Thursday, February 12, 2004

15. Winter survival no sweat

On a recent trip outside to feed the birds and the deer, as I slowly plowed through the snow, my bones froze as the brisk cold of January ripped right through me.

I could even see my dogs, which joined me on this quick endeavor, shaking, as their once adaptively sufficient winter coat now failed to provide adequate protection. "The poor animals," my wife always says. To which, I usually reply "Well, they have adapted to these conditions; I doubt they know the difference."

This, of course, is my standard line to reassure the both of us - fully understanding the hardship these animals face.

I quite enjoy feeding the animals; sometimes watching families of deer warm their bodies with our offering of "free" corn. Birds of several species, cardinals, blue jays, finches, doves and even crows, visit our feeders 24 hours a day - consuming the energy required to battle the harsh weather conditions. It is amazing how just a few minutes in the cold can both make you appreciate the progress made by our species and turn your stomach as to how spoiled we have become.

In a blink of an eye, relatively speaking, or namely, a few thousand years, our species fears little of harsh winter conditions other than the inconvenience of shoveling the driveway, cleaning off the car, and leaving a few minutes early for work.

Just a few short years ago, our species battled winters like all other species. We faced the challenges of shelter, hunger and disease. A December trip to Hocking Hills included a visit to the famous caves that surely provided shelter to ancient humans.

An eerie feeling overcame me as we battled the cold for only a couple hours through the natural heat of the campfire. What these people must have gone through, I thought. Moreover, how lucky they were to have found such a cave. Undoubtedly, many others did not have it so well.

Just hundreds of years ago, when the European settlers invaded this land, surviving the winter was an accomplishment for all those that did. There were no guarantees. American settlers often remarked on the winter conditions and how many did or did not survive.

Technology had advanced to include cabins and fireplaces but times were still tough. Travel could be difficult, even impossible. People worked hard and died young.

It is sad then that so much has been forgotten. And how much of what we have today is taken for granted. Families used to raise their own animals, grow their own crops. Kids worked the farm, families worked together, and our communities cared about one another.

How many of us today could survive those conditions of a couple hundred years ago, or even more difficult, of a couple thousand years ago? Daily "to do" lists included staying warm, finding food, protecting the children and living to see tomorrow.

The success of our ancestors made things what they are for us today. They worked hard, obtained and shared knowledge, and, most importantly, they survived. Compare their lives with ours today. Consider the leisure time we have. The time we have to choose between "American Idol" and "The Bachelorette."

And the time we have to care whether or not Brittany got married, or if Ben and Jennifer broke up. We have the luxury of passing up hard work because we can pay someone else to do it. We also have the audacity to pass up the opportunity for knowledge, because, it too, is too much work.

Today we worry about our diets, if we get enough calcium; our ancestors were just happy to eat. We get dressed up to go hunting, and hang the heads of our victims on walls as trophies- our ancestors hunted to survive; there was no time for gloating. How lucky we are today that 40 hours a week pays our way through life, considering that our ancestors put in 24/7.

Perhaps we can never completely understand the trials and tribulations that our ancestors may have endured. Maybe I'm wrong; maybe it wasn't that difficult. But at least consider what it might have been like hundreds or thousands of years ago. Step outside one cold dark night, walk into a forest or an open field and ask yourself- could I have survived?

Thursday, February 5, 2004

14. I think, therefore I am, I think

Rene Descartes, considered the first modern philosopher, coined the popular phrase, "Cogito ergo sum," which means, "I think therefore I am." Literally taken, it is a restatement of the obvious. However, from a philosophical standpoint, it was a bit of a breakthrough. In search of reality, it was an "indubitable first principle." The definition of reality extends in many directions, and under many circumstances. Easy examples are dreams and mirages- periods of imagery that upon further investigation (waking up or moving closer) we discover, with a fair amount of certainty, to be illusions. Attempting to define reality in the holistic realm serves to question what most of us take for granted. For example, pick any thing or place that you have not witnessed first hand- say the country of Iraq. To question what we absolutely know or don't know to be true- one could argue that the country of Iraq does not exist. Taking the example to extreme, one could argue that although you hear about Iraq, know of countries that fight wars against Iraq, and see pictures of Iraq- that Iraq does not really exist. Perhaps the whole world is in conspiracy against you to make you believe that Iraq exist when, in fact, it does not. This argument, on a theoretical level, can be taken even further to question even the things one has, or believes to have, experienced. Hence, the existence of everything can be doubted. Conversely, the phrase, "I think therefore I am," proves that although everything can be questioned to exist, there can be no doubt that someone (or thing) is doing the doubting. Perhaps the more accurate proof would be "I am capable of doubting, therefore I exist."

Our perception of reality is a fragile entity when one considers the effects of aging, drugs and injury onto the brain. There can be, at times and even among the unimpaired, a thin line separating what we perceive to be true and what, in fact, is true. One philosopher describes our perception of reality as "the show between our ears," and as unfortunate as it is, one can duly note that some of us the channel has been changed. Some choose this altered state of reality through drug use, escaping, at least for a while, the pain of the "reality." Many individuals, however, have altered states of perception forced upon them- usually through the effects of aging or genetics. Alzheimer's disease and Schizophrenia are the more serious thought disorders that alter states of reality. Both have its roots in genetics, with Alzheimer's disease increasing in severity with age.

Considering the complexity of the brain, it is perhaps remarkable that it performs so well, for so long. There is no doubt that the evolution of the brain, and with it a vested interest in our greatest competitive advantage, succeeded magnificently. It is also easy to recognize, that until modern medicine, how those individuals that drifted from "reality" failed to survive long in a real world- and did not suffer long under "false" perceptions.

That has indeed changed, and nothing is more heartbreaking than those suffering from the effects of mental disorders. I cannot help but to consider Descartes' cogito and wonder about those who can no longer perceive our sense of reality. Perhaps the greatest fear for most of us, as we age, is the loss of our minds- as nothing more than our thoughts, emotions and memories better defines us. Anyone who has cared for someone with Alzheimer's can certainly relate to the emotional challenges of dementia and the loss of someone we used to know. And, painfully, their loss of perception sometimes challenges ours.