Dave Pollard's environmental philosophy, creative works, business papers and essays.
In search of a better way to live and make a living, and a better understanding of how the world really works.



November 26, 2012

Distracted

Filed under: Creative Works — Dave Pollard @ 23:49

(this story is fiction: none of it really happened, or is ever likely to, and none of the characters in the story, other than the writers referred to, are real people or based on real people, including me :-) vancouver skyline

“So what did you think of Charles?”

I was sitting on Lori’s balcony looking at the night skyline, the stars and the ships in English Bay harbour — ugly rusted polluting hulks during the day, but beautiful at night, with their bulk and tarnish hidden by the dark and their lights glimmering and reflected in the sparkling water.

The ‘Charles’ in question was Charles Eisenstein, whom Lori and I had gone to see the previous evening, speaking about “Living the New Economy”, and how we would have to straddle the old industrial growth economy and the new, fledgling, gift economy, probably for decades until the former had completely collapsed. Lori slid through the sliding door and into the seat beside me, carrying a tray of tea, and handed me my mug.

“The idealist in me loved his speech”, I replied. “He’s absolutely right that the only thing that keeps us shackled to the old economy is the belief of almost everyone we know in the world, that the old economy is the only one that can work in today’s world. It may indeed be as easy as just acknowledging that the agreements that underlie the industrial economy, with its addiction to endless growth and endless increases in debt and the desolation of our planet, no longer serve us, and that we need a new set of agreements based on what we really value in the world. Then our ‘value’ in the world would no longer be measured by our wealth and income, but by our ability to identify and offer our unique gift to the world, and in so doing increase the amount of connection and love and appreciation and joy in the world, and make it sustainable and resilient in the face of the problems we’re going to deal with over the next few decades — economic collapse, energy collapse, and ecological collapse.” I took a sip of tea. “But I’m still not sure we can get there from here, despite his elegant arguments. Even if everyone on the Exxon Valdez had seen the ship heading for the reef and wanted to change course in time, that would not have prevented the environmental disaster.” Another sip. “What did you think?”

“I think you’re a crotchety old pessimist,” she replied, smiling at me. Read about the Hisatsinom/Se’da peoples of the American Southwest. They built a culture that lasted thousands of years, and when it was wracked by climate change — the 300 year drought, the mini ice age and the deforestation of the Southwest — they just walked away, decided that this complex, ancient culture and its religions and ‘agreements’ no longer served them. They remembered from their ancestors that humans are by nature nomadic, so they abandoned their astonishing but no-longer-sustainable pueblo settlements, and went back to the land. They travelled to areas where indigenous nomadic peoples were thriving and learned from and integrated themselves into them. They made new agreements with the natural world and all life within it. Why can’t we do the same?”

I sighed, and thought for a while. In addition to Eisenstein’s Sacred Economy I had been reading Chris Ware’s brilliantly-drawn box of comics Building Stories, a set of 14 graphic novels about the inhabitants of a 3-story apartment building in Chicago. The characters of these novels (short stories, really) are tragic — lonely, confused, anxious, struggling, trapped by their circumstances of ill health, poverty, age, low self-esteem and ignorance — and none of the stories has a resolution. They just kind of end with an acknowledgement of hopelessness and despair. They are sympathetic, desperate characters, best ‘personified’ by a bee who gets caught inside the apartment, repeatedly smashes into the windows trying to reach his family and the flowers outside, and laments the invisible “hard air” that inexplicably prevents him from escape, from achieving his goals. These characters seemed to me to represent most of the people in the world, far more than the capable, psyched-up group we sat amongst listening to Eisenstein. I wondered what they would have thought of his speech, and how they would have answered Lori’s question.

