Living In Our Own Worlds

vermeer

Vermeer’s artist, from ibiblio.org

We are social creatures for a reason: It improves the likelihood of our survival. Together we can do things we could never accomplish alone. Culture, the shared beliefs and behaviours of a group of people working collaboratively, is powerful (though alas, that power, when co-opted by charismatic or psychopathic individuals, gangs or elites, can be terribly destructive and dangerous).

Just as we are part of a culture (and/or subcultures and/or “alternative” cultures), we are also a part of a greater whole, the organism of all-life-on-Earth, which has collectively self-regulated for more than a billion years to optimize the survival, diversity and joy of our lives.

And we are, in turn, made up of organisms, which have given us the illusion of being a single creature by evolving a collective “consciousness”. That collective consciousness is extremely useful, allowing the organisms that make up “us” to act “single-mindedly” (especially useful in times of fight-or-flight crisis).

So we are constantly processing three sets of messages that produce three different worldviews of who we are:

  1. Messages from our component organisms, both conscious (directed through our brains) and subconscious (instinctive, programmed and somatic).
  2. Messages from our culture, telling us who “we” are, what to believe and what to do.
  3. Messages from the global organism (“gaia”) telling us how to adjust our behaviour and adapt to changes for the optimal well-being and balance of all life on the planet.

There is a huge amount of dissonance between these messages. For example, our component organisms (preoccupied with “our” own survival and procreation) might be telling us to make overtures to someone we find sexually attractive, while our culture might be telling us that such overtures are socially inappropriate in the circumstances and should be avoided, and while gaia is telling us that, in light of the horrific overpopulation of humans on our planet, we should not procreate and should be focused on rebalancing the world instead of preoccupied with our personal appetites.

When we fall in love, this dissonance is temporarily resolved in favour of the messages from our component organisms, as our body’s chemistry takes control of us. But only for a while – soon enough, the terrible dissonance returns.

For many of us, I think, this dissonance is paralyzing; it renders us ill, physically and mentally, and ultimately we get exhausted trying to handle it so we become desensitized, shut down. Such behaviour has been observed in rats subjected to severe protracted overpopulation stresses: the alphas become violent and sexually aggressive and hoard scarce resources, while the rest become mentally ill, withdrawn, and suicidal, and many eat their own young.

As a result, I think, when this dissonance becomes overwhelming we tend to dissociate, to start to retreat into and live in our own world, in our head, where we can ignore these conflicting messages and the unsettling and confusing behaviour of the increasingly anonymous crowd around us. We end up telling ourselves oversimplified stories about who we are, and what we’re supposed to do, and ignoring our instincts, our bodies, our senses, our emotions, our physical reality, and people with ideas and beliefs different from our own.

So when I walk down a city street, I don’t really “see” anyone, nor do they really see me. They are, I suspect, accepting as “true”, and engaged by, “news” that I see as nothing but lies and oversimplifications. They are, I tell myself, amused and entertained by “popular” books, music, films and “programming” that I find inane, cultural propaganda, or just plain wrong. The conversations and recreations that seem to enthrall and entrance them, I find meaningless, vapid, unforgivably stupid and a waste of time that, I think, should be spent dealing with the looming crises of our century.

Of course, I can’t really know. We are all, despite our a-part-ness, ultimately utterly alone. We may live in the same place, walk the same streets, but it is as if we all live in different universes.

How can we hope to achieve community when our physical neighbourhoods consist mostly of exhausted people with utterly irreconcilable and profoundly conflicted worldviews, living in private, separate worlds inside their heads? When we live in such an atomized society, how can we really know anyone else, enough to be able to perceive more than an idealized, abstract, outline view of who we think they are, or wish them to be?

And if we don’t know them, how can we care about them or what they believe or do? This is the crux of this dissociation, this disconnection from community and gaia and even our own bodies: we can only care about what, and who, we know.

And what hope is there in this isolated tumult to be able to find the right partners for the life we’re meant to live and the work we’re meant to do? What hope is there, really, to even inform others of what we know about how the world really works, or help them imagine a better way to live, when there is no shared context of reality, of community, and of caring to enable any meaningful communication to occur?

