“Why are we here?”
“Go! You have ten minutes. Discuss!”
When I taught Viking Age history as a graduate assistant in the history department at the University of Minnesota a couple years ago, I began the semester by writing that question on the board, then turning the class loose.
I gave them no further prompts. I didn’t qualify the question with a where or when. For instance, I could have said, “Why are we here,” “in this class,” or “on Earth,” or “at this moment in time.” But I did not.
I wanted them to cogitate deeply about the why of life, but at the same time, I really wanted them to think about the where.
What were we all doing, at that moment in time, in that classroom. What was the grand purpose? Was there a grand purpose at all? Or what was their purpose? Why were they warming a chair in my class?
At the time, I had a very strong sense that all humans are motivated by very basic instincts, and that was what I was trying to get them to admit. So after ten minutes of allowing them to discuss it with their neighbors in the classroom, I put their collective intelligence to the test.
Their answers were all over the place, of course: to learn, to get a grade, to fulfill a basic requirement of the curriculum, to get a good job, to get a degree, etc.
What I wanted them to say was that most of them were there, in that class, because they believed it would help them to further their education, which would then help them finish their degree, which would help them find a job in life.
I began to write all of their responses on the huge chalk board and in my pathetic attempt to imitate Socrates, I continued to grill them to think about even deeper and more basic needs compelling them to attend my class, college in general, and what that might mean for them after college.
“What is the purpose of a good job?”
“To make more money!” several of them blurted out.
“Yes, that’s probably true.” I said, “But why? Why is that important? What does more money get you?”
“Survival!” someone yelled out.
“Yeah, but for whom?” I asked.
“For our own!” said someone else.
“But we’re all going to die eventually.” I answered. “Is that the only kind of survival?”
“For our families survival!” another student blurted out.
“Ahh, now we’re getting somewhere.” I said, “What families? Most of you are in your early twenties.”
There was some silence for a few minutes.
Then someone, very quietly and under the cover of the babbling, murmur of the room said,
“Jelly Beans!” I exclaimed. I wrote the word on the board in large letters. I had saved a good spot for it in the middle because I knew we’d get to it eventually.
“Yes! We’re here because most of us in this room believe that if we get a degree, we’ll get a better job, make more money, be able to provide for ourselves, and more importantly, we’ll attract a mate. That money—we think—will help us to attract a very sexy mate, with whom we will produce very cute children. But why is that important? Because ultimate survival isn’t just our own; it’s also the survival of our gene pool, which is only created through sex. Everything we do is in some way motivated by that basic drive to procreate.”
I was convinced of it, at the time. But was I right? Now, a couple of years later, I’m not so sure.
At the time–going through my second divorce–I was convinced that human motivations were visceral and fairly base. Simultaneously, I was teaching a class on the Vikings, who certainly seemed motivated by base, animalistic emotions, like greed: the search for ‘booty,’ as I called it with all it’s ambiguous meanings intact.
Not only did they take all the silver from monasteries and villages all over Europe, but along with the church candlesticks, they carted off many a villager and pretty little nun to go with it. It’s a fact, that the mitocondrial DNA (the female side) of Iceland—colonized by the Vikings—is 70% Celtic, from Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, while the male DNA is 70% Scandinavian. So many of the Viking raids seem to have been planned with the intention of gathering new wives or concubines to help them make little Viking babies. Nothing like a little Celtic ‘booty’ to solve that problem!
While there’s no shortage of evidence to support the theory that humans runs on base instincts, like lust and greed, I’m no longer as pessimistic about the nature of man. I was then, for sure, but much of that was my own situation at the time, and I’m quite certain that I overlooked other motivations that were circumnavigating the edges of that chalkboard.
I still think that deep down we are motivated to promote the success of our own gene pool over that of others, but sometimes that means supporting other people and their gene pools, because humans seem to be social animals, and as such, survive better when those around us also survive. That’s why we tend to work together towards common goals, however much we may disagree and fight amongst ourselves sometimes.
We have far more things in common than not. Hell, the Vikings fought between themselves constantly, even while they were ravaging the rest of Europe in the ninth and tenth centuries. But many of them managed to work together to burn villages, loot churches, and cart off pretty young nuns into slavery and concubinage! Ahhh the human capacity for cooperation! It’s not always so pretty, just ask the Jews who survived the Holocaust. Nazis had a capacity for cooperation, too.
But not all cooperation is in the name of sex, greed, revenge, hatred, or destruction. Most of it, in fact, is for higher goals of survival. And not only for our family’s, but for other people’s families as well. I’ve seen that many times in my life, as we all have.
Instinct for Compassion
I think to that black day in September of 2001,
when those towers collapsed into the streets of New York City, and the hearts and minds of all peaceful-minded people on Earth were with the survivors and the people of that city. We poured out our sympathy and emptied our pockets in a selfless act of oneness with them. We all witnessed the same thing when the earthquake hit Haitii, or the tsumami hit Indonesia. People from around the world rushed in aid, money, food, rescue workers, and compassion in waves far surpassing those of the disaster itself.
But those moments are fleeting, as we’ve seen. It seems that humans can only sustain that oneness for short periods, probably because the emotions are too powerful. All that emotion drains our energy, which makes it impossible to sustain for long. But that doesn’t mean the connection is no longer there. I think it’s always there under the surface, but at some point we all have to bring our attention back to our own survival and that of our immediate family, friends, and communities. That’s where we live, after all, and what is most important to us. It’s our base, our home base, our Shire as I like to call it. It’s where our inner Hobbit lives and thrives. We must protect that space above all others.
That doesn’t mean that when the necessity for the survival of the rest of our human species is threatened that we can’t leave our Shire, carry that burden to the proverbial Mt. Doom and join in a greater effort to defeat evil and destruction, but in the end, we must return to Hobbiton to look after our fellow Hobbits.
So it was with the Vikings, or at least for some of them. Yes, some of them settled down in the green acres of England, or the lowlands of what’s now the Netherlands, or Iceland, or Ireland, or Normandy, but many returned home, wherever that was.
After-all, their raids–however brutal and self serving they were–were really about their own survival. And quite frankly, their attacks were no more brutal than those committed by Christian rulers like Charlemagne, who slaughtered tens of thousands of Saxons in his ‘benevolent’ attempt to bring civilization to that race of people. But even ole Chuck had a family to take care of.
–Part II coming soon… SUBSCRIBE NOW so you won’t miss it!