, who we want to be, and where we want to go, can go a long way toward helping us recognize the difference between a want and a need. Knowing who we are, we can know what would make us happy. Not knowing who we are makes this almost impossible.
The solutions are out there, they are limitless, and they are simple. We just have to get out there and do them. And keep in mind that they are hard, that’s the way they are supposed to be. In today’s world we may not be able to live a simple and hard lifestyle, and we probably wouldn’t want to, but we can live a life where we integrate more hard things at the same time simplifying the complicated things. We can make our lives simpler and harder.
There is no growth in easy. Easy leads to laziness and ultimately, complacency.