Over on Dark Mountain we’re debating our role as artists in re-presenting the world as it really is and imagining it as it might be. I recently posted an article there asking whether our role is merely to do our job as artists – to put our writing and art out there – or whether we have a responsibility to articulate it in a way that is accessible and understandable and hence actionable to the world.

But I wonder whether the latter is even possible when we’re all living in our own worlds, and whether the perception we have of being a part of social groups, the perceptions of intimacy and belonging and connection are just self-delusions, wishful thinking. With this technology that allows us to have a thousand “friends”, do we really have any at all, or is the friendship of others just something we convince ourselves we have because without it our lives would be unbearably lonely?

As I mention in my Dark Mountain post, Derrick Jenson in this month’s Orion berates us for not doing enough, and specifically for doing anything that does not contribute to the urgent task of trying to save our world from collapse, labeling such activities as “unforgivable”. In the article he cites an essay by cartoonist Stephanie McMillan that asserts:

In times like these, for an artist not to devote her/his talents and energies to creating cultural weapons of resistance is a betrayal of the worst magnitude, a gesture of contempt against life itself. It is unforgivable… Let us not be the system’s tools or fools. Artists are not cowards and weaklings — we’re tough. We take sides. We fight back…

It is our duty and responsibility to create a fierce, unyielding, aggressive culture of resistance. We must create art that exposes and denounces evil, that strengthens activists and revolutionaries, celebrates and contributes to the coming liberation of this planet from corporate industrial military omnicidal madness.

Pick up your weapon, artist.

Once we’ve learned the truth about this terrible world, is it our responsibility to devote the rest of our lives, every waking moment of our lives, to the work of fighting to prevent it getting worse? Or should we give ourselves a break and allow ourselves time to simply enjoy the wonders of the world and life and love? How much time?

And how far does our responsibility extend beyond doing what we must, what we do well, and what we enjoy doing? What should we do about the billions lost in their own worlds of ignorance and denial and distraction who are not ready to listen or change and never will be until it’s too late, and who are, collectively and indifferently, killing the world we love, even as those who know better and who are listening are working to save it?

How can we let them go on? And if we can’t, how can we stop them?

Lots of questions, for each of us – activists, healers, artists, facilitators, innovators, researchers, builders and connectors – to answer, in our own way. And wonder, as we struggle to reconnect, and to acknowledge our complexity and the astonishing ability of all-life-on-Earth to self-organize in our collective self-interest, just what is possible, now.

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17 Responses to Living In Our Own Worlds

  1. Will says:

    Dave – this really resonates with me in many ways. I’ve been wondering the same things – how do I connect with others? How should I spend my time? In short – where do I go from here? And how do I find people who might go there with me? How do I shake free of the financial chains that my culture has placed me in, without walking away from obligations that I take seriously?

    And I agree with your idea that there are at least three different forces acting on us at any one time – cultural and biological at least. I think this dis – integration, with different forces pushing us in so many different directions, is part of what keeps us paralyzed.

    Nice to read it coming from someone else… while I don’t have answers to your questions, I am at least happy to see that you (and others) are thinking some of the same things I am.

    Perhaps the way to figure out the answers is to talk to others about our questions…

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  3. chaitanya says:

    >> Once we’ve learned the truth about this terrible world, is it our responsibility to devote the rest of our lives, every waking moment of our lives, to the work of fighting to prevent it getting worse? Or should we give ourselves a break and allow ourselves time to simply enjoy the wonders of the world and life and love?

    Both. At the same time. There is no need to take a “break”. One can fully enjoy the wonders of the world, and at the same time act to improve it.

    If one is too attached to the world, desperately wishing to “change” it, one suffers. One is clinging too much to the flux of phenomenal world. I have a feeling you belong in this camp, Dave.

    If one is too detached, and gives up action, it is of no use. One becomes too recluse or self-serving.

    The trick is to act, but be unattached to the result of action. Enjoy performing the action itself, but let go if the result is not according to your expectation.

    The Bhagavad Gita compares this state to being like a water on a lotus leaf. water is there on the leaf but doesn’t stick to the leaf.

    I recently came across a fact — An electron orbits a Hydrogen atom 40,000 trillion times in one second ! Just imagine the kind of flux we live in midst of. Why hold on to any appearances in this flux ? Just let go, act as best as you can, and enjoy the process at the same time.

