Caveman Motivations

☆ May 18, 2016

The other day, my mind wandered into wondering about the motivations of early humans. Here’s the list I came up with, in order of priority:

To make their lives
• safer
• easier
• more secure
• more convenient
• more beautiful
• more meaningful (to find/define the meaning)

And then I wondered what has changed. And then I realized NOTHING HAS CHANGED. Nothing has changed, in regards to general human motivations, in 50,000+ years. The technology with which we attempt to achieve them has changed (vastly and drastically), but our incentives? Still the same as cavemen.

And then I decided to assume, for the sake of a mind game, that these motivations are no longer sound. Let’s say we’ve solved them, wholly and completely and permanently. I decided to try to see if I could:

TO MAKE OUR LIVES SAFER: Einstein said, “The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.” Platitudes can be found in many religions, spiritualities, and philosophies which all boil down to “you are always safe (if you believe).” I say “platitudes” because it is hard for me to reconcile the words “you are always safe” when juxtaposed against the facts of this speech and this book and this story and the truth that I could continue this list of examples for pages. So let’s circle back to this one.

TO MAKE OUR LIVES EASIER: “Easier” isn’t a sustainable thing. What if we collectively let go of wanting things to be easy all the time. I’m taking this back to the premise of my commencement address: you can’t avoid pain. It does not matter how much money one has or how much power one has or how much love or how much sex or how many awards – these things do not magically make people exempt from pain and difficulty. To attempt a life of permanent easiness that is free from pain is futile, and therefore a waste of time, energy, and opportunity. So let’s take EASIER off the list.

TO MAKE OUR LIVES MORE SECURE: “The illusion of safety” is a concept my aunt and I came up with right before my cross-country Vespa ride. I did not have room to bring a tent. And I didn’t want to bring mace because I didn’t know how the pressurized canister would handle the extreme heat and elevation changes of my ride (I didn’t want it to explode on me). And my aunt and I came to realize that “tent” and “mace” do not guarantee safety, or even do much to mitigate potential harm the way my helmet and leathers did. And even my helmet and leathers didn’t guarantee my safety. We want guarantees so badly and we just don’t get them. Perhaps a better term is “the illusion of control.” The ancient Greeks called it the “caprice of the Gods,” and built their entire mythology around it. I have an IRA and I wear my seat belt and I recommend both, but they don’t guarantee anything. So let’s take SECURITY off the list.

TO MAKE OUR LIVES MORE CONVENIENT: Convenience is killing us. I decided this when I was living in the cabin, which was glorified camping, especially through six Wyoming winters. I didn’t have a furnace and I had to chop wood for the woodstove and haul water from the horse trough but I was in excellent shape, just from living – I got strong because I didn’t have a button on the wall to make my hovel warm. And while I wouldn’t really wish that kind of lifestyle on anyone, nor on myself at age 50-plus, going from furnace-heated-house to car to elevator to office to sofa to bed with some take out meals in the middle is not great for our health. So let’s take CONVENIENT off the list.

TO MAKE OUR LIVES MORE BEAUTIFUL: I love art, I make art, and, in my opinion, music is utter magic. But we’ve got nuthin’ on Mother Nature – her work is the best. I don’t NEED jewelry when I have a sunrise. So let’s accept that there is BEAUTY all around us all the time and take that off the list, too.

TO ASSIGN MEANING TO OUR LIVES: I may have become a bit cynical after so much loss and death in the past few years, or maybe I’ve become more realistic, but I’ve come to think that so much of the meaning we try to assign to our lives (and to death) are bedtime stories for grownups. Stories we tell ourselves to feel better, to feel less out of control, perhaps to guide but mostly to comfort. Here’s the meaning I’ve assigned everything at this point: all we have is right now, and we really don’t know f*ck-all about any of it. So that takes MEANING off the list.

And then I wondered what’s left. If we can go back to the first point of safety and determine that we are not in imminent danger, and everything else on the list of caveman motivations has been refuted, what could motivate us? What WOULD motivate us?

