Cat Pee and Lemmings
A 2015 study showed that when baby mice were exposed to cat urine at a critical time in their development, they would grow up much less afraid of cats than their counterparts. The researchers speculated that from an evolutionary perspective, mice (as a group, not as individuals) benefit from the presence of cats, because cats mean the presence of humans, and humans mean the presence of food. Good for the community, not necessarily good for the individual.
On the other hand, the story about lemmings leaping off cliffs by their thousands is a myth, given life by Disney’s 1958 film White Wilderness, during the filming of which captured lemmings were literally thrown off a cliff to create a dramatic scene. Who would have thought? Disney? Seriously?
The lemming story, though, is frequently trotted out as a parable of humanity’s seeming perversity in acting against its own self interest. While it is true that humans frequently act stupidly, individually and collectively, we rarely act consciously against self-interest. What is actually going on, mostly, is that individuals prefer one self interest to another self interest, even though the choice may be a poor one.
The heroin addict is vaguely aware that he is killing himself, but what really, really matters right now is getting back into the euphoric paradise the drug provides. The practical self interest of survival takes a back seat to the here and now self interest of momentary heaven on earth.
We all behave stupidly against our better self interest, whether it be by way of tobacco, alcohol, amphetamines, gambling, gluttony, stunting, or even falling for a cunning autocrat. But in every case, it feels good, it feels right, even though deep within our hearts we know we’re acting stupidly.
The foregoing list is far from complete. Every one of us has a private mental checklist of big and little behaviours which run against the true best interests of ourselves and those we love.
Sometimes, like the baby mice, we have a semi-valid excuse for self-destructive behaviour-- some childhood deprivation, some inherited trait, or even something as understandable as an acquired addiction to a needed painkiller.
Baby mice probably can’t help themselves. But we can, because we’re smarter than baby mice. Mostly. The difference is mindfulness, that is, an awareness that I’m drinking too much, losing my temper too much, or getting fired from one job after another. This consciousness, or mindfulness, sets us apart from the mice. It gives us the power to begin overcoming.
Mindfulness has been the first step of self-improvement since at least 1935 when Bill Wilson made it the first of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” That's just a specific form of mindfulness.
It doesn’t matter whether our self-destructive behaviour is harming the whole world or simply annoying a spouse, we have the power to change, but only when we face it mindfully.
We are, at least in theory, smarter than mice.
Forward to a friend!
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