it’s not you. it’s the human race.
Ten thousand years ago, our ancestors were hunter-gatherers. They lived in small groups where they knew the other members intimately. They had a lifestyle that had been passed down for generations and allowed them to eat, find shelter, and produce and raise offspring. Their lives were not easy, and they were short compared to ours, but they also did not have to endure modern afflictions.
Above all, this lifestyle worked. Humans covered the planet by the millions living various versions of this simple lifestyle. Some groups roamed more than others; some struggled more than others. Enemies were easy to identify and avoid. Fear had a real meaning: your life was under actual threat. Love was given and received within the group, and outsiders were threats to be avoided or repelled.
Then someone got the bright idea to start civilization. Ok, so civilization was not a specific idea an individual came up with. Various people realized that staying put and starting farms was an effective way to have food year-round. Other people decided that permanent structures shared with a larger number of people was safer than wandering in search of food. And so on. One thing led to another, and eventually came cities, political and religious organizing, agriculture, militarism, war, and so on.
Ten thousand years later, and almost all humans live in a civilized settlement. Over these ten millennia, tens of billions of humans have lived and died, many brutalized by the worst aspects of civilization: war, slavery, poverty, disease, famine, interpersonal brutality, bigotry, and all the rest that can make human life so awful.
Here is the problem, the reason why your brain doesn’t work right in this modern civilized world:
Human brains evolved to support the hunter-gather lifestyle. When something happens that appears to be a threat, the train has a fight-flight-freeze response that works wonderfully well to help ensure survival in that moment of danger. The actions taken in those moments of fear, spurred on by the brain’s automatic response, didn’t always work but did so well enough for the purposes of survival and evolution. And then, danger passed and survival maintained, the body washed away the adrenalin and other chemicals, and the person could resume normal functions.
This brain works terribly in our modern world. Few of us encounter the kinds of dangers our brain was designed to protect us from. Yet our brain still responds to life as if your worries about what your partner really thinks about you is the same as having to pass along a forest trail where a mountain lion might be waiting to pounce. The fear of mountain lion attack lasts only as long as the potential danger lasts, but your fear of losing your job might be active 24/7.
That’s like carrying a hundred-pound weight on your back all day and expecting your knees to remain functional.
Humans civilized themselves far too fast. A new human generation occurs about every 15–25 years, the amount of time it takes for a baby to become a parent. Evolutionary change is very gradual, however. It took thousands of years for the humans who had wandered out of Africa into the northern lands to lose their dark pigmentation. And that was a relatively easy change to make in the body, based on the skin’s interaction with the environment.
To evolve the brain is incredibly more complex. Evolution is based on changes in our genes, and those changes are never very large. It took millions of years for the dinosaurs that survived the destruction of 65 million years ago to become birds. Certain mammals evolved into the humans we are today over the span of tens of millions of years.
So to expect our brain to evolve from the needs of isolated hunter-gatherers to that of urbanites who have a massively different lifestyle is ludicrous. Our brains are hundreds of generations behind our civilizations. Humans have no need of fight-flight-freeze; these generate responses to other humans that lead to feat, hatred, power-seeking, war, bigotry, and so on. Can anybody seriously argue these things are good or even necessary for the survival of individual humans, much less the entire species?
Humankind needs a brain that works on the basis of cooperation and a certain amount of compassion. What good does it do to fear and hate others? We don’t have to love those outside our personal community, but we don’t have to fear and hate them, either. Many religions, of course, demand that we love even our enemies, but the human brain finds that too big an ask.
So why doesn’t your brain work right? For the most part, it’s not your fault. You were born with a brain that is running about 10,000 years behind your needs. You need a brain that doesn’t fear strangers just because they are strangers. You need a brain that cooperates with others so that the uncertainties we all face can be dealt with effectively, eliminating most causes of anxiety. You need a brain that sees people of different ethnicities or genders or sexual orientation and finds no threat in those differences.
Mindfulness can help you develop that brain. There is no magic solution that will make up for the evolutionary gap between the brain and our modern world, but a solid mindfulness practice will at least allow you to be aware of what your brain is doing and then give you a chance to make a choice that fits your values and not the ancient instincts of the obsolete aspects of your brain.