A lot of the status games we play nowadays are based on pretending we’re no longer monkeys. “Look at me! I despise money and power, and I have successfully suppressed my sexual desires for the last 97 days!” Of course, this kind of attention-seeking behavior is exactly what a monkey would do — except the monkey would go full throttle on getting rich and mating with as many partners as she possibly can.
In George Orwell’s 1984, people are trained out of their sexuality from a young age. Both women and men join the “Anti-Sex League,” take vows of chastity and celibacy, and if two people are physically attracted to one another, they can’t get married. Sex is to be a mechanical act, an uncomfortable duty with the sole aim of producing more members of “The Party,” the ruling body of the dystopian society Orwell describes.
Naturally, everyone wanders around thinking about sex all day long, desiring one another yet equally despising each other for everyone’s mutual inability to pursue what they really want. Needless to say, that doesn’t end well.
In The Chimp Paradox, elite-athlete coach Steve Peters describes the most recently developed part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, as “our inner human,” and the limbic system, the oldest, most instinctive part, as “our inner chimp.”
When balanced well, it is a wonderful system. The monkey gets us to take action, to go with our gut, and to not let obstacles send us into endless spirals of meaningless thought. The human takes care of long-range planning, can second-guess our initial assumptions, and is good at practicing patience and delayed gratification.
Problems occur when the two are constantly fighting each other, or when one side always wins. Of course we are more than monkeys. Life has so much more to offer than food, sleep, and sex. Creativity, cooperation, intellectual work — these things can be sources of deep meaning and lasting fulfillment.
At the same time, our inner monkey is still there. It wants to be fed. It wants to sleep in. And it wants some hanky-panky. If we pretend the monkey no longer exists, sooner or later, it will get angry. It will throw stones and shout at us, and, as a result, we’ll likely shout at others. No matter how hard we might try to suppress it, eventually, the monkey will break through.
The people I admire manage this dynamic with an almost casual equanimity. They accept their inner monkey, but they also don’t let it boss them around. The monkey is a companion, a friend on their shoulder, and if they keep it happy within reason, it’ll reward them with energy, optimism, and fun.
If, collectively, we valued this honesty more than the make-pretend of what perfectly moral, supposedly enlightened beings we are, we could all have more productive conversations. Rather than constructing some facade, we could admit that we want to be rich or famous or sexually active and attractive, and, perhaps, we might even find ways to help each other achieve those goals while we’re also working together on something bigger and more important.
I’m an artist. I set high standards for myself. But I am far from perfect. I depend on ads and online courses to keep making art. I don’t know about you, but me and my monkey, we’ll keep working at it until we no longer have to — and even then, we’ll still have plenty of fun en route to making the world a better place.