Is it indeed more honourable to find comfort and stimulation in nature rather than people?7 min read

My friend told me, "I admit…I like buildings and shops and restaurants...Yes I can say it to you...I don’t like nature as much. I want to see concrete. That is so bad, isn't it?"

We were discussing holidays and the usual planning challenges with spouses about what to do during autumn break. She wanted to make a city break; her husband wanted camping. I immediately agreed with her and reassured her that I find nothing wrong with that.

Hearing my friend proclaim she is ashamed to admit that she is not thrilled by a holiday centred around nature made me think. Why is it considered of a higher stature? As if it is a marker of intellect or level of spirituality…of moral and intellectual superiority. As if preferring to be in company of nature is somehow telling of a good character.

I am struck by the aura of virtuousness accorded to preference to nature versus people… countryside versus city. Is it indeed more noble to find comfort and stimulation in nature than from people?

Here is what I think about culture, nature and the human condition.

The way I see it, there are two types of people. The ones who are interested in people and those who are interested in nature. (Of-course people are not exclusively one or the other, but most people lean to one side far more than the other in a consistent way.)

Those who are fascinated by nature, will travel to see nature, will relax by walking through nature and will have fun doing activities in nature. They love mountains and landscapes. They see all different shades of green. A friend who prefers nature, tells me she feels at peace only in the company of nature, without the noise of a city full of people. Those like that friend, will also want to know a lot about nature. They are interested in the various ways we can preserve nature and protect nature. A beautiful landscape will hold their gaze for long. How a waterfall came about- or why a tree looks this way or that will tell a story they will want to imagine. They value, enjoy and need the serenity of nature more than the other people. They will be stimulated far more by nature than by people.

I am not one of them.

Even when I see pictures of serene beaches, so solitary, I think to myself, “I love the sea but this looks so boring…so still…so empty” I knew I am not particularly fond of scenes of greenery and mountains or still lakes and trees, but I thought I love the beach. Then again I love the beach because on the northern coast of Egypt, it is so dynamic. I love beach life. Full of people. Full of stories. And the water is always moving.  The sound of waves is continuous and loud. I like the uncertainty of not knowing what it will be the next day. Will the water be calmer? Will the waves be higher? I feel life. And I love Africa. The trips to the bush….safaris and the view of the savannah. Isn’t that nature? I asked myself. It turns out this is more wildlife than nature. That is why I find it exciting. Sometimes I do dream of that serene image of a quiet sea, but only when I am exhausted. Even then, all I need is one day of that picture. Not more. That is why I do not qualify as a nature person. I am a people person. I even chose a place in the mountains that overlooks a car park for our holidays. My friends still laugh about it. When I want to unwind and relax, I want to go to a coffee place in a city full of people. I relax when I am watching people. Definitely not a nature person then.

Those, like me, who are more curious about people will travel to see people, how other people live and think and behave. How they eat and how they love; what they believe and why they believe it. And what it all means. I am not only going to walk in the streets to see people but I will also be interested in things that tell me more about people – like art. Art can tell me how some people see the world. Or how some people compared to other people relate to the world.  How some people express themselves compared to other people, or people in other eras. How people at these times are compared to other times. I am interested in how people from this part of the world compare to that other part of the world. I also like to see buildings. These buildings  tell me how taste varies among people- how function also varies. When I see old buildings, I think of how at earlier times people lived or liked to live.

There are two types of people. The world needs both of them. If you want to find out more about how we as people, can connect, you have to be looking at people and you will be looking at culture. Because one of the most unique human traits, that distinguishes us is culture. We have culture because we have developed language.

I am more intrigued by people, language and culture than by nature.

Yes I find it fascinating to see glorious looking lakes, magnificent changing skies and majestic standing mountains. However, what I find more fascinating, is that although we all came from Africa a 100 000 years ago, we spread across Earth and 100 000 years later, we are so different. We believe in different things. We eat differently and we love differently. We relate to one another differently. We form relations differently and we even think and perceive the world differently.

What is fascinating to me, is that we share human traits that are universal – values and feelings – yet in every corner of the globe, there is a constellation that is specific to that place and to that time. We were all hunters and gatherers. We lived in huts, then we built them into cities and villages. We discovered things. We developed many different ways to think about nature and the unseen order of the universe. Religion, philosophy and science. We invented ways to connect. We created systems legal, executive and judicial. We institutionalized many levels of justice to organize society.

And we did not all do it all the same way!

Depending on where we settled, a set of conditions particular to each group, gave rise to a system of beliefs that forms the overarching way in which we function.  These beliefs shape our minds. Our minds shape our environment.

Everywhere you look, you will find the same finite set of values humans share. Across time, across space, they are the same five values.  According to Jonathan Haidt, and from an evolutionary perspective, they are care, fairness, loyalty, respect of hierarchy and sanctity.  They can all be traced to adaptive benefits that made us humans survive and prevail. This means, that all around the world, people believe it is wrong to harm, to cheat, to betray, to disrespect and to degrade.  Meanings vary according to context, but they are essentially the same values. Hierarchy can be based on different parameters such as seniority or expertise; Sanctity will depend on what we hold sacred – which unsurprisingly varies with what we believe.

There were adaptive benefits to each of these moral foundations, manifested in every belief system the same. The differences across beliefs (religions and ideologies), across regions and across eras, is the order of these values. The hierarchy of values.

Some conditions, cultural evolutionary pressures, made some people privilege loyalty over freedom. Somehow somewhere in certain groups’  history, those traits – those values, enabled these people to prosper, to progress and so to survive. A particular hierarchy of values helped them exceed and advance. So it became part of their culture…their system…their unchallenged truth. And so we have different value systems over the years and across the regions of the world. These systems are not only diverse but they are also in flux. Continuously changing and adapting.

Why does all this matter so much to me?

When we see how many different ways have come out of us, when you see other regions, other people’s unchallenged truths, the various ways by which we relate to one another, how we organize our lives differently, which priorities we have, what qualities we assign goodness to…it gives us an unfailing humility.

It is sublimely enriching.

There are two types of people in the world. Those who find more beauty in nature and those who find it more in people. There is no reason to assign value to one type over another.

But if I have to –  if I absolutely must – then I find it more enriching to find beauty in people.

After all, people are just nature reflecting on itself.