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Calm • Anxiety

Our Anxious Ancestry

For far longer than we have been here, upright, in our office chairs, in our well-lit rooms, eating industrially made sandwiches for lunch, we were out there crouching on the ground in caves where, in winter, you had to smash the frozen drinking water with an axe and huddled together in the evening to escape the fears of mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses roaming noisily and angrily outside.

17,000 year old cave painting of wildebeest, found in Lascaux, France
17,000 years ago, prehistoric Lascaux, France

We were, back then, constantly terrified. And for good reason. We were permanently on the edge of starvation. Nothing guaranteed that we would be around next year, let alone tomorrow. We had not the slightest defence against disease and misfortune. In a desperate bid for comfort, we daubed images of the animals we slaughtered in terror on the walls. Survival depended on being able to correctly read the mood of the small band we lived among: but we were never far from the danger of ostracism and abandonment. 

Most of all, we learn to be vigilant. Always watching, never at rest. There were no doubt some more relaxed types, but they would have been killed long ago, theirs are not the genes we inherited. We are the descendants of the manic worriers, those who tried to foresee and forestall every possible danger – and lived as a result. 

This should make us feel compassion for our situation. Of course we are alarmed, of course we worry too much. How could we not, given where we have come from? We carry fear in our bones. The logical part of our minds was a very late addition. Most of what we are reasons like a very angry fox or cornered wildebeest.

We do our best to see things sensibly and assess risk on reasonable terms. But it is inevitable that we will fail and that late at night especially, when things are as dark as in those early caves, the fears will return with particular viciousness. At 3am, it doesn’t matter anymore that there are satellites and key hole surgery and computers. We are – to all intents – in the ancestral mind, somewhere 17,000 years ago in an underground shelter while outside sabre-tooth tigers howl. 

Every alarm may be sounding, but we may not need to pay attention to any of them. We might be able to discount so many more of our fears if we could more regularly remember the frightening places we have all come from.

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