Ware writes “We exist in the present, but we spend the majority of our time thinking about the past and worrying about the future. We don’t really experience what’s going on in the exact moment.” How, I wondered, could we hope to get even a small proportion of the people shackled to our industrial growth economy sufficiently present, sufficiently aware, sufficiently free of the millions of distractions that prevent us from having any idea what we’re doing to this world, and ourselves, and each other, to begin to create this “new agreement”? Are most people even capable any more of knowing, imagining what their gift to the world is, and how they could offer it in a world that valued it instead of ‘economic wealth’?

I went into Lori’s kitchen and got us a bowl of raspberry sorbet, and two spoons, still thinking about what she’d said. I imagined the pueblo dwellers abandoning their elaborate and comfortable caveside homes and religious sculptures and other unsustainable artifacts and processes of living, and trekking to the lands of indigenous nomadic tribes to ask if they could be taught how to be gatherer-hunters again. I sat down beside Lori, gesturing to the sorbet.

“My guess is that the Se’da probably clung to their civilized ways for a couple of centuries as climate hell was breaking loose, hoping to figure out some way to keep their complex civilization going, just as we are, before it reached such an irretrievable state of collapse that they had no choice but to abandon it. And I’d guess that their birth rate had dropped so much for so long by then that there weren’t a lot of them left to assimilate. We humans are a stubborn and change resistant lot.”

Lori looked at me with a frown, and displayed that skeptical mouth-turned-down pout I loved so much. I laughed. She stood and put her hands on the railing of the balcony, avoiding the chicken wire we’d rigged to the balcony spindles to keep Myron the cat from accidentally falling through. She turned to me. “Your grandparents told you that they survived the Great Depression because most people then still knew how to grow their own food, make their own clothes, and basically be self-sufficient when they couldn’t afford to buy anything. My great-grandparents, who wrote about those times, said the opposite. Most people in cities lived in apartments then and didn’t know how to do much more than the clerical jobs most of them did in those days. Your grandparents lived in Winnipeg, Spencer — hello, grow your own food? But they learned to do what they had to to survive. And they did it fast. Look at the Cuban people when the Soviet empire collapsed and their oil supply suddenly dropped by 95%. In just three years they went from 10% organic agriculture to 85%. They lost an average of 20 pounds apiece but they did it. They had no other choice. They’re smart people. They turned it around.” She sat on her haunches and poked me gently in the nose. “We’re smart too. We can turn it around.” She sat, taking the sorbet bowl as she did.

“I don’t know what happened to previous collapsed civilizations, or how difficult it was for them to walk away from the only culture they knew, but I suspect it wasn’t like Charles Eisenstein’s dream of orderly and enlightened transition,” I said. “And my guess is that the Se’da were just as smart as we are and less dependent on centralized systems. As for  Cuba, they’re not in any better shape than any of the countries around them. They depend on Venezuela’s help and oil, their infrastructure is collapsing even faster than ours, and most of them from what I understand want to repeat all the economic mistakes we’ve made in the last half century, in the belief it will make their economic lives better. As we face more frequent and serious economic, energy and ecological crises in the coming years, we’re going to respond as best we can, and we’ll do some amazing things, but they won’t be fast enough or substantial enough changes to keep our civilization from collapsing in fits and starts until there’s nothing left of it. Just because we can theoretically create a better, more sustainable economy, responsive to our true values, doesn’t mean we will, or even that we could practically engender the collective will to practically do so. Economies evolve, they aren’t designed. When governments have tried to impose radically new economies on citizens they’ve failed, even when the citizens were initially keen.”

Lori shrugged. “Well, it may not be in our nature to change our behaviour quickly, or to change it radically on any scale until and unless there appears to be no other choice. But it is in our nature, I think, to try to change our, and others’ behaviour, as soon as we perceive a need to change. So I respect your curmudgeonly defeatist’s belief that it’s hopeless and your right to give up trying to bring about any large-scale change, but you should also respect my, and Charles’, and many others’ fervent belief that what seems now ‘impossible’ — living and co-creating the new economy until it replaces the old one — is our only option and is worth working all-out to try to achieve. And not undermine us or get in our way.”

