Readers will recognize unthinkingly the buzz-word Self-Improvement as one of the mantric expressions that make Avant Labs cozy. This will dull their apprehension of the concept the phrase represents and obstruct the purpose of this article, which muses abstractly on Self-Improvement.
I implore readers to relieve themselves of any pre-conceived notions pertaining to that quest which unites the membership in order that they might free themselves to enjoy confrontation with new perspectives.
It is my intent that this article prompts its sufferers to grapple with subjects as diverse as the inextricability of self-improvement from the harmony of nature, those traits which distinguish man, and the methods by which the student of humanity learns of himself.
The Harmony Of Nature:
The Duties It Implicitly Demands.
The harmony of a system is secured by the proportionate relationship of its elements to one another and an ultimately unbreakable, if bendable, balance which uninterruptedly administrates these.
An elaborate mouse trap of sundry composition which requires a rolling marble to agitate many wildly varying yet conjoined pieces achieves its capture when each and every component fulfills its role.
Additionally, while the machine may vary slightly in each success (the ramp this time quivering leftward as per its small leeway, the final netting splaying in novel fashion during this entrapment), fundamentally it remains unchanging in that each piece is specialized to perform a specific function relative to each other, in that the solidarity which governs the whole remains unchanged.
So It Is With The Harmony Of Nature:
An invisible cosmic balance pervades, arranging all those pieces it subsumes to its esoteric liking. We may valiantly strain in our bonds, making headway even, yet we remain bonded. That we are as a species, in both scope and form, subordinate is clearly seen.
Disasters conquer us daily, time destroys us mercilessly, and we cannot even know how much is unknown. We are but warm whimpers in some great mystery.
If man is therefore seen as an extension of nature, it follows that man must fulfill his innate duty for the satisfaction of his parent system and his own good, most directly by flexing those capabilities which distinguish him and performing his specific function so far as the overruling balance will allow. As I will argue, Man's only distinction is his capacity for self-improvement.
The Supposed Uniqueness Of Mankind
Consoling fairytales have come to the aid of those acutely suffering from the ancient need for feelings of exceptionality, rooted in biased and oversimplified works that exalt man for his singular abilities.
As science progresses in breadth and precision, we are increasingly likened to other animals in which we find piecemeal the same traits once adduced as evidence of our unapproachable glory.
It seems we are, like any other stage of evolution, a frenzied gathering from Nature's complete armory of those complementary features best suited to our species' particular environment.
A now archaic but once venerable theory of consciousness, which sought to distinguish human thought from that of animals by its unique awareness of the consciousness of others, was debunked when a study revealed evidence of empathy in several species.
| What Does Empathy Mean?
Empathy is the recognition and understanding of the states of mind, including beliefs, desires and particularly emotions of others. This concept is often characterized as the ability to "put oneself into another's shoes."
However, this metaphor is ambiguous concerning whether one imagines actually "being" the other person, with all their beliefs and character traits, or simply being in their situation (such as being the prime minister).
Also, one must be careful not to confuse empathy with sympathy, which is a distinct social emotion characterised by a general pro-attitude toward another person and their goals-empathy can affect sympathy.
Empathy Of The Species:
In experiments designed to elicit distress in children, the family dog often displays consolatory behaviors toward the human feigning distress (Zahn-Waxler et al. 1984).
Both rats and pigeons in the laboratory display a profound emotional response to the suffering of a conspecific and act to terminate the stress manipulation. Monkeys react similarly in experimental distress situations, even starving themselves to prevent a conspecific from being shocked in their presence.
| What Does Conspecific Mean?
An organism belonging to the same species as another.
There are many striking examples of empathy in apes. Much research has empirically demonstrated the existence of consolation in chimpanzees, whereby one animal will act to soothe the distress of another. To wet the appetite for the existence of empathy in apes, consider the following anecdotal example from de Waal's (1997b) Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape.
Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape.
Kidogo, a 21-year-old bonobo [Pan paniscus] at the Milwaukee County Zoo suffers from a serious heart condition. He is feeble, lacking the normal stamina and self-confidence of a grown male. When first moved to Milwaukee Zoo, the keepers' shifting commands in the unfamiliar building thoroughly confused him.
| What Is A Bonobo?
The Bonobo (Pan paniscus), sometimes called the Pygmy Chimpanzee, is one of the two species comprising the genus Pan.
Both members of that genus are technically "chimpanzees," though the term is frequently used to refer only to the other member of the genus, Pan troglodytes, the Common Chimpanzee.
Bonobos were discovered in 1928, by American anatomist Harold Coolidge, represented by a skull in the Tervuren museum in Belgium that had been thought to be a juvenile chimpanzee's, though credit for the discovery went to the German Ernst Schwarz, who published the findings in 1929. They are distinguished by an upright gait, a matriarchal and egalitarian culture, and the prominent role of sexual intercourse in their society.