And I decided the answer is KINDNESS. Kindness to others.

Vonnegut was right: “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

And if we were able to do this, REALLY were able to, collectively… the first point of safety would be granted to so many who don’t have it now.

It’s been interesting, fun, and disturbing to analyze myself since going on this mind trip – my thoughts, my choices, my actions – am I leading with a caveman motivation or am I leading with kindness? It is a work in progress.


39 Responses to “Caveman Motivations”

  1. Amy
    May 18th, 2016 @ 3:40 am

    Well said. The protection of others, and not just physical safety, but emotional safety, is one of the highest callings I know. And it’s something we all can practice every day. And it’s not unique to humans and translates across species. It’s an outward recognition of our interconnection with everything around us.

  2. torre
    May 18th, 2016 @ 3:53 am

    kindness – says a lot. and you just pinpointed what has been lacking at my workplace. i’ve been thinking about what is going on and what i can do, at least in my interactions. your thoughts give me ideas on different ways to deal with it. kindness goes a long way!

  3. Stella
    May 18th, 2016 @ 6:48 am

    I think family and a sense of community are basic motivations to all of us living beings. Sharing helps us to have that.

    Thank you very much for creating this lovely place for us here on the web.

  4. Deb
    May 18th, 2016 @ 7:07 am

    So basic yet so true!

    I live in Atlanta, in the Bible Belt so to speak. When people ask me what church I go to or what religion I am, I tell them my religion is kindness and my church is anywhere outside in nature.

  5. steve penney
    May 18th, 2016 @ 7:13 am


    Thanks for allowing us to follow you along your thought trails. I enjoyed this post very much, partly because it helped me understand more of how you view your life and world. To steal a phrase, Peace be with you.


  6. Shreve
    May 18th, 2016 @ 7:20 am

    A- YES to all you said!! yes yes yes

    T- it’s strange and illuminating when you break it down. To lead with kindness regardless of how another person is acting and regardless of what you can “get” – on one hand, it’s obvious and what we were taught in kindergarten; on the other hand, putting it into practice/seeing it put into practice happens way less often…

    S- thank you!!

  7. Susie Brandt
    May 18th, 2016 @ 7:49 am

    Love this! Do it ALL the time. My most recent mind itinerary explores comparing religion today to superstition. Before I offend anyone, I’ll stop there. Love the way you think.

  8. Elizabeth Waggoner
    May 18th, 2016 @ 8:09 am

    I thought this was so interesting. Really good thoughts.
    When I think of cavemen – I think two things – Food. Shelter. Everything else follows. How long did it take to start looking for security, convenience and beauty? How long until meaning became an issue? Is it that same old story, that once one issue is dealt with, we come up with yet another? Always on to the next thing……..
    Very thought provoking post.

  9. Sheri Nugent
    May 18th, 2016 @ 8:39 am

    Thought-proving and beautifully written. My first thought was Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, written in the 1950s. The idea being that people move up the ladder of needs as each preceding need is met. Food, water, air at the base. Followed by safety, then love and belonging, then esteem/respect, then personal sense of accomplishment. At the top of the list is Self-Transcedence- altruism.Which is kindness toward others and/or spirituality. This theory has helped me explain to myself why so much of the world is terribly hostile and unkind. Needs unmet.

    In the current political climate, it is really sad the spirit of divisiveness — wouldn’t it be great to help all people – or at least in this country for a start – get their needs met so we can all move up the ladder to a higher state of kindness, as you say. Do we REALLY need to call out specific groups of people and pass laws that say YOU DON’T BELONG? For me – I choose kindness and inclusiveness. And with that perspective, guess who wins the most? Me!

    Wonderful, mindful way to start the morning off. Thanks, Shreve and Daily Coyote friends.

  10. MJO
    May 18th, 2016 @ 8:42 am

    You are so kind to share these thoughts with us. . .
    Thank you.

