I think it’s safe to say that most of us are a bit baffled by certain trends that have popped up in the news. Of course, we humans are prone to do things that will elevate our status within a group.  We are social creatures, after all, and the desire to gain the approval of our peers is hardwired into our primate brains.  But when the drive toward notoriety results in self-harm, it tends to cause a collective narrowing of the eyes.

I am referring to stunts such as “the cinnamon challenge,” in which people film themselves ingesting a tablespoon of ground cinnamon, and the subsequent medical crisis that ensues. As if this weren’t asinine enough, the cretins of the world have upped the ante and are now cheering each other on as they consume flesh-searing Tide detergent pods as a dubious form of entertainment.  However, their self-destructive antics have accomplished the goal of prompting strong reactions across social media.  One such discussion diverted me from lamenting about the state of humanity long enough to consider the implications of these detergent pods as a product.

As I previously discussed here, humans are pitifully equipped to deal with the environment. We survive by our wits alone, capitalizing on cognitive superpowers to manipulate the world around us.  We’re a flawed species, to be sure, but we’re really good at innovation.  With each generation and the technology it develops, we’ve become generally more comfortable and secure… thriving.  Now, I purse my lips a bit as I write, because my mind is screaming about all those people who live exposed to the elements, unfed.  However, for the sake of this fluffy little thought experiment, let’s assert that humanity, as a whole, dominates and controls the planet.  How far we’ve come.  From huddling in caves to de-stressing the laundry process in just a few hundred thousand years.  The blink of an eye, really.

But at what point does this vast wealth of social knowledge become a hindrance to our development, rather than a benefit? Perched precariously on the shoulders of giants, none of us know how to do most things we crow about as a society (Don’t go mentally denying it.  You can’t build a nuclear submarine any more than I can.) Take away our stuff, and we’re worse off than early homo sapiens in terms of survival.  In fact, the further we shuffle from the struggle to stay alive in an inhospitable world, the less capable we become.  Case in point.  How many people go through life without knowing how to feed themselves sans the use of convenience products?  Tide pods aside, the item that particularly irks me is pancake batter that is not only pre-packaged, it’s pourable from the container straight onto the stove.  Have we gotten to the point where it’s too arduous a task to measure milk?

“People pretend not to like grapes when the vines are too high for them to reach.”

-Marguerite de Navarre

Yes, our children have mastered skills that baffle most grandparents… they adeptly utilize tablets from toddlerhood. But this is at the cost of other skills; it is a replacement rather than an addition of proficiency.  And this has been the case from each generation to the next.  Our adaptations have become less about the environment, and more about the world we’ve created for ourselves.  Which, in and of itself, isn’t problematic.  We’re equipped to exist in the society to which we are born, and if we’re willing to pay money for encapsulated, aesthetically-pleasing laundry soap, so be it.  My concern lies in our approach to life, rather than in any specific expertise.

Good students are at risk when they transition from high school to college. They’ve enjoyed a high level of success in their educational careers, but often have not had to put forth much effort to do so.  I’m talking about the kids who easily pick up concepts, manipulate information with ease.  Chances are, that straight-A report card speaks to their natural brightness rather than any input of work.  So, when they find themselves plunged into the real world, away from family and staring wide-eyed at classrooms full of individuals just as bright as they are, it is a sobering experience.  They flounder and struggle, they have to develop study skills and a work ethic on the fly.

But what happens when this transition never occurs? What happens when we all just skate though life without learning how to expend effort?  We’ve become so used to instant, cheap gratification that the fruits of actual labor have lost their appeal.  No, the act of measuring laundry detergent isn’t going to bring a warm glow of satisfaction to our hearts.  But perhaps learning to make pancakes will (I’m not saying we need to run around tapping maple trees to boil down our own syrup, but heck, we can do that too).  That moment that you can look in the pantry and realize that the makings of a meal exist without a single processed item…the day you can fix that broken light fixture, or read music, or flawlessly cite an academic journal… that is a reminder of our own capability, and the sense of autonomy is exhilarating.  Yes, it takes effort.  It’s easier to unbox a frozen meal and chuck it in the microwave.  But it’s hardly a worthy use of our remarkable power as humans.

And don’t eat the Tide pods, please.

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