Why Some People Must Escape
All four of my daughters are smart. The government thinks at least one them is gifted.
They’re not training her to be a spy or anything — it just means her intelligence tests are consistently in the top 3%, nationally.
Once a week she leaves her Montessori classroom and buses to a different school campus with other gifted children. There, they get a chance to work together on projects that require higher-level and faster thinking than normal classroom work. They can move quickly, because that’s what these kids do…they learn fast.
To the left of the gifted classroom, is a room where the autistic children meet. On the right, is the room for children with Down Syndrome. Having a sufficiently high IQ is a special need.
I’m happy she has this class. She enjoys it and relates better to the kids there. She doesn’t like it enough for her to actually like going to school, though. Often, she talks about doing online school from home.
Me: “What’s your school day like?”
Her: “I’m always thinking about going home. I can’t wait until the day’s over.”
Me: “Really, why?”
Her: “Because I love being home with my family. It’s my favorite place.”
I was the same way.
I remember even in grade school knowing there was something wrong with the whole setup. I can only remember a handful of kids over the years who truly loved being at school — maybe 5%. They genuinely got pleasure out of being there, the structure, the instruction. Friggin’ all of it.
And then there were those who truly hated school, way on the other side of the bell curve. Perhaps another 5%, but their numbers dwindled over time for obvious reasons — switching to homeschooling, expulsion, dropping out.
One kid, Edward, hated being at school more than anyone else I can remember. He was always getting into trouble. In the 4th grade, he even hit a teacher.
Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t like school. High-five, young me!
It was a place where every movement was controlled. Every minute was planned. We were trained to respond to bells. There was that awful smell of warm freezer-burn in the cafeteria. And worst of all, creativity was something that was talked about, but not really valued or encouraged. Quite the opposite, in fact.
I’m not proud that I believed kids like Edward were bad.
I didn’t really stand a chance at the time, of course. The teachers yelled at him. They blamed him for things like keeping the rest of the class back and for going to recess late.
The little bastard — why didn’t he just do what he was supposed to?
Hold on, I just reminded myself of Shin Dong-hyuk, and I have to share a little bit of his story with you.
He was born and raised in a North Korean prison camp. Among numerous other childhood horrors, Shin once witnessed a starving girl his own age — they were all starving — who was slowly beaten to death over the course of a day, because she had stolen a few kernels of corn.
Shin recalls thinking at the time that it was her own fault for breaking the rules.
Similarly, he recalls public executions were a pleasant break from the normal back-breaking work routine. And, he never felt sorry for the condemned prisoners, since they were just getting what they deserved.
That was his world.
His story opened my eyes to some of the horrors we humans are capable of, and it also awakened me to just how trainable we are as human beings.
In our world, we’re not really even supposed to think about that — all of the ideas of good, bad, right, and wrong that we just take for granted, never having arrived at those conclusions for ourselves.
So when I fast-forward from the school years to the work years, the similarities are striking. In the typical office, manufacturing, or service job there are still only a small percentage of people who truly enjoy spending their lives at work.
Make no mistake about it, time is life.
We spend 10 to 12 of our most prime, creative, and energetic hours getting ready for work, being at work, coming home from work, and unwinding from work. We spend additional time grocery shopping, preparing meals, doing maintenance, and paying bills — that’s a lot of time being spent on survival. We could learn a thing or two from our hunter-gatherer predecessors.
The only way we can spend time on something is to spend our lives on something. So, it had better be worth it!
The technological promise of the leisure life has been just around the next curve in the road for almost a couple of hundred years. We can easily point to improvements, and yet we continue to work more with less satisfaction.
It’s no wonder that there are adults who wish to escape this system just as badly as Edward and Shin. And that so many others know that something is wrong, but can’t really put their fingers on it.
Instead, they cope as best as they can — just as they were taught to do in school. Yes, not only are we taught some of the basic skills that allow us to be productive for the system, we are also taught to cope with not enjoying it. The method for teaching this is the oldest of all: early and frequent exposure.
Some don’t do so well.
Suicide rates for middle aged Americans have gone up 28% in recent years. When we look specifically at white Americans, the increase is 40%. More Americans kill themselves than die in car crashes. The leading theory suggests the increase is due to the weak economy.
Are we becoming more broken? Or does the system we are trying to squeeze ourselves into deny us of our humanness…and even our will to live in it? Do we need medication for this, or do we need to start designing lives that are human-centric instead of system-centric?
Although Shin has escaped his North Korean hell, he’s found himself in a new type of prison, which he explains in the documentary. I don’t know if Edward ever escaped, but I hope he did.
My friend Tom pointed me to a BBC show that Amy and I started watching. It’s called Escape to River Cottage. The entire series appears to be available on YouTube.
This idyllic, bordering on fairy-tale show is about Englishman Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and his escape from city life to becomes a homesteader. He says:
“It’s amazing to think that it was 5 years ago now that I first arrived at River Cottage. And now this is the 4th year that I’ve had my own land. All I can really say is that it’s the best thing I ever did with my life.”
Not just the best thing I ever did — but the best thing I ever did with my life. Everything we do is with our lives.
People like Shin, Edward, and even Hugh are almost always thought to be crazy by their immediate peers. But, ‘crazy’ people like this are often the ones that go on to make big changes and nudge our world in a better direction.
Similarly many of us are thought to be ‘crazy’ because we believe the conventional wisdom about diet is wrong, based on the lack of real evidence, the evolutionary clues, and our own n=1 trials. We’ve not only arrived at the point where we no longer fear saturated fats and dietary cholesterol, but we embrace them as healthful.
Is it better to be healthy, happy and crazy than it is to be unhealthy, sad and sane? Maybe food is just the beginning. What about the rest of the conventional wisdom?
The idea that humans are not broken is about a lot more than gluten. Get newly published stories in your email inbox (subscribe here). There’s a lot to talk about.