The Chimp Paradox

“How are you?”

“Fine,”  meaning fucked up, insecure, neurotic and emotional.

It’s at these moments that I guess Prof Steve Peters would say we are being controlled by our chimp, our chimp being our emotional brain that can either drive us to succeed and be happy or dive under the duvet in the hope that whatever emotional storm has us in its grip will disappear.  Our chimp, and we all have one, can be our best friend or our worst enemy.  It is the part of us that loves to play and connect with those we love and the part that wants to keep us safe.  Our human meanwhile is charged with care of the chimp, being at the disadvantage of being both slower to act and nowhere near as strong.  Our human has rationality, truth and understanding on its side but must learn to engage with the chimp successfully if it is to navigate its way to happiness.

The book is a lighthearted look at the neuroscience of success, confidence and happiness.  It doesn’t give us twelve steps or seven habits that will take us to easy glory but comes from a position of deep understanding that being human is to be in conflict with ourselves, and happiness can only be earned by choosing a pathway where we make peace, sometimes through a difficult negotiation and a complex treaty, that will have to be watched permanently to make sure it is still working.  At the heart is the Stone of Life where our truths, values and life force are written.  Happiness is a matter of choosing to live by these values and committing to actions that keep us aligned with what matters most.  Prof Peters asks the question of what we would say to our great grandchild in our last minute of life as advice.  This is our life force.

I thought about this when I read it first and again today when looking at writing this blog.  For me the advice would be the simple and complicated act of love; to be willing to be open, to connect deeply with others and to let myself be hurt by it.  It is strange that my quest for happiness involves the willingness to be deeply wounded but it is only by taking that risk  that we can really connect; love and grief being each other.

I watched “Seawall” with Andrew Scott yesterday, a piece by Simon Stephens that destroyed me when I read it and annihilated me when I watched it.  In it a father talks about his four year old daughter and how she died while in the care of her grandfather, her father watching her fall from the cliff while swimming in the sea.  The fallout from the child’s death is devastating, leaving the grandfather shattered, the mother shuffling through her home like a ghost and the father unable to grasp how he can go on living.  He says he has a hole right through the centre of him, that we can probably see it.

The delivery is simple and shocking.  The story one of loss but also of so much love.  This small girl enchanted her gruff grandfather and had her family adoring her.  She came into the world with nothing but love and left the same way.  The father grapples with the existence of God, not able to believe, while the grandfather describes God as living in the space between two numbers or in the evening light as it settles over a city.  I have often wondered if God lives in the space between us, between what we see as our physical selves, the limitations of our senses, or at least the five physical ones.

There is an electricity that ignites in that space.  We can’t see it, touch it, smell it, hear it or taste it but we can feel it.  When there is a connection between two beings energy flows and I wonder if God is that energy, the connection accepting that we are the same, that your loss is my loss, that your pain is mine, that we both know the same love albeit in a different life.

And is that the power of the story, the pull that brings me back time and time again to a novel, a film, a play, searching for those moments where all our differences end and there I am a person connected to another person in spite of physical location in time or space?  And is it my Chimp I have to thank for that?  My emotional not my rational mind?  If so, then I am grateful because the human only knows what it has learnt through evidence and experience and there is so much that we have yet to know, which, as Simon Stephens puts it, doesn’t mean we won’t know.

The human has the chimp not as a hazard or a problem but because it is not enough on its own.  It can fill the computer with useful autopilots to deal with most everyday situations.  It can talk calmly about what matters.  It can commit to a course of action in order to pursue its goals but it can’t feel what it is to be alive.  It can’t find itself standing outside in a thunderstorm and dancing just to feel how glorious it is to be alive, how magical and how mysterious.

The truths Prof Peters gives us are that life is not fair, goal posts move and there are no guarantees.  And that is true in so much as we perceive our experience.  But what of the perceptions we haven’t yet had or the understanding we have yet to reach?  There is a universe on our doorstep and we know very little of it.  There is anther universe inside each of us and we have not begun to find its limits.  This recognition may be frightening but it is also exhilarating.  If we don’t know much, we can only learn, if we don’t understand much, we can only deepen our comprehension and if we can’t see much then we must fly with the wings of our own imaginations to places our human can only dream about.

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