  4. My18Stripes says:

    I believe this is my first comment here so let me tell you how luch I appreciate your words and ideas. Ideas that are starting, o so slowwwwly, to appear in France too (where I live).

    Chaitanya’s comment seems very wise to me:
    “If one is too attached to the world, desperately wishing to “change” it, one suffers.(…)
    If one is too detached, and gives up action, it is of no use. One becomes too recluse or self-serving.
    The trick is to act, but be unattached to the result of action. Enjoy performing the action itself, but let go if the result is not according to your expectation.”
    It is, however, the hardest possible thing to do. It requires an extreme adaptative ability, one we are certainly not taught in scholl or at work!

  5. My18Stripes says:

    I believe this is my first comment here so let me tell you how luch I appreciate your words and ideas. Ideas that are starting, o so slowwwwly, to appear in France too (where I live).

    Chaitanya’s comment seems very wise to me:
    “If one is too attached to the world, desperately wishing to “change” it, one suffers.(…)
    If one is too detached, and gives up action, it is of no use. One becomes too recluse or self-serving.
    The trick is to act, but be unattached to the result of action. Enjoy performing the action itself, but let go if the result is not according to your expectation.”
    It is, however, the hardest possible thing to do. It requires an extreme adaptative ability, one we are certainly not taught in school or at work!

  6. Martin Roell says:

    Maybe you live in the wrong place, Dave. Or I live in paradise, I don’t know. I don’t see these “exhausted people with utterly irreconcilable and profoundly conflicted worldviews, living in private, separate worlds inside their heads”. When I walk the streets of my town, I see happy people, awake, looking at eachother, engaging in conversation when they meet, with a positive outlook on things and a balance of acting and non-acting. There is optimism, liveliness, joy, love, caring. I know the search for “the right partners for the life we’re meant to live and the work we’re meant to do” that you write about – I have spent years searching! – but every day I realise more that these people are already around me. I don’t perceive this world as “terrible”. It is full of possibility. I don’t see the gap between “us” and “them”: It all connects. Every ignorant man makes me a better teacher. I don’t worry about other people or the state of the world much anymore. I just do my job moment to moment and look deeply into situations where I feel disconnection or any sense of “me vs. him/her/them” arising. Most times, I realise that the only separation is the one made by me, by my thinking, by myself holding onto concepts, by myself not opening up to the other person or the situation. “What is possible now” is really just to open up, again and again, all senses open, and then let the right action flow. Too simple, I know. But I haven’t found anything better in all the struggle. :-) All the best!

  7. Avi Solomon says:

    Dear Dave,
    Joe Bageant deals eloquently with this dilemma:
    http://www.joebageant.com/joe/2010/06/live-from-planet-norte.html

  8. Mike says:

    Dave, first off, I feel your pain. Still, it seems that a minimum amount of intelligence is needed to even feel such things. It would certainly seem that a minumum amount of intelligence is required to receive the mesages from Gaia, thus this seems the most subtle by far of your three sets of messages.

    I have to agree with Martin comments, though, as you are likely aware, having a higher than average intelligence doesn’t make one think one is smart so much as making one think others are stupid. I can agree with ‘shutting down’ as a response to the dissonance you speak of. The appeal of smplicity seems great, but I can’t see it as a way forward.

    To illustrate, let me comment here on a post from elsewhere: John Michael Greer’s recent ‘Merlin’s Time’ post, wherein he argues for a return to 70’s style appropriate technology thinking. I consider this all well and good, yet only a part of the solution. I searched through the post and comments there in vain for terms such as reprap, chips, MEMS, desktop manufacturing, rapid prototyping, extruder, CAD/CAM, arduino, rfid. Ignoring several decades of progress in the suggested fields seems to me to correspond to the ‘shutting down’ response. These are all ‘technological nutrients’, to borrow from William McDonough, and they are part of our environment, like it or not, for better or worse. What do they plan to do with cybernetic detrious? Burn it all? Preparing for collapse, so it seems to me, would likely involve worrying about hard drive MTBF as much as permaculture.

    The ‘atomization’ of which you speak represents freedom for many, allowing escape from oppressive families, small town conformity, etc. But perhaps this atomization, it is also an opportunity to ‘re-molecularize’ ourselves into new forms, this being where social networking technologies and systems come into play.

