I’ve been thinking about human nature and why we do the things we want to do and what keeps us from doing “bad” things and vice versa: Why do we do bad things when we don’t want to do them, or, even worse, why do we want to do bad things and sometimes do them? Of course, we have laws that restrict the bad and elevate the good. Which is good. I think.
Theoretically, in a democracy, we’ve all agreed on the merits of our laws and have all agreed to live by them. So when I consider the notion of freedom, since I’ve lived basically under the same sets of laws my entire life, it’s naturally difficult to imagine what actual unfettered freedom feels like. I’d guess that if offered actual unfettered freedom by an entity who could offer such a thing (God? Satan?), the prospect of literally doing anything at all without regard to consequences would be tempting to most of us, at first. And then super-scary. Absolute freedom is equivalent to absolute power, and absolute power brings to mind nasty dictators and bad guys that superheroes fight. Not all that appealing in those terms.
Thankfully, human nature itself naturally impinges upon infinite freedom. Freedom is an ideal, I think, but it’s an ideal on a continuum. Historic events like the Cold War created the perception that a person or even all the citizens of an entire country are either free or oppressed. One or the other. Rather, freedom is a trail of sorts, where the trailhead is total oppression and trail’s end total freedom. I’m not even exactly sure how to conceive of total oppression. Slavery in the United States and Germany under the Nazis is probably about as close to total oppression as I can imagine.
Total freedom on the other hand is, thankfully, not a thing. Not a real thing, anyway. Only a theoretical thing. What’s interesting, though, is that I can even imagine theoretical total freedom in the first place. What’s the point of being able to think of some ideal that can never really be reached on this mortal coil?
Compared to the human body and the human spirit, the human mind is limitless. There are thousands and thousands of ways that the body is limited, many of which are painfully obvious for those who live in those limited bodies. Take a dopey example: Me. I could not now run a half-mile without wheezing. Ugly, donkey bray wheezing. I am, in this case, quite corporally limited. I suppose my spiritual limitations are much more obvious to those around me, less so to me. When I fail to behave compassionately, as my particular spirituality requires, it’s my family, my friends and even the guy on the corner with the cardboard “please help” sign who are impacted. Not me.
But the mind seems to have no boundaries-or, at least in terms of humanity’s constraints, no boundaries that have been discovered yet. We can dream much more than we can do. As an example, I’d argue that an unlimited mind situated in a limited body is the entire basis of the science-fiction genre in literature and movies. If we can’t actually shoot lasers from our eyes or turn ourselves invisible, those things are at least worth imagining. At least we’ve done something lucrative, if not artistic, within our constraints.
The temptation to convert to reality the objects or scenarios that our minds dream up is incredibly strong, nigh on irresistible. We don’t have flying cars yet. But we do have cars that brake themselves if a kid on a bike rides behind us while we’re backing out of the driveway. We also have devices that can annihilate huge swaths of buildings and people. Nukes and MOABs and chemical weapons. Our limitless minds prompt our limited bodies, not to mention convince our limited spirits, to both create our culture and destroy it.
In that case, I suppose there is tremendous value in the limits of our abilities to do something compared to the instantaneous ways in which we can conjure it. What would have happened if, the day somebody imagined nuclear bombs, we suddenly had them? Earth would now be interstellar crumbs spinning through the universe. On the other hand, the disparity between our ability to imagine and our ability to do, the distance between our fantasies and our realities, must be a kind of torture to some. Think of the person who first imagined that flying car. That must have been, what, a century ago? More? And we still don’t have ’em.
I think the majority of human beings the world over are aware, probably more subconsciously than consciously, of our limitedness. How many times a day do ideas appear out of nowhere but are instantly curtailed by the realization that our bodies, our physical presences in time and space, could never permit those ideas to enter into our reality with us? Consequently, those ideas, big or small, are usually relegated to oblivion.
If you believe in reasons for things happening the way they do, whether on macro or micro levels, governed by luck or fate or divine intervention, you’d have to thank your good luck or good fate or good God for making or at least allowing everything else to lag so far behind the mind’s pace. It’d be a different story if human nature bent us naturally toward empathy, compassion and selflessness. That lag-this side of luck, fate or God-prevents our greedy and destructive natures of our race from completely ruling the day.
Paul Luikart is a writer whose work has appeared in a number of places over the years. His most recent book, “Animal Heart,” is available now from Hyperborea Publishing. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.