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Original Essays | August 18, 2014 0 comments
Today, we wonder anxiously if digital media is changing our brains. But if there's any time in history when our mental operations changed... Continue »
Sisyphus, the Pirahãs, and the Secret of Happinessby Daniel L. Everett
As he took the cup from me, he said, "Ko Xoogiai, ti gi xahoaisoogabagai." ("Hey Dan, I want to talk to you.")
He said, "The Pirahãs know that you left your family and your own land to come here and live with us. We know that you do this to tell us about Jesus. You want us to live like Americans. But the Pirahãs do not want to live like Americans. Dan, you have never seen Jesus. You don't even know anyone who has seen Jesus. And we have never seen Jesus. So we do not want him. But we still like you. So you can remain with us. Just don't tell us any more about Jesus. OK?"
The Pirahãs refusal to believe something just because I said they should was not completely unexpected. I never believed that missionary work would be easy. What did surprise me was that the Pirahãs' rejection of the gospel was leading me to question my own faith. I was no novice Christian, after all. I had graduated from that bastion of fundamentalism, the Moody Bible Institute. I had preached on the streets of Chicago, spoken in rescue missions, done door-to-door evangelism, and debated atheists and agnostics in my own culture. I was well-trained in apologetics and personal evangelism.
But I had also been trained as a scientist, where evidence was crucial, where I would demand for any claim evidence similar to what the Pirahãs were now requesting of me. I did not have the evidence that they wanted. I only had subjective support for what I was saying: my own feelings.
Another edge to the Pirahãs' challenge was my growing respect for them. There was so much about them that I admired. They were a sovereign people. And they were, in effect, telling me to peddle my goods elsewhere. They were telling me that my message had no purchase among them.
All the doctrines and faith I had held dear were a glaring irrelevancy in this culture. I was superstitious to the Pirahãs. And my beliefs began to seem more and more like superstition to me.
Thus I began to seriously question the nature of faith, the act of believing in something unseen. Religious books like the Bible and the Koran glorify this type of faith in the non-objective and counterintuitive life after death, virgin birth, angels, miracles, and so on. The Pirahãs' values of immediacy of experience and demand for evidence made all of this seem deeply dubious. Their own beliefs were not in the fantastic and miraculous, but in spirits that were in fact creatures of their environment, creatures they saw that did normal kinds of things (whether or not I thought that they were real). There was no sense of sin among the Pirahãs, no need to "fix" mankind or even themselves. There was acceptance for things the way they are, by and large. No fear of death. Their faith was in themselves. This was not the first time I had questioned my faith. Brazilian intellectuals, my own hippie background, and a lot of reading had already raised doubts. But the Pirahãs were the last straw.
I eventually came to admit to myself alone that I no longer believed in any article of faith or in anything supernatural. I was a closet atheist. And I was not proud of it. I was terrified that someone I loved might find out. I knew that eventually I must tell them. But in the meantime, I feared the consequences...
According to Camus in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, the most important question of philosophy is suicide why do some people choose to leave life? Why do others choose not to? This question is vital because it gets at the essence of life, forcing us to ask ourselves if life is worth living and, if so, why.
Sisyphus is the character of Greek mythology that I felt most sorry for when I first discovered him in my pre-adolescent years. He was condemned by the gods to roll a boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll down at night and begin again the next morning. And so went every day of his eternity. Camus's shocking claim is that we should imagine Sisyphus happy. Why? Because each day brings with it life, challenges, and the potential to be satisfied through the joy of our immediate experiences rather than the bleakness of a monotonous future.
The Pirahãs' way of life, shaped by values that permeate all members of Pirahã society, give them pleasure and happiness in spite of what, to some outsiders, might seem like only a boring sameness of days. It is these values that set the Pirahãs apart from most other societies.
The Pirahãs struggle as all humans struggle children get sick and die, parents work hard to provide for their sons and daughters, old people face infirmity and the inability to contribute to their society, people face the prospect of hunger, frustrated love, pain, and death. And yet they do not succumb not a single member of the society. How do they do this? How do these hunter-gatherers in the Amazon rain forest help us in industrial societies better understand the worth of our lives, to answer the question of the value of existence that so exercised Camus?
These are some of the questions that have motivated me to try to understand the Pirahãs during the past 30 years. Of course, the literary tradition of the Western world includes many rich examples of travelers and explorers who seek to understand themselves better by coming to understand cultures very different from their own. But this doesn't mean that anyone has ever succeeded. It means merely that the attempt is worth the effort. What partial lessons we learn are reward enough.
My story is perhaps different because of my fellow explorers, my children and my wife, and because of the change in focus the story took on at different times in my experience from missionary, to linguist, to insecure human. What have I learned then? What can anyone learn from others?
When I was a student at the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA), my professor of personal evangelism told us that "you gotta get 'em lost before you can get 'em saved." What he meant by that was that most people won't change their way of thinking about anything, whether religion or politics, until they see that their current beliefs are bankrupt.
Well, what happened in fact was that the Pirahãs got me lost, yet I affected them very little. They got me lost spiritually and scientifically. They made me realize that my religion was the inferior one and that my theories of how language worked and how cultures and languages interconnected were too simplistic.
What makes life worth living? Is it success? Is it security? Is it daily challenges? Is it a bright future? Is it a worthy lineage? Is it God? What is it? That was my first struggle, and I believe that the answer I learned from the Pirahãs was the answer of Sisyphus the daily challenge and satisfaction of facing that challenge give life worth. But I had other, though lesser, struggles.
Is language largely built into the brains of human beings, shaped as they mature by the cultures into which they are born? Or are human brains general problem solvers that synthesize solutions, even solutions as to how to structure the way they speak, from general experience? If we answer the first question in the affirmative, we deny the second and we accept at some general level the answer that was originally proposed by linguist Noam Chomsky.
The Pirahãs and their language have led me to controversy I never wanted, but am unable to avoid. In their grammar, we find the shaping hand of their culture and human intelligence. We find evidence against the idea that language is part of our genome.
The Pirahãs say different things when they leave my hut at night on their way to bed. Sometimes they just say "I'm going." But frequently they use an expression that, though surprising at first, has come to be one of my favorite ways of saying good night: "Don't sleep, there are snakes." The Pirahãs say this to me almost every night. There are two reasons for this. First, they believe that by sleeping less they can "harden themselves," a value they all share. Second, they know that danger is all around them in the jungle and that sleeping soundly can leave one defenseless from attack by many of the numerous predators around the village. The Pirahãs laugh and talk a good part of the night. They don't sleep much at one time. Rarely have I heard the village completely quiet at night or noticed someone sleeping for several hours straight. I have learned so much from the Pirahãs over the years. But this is perhaps my favorite lesson. Sure, life is hard and there is plenty of danger. And it might make us lose some sleep from time to time. But enjoy it. Life goes on.
÷ ÷ ÷Daniel L. Everett is the Chair of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at Illinois State University.