“I would never get in your way,” I replied, gesturing deferentially. “But I’m not sure I can promise not to undermine you. Lots of people ask me for my opinion on what I think they can and ‘should’ do, and I’m not going to be dishonest with them. I’m going to tell them that what I’m doing is letting go of the belief that we can bring about any significant change to our political, economic or other systems until we have absolutely no other choice but to change (and even then, I doubt that the change most people will make will be the one that is ‘best’ for them, no matter how cleverly you model it and no matter how articulately you argue for it). I’m going to tell them that what I’m doing is living in the moment, as joyfully as possible, without denying or contributing excessively to the damage our culture is doing to this planet. I’m going to tell them that I think our purpose for being here is to connect, and learn, and love, and understand, and play, and pay attention, and discover and be who we really are, and that’s enough. In fact, if we are able to do that, I think we’ll then know what we must do, what we can do, and what we want to do. We won’t need anyone to tell us, or persuade us.”

Lori gave me an incredulous look, and she knew immediately from my expression that I wasn’t so sure of this myself. I gave her the hands-out-sideways, palms-face-up “at least I think so” signal, and she replied with the self-satisfied “yeah I figured” double-nod. Recently we’d been talking less and just being with each other more, and had picked up this marvellous vocabulary of unspoken signs and gestures. We’d probably always been using them to accompany our spoken words, but now without the words we realized how much they conveyed, in many ways better than the words ever could.

I thought back a week to when we had been together at my house on the island, looking out from my balcony at night over forest and mountains and sea, with no human constructs to dim the awesome sight of the ocean of stars spread out before and below us, and the moon intermittently shrouded by fog and mist.

We’d had a discussion then about Chris Ware’s disconnected, distracted, damaged, cowed people, and about lots of people we knew like them, and what it might take to convince them that our civilization was roaring off a cliff and soon all our lives would be much different, unrecognizable, more local, more focused on sufficiency and self-reliance and resilience, based primarily on sharing and generosity among immediate neighbours that today, by choice, we hardly even know. Some of them, we decided, would understand — the grounded ones who, despite the turmoil and busy-ness and preoccupation with the needs of the moment that dominated their lives, intuitively knew that something was very wrong with the way we mostly live now, and that it could not go on much longer. Most, though, we knew, would think we were slightly or completely crazy. They would not know what to make of Charles Eisenstein or his ideas, and would probably dismiss them quickly as either naive or just bizarre. I stood up and wrapped my arms around Lori as she stared at the city below, Vancouver at midnight, everyone trying to sleep to be ready to face tomorrow’s needs.

“We are all like TS Eliot’s wounded surgeon,” I said, finally, “trying to help others and heal ourselves at the same time. And as we do that we are so utterly distracted from seeing the world, and ourselves in it, as they really are, that it is as if we are doing this healing work in a phantom world, what Joe Bageant called a hologram, a thin but dazzling electromechanical replica of the world that includes only selected human-constructed parts of it, and none of the natural world. A complicated projection of the complex world that is not the real world at all, but we’re so distracted by all the propaganda and gaudy, violent and escapist entertainments and phoney, ‘urgent’ choices, and manufactured scarcities and crises inside it, that we don’t notice it’s not real. We have no time or capacity left to realize that we stopped living in the real world long ago, when at a young age our culture began to wire our brains to be a miniature representation of the hologram, and train us to live inside our heads, inside the hologram inside the hologram. The real world is here, now, outside our heads, outside our human constructs, connected with all other life on Earth. We know that, but like the bee caught inside by the ‘hard air’, we cannot reach it, cannot get to it.” I moved my fingers, bee-like, and bumped them repeatedly into the glass sliding door. Myron looked at me quizzically. He couldn’t see or smell the bee, and the ‘hard air’ didn’t seem a problem for him; he just scratched at it when he wanted in or out, and someone would come along and move it out of the way.