    Your walk down the street was un-mediated; you may have met many fellow travelors given sufficient real-time social networking technology. I have considered myself, at various times in my life, a conservative, a libertarian, a liberal, even far-left anarchist, yet in each case I have become (eventually) disgusted with the in-group condemnation of all who don’t agree 100% with someone’s idea of the ‘core prinicples’. I would hope that people who agree on A,B, and C, yet violently disagree with D, can agree that ignoring the latter enables cooperative work on A and/or B and/or C. Again, I see hope in technological mediation.

  9. sue says:

    Both your post and the comments provide much fodder for thought (and action).
    “[I]s it our responsibility to devote the rest of our lives, every waking moment of our lives, to the work of fighting to prevent it getting worse? Or should we give ourselves a break and allow ourselves time to simply enjoy the wonders of the world and life and love? How much time?”

    So much depends upon time frame. When one speaks of the level of months and years, then chaitanya is correct that one should be engaged in both, as they feed each other, balance each other. But when one speaks of the level of minutes and hours, one cannot do both, although there is a kind of joy in the fight, and can be a kind of action in the loving and appreciation. My experience is that each thing requires a level of concentration and often different physical settings — even if you carry your laptop into the woods, you are not taking in the world around you when you are looking at the screen. So decisions are required. If one is to be mindful, attention must be directed moment by moment. What is the proper balance of moments? Who knows. One can only experiment, trying on different patterns.

    I think perhaps martin does live in paradise. The people I live among here in the coalfields of eastern Kentucky can be friendly and open, and can be closed off and isolated from others and from reality. Sometimes at the same time, in different ways. They live amidst extreme environmental degradation (mountain top removal and stripmining) and great natural beauty, and drive cars and trucks which aggressively proclaim on black license plates and window stickers that they are “friends of coal.” Yet the same people are angry at that Massey Energy could kill so many miners through neglegence with impunity.

    They praise God constantly (you should see what the Facebook posts of my local friends look like), yet seem to be constantly afraid, anxious, worried and hurting, and in dire and constant need of the prayer of friends.

    So there are friendly surfaces, engagement with others, and at the same time profound dissonances below the surface that show up in many ways.

  10. Jon Husband says:

    Joe bageant .. the Hologram. Guy Debrd .. the Society of Spectacle. We all reflect and drown in it.

  11. Jon Husband says:

    I recently posted an article there asking whether our role is merely to do our job as artists – to put our writing and art out there – or whether we have a responsibility to articulate it in a way that is accessible and understandable and hence actionable to the world.

    I found myself wondering whether Picasso asked himself similar questions when he made Guernica, or whether he just did what he felt (was right). ?

  12. Earl Rudolfo says:

    After reading this blog article, I am quickly reminded that “life is all about relationships” – whatever form that may take. We hope and strive to find and choose the right relationships – namely, those that are mutually beneficial.

    A side note – When reading this article, I was conjuring up visions and images of the movie – The Matrix. Not sure where that was coming from – a sixth sense, perhaps -:)

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  15. Nathan says:

    Dave, perhaps you are expecting too much of people who haven’t gone through the long process of trying to find out how the world actually works. Also it may be that you are projecting your own feelings on to everyone else too much. I am not saying I think your theory about internal dissonance is necessarily wrong, but others are probably less affected than you are.

    I believe I have some of the same feelings of conflict that you do, even though I’m not convinced about gaia as such. I doubt something called gaia is sending signals to me, but I am just not putting a name to similar feelings I have about many apparent changes and shifts in the world. My problem is mainly between what I believe is the better way to live and what I seem to still do to support myself and my family. It is your must/easy/fun sequence coming in to play. I can’t really say it better than that.

    It would be interesting to see this worked into a story of some sort.

  16. Terry says:

    A few tough questions I’ve been wondering about myself. How much of my life do I devote to trying to make life changes both in my life and others and how much do I just enjoy. Yesterday morning i was walking the dog in the forest and a flood of memories hit me as i inhaled the fresh earth and greenery around me. Memories from my childhood and adolescence – camping, hiking, sneaking a cigarette in the woods…

    Maybe we need to just be and connect with nature and that will spur us on to do more.

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