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Nietzschean Diary 4. Your Personal Development Privilege

What an era to live in: comforts altogether unknown to the vast majority of human beings down countless millennia we now take completely for granted.

Early this morning I ran seven miles through the rolling countryside of the South Downs to a little town called Lewes. I ran to Lewes to get breakfast at a cafe I like - a reward for making the run. We’ve talked before about using rewards in behaviour change theory.

It was 7AM when I set out. The morning was damp, misty and chill. I finally reached the cafe around 8:15AM, wet from the weather and the sweat and so I was glad of the warmth that greeted me inside. I took a small table. Fresh, hot coffee was brought to me. I ate a big plate of energy dense food comprising many items, any one of which would have been a singular luxury to somebody 200 years ago.

An egg seems like a staple to us (I had two) but to a working adult of average income in the 1700s, it might have been a once a month treat. Earlier humans would have had to risk life and limb by shinning up a tree or down a cliff face and the tiny prize, a wild bird egg smaller than a chicken egg in most cases, would likely have been eaten raw there and then.

And think about this: most of our human forebears have lived and died without eversleeping in a decent bed. Have you tried sleeping on the ground? It’s horrible. You rise from your slumber feeling like you have been beaten-up in the night. At least most of our antecedents were young, as the earliest humans rarely lived to thirty years, and younger people can cope with hardships better than those who are more mature, right?

Consider though, that of all the human beings that have ever lived, and one credible estimate is that amounts to about 108 billion people, most of them were really young. In fact, the vast majority of human beings that ever lived were children. More accurately, babies.

Child mortality throughout history often approached 50% and the younger you were, the more likely you were to die before adulthood. Adulthood is a rarity, historically speaking.

That means if you assembled all those 108 billion for a great human reunion party, up to 50 billion of them would be children and babies. Let's hope this party has a huge creche. Probably no more than a few billion of the guests would be aged over 65. Even more startlingly, of that few billion over-65 year olds, it is claimed that two thirds of them are still alive right now!

That single fact illustrates how unprecedented our current situation is. In the affluent first world countries at least, we are living like royalty, relatively speaking. How affluent are we? Well, in his excellent book The Crash Course, Chris Martenson gives a vivid illustration. He estimates the calorific energy in a gallon of petroleum as equivalent to 500 hours of human labour. This means that if you have a full tank in your car, you are driving around with power at your disposal matched only by the most pre-eminent kings of antiquity. What an incredible anomaly we seem.

Too much rich food, followed by tobacco and alcohol, are the biggest threats to your life in the West these days. This means most of us will die of overindulgence. The status quo for our countless deceased cousins was an erratic and unpredictable cocktail of hunger, thirst, fatigue, sweltering heat, freezing cold, fear, parasites, unalleviated pain, untreated disease and inter-human violence. You would likely die of one of them back then: starvation, dehydration, exhaustion, heat stroke, hypothermia, predation, infestation, injury, infection or homicide.

This sobering thought occurred to me as I ate my breakfast. I have had some intimations of the sheer misery of the lives of historical peoples in my own past. Having lived outdoors in North Western Europe during winter, I have experienced the slightest glimpse of what life was like without warm cafes and hot breakfasts.

I recall subsisting on the Scottish borders one especially harsh mid-winter. At 3AM I fell through river-ice and soaked all my clothes and the sleeping bag in my pack too. I rolled on the ground at the riverbank to try and dry off as much as possible - snow absorbs water. I was freezing. This was bad, but not as bad as I knew the following morning would be. I slept as best I could, shivering in that drenched bag and roused myself around 5AM finding myself covered in a blanket of extra snow. I had no tent. I shook off the scales of ice from my wet clothes. My hands were so numb that I could not even pack the sleeping bag away and had to abandon it, even though I knew I was to going to be out in the wilds for another two weeks.

Another time, out on the highlands during a protracted blizzard that went on for days, my gloveless hands turned a worrying shade of crimson and stopped feeling cold - not a good sign. The following day, jagged cracks started appearing all over them, then finally they split open, raw flesh visible through the gaping fissures in my skin. There was dirt embedded deep in them that I couldn’t wash out.

On other occasions I saw friends become dopey and incoherent, with glassy dilated pupils - a sure sign that they had hypothermia. In due course, they would keel over face first into the snow and we all would laugh grimly, before lending them some help.

At night, we would sleep in a hole in the ground, earth crumbling down onto our heads. A pile of cold, wet, trembling bodies drifting in and out of fitful sleep. A guy next to you would piss himself, because there was no way out of the hole without rousing everyone else, and the roaring blizzard made any exit ill-advised anyway. You would feel the warm liquid soak into your clothes and you took a little comfort from the warmth of it. Hygiene had no place here. No one washed during these horrendous sojourns in the winter wilderness.

I have fewer memories of the oppressive summers, but the worst thing was always the thirst. During a heat wave in the forests of central Europe, I went for three days without a drink. I could feel myself losing my mind. I happened on a tiny dried-out streambed in the woods, with just a trace of damp mud. I pushed my scarf into it to soak up what moisture there was and sucked it from the fabric. Mainly grit, which only made my thirst worse.

In the Rocky Mountains, myself and three others had a similar experience during a scorching heatwave. Days without water. You could see faces turning scarlet and the sun glistening off tiny, dry, salt crystals. When we finally reached a water barrel, some idiot tried to stop us slaking our raging thirsts. He literally stood between us and the water. We were all armed with rifles at the time and maddened by the desperate need to drink. If another person hadn’t turned up and granted us free access, the idiot could well have ended up dead. I have never known a murderous rage like the one that possesses me when I am dangerously dehydrated.

I reflected on these experiences as I drank another refill of coffee, sat in the warmth, pleasantly stuffed from my breakfast, looking at the raindrops rolling down the windows. These glimpses I have had in my life were plain, day-to-day existence for some of our ancestors.

For most of humanity, life has been largely suffering and misery. They spent most of their short spans trying to meet the needs at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy – food, water, shelter. We, on the other hand, have time for other, higher, more edifying pursuits. It’s not just that we have more leisure time, we live much longer too.

As our basic needs are pretty much taken care of, we moderns should use the extra time we have been gifted for something exceptional.

Your personal development is a privilege to be cherished.

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