Monday, October 29, 2012

Don’t Sleep

One day, listening to the jungle drums on the info-stream, I heard that a study had concluded that the happiest people in the world were the Pirahã (pee-da-HAN) tribe of the Amazon (true).  I heard that some guy then went to visit them, to discover the source of their bliss (false).  I heard that his name was Daniel L. Everett, and the book was Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes (true).  My library had the book, and reading it was a rewarding experience (true).
Everett spent much of 30 years among the Pirahã (1977-2006), arriving long before the happiness study was published.  His three children were raised among them, on the banks of the Maici River.  The jungle was full of dangerous things.  All night long, some natives stayed awake chatting.  They rarely slept more than two hours at a time.  Sleepers became a playground for dozens of three-inch cockroaches (annoyances), and were often joined by eight-inch roach-eating tarantulas (beloved allies).
Acquiring food required the natives to “work” 15 to 20 hours each week.  They hunted, fished, foraged, and grew some manioc.  About 70 percent of their diet was fish.  They lived beside a major river that had not yet been emptied by commercial fishermen.  Villagers who visited cities were shocked to observe how much food the civilized folks consumed — three big meals a day!
The Pirahã were remarkably and genuinely happy.  They wore bright smiles, and laughed about everything.  Violence was rare, and so were angry outbursts.  They were amazingly tolerant and patient.  They were less pleasant to be around when traders brought them rum, and every man, woman, and child became blind drunk.
The people lived in a world that was spiritually alive, and they often saw and spoke with spirits that Everett was unable to perceive.  Sometimes spirits took the form of jaguars or trees.  Sometimes they spoke through a person in a trance.  Sometimes they provided the people with guidance or warnings.  Sometimes they killed people.  Many folks wore necklaces to protect themselves from evil spirits.
The natives spoke to their children like equals; “baby talk” was unknown.  Parents were not paranoid protectionists — kids were free to burn themselves in the fire, or cut themselves with sharp knives, in the pursuit of higher learning.  There was no spanking, and children were never given orders — nor were adults.  Pirahã teens were not confused, insecure, and depressed.  They naturally conformed to the ways of the community.  They were blessed to live in a stable sustainable society. 
The Pirahã language had no numbers, or words to express quantities.  They had no use for the knowledge of the whites, because their way of life worked just fine without it.  After months of daily classes, none could count to ten, or calculate the sum of one plus one.  Consequently, traders delighted in exploiting them, by underpaying them for jungle products. 
Indigenous folks who lived with the Brazilians and their money economy were known as caboclos.  Life in the culture of materialism infected them with madness.  When prospectors found a section of streambed rich with gold, other caboclos did not hesitate to murder them and swipe the treasure.  All that mattered was winning, by any means necessary.
They thought that the Pirahãs were lazy and stupid, because they had zero interest in pursuing wealth, or plundering their ecosystem.  But the Pirahã had a time-proven way of life that worked very well — wild, free, and happy.  They always had everything they needed, and life was more or less grand, hence the smiles and laughter.  Might this have been humankind’s “normal” state in the good old days?
The caboclos were more sullen in nature.  The demands of the money world were highly corrosive to their traditional culture, to the vitality of their ecosystem, and to their mental health.  They were less secure, and had real reasons to worry about tomorrow, because their survival depended on an ever-changing external system that was beyond their control. 
Everett was originally enlisted by the Summer Institute of Language to translate the New Testament into Pirahã.  He was not supposed to preach or baptize.  The SIL had great faith that the sacred words of the scriptures alone were all that was needed to illuminate the wicked souls of the heathens and inspire them to convert to the one true faith.
So, Everett spent much time at his desk, listening to recordings, thinking, taking notes.  He was a linguist, not an anthropologist, and he was on a mission from God.  “I had gone to the Pirahãs to tell them about Jesus…, to give them an opportunity to choose purpose over pointlessness, to choose life over death, to choose joy and faith over despair and fear, to choose heaven over hell.” 
Everett’s heroic efforts were vexed by the fact that no other language on Earth bore the slightest resemblance to Pirahã.  Learning it was devilishly difficult.  The villagers only spoke their native tongue, so no translators were available to assist him.  After years of struggle, he finally succeeded, and translated the Gospel of Mark.  He read it to natives, and none saw the light.  It had no effect.  Only one item in the scriptures captured their complete attention: the decapitation of St. John.
Pirahã culture was focused entirely on the present.  Their way of life was the same as it was 1,000 years ago, and would remain the same for the next 1,000 years.  So, there was no reason for history, and fear of the future was silly.  They lived in the here and now, and believed what they could see.  An event was only real if a living person in the community had been an eyewitness to it.  Thus, Everett’s stories about an ancient miracle worker named Jesus were purely meaningless. 
One day, Everett gathered the folks together and delivered a testimonial.  He had once been a hairy hippy, lost and confused, poisoning himself with drugs and booze.  Then, his stepmother committed suicide, he saw the light, accepted Jesus, and his life became better.  When the story was finished, the Pirahã all burst out laughing.  “She killed herself?  Ha ha ha.  How stupid.  Pirahãs don’t kill themselves.” 
His perplexing objective was “to convince happy, satisfied people that they are lost and need Jesus as their personal savior.”  Missionaries had been trying to convert the Pirahã for nearly 300 years, without saving a single soul.  The villagers insisted that they had no desire to live like Americans, and they begged him to stop talking about Jesus.
By the late ‘80s, after ten years of failed efforts, Everett realized that he had become a closet atheist.  “I would go so far as to suggest that the Pirahãs are happier, fitter, and better adjusted to their environment than any Christian or other religious person I have ever known.”  
He remained in the closet for 20 years, in constant fear of being discovered.  Finally, he confessed, and his family broke apart.  Today he’s a professor in the US.  He helped to create an official reservation for the Pirahã, so that they will forever be safe from greedy materialists (true?).
Everett, Daniel, L., Don’t Sleep – There are Snakes, Pantheon Books, New York, 2008.

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