Unlearn to live

One guy at work always tells me: "You brighten up my day! How come you are always in such good mood?" I really appreciate his comment, and reciprocally he always brightens up my day too. I'm only sorry that he has never waited for an answer. Because I do have an answer.

I think he does not expect an explanation for my good mood. He just thinks I was born like this. And certainly I was born like this. But he was born like me too! The problem is: he has not learned to unlearn.

We've all been 2 years old, and we've all smiled at the world, amazed by the wonders that it offers to us. Obviously, we don't remember. Having children (or spending time with your nephews if you don't) is very important for this reason. If you carefully watch a toddler explore the world, you cannot help wonder what's on his mind. Everything is new to him, everything is exciting. As we grow and learn, we start taking things for granted. They don't offer relevant new information, so they get ignored. Learning is a blessing and a curse.

This is a natural process, of course, nurtured by our own biology: higher brain functions demand lots of energy. Our bodies are in constant optimization of energy, therefore, our natural instinct is to ignore what is not new. Constant optimization of energy is a very useful feature when food is scarce. It maximizes chances of survival.

But beyond this, our primitive parts of the brain (amygdala) are there to trigger an expedite response to threats. Every other living being on this planet does this too. What sets us apart is the ability to use higher brain functions (prefrontal cortex) to anticipate potential threats. Our amygdala will not know the difference between the real and the potential, and will trigger the same responses. This is the real feature that took us to the top of the food chain. Certainly it was not our speed, or strength, or claws. It was our ability to anticipate the problem, identify patterns, and trigger a response for something that is not happening.

Those capabilities are, no doubt, wonders that took us where we stand today. But in a world without predators, in a world without preys, they have become a hidden burden.

My friend at work was also a 2 years-old baby, looking at the world for what it is: an amazing place. Then he learned to ignore it. He has spent his years anticipating problems. And life has given plenty of options. Markets could face another downturn. That project may not be delivered on time and that would be a disaster. We may not meet our revenues budget, which is a big deal. He's not in short supply of potential trouble.

While he worries, he rushes to drink a coffee. He's drinking it mindlessly. I don't think he even knows that he's actually having coffee. Certainly he is not considering that his coffee was made out of Brazilian beans. This means those beans grew under the sun of a distant land, growing out of that rich soil, nourished by the impressive rains of that region. It took months for those beans to grow. Not days, not weeks. Months. They were collected and sent through the Atlantic Ocean, going through weeks of who knows what kind of weather and conditions. There is a lot of work on that coffee. Mostly the work of nature, then the hard work of many people. That coffee is a miracle. But he does not notice because he may not meet a budget by year end.

He lives in a land of nightmares. He lives in the near future. He moves from one threat to another. If he stops for a moment, he would linger in the past, for sorrow or melancholy. If he needs a break, he would seek a rush of newness. He has learned to unlive. He is never where he is.

Deep inside of him, he knows. We all know. It is that feeling inside of us whispering that something is off. Good news is: there's a way out and it is pretty close. You won't even have to move. All you have to do is unlearn to live. If you have children, just remember when you held your baby child in your arms for the first time. All you need to know is encapsulated in that very moment.

Life is a miracle. This is not a belief. This is a fact. We are surrounded by miracles, everyday, every moment. What else can we do but feel gratitude? Hold to that thought and start to unlearn.