  11. Nicole
    May 18th, 2016 @ 9:01 am

    I love you! That’s all I can say.

  12. Nicole
    May 18th, 2016 @ 9:02 am

    Oh I can also say: love, but not in a creepy way.

  13. Patr
    May 18th, 2016 @ 9:26 am

    OH – I LOVE THIS! I came to my meaning in life during my horrible divorce. I think we each find our own truth during a devastating time. And luckily I found mine many years ago – and now that mom is slowly passing away and dad has advanced dementia – my meaning of life is what holds me together.

    My word, while close to kindness, is servitude. It is my duty to be the best person for OTHERS, not myself. I am here to mentor others and help others. (Kindness is in there see) The Hippocratic oath boils down to “do no harm” – While I am not in the medical profession – I take it a step further and try to help prevent harm.

    I hope I am living up to what my servants soul tells me I must do.

    Thank you for sharing a part of yourself with us. It is a gift that I carry with me in my heart.

  14. Linda Watson
    May 18th, 2016 @ 10:52 am

    Well said. The part about bedtime stories for grownups especially resonates. I’ve had a rich, full life pursuing that question, and now, at 60+, I’m feeling much lighter for having let it go. I’m here. So are others. And some, whom I desperately miss, are gone. Values change, and there’s much I don’t understand today. But I’m excited and glad to be alive, doing what I do for now.

  15. LJ
    May 18th, 2016 @ 11:06 am

    Wow – well put.
    I never could have written those thoughts as clearly.
    I read a quote somewhere and it has always stuck with me, ‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.’ Each day, I try to be kind, some days it comes easy, others not so much.
    Thank you so much Shreve for sharing these thoughts.

  16. Marva
    May 18th, 2016 @ 11:31 am

    Perhaps the chaos in the U.S. at the moment is bringing people to consider more deeply what IS important to them? A lot of thinking along these lines has come into my ken in the last week. I found a wonderful thought in an article advising undergrads last week that is applicable to everyone. The takeaway? Don’t embrace yourself, overcome yourself. Give out. Be kind.
    And a FB friend complained yesterday at the lack of compassion she sees on a daily basis and how she will fight it with kindness.
    And just this morning I read a TED talk about great leadership being based on making people feel safe and sacrificing for others. Can this be the start of a revolution and a move away from the “me, me, me, celebrity, me” we hear constantly even if we don’t want to listen?

  17. mj
    May 18th, 2016 @ 11:48 am

    Well stated and thought provoking. I might ad sharing to the list. Sharing doesn’t have to be with another person. It can be with an animal or with a loved one who has moved on into a place we can only follow with thoughts and love in a hearts, but we can still share.

    Continue to share with us and we will all be richer for it, Shreve.

  18. AMT
    May 18th, 2016 @ 2:58 pm

    Thank You for posting this! I think more and more people should actively think and debate along these lines. Figure out a common ethic and start building social systems around that, and not the ideologies we inherited from a bunch of old, white, dead men.

  19. Felyne
    May 18th, 2016 @ 4:19 pm

    Thank you for sharing your inner brain with us!

    The only part I didn’t like was the disclaimer at the bottom, it felt like an apology, and you should never apologise for what you think inside your head, that’s your space.

  20. Felyne
    May 18th, 2016 @ 4:21 pm

    Oh and yes, excellent thought material to ponder! You have our minds engaged!

  21. Scotty
    May 18th, 2016 @ 5:06 pm

    very deep, i like it. similarly, i condensed animal instinct and need into much more simplistic terms. i thought that we all like/love must have bright shiny things. at ikea i saw peeps gather at the patio lights display, i watched peeps in the jewelry store and watched kids cry to their parents buy them blingy backpacks, i watched a crow carry around a piece of ribbon, i watched a dog watch a sunset. but then like you i realized.. omgosh it’s not really the shiny things. it’s… sharing. sharing is kind of like kindness isn’t it?