Lori turned around and returned my embrace. She looked at me and held me and signalled to me at once her empathy, her groundedness, her amusement, her appreciation, her fears, her dissatisfaction with my inability to articulate exactly what I meant, that she was close to understanding. We just stood like that, wordlessly, for a while. Finally, she said, quietly, “Well, my love, what should we do in the meantime?”

I sighed again, breathing in the smell of her. “I think we should get undressed and make love for six hours until nothing else matters, and then sleep til three in the afternoon, and then go for a long walk in the forest in the rain and stop in at that tea house in the park and have people in kimonos shower us with flower petals and incant the wisdom of the ages. And then give each other a massage and shower together and make love for another six hours.”

Lori punched me playfully and pushed me away. “You’re incorrigible,” she said. “You think sex is the answer to everything, even though you yourself wrote recently — and I quote — ‘ecstasy is not the same as presence’. It’s not nirvana, it’s a form of escapism, Spencer. There’s a reason no woman wants to have sex for six hours, just like no one wants to go bungee jumping for six hours. It’s unnatural. The flood of pleasure chemicals is wonderful, of course, but you can’t sustain it for too long or indulge it too often or it becomes, well, too much. I’m worried about you, my love. Talk about distractions.

“I’ll prove you wrong,” I said, lifting her up and carrying her through (or around) the sliding door to the bedroom, her giggling soon infecting me too. We compromised, making love for two hours, and then, naked and wrapped together in a lovely, giant soft blanket, shuffled back to the balcony, grabbing cans of grapefruit soda on the way. Myron followed, chasing the part of the blanket that dragged on the floor. We fell together into one of the balcony chairs, Lori deliciously perched on my lap.

The city below us was quiet, but bright with the blaze of miles of streetlights and apartment lights spread out before us. I quoted Rebecca Lee from her story “Bobcat”: “The city never disappoints…It doesn’t know what you want, so it tries to give you everything.” We stared out at the skyline for a while, silently. Our bodies talked to each other, while our heads went off, presumably, in different directions. Mine was inventing stories about the people in the apartments below, some darkened, many still alight. “You see that apartment there?”, I said, pointing. “The guy in there is desperately trying to get to sleep, worrying about a presentation he has to make to a large audience tomorrow about performance management systems. He has never cooked a meal for himself, and wouldn’t know how to begin. His employer has given ten straight unqualified audit opinions to three of the companies driving development of the Tar Sands. And the woman civil servant in that apartment over there is worried because her two-year-old isn’t really talking much yet, and because money is so scarce she may have to give up her apartment and move somewhere she thinks is more dangerous. Her ex-boyfriend convinced her climate change is a myth, and she’s never even heard of peak oil. Her boss’ boss, the federal finance minister, just signed a secret trade deal with China that will bind future generations to give them our oil and water for 50 years or face billion-dollar treaty abrogation fines.”

Lori put her hand over my mouth. “Shh, I know. We’re all distracted in our own way.” she said. Then she laughed to herself and started to impersonate me, with a mock stern expression on her face and her head bobbing from side to side, saying, in a deep voice, “We are all wounded, lost in our personal crises, misinformed, distrustful of the media, and vaguely aware of what’s going on in the world but without the time or energy to research, to ask questions, or reflect, to make sense of it all, to know the real cost of our distraction. We have not merely been turned into unconscious, conditioned consumers of our culture, we have begun to be consumed by it.” She mimicked my palm-upward “it’s hopeless” signal. I laughed, and, though she couldn’t see me from her position on my lap, I gave her the “I’m not worthy” signal. Somehow she picked it up and gave a small exaggerated bow, and then snuggled back into my chest.

She’d put on the “Evergreen” classical Internet music radio station I loved (she called it the “Sad Adagios” station) on low on our way into the bedroom, and now Shostakovich’s 2nd piano concerto was playing quietly inside, and the combination of Lori’s unspoken signals of affection, and the lights, and the buzz of the love chemicals still coursing through my body, and the pathetic state of the world and its creatures, and the soft pressure of Lori’s body against mine, and the lovely music, coming together, overwhelmed me. It was as if I was joining all-life-on-Earth in a giant, synchronous, sympathetic sigh. Tears filled my eyes, and an amazing feeling of love and connection filled the rest of me. Lori used her arms to pull mine tighter around her, and whispered “It’s OK sweetie.”

