Listening to Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari was one of the best investments of time I’ve made recently. More than any other single source of information I’ve consumed, this book helped me understand, on the most basic level, what I am as a human being. The relevant name of the game here is evolution, as you may remember. Me and you and everyone we know are just evolved organisms after all, Homo sapiens, specifically. And as much as we regularly forget this fact or succeed in strategically ignoring it, the truth is that we are just one of a myriad different versions of life here on Earth.
I’ve spent most of the last two weeks in Los Angeles skate parks. And although skateboarders have been historically misunderstood by the wider American public, in many respects they are fundamentally more in touch with their evolutionary ancestry than many may realize.
As unlikely of a culprit as many will find it to be, the public skate park serves as one of the best remaining spaces in America in which to observe Homo sapiens behavior in the modern world. For although skateboarding, soon to be in the Olympics, is an invention of the 20th century, the all too human needs it helps its participants satisfy are as ancient as they are widely neglected by mainstream society.
On a recent Monday afternoon around 2:00pm, I arrived at Lafayette skate plaza, a modest portion of a larger public park in Rampart Village. The scene I walk into that day is representative of what one can expect to find at almost any urban skate park across the nation. About twenty bodies are present in total. All are male, roughly between the ages of fifteen and thirty years old. The group is approximately 30% Latino, 30% White, 20% Black, and 20% Asian.
At any given time, about a third of the skaters will be actively skating, and the rest will be sitting down around the park’s periphery. Those who are sitting, resting in between the bursts of enormous physical and mental exertion that skateboarding requires, will be drinking water, rolling and smoking joints, listening to music on their phones, chatting with each other, and visualizing which tricks they want to try next.
Those who are upright skating at any given moment are immersed in something quite akin to the psychological state of “flow.” That is to say, that in the most pure sense, they are not thinking about anything at all. They are just doing. They are engaging with their direct physical environment, using their feet to manipulate their skateboards into doing novel, intensely physically complex movements, “tricks” as we call them. And when you try a trick and miss, by the way, you often slam the entirety of your body onto concrete with a significant degree of force.
But wait a minute, these are all essentially working age, able-bodied men we’re talking about here. Of all the possible ways they could be spending this weekday afternoon, why exactly are they doing this? Why, in other words, aren’t they doing something more, productive?
The most obvious reason that accounts for this, of course, is that skateboarding is simply more fun than working. But we would do well to not automatically dismiss anything fun as being synonymous with the inherent misuse of time. Because the truth is that spending time doing something like skateboarding, or any other artistic pursuit for that matter, is not only a deeply healthy way to spend one’s time, it is also a deeply human way to spend one’s time.
Remember, up until about ten seconds ago, evolutionarily speaking, all of us were living in small, physically mobile tribes. We did not spend the majority of our waking hours sitting still at desks being economically productive. In actuality, long-term unemployment has been the natural condition of mankind for quite some time.
And true, early humans had to deal with a host of hazards that most of us today have never had to consider. If you’re reading this article, it’s unlikely you’ve ever, say, gone more than forty-eight hours without food, for example, or faced mortal danger from an animal.
But on the other hand, generally speaking, our hunter-gatherer lifestyles operated at a far slower pace than much of modern American life does today. On an average day, after the berries were picked or the rabbit was captured, cleaned and cooked, there wasn’t necessarily a whole lot left to do.
This means, in a quite literal sense, the simple acts of being outside, of moving one’s body around, and of spending leisure time with people in one’s community are deeply natural habits that are firmly ingrained into human behavior.
Funnily enough, skateboarding just may be one of the subcultures of the modern world that is closer in touch with these elements of natural human life than almost any other.
In our modern American culture of distraction, anxiety, and social isolation, we stand to learn a great deal from what’s going on at the skate park. The venture capitalist may not understand it as he walks past, but the ancient indigenous tribesman would probably get it.