Times change, things move on, and we all rush to try and keep up with the relentless pace of modernity. It’s the way of the world. None of us want to be seen to be living in the past – we’re all focused on making sure we make the most of the future in front of us.
Most of the time, this is beneficial. While the life expectancy through the centuries is not quite as bad as the statistics might suggest (living into your seventh decade wasn’t a wild rarity in the Middle Ages! It’s high infant mortality rates that skew the statistics…), there’s still no doubt that we’re now living longer. The pace of change is undoubtedly involved in this.
As we have grown as a species, we have learned the things that we should and shouldn’t do. We have a collective knowledge, science, and thousands of years of experience. It’s this experience that allows us to know which berries we can safely snack on and which will mean imminent death; to know that the big bear might look cute but we should probably avoid it for the sake of our health. It’s how we got to be where we are: by learning, growing, sharing that information with the next generation.
That’s not to say that we have got this whole human existence thing completely mapped out and, as a species, we’re going nowhere but up. There have been more than a few trembles throughout the process.
Perhaps the most obvious is smoking. Since the days of the first settlers in the USA, tobacco was a part of life. It perhaps reached its crux in the 1950s, when advertising became commonplace. Adverts featuring doctors would frequently be seen, with the doctors proudly proclaiming that cigarettes were good for your health. These seem absurd given what we now know about smoking, but they were commonplace at the time. Even future Presidents were involved in cigarette advertising; it was inescapable.
There have been many other lessons harshly learned over the centuries. Asbestos, for example, moved from the wonder construction material that would change our lives into the demon we now know that ends lives. Lead is now recognized as inherently harmful, whereas it was once considered safe enough to use on children’s toys. These are all the harsh lessons of progress; while many concepts will be proven to be correct, some will be catastrophically wrong.
So perhaps there are still lessons to be learned from the past, even in an age of progress. While our ancestors may have abandoned the lead and asbestos-lined bad habits, did they ever do away with some things that they would have been better off keeping?
While it flies in the face of the idea that progress is in and of itself a noble aim, there’s nevertheless a nugget of truth in the idea. Sometimes, old practices are abandoned for no other reason than they are old, or there seems to be a better alternative. Only now, sometimes centuries later, have we the knowledge to see that sometimes, it really was better in the olden days.
The Rise Of The Chair; The Fall Of Standing and Squatting
How commonplace are chairs, sofas, and other seating arrangements?
The answer is… very commonplace. How many chairs do you have in your house, for example? How many different types of chairs, too – you’ve got the dining chairs, the computer chairs, the bar stools in the kitchen… it all adds up.
But chairs are a good right, right? They offer comfort; no longer do we go out all day and toil in the fields, breaking our backs before we reach our mid-30s. Now we can sit to work, protected from the elements, inherently comfortable… right?
While some of that is true – no one is going to try and suggest that chairs aren’t comfortable – it might not be the best thing for our health. For one thing, we now know that a sedentary lifestyle can be very damaging to health. While the posited idea that it’s worse for us than smoking is something of a stretch, there’s no doubt that sitting for too long is bad for us.
It’s not just sitting, either – the absence of standing and squatting is bad for us. These are things we still do, but in nowhere near the duration that we used to. Think about the last time you bumped into someone and decided to pause for a chat; how long did the conversation go before you were looking for somewhere to sit?
We do this despite the health benefits of standing and squatting. Standing burns more calories and works more muscle groups than sitting can. Squatting is beneficial for a variety of reasons. In fact, learning about resting in a deep squat can make you see just how much you have been missing out on. The benefits of standing and squatting more are something our ancestors took for granted, but have been carved out of the human experience thanks to the plethora of chairs we now surround ourselves with.
Losing Sleep: No Restful Wakefulness
The two words above just sound like nonsense when taken in isolation, don’t they? “Restful wakefulness” sounds like the kind of advertising slogan some New Age clinic would advertise, only to be achieved if you sign up for their 12 classes and drink a special tea every morning.
While it may have the potential to be commercialized in the modern world, restful wakefulness is a pattern of habitual behavior that is as old as time itself – and probably one we could do with being reintroduced to.
The theory goes that artificial lighting has damaged our sleep cycles and circadian rhythms beyond repair. We can now go to bed whenever we want; in the middle of the day if we choose, aided by a sleeping mask or blackout curtains. We can get up when it’s pitch black outside, or read a book late into the small hours of the morning. For generations, our ancestors couldn’t do any of these things. They went to bed when it was dark and they rose along with the sun.
So far, so basic: most of us know that’s a preferable sleep routine, don’t we? What’s not mentioned is that humans aren’t meant to sleep for huge blocks of time per night. Instead, it’s far healthier for us to sleep for a few hours and then spend an hour or so in “restful wakefulness”. Maybe we read a book, watch a little TV, or just potter around the house – then we go back to bed for the rest of our sleep. This was very much the way of the world in the early ages of humanity, but now the obsession with packing as much sleep into a block of time has made it a thing of the past. Perhaps this could be part of the problem behind the modern plague of sleep disorders and resultant energy problems?
Studies have shown that humans return to this pattern when constructs like alarm clocks are removed from the equation – it’s very much the natural rhythm of our bodies. Not only does it appear to be a default setting that the modern world is constantly advising us against, it’s also better for us. The sleep is more beneficial and people feel more rested, even if they have been asleep for less time. This is definitely one behavior pattern that should be making a return.
Natural Remedies: The Lost Art
Natural remedies are often dismissed by us modern types. Why would we want to use a bunch of herbs and flowers to cure us of our ills? We have become so used to the idea of just being able to run to the pharmacy and grab anything that we need, we can’t imagine another way of life.
Nevertheless, there are many benefits to be found from natural remedies. While more severe ailments should always be referred to modern medicine (a luxury that we are able to enjoy), it’s possible to manage more minor problems for ourselves. There is a very good reason to do this, too. For every minor skin or throat infection we take antibiotics for, we are contributing to the ever-growing problem of antibiotic resistance. If we’re not careful as a species to avoid this, we could be returning to the past – and relying solely on natural remedies – much sooner than we think.
Simple solutions include using honey for wound care or applying a plant oil rather than relying on steroid creams for conditions like eczema. These minor problems have been handled through natural remedies for millennia. If they are not life-threatening, then maybe resisting the temptation for a doctor visit and medication is the best way forward. Once upon a time, people would have grown their own first aid cabinet – a garden full of beneficial herbs, to be used in poultices and tisanes. Maybe we’ll never fully return to those days – and there’s good reason why not – but it’s definitely worth thinking through your options when you have a small health complaint.