The Default Position

My first wife was not happy with the house we lived in. It was in a small town, on a quiet street, with a backyard, a driveway, a garage, a front and back porch, three bedrooms upstairs, a living room, dining room, eat in kitchen, full basement, fireplace and studio with a skylight. I liked it. But she felt it was too small, even though both of our girls had their own room, she had a large studio, and even I had a small workshop in the basement. She wanted to find a bigger house, similar to the one she had grown up in, in a wealthy suburb. To her, the default position was to live in a house that was big enough to not be exactly sure how many rooms there were, and to feel that space was almost unlimited. She felt she had descended from the default position.

At the same time I had gotten involved in a religious organization doing charity work in the resettling of refugees in our town. I was a peripheral player, mostly doing grunt work, like hauling furniture, and helping to fix up an apartment that the group had rented for a family about to arrive from Russia. I also did a lot of driving. I drove the family from the airport back to their new apartment in our town. It was a husband and wife, the man’s mother, and a teenage daughter, the only one who spoke any English.

A couple of people from the organization met the family in the apartment, and I helped bring their suitcases inside. They were shown the master bedroom, the living room, the smaller bedroom, and the kitchen. The woman looked around carefully in the kitchen, and the other rooms, speaking to the daughter in a low voice. She didn’t seem terribly pleased, although she smiled politely. When she got to the bathroom, she said something that sounded like a question. The leader of our group asked the daughter what she had asked. The girl asked shyly “Is one bathroom?” Our leader replied that yes, unfortunately we could only afford an apartment with one bathroom. He then asked her what her mother thought about the place. There ensued a brief family discussion and then the girl said

“Is very nice apartment. My mother say kitchen  small, but OK. But please, we like to ask, which room is ours? And how many families to share?”

When we were able to explain that no other families were sharing the place, that it was entirely for them, they were incredulous, and they all began to cry with wonder. The man sank to his knees to pray. We were all hugged by each of them, and of course we were all crying as well.

The Russian family’s default position was to live in a single bedroom, in a two bedroom apartment shared with four other families.

We all have different default positions, for our own lives, and also for the status of humanity. For some, the default position for humanity is one of universal peace, happiness, brotherhood, a good, clean and happy world, where there is no illness, sorrow, or pain. Anything less than that is unacceptable, and a source of anger, frustration and despair.

For me that world is a goal, but not the default position. I think of the default position for the life of a human being as being one of constant hunger, poor shelter, fear of animals, violence, and struggle to survive. After all, what is a human being, other than an animal, a hominid with a large brain, and hands that can make things?  Animals live according to how their parents lived. Humans search for food, try to stay warm, hide from the big cats, and raise their young as best they can, hoping that one or two will survive childhood.

When human beings learned how to fish, about 25,000 years ago, that was a big step up from the default position. So was agriculture, and houses, and writing, and music, and art, and technology, and air conditioning, and fast cars and airplanes and computers.

We have continued to raise our default position from its origins for thousands of years. And that is a remarkable thing. No other animal has ever done that. Look around you. Almost everything you see is a wondrous miracle of human undertaking to transcend our default position.

While some argue whether the glass is half empty or half full, for me the default position is an empty glass, so I am filled with wonder at the miracle that there is any water in the glass at all. This is why all of my prayers are of thanksgiving.

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7 Responses to The Default Position

  1. David says:

    The default… is not in our stars,
    But in ourselves, that we are…


  2. Ken Coffman says:

    If you can’t figure out how to appreciate what you got, you ain’t going to figure out how to appreciate what yer gonna get.

  3. Beautifully written and insightful.

  4. Almost Iowa says:

    Your essay echoes the thoughts of the great science fiction writer Robert Heinlein who wrote

    “Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.

    This is known as “bad luck.”

  5. Our default position certainly makes a difference, doesn’t it! The same thing applies to our taste buds as we become more or less accustomed to the “Standard American Diet” (SAD) in contrast to more traditional fare (e.g. a whole foods, predominantly plant based diet).

    [“After all, what is a human being, other than an animal, a hominid with a large brain, and hands that can make things?”]

    Good question. Traditional cultures, while acknowledging our animality, also affirm and give some measure of priority to our spiritual nature. From this stand point, perhaps the reality of our life and experience as Spirit should be our default position. Kierkegaard addresses both this and our tendency to become attached to our current “default position” in this text:

    “[People do not generally] regard being under a delusion as the greatest misfortune; their sensuous nature is generally predominant over their intellectuality. So when a man is supposed to be happy, he imagines that he is happy (whereas viewed in the light of the truth he is unhappy), and in this case he is generally very far from wishing to be torn away from that delusion. On the contrary, he becomes furious, he regards the man who does this as his most spiteful enemy, he considers it an insult, something near to murder, in the sense that one speaks of killing joy. What is the reason of this? The reason is that the sensuous nature and the psycho-sensuous completely dominate him; the reason is that he lives in the sensuous categories agreeable/disagreeable, and says goodbye to truth etc.; the reason is that he is too sensuous to have the courage to venture to be spirit or to endure it. However vain and conceited men may be, they have nevertheless for the most part a very lowly conception of themselves, that is to say, they have no conception of being spirit, the absolute of all that a man can be — but vain and conceited they are . . . by way of comparison. In case one were to think of a house, consisting of cellar, ground-floor and premier étage, so tenanted, or rather so arranged, that it was planned for a distinction of rank between the dwellers on the several floors; and in case one were to make a comparison between such a house and what it is to be a man — then unfortunately this is the sorry and ludicrous condition of the majority of men, that in their own house they prefer to live in the cellar. The soulish-bodily synthesis in every man is planned with a view to being spirit, such is the building; but the man prefers to dwell in the cellar, that is, in the determinants of sensuousness. And not only does he prefer to dwell in the cellar; no, he loves that to such a degree that he becomes furious if anyone would propose to him to occupy the bel étage which stands empty at his disposition — for in fact he is dwelling in his own house” (Sickness Unto Death

    Without suggesting that everyone should be an intellectual or that any of us should deny or disparage our bodies, I think it would be good for us (individually and collectively) to recognize and honor our spiritual nature (of which, as I see it, our apparent bodies are a manifestation).

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