We just breathed together for a few moments, and then Lori announced, holding up the five fingers of her left hand: “Five things we’re going to do to make things better, Spence. You can join us or just play around us, but don’t get in our way. One, instead of telling people what not to do, or what they should do, we’re going to make it easy and fun for them to do the right things, things like walking instead of driving, and things like inviting your neighbours to a party to learn how to make jam.” She was expecting me to interject and was ready to shush me but I was just listening, breathing, taking it all in, uncritical for a change.

Two, we’re going to make resilience relevant to the here-and-now, so people will want to learn it now, rather than just before everything is unquestionably falling apart. We’ll make the woman in that apartment you were talking about more resilient so she can be at peace with her child’s rate of development, and at peace with the beauty and joy and sense of community to be found wherever she lives. We’ll show that guy how enjoyable and liberating it is to learn to cook, and grow some of his own food, maybe in a communal garden on the rooftop of his apartment. And we’ll show people that being resilient doesn’t require you to change, or “become better”, just a little less dependent on The Machine and more aware of the power and wisdom and pleasure of the company of the people right in your community, and that drawing on that community and its resources can actually save you more time than it asks of you.”

Three. We’re going to engage the busiest and most distracted people in the community by engaging their children and grandchildren first, through their schools and their games and their music and their movies and the things they do for fun. Not by propaganda or scary stories about the future, but by showing them enjoyable, creative things to do that will actually be useful to them. Like how to use their computer to design their own clothes professionally and then create a printable pattern that will let them make, and re-make, those clothes themselves. Like how to prepare for a pandemic by participating in a real-time, cooperative massive multiplayer online game that will involve doing stuff in the real world to ‘win’. Like how to direct their own learning to identify what they really want to do in the world that they can do well and that meets a real need, and then convert that knowledge into a real local cooperative, meeting and working with others in the community with complementary skills, so that they never need to depend on someone else ‘giving’ them a ‘job’, a job they’d probably hate anyway.”

Four. We’re going to engage the grandmothers to tell stories about how they learned to cope with grief, and loss, and sorrow, and helplessness, and despair, and fear, and outrage, and powerlessness, and use those stories to return the grandmothers to the revered status they once held in every society and which they still hold in many indigenous cultures. Because the grandmothers know the answers to the questions most of the rest of us are afraid to ask, to deal with, to face. And we’re going to use the most subversive tool ever invented, the story, to show the rest of us we need not be afraid, that the grandmothers can teach us, can model for us, what we need to know to face any crisis, now and in the future.”

Five. And you’ll love this one, Spence. We’re going to liberate the dependent captives of our culture by taking on the identity, the persona and the costume of the trickster, the raven, the Loki, the coyote, the satyr, the faun, the mischief-maker, and in that role bring to bear the ‘crazy wisdom’ that Tom Robbins and Kenny Ausubel talk about, the ‘wisdom that evolves when one, while refusing to avert one’s gaze from the sorrows and injustices of the world, insists on joy in spite of everything’. Your ‘joyful pessimism’, Spencer! We will learn to play the Fool, the Green Man, the harbinger of new beginnings, the innocent who brings fresh eyes and naive ‘Emperor’s got no clothes’ courage and cleverly replace the old frames with new impossible, intuitive, wondrous children’s frames, by sleight of mind. We will distract them back to reality.”

I looked at her open-mouthed. “Wow,” I said, “where did that come from? That’s amazing.”

“It came from out there,” she replied, gesturing over the balcony. “And in here.” She pointed to her body. “And from in here, too,” she added, pointing at my body. “Our bodies talked, once your mind got out of the way, and they dreamed some of this up between them. They know a lot that we never listen to.”