  22. JaneK
    May 18th, 2016 @ 5:14 pm

    Beautifully and artfully written.
    And, sister?? Let me tell you something…. I live in the heart of the Bible Belt and that ain’t anywhere close to being preachy :-)
    Thanks for sharing!

  23. mlaiuppa
    May 18th, 2016 @ 6:23 pm


    Speaking of beauty.

    I think that is part of our basic make-up. Otherwise why did our ancestors decorate utilitarian items to make them pretty? I went through a museum in Frankfurt when I had a day to kill waiting for my flight and it was filled with household items like furniture, utensils, household items. But they were also beautifully decorated.

    I think that as we have had more leisure time, we have added more beauty to our lives and also had more opportunity to relish it.

    I know once the industrial revolution gave people more leisure time and as a middle class grew, musicians were better able to make a living independently self employed rather than being employees of the uber wealthy. Artists could paint what they wanted for their own pleasure rather than on commission.

    I enjoy creating. Now that I am retired I am really enjoying my watercolor classes. But for the 36 years I was working I didn’t have time to indulge. My free time was spent on “homework” from work, working on two different masters degrees, there just wasn’t time in between a lot of things to do everything I wanted and painting went by the wayside. i stopped quilting, knitting and crocheting. Now that I have the time I am slowly starting to pick up all of the things I used to enjoy.

    I can do it because I have the security of my pension which is safe from any market fluctuations since it is not dependent on the stock market. For convenience it is deposited automatically each month in my bank account which is set up for bill pay making it easier for me to manage payments.

    Beauty and meaning are up to me. And now I have the time for both.

    If I were to add anything I think it would be either play or joy. All animals have a need for play and crave joy. Many times our play is to give us the feeling of joy.

  24. Felyne
    May 18th, 2016 @ 8:41 pm

    @Scotty Sharing is the epitome of kindness, but it’s perhaps driven by the positive interaction with another living being to reassure us we are not alone?

    I had a tortiseshell cat and whilst she didn’t really like to be cuddled and groped, she was never far away, in the next chair, at the end of the bed, walking next to me out in the paddock. She didn’t want attention, just didn’t want to be alone and wanted to share her life with someone.

  25. Karen
    May 18th, 2016 @ 9:13 pm

    Your logical thread makes perfect sense!!! And… hear hear for KINDNESS— it makes life so wonderful. It gives two sides immediate satisfaction and is priceless~~~~

  26. Cristy
    May 19th, 2016 @ 4:49 am

    I’ve been doing a similar analysis lately, though mine has been more self-focused. Trauma and loss are always a good catalyst and healing sparks a lot of reassessing.

    Anyway, I in general agree with you on the end that these motivations are usually towards an extreme. As humans, we dislike discomfort, stress, pain and uncertainty. We see an image of an ideal and covet it as we are looking for the motivations you described.

    The thing is, there’s nothing wrong with these motivations as long as they are within moderation. We need to heal after we’ve been hurt and find ways to protect ourselves from future hurts. We need some security to be able to plan for tomorrow. We need so ease and comfort to rest our bodies. The key is some. Not always and not at all expense. Risk is important; knowing that pain can always come is important too. So finding balance is the key.

    Finally, kindness. I struggle with this because people around me have taken it to an extreme too. And it’s lead to some very terrible things in my life. So yes to kindness, but recognizing that kindness to an extreme of failing to have boundaries or make the hard decisions of protecting yourself or the greater whole is also unhealthy. There are some very broken people who prey on kindness. And sometimes the only cure is putting up a strong wall and wishing them well.

  27. Mickey
    May 19th, 2016 @ 9:09 am

    I loved this. Shared it on Facebook and several friends liked it, too. It reminds me of my favorite Karen Drucker song:

  28. Anne Umphrey
    May 19th, 2016 @ 2:00 pm

    Thank you, Shreve!

