In a forest full of monkeys I saw the paradox of progress.
I remember a while back I was over in Bali. In Ubud, there’s a monkey forest, so I that was worth a look.
I’m bound to find some quality knick-knacks there, I thought.
There were certainly a lot of monkeys, like heaps. What’s the collective noun? Barrel? There were barrels and barrels of monkey.
They were just going about their lives – being monkeys. But probably the most interesting thing was the interaction between the monkeys and the humans. For a couple of bucks you could buy some bananas. Then you’d hold one up above your head and a monkey would jump up on your shoulders and eat the banana.
For nothing you could stand there and watch monkeys clamber all over squealing blonde tourists and pull at their earrings.
Anyway, I’m watching all this playing out, and I’m thinking, as far as monkey life goes, this is probably as good as it gets.
You’ve got no natural predators, since the forest is enclosed by the city and the tigers have long since disappeared. The forest staff also roll out a trailer full of sweet potatoes every day to keep you nourished and to stop you wandering off too far.
On top of that, as a treat you got to bounce up and down on a backpacker and someone gives you a banana.
(It’s been a long time since anyone gave me a banana for doing that.)
Anyway, I’m looking at all this and thinking, for the monkeys here, life is sweet.
But when you stopped and watched it all play out, it was actually pretty hectic. Monkey politics is intense. The monkeys live in large social hierarchies, with relative positions in the pack constantly being enforced or tested.
Mates and small patches of turf are defended viciously. Angry males will have a go at any one – even the juveniles.
In the short time I was there I saw at least three or four monkey’s walking around with open head wounds.
So I climbed back over the fence, put my thongs back on and said, I’m not going to trade my humanity for a monkey. Human life is full of dramas and hardships, but I can pretty much guarantee that I’m going to end the day without an open head wound.
And for me this points to one the great myths about wealth and about abundance.
We like to think that if we suddenly won the lotto or something like that, it would make life sweet. We’d be able to solve all of the problems currently on our plate. It would give us the capacity to heal our relationship with family and friends – or just go out and buy an entirely new set!
And we know that sudden wealth can be a total curse. It can tear lives apart. Your life can suddenly fill with opportunistic bloodsuckers, and the ability to be able to buy whatever you want can go to your head.
A lot of people end up a lot worse off than when they started.
But we’re pretty sure that wouldn’t happen to us. That only happens to “other people”. We’d be right. We’d be able to keep our heads in a tsunami of cash.
In my experience, sudden cash acts like an accelerant. If you’re a grounded person with solid relationships and a reliable support network, there’s a good chance you’ll be right.
But if your screws are a bit loose and your friends and relatives are a bit nutty, you’re in trouble. Cash just pours fuel on the fire.
It’s like dumping a truckload of bananas in a forest full of monkeys. All that sugary energy goes straight into squabbles and score settling.
And the same is true at the big-picture level. We might think that if only there was more food and resources to go round, we’d all stop fighting and the world would know peace.
But it doesn’t work that way. If we’re freed from material concerns, then we just have more time to argue over who’s got the biggest banana.
And this is the great paradox of progress. Despite all the advances of the 20th century, it doesn’t feel like we’re any closer to building a cohesive society of peace and getting-along-togetherness.
Happiness is always an inside job. It requires doing the deep work. That’s true for individuals and its true for societies.
But before anyone gets on their high-horse, it’s important to point out that while wealth doesn’t solve all our problems, neither does poverty. In fact, it just doesn’t have much to do with it.
Monkeys have monkey problems. Removing the bananas wouldn’t change any of that. Maybe they might have less time for fighting if they had to spend more time foraging. Maybe, but it could just as easily go the other way.
Hungry monkeys are dangerous monkeys.
And humans have human problems. If you’re angry and reactive, insecure and conniving, no amount of cash is going to help you. It’s just going to give you the ability to act more powerfully on your anger and jealousy.
But giving up all your bananas and embracing poverty isn’t going to help you either. Now you’re just angry and reactive and hungry.
Happiness is always an inside job, and it requires doing the deep work. There’s no exceptions to this.
Money has almost nothing to do with it.
So why are you still resisting it?
Who’s got a big banana? Have you seen cash make life miserable for someone? Have you seen poverty solve anyone’s problems?