He failed to understand where to go when people urged him to move from one place to another. Other apes in the group would step in, however. They would approach Kidogo, take him by the hand, and lead him in the right direction. Caretaker and animal trainer Barbara Bell observed many instances of spontaneous assistance, and learned to call upon other bonobos to move Kidogo.
If lost, Kidogo would utter distress calls, whereupon others would calm him down, or act as his guide. One of his main helpers was the highest-ranking male, Lody. These observations of bonobo males walking hand-in-hand dispel the notion that they are unsupportive of each other.
Only one bonobo tried to take advantage of Kidogo's condition. Murph, a 5-year-old male, often teased Kidogo, who lacked the assertiveness to stop the youngster. Lody, however, sometimes interfered by grabbing the juvenile by an ankle when he was about to start his annoying games, or by going over to Kidogo to put a protective arm around him.1
The Avian Brain:
Likewise, in our haste to establish the distinctiveness of human cognition we have been guilty of giving certain animal brains too cursory a glance. An updated take on avian cognition:
There is a new recognition that the bulk of a bird's brain is not, as scientists once thought, mere "basal ganglia," the part of the brain that simply coordinates instincts. Rather, fully 75 percent of a bird's brain is an intricately wired mass that processes information in much the same way as the vaunted human cerebral cortex.
| What Are Basal Ganglia?
The basal ganglia are a group of nuclei in the brain associated with motor and learning functions. However, there is no single definitive function that can be assigned to the mammalian basal ganglia.
Additionally, The new system, which draws upon many of the terms used to describe the human brain and has broad support among scientists, acknowledges the now overwhelming evidence that avian and mammalian brains are remarkably similar; which explains why many kinds of birds are not just twitchily resourceful but able to design and manufacture tools, solve mathematical problems and, in many cases, use language in ways that even chimpanzees and other primates cannot.
It is often said that human distinction lies in our ability to change our environment to our liking. When proponents of this theory are presented with evidence of several other "lesser" species radically restructuring their surroundings (prairie dogs creating tunnel systems and beavers constructing dams) they reply that such modification is basic and purely instinctual.
The Animal Mind:
True though this may be, is it not remarkable that so "basic" a creature can create elaborate systems? And what about the well-known tests Kohler ran on chimpanzees to examine their capacity for complex problem solving? An excerpt from The Animal Mind by J.L Gould & C. G. Gould summarizes:
|The Animal Mind
J.L Gould & C. G. Gould
It would seem that, instead of humans towering exclusively over all other tinkerers by virtue of their advanced engineering, we are but the foremost inhabitants of a spectrum of capability and achievement whose ratio is unchanging down and up the line. That is to say, that we are but accomplishing so far as our parsimoniously awarded enhancements allow, as are wombats, snakes and cockroaches.
This view, when taken into consideration along with the diverse and intricate mentalities of lesser beasts, challenges the notion of humanity's absolute uniqueness.
The Rarity Of Self-Improvement
What then can be said to distinguish mankind? Only a function which requires the full employment of those capabilities perhaps unique to man, whose boundaries lie in shadow, but which nevertheless when harmonized and used to their fullest potential achieve unapproachable results.
I believe the consummation of these nebulous abilities to be the undertaking of self-improvement, by which I mean a conscious choice to elevate, expand and/or develop one's station, capabilities, mode of existence and/or definition beyond that impetus to evenly survive imparted by nature to all creatures.
So involved and demanding an enterprise is suited solely to the human skillset and can be pursued only by a being so rich as to be vested in a complexity just beyond its own comprehension, so visionary as to flex the cerebration most gifted in the manipulation of abstract matters yet known, and so consumed by pride and obsessed with self-understanding as to spend its entire lifetime thrashing about for an identity. For whatever reason, self-improvement is a uniquely human capacity.
What Self-Improvement Is Not:
Self-improvement is not to be confused with societal advancement, nor with an indiscriminate competitiveness. Indeed, it is impossible and wasteful to judge personal progress against that of another, though one's twitch-inclination may well clamor for the truth of the opposite.
Can one not lift weights daily beside another and, at the end of the session, gauge definitely differing progress? No. Far too many variables, preexisting and concurrent, obfuscate a truly objective comparison. I maintain the human inability to accurately assess nearly anything due to the unverifiable nature of perception and the wildly unknowable nature of the reality it struggles to distill.
Additionally, a competitiveness not used as judiciously as a tool at specific points, but instead maintained tediously as a fire which eventually consumes its housing, engenders evils at both ends; self-deprecation or discouragement in the face of what is perceived to be an impossibly advanced competitor and, resultantly, a hatred or resentment of the competitor.
The converse is no more desirable. A self-assumed superiority over another based on several arbitrary criteria does its imposer no good. Such a pride does not embody the superiority of its bearer, but betrays instead their simplicity in needing an illusion of dominance and in squashing insects to assert a specious authority.