  29. Kelley Rico
    May 19th, 2016 @ 3:03 pm

    So well said, as always. It’s taken me a LONG time to understand the issue of “safety”, too. We might say spaciousness or repose? On the face of it anything could happen at any time, and it does, especially out here. I too am in much better shape from chopping wood and toting water but there are a lot of things one winds up thinking about in these situations. Not always “nice”. But I think that safety is not about physical safety/security. (Ya think?) It’s about realizing that we are part of something that actually resonates with us, and the job we have is to more or less get in tune. THEN we have the “safety” of knowing that we have made some sense of being here, achieved some “meaning”. Along with knowing that the actual meaning is something that is only grasped in snippets, like some really long song. It is often said that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. Just now starting to get that! HUGS

  30. Maggie Yount
    May 20th, 2016 @ 8:48 pm

    I love you :) That is all.

  31. rockrat
    May 20th, 2016 @ 10:04 pm

    Good stuff!

    Security and safety are the same thing. We don’t have to worry about sabre-tooth tigers anymore. We have to worry about fake vitamins, fake remedies, and environmental contamination left behind by previous landowners.

    Easier and more convenient may be euphemisms for less stressful. Life gets less stressful when one uses critical thought to stay away from bad decisions.

    My life has meaning because changes mean there’s always something new to learn and I have to teach my kid critical thinking. The do-nothing option, is being told what to think by people functioning out their own self-interests.

  32. rockrat
    May 20th, 2016 @ 10:17 pm

    Kindness is a tough.

    Kindness without critical thinking winds up giving too much. Kindness with critical thinking is perceived as giving too little. No kindness at all, even when it isn’t warranted, just shuts all the doors.

  33. Julia
    May 21st, 2016 @ 7:58 am

    Welcome to the rigor of philosophy. ;) (The multiple meanings of ‘rigor’ fit so well.) Something else to chew on:

  34. Roger
    May 22nd, 2016 @ 10:40 pm

    Thanks, Shreve! I find Ajahn Brahm (Youtube) interesting and helpful.

  35. Bev in Oregon
    May 23rd, 2016 @ 10:40 am

    I was reading along, as you were knocking out each item, and sorta subconsciously going “okay, Shreve, this seems kinda like oversimplifying things, but I trust you, so I’ll go with it” … And then you said “kindness” and it all clicked. This is the choice that makes all the difference. The more often we choose kindness, the easier it becomes, and it moves us – our society – closer to the better us that we can be.
    Thank you for this, for the knowledge of the real core of the choices that I make all day long, I think it will help me make the choices that I want to make.

  36. Julia
    May 24th, 2016 @ 6:30 am

    PS Most motivations are fear based. I’m afraid I’ll get hurt, lose control, get taken advantage of, etc. Kindness is not fear based. Very interesting.

  37. leanne Edna Anderson
    May 27th, 2016 @ 12:10 am

    A lot of what you say is truth. even tho there are in-be-tweens for all of them. people need love and acceptence . freedom form worry. a modicum of safty and security. the ability to look forward to a better tomorrow. And yes we aoll have pain and problemsd but most of us have the ability to overcome these and get on with living and learningthose values and lessons that
    all those experiences teach.
    If only
    all people
    strived to
    be friends.
    If only
    every one
    tried to
    make amends.
    if only
    all peoples
    loved others
    every where
    in this world.
    it would
    be such a
    wonderful place
    to live on
    this globe
    on which we live.

  38. Sandy G.
    June 3rd, 2016 @ 6:40 pm

    Interesting and thought provoking read. After following your blog for many years, I truly believe that you have a heart full of kindness. ❤️

  39. L.E.
    June 17th, 2016 @ 6:18 am

    It has been my belief for some time now that we are in this *for* each other. That our duty, our goal, our purpose is to make life better for one another.

    “If we aren’t here for each other, then why are we here?”

    I am pleased to know that you, whom I respect so much through your writing, seem to have found a similar, if not the same, truth.

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