A Quiz: On Chap Stick and Chickens

I haven’t used chap stick in weeks. Even living in Colorado in the summer, my lips have made the transition from the humidity of the Midwest to the hardened, sun-broiled Colorado summer. I’ll use chap stick in the winter, but in the summer?

Until someone handed me a free tube of it.

It’s sitting on my desk now, silently daring me: you can’t ignore me forever, it says. My lips are suddenly itchy and dry, despite having rain last night and more in the forecast this afternoon.

But I know that chap stick, like the colonel’s recipe for chicken, has a secret ingredient that makes you crave it every hour until it’s gone, and then you binge on chap stick before going cold turkey, yo-yoing back and forth for months, until you finally break free of its camphor and carnauba wax.

The presence of chap stick, just its presence on my desk, is already weakening my willpower.

Why?

Is it A) I’ve secretly been repressing my desire for chap stick this summer, but deep down in places I don’t talk about (near my spleen, but I can’t mention exactly where) I have some trauma, probably developed during my childhood with overprotective parents, and I found relief through chap stick. Its lubricant is symbolic, of course, of letting words flow out of my mouth. It’s the grease I need to find my voice, and when I don’t have chap stick, I slip back toward infantile actions that fear my father figure and remain silent before him. Chap stick is the symbol I need to change this.

Or, perhaps, B) the mere suggestion of chap stick, like the bell to Pavlov’s dogs, has conditioned me, changed my temperament, and led to the involuntary reflex of thinking my lips, actually, are chapped. Of course, this is ludicrous, because if I’m controlled by forces beyond my control—and forces as small as chap stick—then I’m little more than a sheet in the wind, tossed back and forth by unseen forces, responding only to the vicissitudes of some great or terrible mind—or, what might be worse, no mind at all.

The problem of this possibility is not that I want chap stick, it’s that now every want I have must come into question. I’d like a new iPad, for example, a bigger bank account, flush retirement savings, a leather chair instead of this cheap cloth variety. I’d like world peace (not really, but I think you’re always supposed to list this one: wouldn’t the world be quite dull if we achieved world peace?—and you certainly wouldn’t want to read a blog like this one), a BMW (I don’t care if people who drive BMWs are known for driving like jerks: you’d drive like a jerk, too, if you had such a nice car), a cabin in the mountains.

But what if I’m conditioned for these wants in the same way I’m conditioned to have my lips itch when I see chap stick? What if commercials and the “American dream” and my particular time and place of living have conditioned me to want this set of things?

Wouldn’t this have profound implications for what I say when I say I’m free? The only sort of freedom I could claim is that I haven’t yet taken the chap stick, but suppose even that is some sort of conditioning, over my years of life and the hundreds of thousands of years of conditioning in my DNA? If you hold this true, that chap stick has conditioned me, then don’t you at least have to allow for the possibility that every urge and impulse, every thought you have, is in some way conditioned? And isn’t this a worst nightmare not just for a human being, but particularly a Western, 21st century human being?

My choice in a mate, a career, what I’ll have for dinner tonight, even what I write right now (and whatever it is you’re thinking about): it’s all conditioned by millennia of human existence. You are merely the clash of chemicals in your brain, and your desire for love or meaning are, ultimately, completely void of meaning.

Naturally, you don’t have to follow through with each supposition if you hold position B, but you must allow for its possibility—and, the horror, the fact that you might not even realize it.

And this is what those hardline religious folks miss, that science is increasingly explaining how we are and came to be, and a God-of-the-gaps doesn’t work. But this is also what angry atheists miss, as if you can say every decision and thought I have is controlled simply by chemical reactions. Now, what’s for dinner?

It’s monstrous.

Thank you, Pavlov.

Or possibly, B) is that my desire for chap stick supports the idea of a creator God, in that it shows how humanity has increasingly taken control of its environment, filled the earth and subdued it, if you want to get religious, and how we’re actually moving somewhere, obeying this divine injunction. The very presence of a stick that might ease a chap speaks to how God has hardwired us to take control of our environment. Of course, you might say the same from evolution: humans are advancing forward. The problem with strict evolution is that it could imply things like genocide (getting rid of competing people groups, after all) isn’t quite so bad, or that we really ought not to care one iota for tree slugs and protecting them, not to mention bald eagles or certain monkeys. We’re at the top of the food pyramid, after all, and if we end up eating and killing everything, we’ll at least keep alive the food that we need to survive—cows, chickens, pigs. In fact, there are more chickens right now on planet earth than there are people, by quite a large number. That’s not because the chicken is such a bright survivor. It’s because we are, and we happen to be quite fond of chicken meat. We humans will always protect what we value. So, for the purposes of this quiz, we’ll strike strict evolution instead of doing ethical backflips to show how evolution has wired us to protect tree slugs and the like, or even to protect people from another tribe if they want our resources (like, sending money to Africa or Haiti). There’s a healthy cognitive dissonance with sending money to Africa while wearing clothes made from sweatshops in southeast Asia, jumping in our gas-guzzling cars—whose pollution will hurt those in drought-afflicted countries, like say, many in Africa. Why are we urged to give money but nothing else? And if you say that it’s because we want to help but not sacrifice—why do we want to help in the first place? It seems evolution ought to drive us to either fend for our own tribe or decide that other tribes really are worth defending, and we could sacrifice enough then to drive a different car or buy different clothes. But most of us don’t.

But rather than prod at the theory of evolution—a theory that can’t really be proven (unless we have a really long time) and with which I agree anyway, let’s say that the my desire for chap stick, which is possible because of how humans have subdued the earth, also shows how each of our desires has a natural end: chapped lips end in chap stick (or perhaps rubbing aloe plants on our lips thousands of years ago). So, our desire for a world beyond this one, which people have quite often, in Western culture, referred to as heaven, also must have an end: why else would we want it? After all, we like to say that ancient peoples made up gods to explain the world, but we never ask why they did this and we don’t? They may have been a bit more ignorant in science (though Ptolemy could surely school most moderns, if not our astrophysicists), but the variety and beauty of their god-stories certainly goes beyond an instinct simply to explain the world. Rather, with their understanding of psychology and human nature, you almost have to wonder: did they know something we don’t?

For example, Denis Dutton argues in “The Art Instinct” that all humans, across all cultures, are universally drawn to images of water, thickets of trees, open grassland. He explains how this happened over 80,000 generations of evolution, and that we still prefer these vistas today if we have the choice. But why is science, with all our knowledge, just coming to this conclusion now when the ancient Hebrews noted our longing for a garden thousands of years ago. They weren’t equal to us as scientists. And they may have just been good, observant storytellers. Or, we could conclude, they may have had a little help.

Just like option B, this isn’t the only logical conclusion of option C, but you may prefer it to B. And, this test is as much about preference as anything.

Which is why I agree with option D), which is not exclusive of any other option, but certainly speaks the truth. I live in Colorado. My lips are a little chapped. I don’t notice lots of things until people point them out to me—my wife’s redecorating, maybe a little food in my beard, even a cut on my finger sometimes. So the chap stick is simply my reminder that I need other people to show me things, to help me see the assumptions with which I’m going through life, and either clear them away or act on them. I think I’ll have a little.

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