“I’m blown away. That’s an awesome list. I should be taking notes. Just one question, though: Who is this ‘we’ that is going to do these five things?”

Lori thought for a moment. “You know when Charles Eisenstein talks about how the emerging new economy will allow people to ‘make a living’ by identifying and offering their unique gift to the world? Well, ‘we’ are the people whose unique gift is congruent with one or more of these five actions. A coalition of those  who both care about making the world a better place, right now and in the future, and believe it’s worth trying, even if it’s hopeless, even if it’s ‘impossible’. For the actions about making things easy and fun, that would be facilitators and game-makers and people from who we can relearn how to play. For the actions around becoming more resilient now in all we do, that might be people who have nothing to lose, people who have learned to let go of everything. For the actions around engaging young people it might be people who really care about kids, people — probably not teachers, though — who do things that appeal to young people’s sense of self-discovery and wonder and curiosity, people who demonstrate stuff, who let you try it just for fun, just to see if you can do it. For the actions around listening to the grandmothers, it will be the grandmothers of course, but also the First Nations people, and the story-tellers.”

She paused, and wrinkled her nose, and then went on: “The actions around the trickster, the Fool, may be harder to initiate and recruit the right people for. It might be improv people, or people like you who have good imaginations and love to play, and clever scriptwriters. But we have nature’s tricksters to learn from too. Right, Myron?” she said, as the cat batted a piece of paper among the chair legs. “I’ve seen you play with Myron, pulling a string around the room for an hour while he chased it. He basically taught you how to play with him, and a lot more besides. He is at once wise and silly, a perfect trickster.”

We both fell silent after that, listening to the music and staring at the lights above and below us. There was a full moon, but a rolling translucent mist softened its edges, gave it a halo. Neither of us was tired, and neither of us had to get up early the next day, so we just were, together, talking with our eyes and our faces and our bodies, breathing together.

“Up,” she said, after a while, pulling me up as she rose, the blanket still wrapped around both of our still-naked bodies. When I gave her the ‘what’s up’ look she said “I’m going to teach you something about resilience.” She went into the bedroom and retrieved a second oversized blanket, and then wrapped one around each of us, using some velcro tabs she’d somehow attached to them, until they were loosely but securely wrapped around each of us, like ersatz microfibre ankle-length kimonos. “Neat, huh? Instant one-layer all-weather clothing. A homeless guy showed me the idea. Now we’re going for a walk in the forest. Yes, I know it’s the middle of the night, and no, we’re not going to take flashlights or GPS gadgets. I’m going to bring out the bonobo in you. Just trust me.”

She led me out and down the elevator and soon we were walking along the deserted street, hand-in-hand, the five blocks to the entrance of Stanley Park, one of the world’s largest urban forests. I was anxious as soon as we entered the park and made our way onto one of the myriad of trails, which was not lit for night travel. It was incredibly beautiful, in there under the stars and the hazy moon, with fog sweeping in from the harbour. But I could not enjoy it. My mind imagined encountering unhinged people sleeping in the park, night police sweeps, one of us falling and knocking ourselves unconscious. I’d gotten lost running in this forest lots of times, in full daylight when you could see and read the path markers. Lori could sense the tension in me just from holding my hand.

“OK, here’s where the bonobo comes in,” she said. She pulled me off the trail and for about a minute we stumbled through total darkness. Then she sat me on a log, a fallen Douglas Fir. She knelt in front of me and pulled off the velcro that kept the blankets in place in the front, from chest to knees, first mine, then hers. Then she gently but insistently rubbed the front of her naked body against mine, to heavenly effect. She fended off my attempts to kiss her, hold her, and just continued the calming, rubbing motion, for about two minutes. Then she re-attached the velcro, drew me to my feet, and led me back to the path. “OK, now,” she said in a half-asking, half-declarative voice.

