“What’s wrong with the world, and what can we do about it?” These are the two seemingly vague and yet deeply complex questions that director Tom Shadyac sought to answer when he set out to make the documentary that became I AM. What he discovered, and what he created, is not really a documentary at all. Instead, it’s an intellectual and spiritual journey, a quest for the truth about the nature of humanity, and, ultimately, a lesson in how we should all be striving to live. Guided by some of today’s most prolific minds, including Desmond Tutu, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Ishmael author Daniel Quinn, and other academic and spiritual leaders, I AM is a story of the search for truth and enlightenment in our modern time.
Shadyac, known for classic modern comedies such as Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Nutty Professor, and Bruce Almighty, at first seemed to me an odd candidate for the making of such an emotionally profound and provocative film. Yet his story, it seems, is a universal one: it is of a man who, confronted by a life-altering situation, wants to discover the purpose of his existence, and how he can live in a more positive, enriching way. Even more dramatically, he wants to know why there is so much suffering, conflict, and inequality in the world, and how much his actions—and all of ours—influence the growing problems faced by humanity. Consulting a team of writers, scientists, philosophers, and spiritual leaders, Shadyac helps his audience discover what’s wrong with the world, and more profoundly, what’s right with it.
Speaking with several sociological and scientific experts, Shadyac comes to the conclusion that people today have an illusory and intoxicating understanding that it is the amount of material goods we acquire that will determine the level of our happiness. But the truth, as revealed in I AM, is that the accumulation of wealth and happiness does not function on an exponential scale. As Shadyac discovers, beyond what we need for our basic survival and comfort, more things will not make more happiness, but will actually tend to lead to disillusionment, distress, and unhappiness. One of the most revealing facts presented in the film is that in many native cultures, the gross accumulation of wealth was considered to be a mental illness. Nature has been designed, through billions of years of evolution, to only take exactly what it needs, and yet somehow humans in modern civilization have made themselves an exception to that rule. We take what we want, without regard for how our material greed will affect other people, as well as other species. Shadyac learns, as does the film’s audience, that we must be suspicious of what we want, and decide whether it will in fact make us any happier, and what the lasting effect of this neurotic sense of material gluttony will be on our global and natural communities.
I AM also examines Charles Darwin’s theories about the survival of the fittest, which have led many to believe that nature, including the natural instincts that drive human behavior, is a place of competition and brutality, where the interests of the individual outweighs the interests of the group. Yet, as the biologists and anthropologists in I AM explain, research actually has shown that the fundamental principles of nature are cooperation, not competition, and that more often than not, a sign of “fitness” is not individualism, but compassion and concern for the greater needs of one’s community. Demonstrated through examples of herds of deer, flocks of birds, and schools of fish, the film exhibits how democratic thinking and the importance of group consciousness is actually one of the most vital survival tactics of most living species.
In one of the film’s most spine-tingling moments, Shadyac points out that Darwin, in his first book, The Ascent of Man, only uses the phrase “survival of the fittest” twice, yet he refers to “love” 95 times. And despite modern evolutionary science’s frequent discourses about the “selfish gene,” it cannot be denied, as the film points out, that there in something innate within human consciousness (scientifically called the “mirror neuron”), that makes humans feel for others in a deeply personal way when we witness their suffering. “Sympathy is the strongest instinct in human nature,” said Darwin, and says the thinkers in this film. We’re wired to care deeply for one another, Shadyac learns, and that’s part of what makes humanity special.
The final segments of the film use science to illustrate how the human heart, a cross-cultural symbol for the essence of a person’s emotional soul, may in fact be the central organ of our intelligence, as it generates a magnetic field that can affect the neurons of other living things based on the emotions we’re feeling. All of these examples demonstrate how what we do and what we feel on the individual level ultimately affects the entire global environment, from those in our human community to all the species of the planet. We are all connected to each living thing, right down to the air we all breathe. Other humans, animals, and all other living species share a genetic history with each of us, making us all one family, and reminding us that we must learn to share the resources of this finite planet if we are to have a hopeful future.
Ultimately, I AM is a critique of humanity, and yet a celebration of the magic and mystery of the natural and human world. It tells us what we’re doing wrong, but beyond that, it tells us how nature has made us innately inclined to do right. Compassion isn’t hard, Shadyac explains, and, due to our connectivity, one act of kindness can literally resonate through the interconnectivity of the whole world. Once we realize that we’re all one, we can learn to heal the current problems we face, and perhaps come a little closer to living in a peaceful world.
Watch I AM free with a Gaiam TV membership, at gaiamtv.com, and visit the film’s website at iamthedoc.com to learn more about this incredible journey.