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A solitary human being is an impossibility. (Desmond Tutu)


In 2007, the comedic director Tom Shadyac (the man behind classics like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Bruce Almighty) suffered near-fatal head injuries when he fell off his bicycle on a mountain trip. Even after he left the hospital, he continued to suffer from terrible headaches and tinnitus, and become hyper-sensitive to the slightest light and noise. The symptoms tormented him and almost drove him to suicide.

It was then that he realized what really mattered, and how little his fame and wealth were really doing for him. As he recovered, he decided to chronicle his journey through film. The result was a documentary where he tried to answer the questions, “What’s wrong with the world?” and “What can I do about it?”

His answer to both questions formed the title: I Am.

The documentary collects Shadyac’s interviews with luminary philosophers, authors, psychologists, and theologians on what it means to be a human being. “What is basic human nature?” he asks. Is it the essential nature of people to cooperate, or to dominate?

In places where indigenous natives still live, I’ve noticed that they put incredible value on cooperation, not competition. Rather than try to outdo each other, they place far more value on working together as members of a team.

Modern society reverses this. Instead of teamwork, we prize competition and worship people with the most competitive spirits.


What Darwin Really Taught

The evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin are often wrongly summed up as ‘survival of the fittest’. But in truth, Darwin wrote far more about the value of teamwork and cooperation—his book The Descent of Man mentions these things 95 times, and survival of the fittest only twice.

We need only look to the animal kingdom. When a group of deer looks for the waterhole, they wait for the entire herd to move towards the hole so that no member is left behind. Fish move as vast schools, each one sensing the movement of the entire group. Every individual moves as part of a larger community.

We’ve known the value of cooperation since the first humans banded together to survive. It’s practically in our cultural DNA.

So what gave rise to our belief that only the fittest, the strongest or the richest survive—and why do we think of it as our primary nature?


A Mechanistic and Materialistic View of Life

With the rise of science and technology, we came to need less physical aid to survive and thrive. Unfortunately, this has led to people seeing science as a savior and benefactor, rather than the experimental method that it is. Many now believe that physical matter is all we are, and our behavior can be mechanistically dissected, predicted and altered.

In other words, if it can’t be measured, manipulated, touched and tasted, it’s not real.

Something needed to fill the void that was once occupied by being part of a whole greater than ourselves. Our modern culture has sold us the idea that having more stuff can do this. We believe in and live by these slogans: “I shop, therefore I am”, “Less is bore” and “Born to Buy.”

Thom Hartmann, author of The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, told Shadyac:

You know, these foundational notions of our relationship to stuff are grounded on a truth and a lie in our culture. The truth is that if you’re naked and cold at night outdoors all alone in the forest and it’s raining, you are unhappy. […]

And if somebody, you know, opens the door and says ‘Come on in, here’s a fire you can sit next to, here’s clothing you can put on, here’s a blanket, here’s a warm place to sleep, here’s a bowl of soup, suddenly you go from being unhappy to happy with very little stuff. But it’s stuff that makes the difference. […]

The lie, then, is well, if this amount of stuff will make you that happy, then ten times as much stuff will make you ten times happier or one hundred times as much stuff will make you one hundred times happier, or one thousand times as much stuff will make you one thousand times happier. And Bill Gates must live in a state of perpetual bliss.[1]

Many realize on their sickbeds that this cannot be the case—true happiness doesn’t lie in having more. A famous deathbed essay points out:

I reached the pinnacle of success in the business world. In others’ eyes, my life is an epitome of success. However, aside from work, I have little joy. In the end, wealth is only a fact of life that I am accustomed to.

At this moment, lying on the sick bed and recalling my whole life, I realize that all the recognition and wealth that I took so much pride in, have paled and become meaningless in the face of impending death. […] The wealth I have won in my life I cannot bring with me.

What I can bring is only the memories precipitated by love. That’s the true riches, which will follow you, accompany you, giving you strength and light to go on.[2]

That’s why there are a lot of unhappy people, even though they seem to have everything. Wealth in and of itself does not give contentment… so what does? I’ll share more on this next week.


[1] Thom Hartmann, quoted in Tom Shadyac, I Am. DVD. Los Angeles, CA: Shady Acres Entertainment, 2012.

[2] While the sentiments in this anonymous essay are sound, its first online appearances wrongly attributed it to the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. More at: Dan Evon, “The Pursuit of iHappiness,” Snopes (November 8, 2015), at

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