Indeed, just as all occupants of the food chain have both superiors and inferiors whose relations fluctuate when different scenarios are considered, so, too, do all persons have disparate and unique biochemical compositions, mental states and existences as to find themselves simultaneously winner and loser in a million differently judged bouts.
The possible variations and their circumstances are so numerous as to render most every human being and achievement and accompanying circumstance incomparable. Therefore, the student of self-improvement will do well to put aside thoughts of vicious contest and fully concentrate his or her energies on a personal best.
Defeating The Gluttony Of Senses:
How does self-improvement stand against the gluttony of the senses that the timid assert to be the only reasonable approach in light of existence's many uncertainties?
The world is painful, sharp and frightening, so booze and rut for the chemical comfort. Infinite uncertainties, there are. Yet there are also those near-certainties that resonate beyond simple language, that are viscerally verified, that seem to agree at once with natural inclination and to detract from nothing, only improving their host.
I know I have a body and that it prefers health to sickness. I nearly know that I have a mind, and that it prefers exercise and expansion to the morphine-drip of self-pity and fearful pharmacological masturbation. I nearly know that I must pursue a course which achieves that which is preferential to my being and to my fullest human capacity, thereby humming my small undertone in the cosmic chorus.
To allow oneself to become stagnant is to exist solely for the purpose of singing, but to remain silent because the effort would burn the throat a bit.
Self-Improvement would certainly be defeated by gluttony if gluttony could invariably and unyieldingly ensure a robust happiness perpetually sustainable by, and agreeable to, man. Unfortunately for those disinclined to exertion, it cannot.
The brain adapts, the thrills abate, yet the damage remains. The timid will again recall to mind the eventual destruction of Earth and transience of all that is in existence as reason to rest from the vain striving of self-improvement, of the incessant gathering of new attributes.
Yet those who adduce this as sufficient reason to eschew difficulty and lounge in clouds of one composition or another, use their brainy bodies as pinball machines by overstuffing them with tokens to luxuriate in the resulting carnival of jolts, jiggles and dazzling stars, err in their conceptualization of the purpose of Self-Improvement. It is not, as is often mistakenly assumed, the hoarding of physical, mental or spiritual treasures.
What Self-Improvement Is:
Self-Improvement is a personal but universal duty, hence it should be appreciated solely in regard to the self while undertaken with a sense of camaraderie, which at once supports the individual in his personal quest and moves him to support his or her fellows in their own ascents.
Because Self-Improvement is its own reward and can never be valued against the attempts of others, it should be taken up with equal gusto by the castaway hermit that will never see another and by the gregarious citizen.
|WHAT'S YOUR GOAL|
Since concrete fruits, beside those goals set such that something can be reached for, will never be attained by self-improvement but, instead, a fluid burgeoning and pleasant self-expansion will be the unceasing approbation for efforts invested, steady and strengthening in its performance as a deep breath of clean air, one must take care to enjoy the progress one is making even while one's eye rests on loftier vantages.
Otherwise, constant exertion may become a chore without pleasure; a sure recipe for failure or stagnancy. If you are reading a philosophical text, value equally the content you will eventually gather and immediately the cerebral aerobics its digestion demands.
An Example Of Self-Improvement:
He who checks at all times his processes by introspection and painstakingly objective depersonalized observation moves closer to acquiring an accurate definition of self.
Wonder endlessly at your behaviors, isolate them first for inspection then reweave them into the fabric of interpersonal affairs to have a look at their relevance and worth as participants (the marker by which all human aspects gain their worth) stack them against historical precedents to develop an understanding of societal patterns.
Such an exercise, sedulously undertaken, can call a self-absorbed person out from within his or her cocoon.
Why do I do such a thing? And what value does it have? Does it unreasonably impinge upon others and, if so, can it be remedied to the greater good and my own edification? In what manner could it be remedied, and how will I go about fixing it so that my own talents are utilized while my personal deficits are bolstered?
A Final Thought
Consider the raw joy of adventure, of a physically and mentally taxing endeavor, the whole entity invested- thinking, doing, to the fullest human extent, its highest and basest faculties simultaneously engaged.
The body glows.
Adoption of Self-Improvement as a lifestyle is the assurance of uninterrupted adventure, and, through it, self-sustaining warmth and light.
This article appears courtesy of www.mindandmuscle.net.
- Preston, S. D. and de Waal, F. B. M. (in press). The communication of emotions and the possibility of empathy in animals. In: Altruistic love: Science, philosophy, and religion in dialogue, ed. S. Post, L. G. Underwood, J. P. Schloss, & W. B. Hurlburt.
- Weiss, Rick. (2005, February 1). Bird Brains Get Some New Names, And NewRespect. Washington Post.
- J.L Gould & C. G. Gould. (1994) The Animal Mind. Scientific American Library.