It felt as if my heart rate had fallen by half. Instead of aroused, or perhaps in addition to aroused, I felt serene, as if all my fears and dreads and sorrows had evaporated. Once back on the path, my eyes now adjusted to darkness, the moonlight was enough to make me feel more confident navigating the pathway, despite the shadow of the looming, ancient rainforest all around us. I became aware of smells and sounds and even the taste of the air that I’d never noticed before. For an hour or so we walked, doing what Lori called “mindful wandering”, in silence, just sensing, noticing, perceiving, imagining, ‘making sense’.

And then Lori once again pulled me off the trail, deeper and deeper into the darkness, and my anxiety level soared again. Again, Lori sensed this and sat me on the ground, only this time she only opened the velcro on her own blanket, and kneeling in front of me drew me towards her and guided my lips to her breasts. Involuntarily, driven by some primal instinct I didn’t recognize, I suckled like a baby, and for what seemed several minutes Lori sang to me, so quietly that sometimes the light wind drowned out her words. I lost track of time before Lori reattached her blanket and led me still further into the forest.

I was going to say something about how wonderfully distracting her actions were in calming me, but then, as if I could hear her voice answering me, I realized that what she was doing was the opposite of distraction, that it was the fears and imaginings in my head, and my body’s tense fight-or-flight reaction to those fears and imaginings, that were the distraction. And that her feral, comforting actions were bringing me away from that distraction, away from the fictions I’d made up in my head, and back to reality. I was swooning, and exhausted, but felt more alive and at peace than I could remember ever feeling.

We stopped when we came to a clearing, soft, flat and moss-covered. “Good enough for the deer, good enough for us,” she said to herself quietly, and pulled me down beside her. She lay me down on my side and then lay in front of me, head-to-feet, feet-to-head. “Put your head on my thigh, like a pillow” she said, opening one of the velcro pieces, lifting her top leg, and angling her body slightly to accommodate my head. She gently lowered her leg to cocoon me between her indescribably soft thighs. She created a pillow for herself between my thighs the same way. The padding of the moss and the blankets cushioned us perfectly.

She was asleep in a moment. I just lay there, enveloped by her, breathless. All that existed was the sound of her breath, the smell of her, the sound of the breeze beyond. It was magic. I drifted off and woke again, wanting to memorize what this felt like, what this was, so that I could stop myself from ever going back into that terrible unreal place in my head. I could hear the rustle of the ravens’ feathers as they surveyed us from the trees above. I could hear the coyotes’ howl and the cats’ knowing purr. I could see the etched faces of the First Nations grandmothers, laughing, nodding at my acknowledgement of what they had always known.

November 11, 2012

The Elements of Community?

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 03:11

I have been writing a lot of late on the importance of relearning to build and live in community, if we are going to cope well with the coming economic, energy and ecological crises. Problem is, most of us now live in anonymous, opportunistic, disconnected neighbourhoods, relating primarily to those outside rather than inside our communities, depending on outside centralized systems for just about everything, and not knowing or particularly caring about the people who live around us, the natural ecosystem of the place where we live, or how much of anything essential really works. We’ve forgotten what real community means, what it is.

This got me thinking: What are the essential elements of community, anyway? If we succeeded in creating or reshaping our neighbourhoods into authentic communities, what would they “contain”? What would they look like? How would they work? I started scribbling and the sketch above is the first draft I came up with. Imagine it scrawled on the back of a napkin (if my handwriting was legible I would have used a hand drawn sketch instead).

I have no idea what to do with this, and I’m sure it’s a very flawed and incomplete model. But it seems to me it’s something we need to have a model of, if we hope to create (or at least help evolve) communities that work.

November 8, 2012

Several Short Sentences About Empathy

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 01:33

(the style of this essay is borrowed from that of NYT nature writer Verlyn Klinkenborg’s brilliant essay & book “Several Short Sentences About Writing”; I’m playing with it as an interesting new form of prose)

  1. If we’re going to survive as a species when our civilization crumbles (and when that collapse brings about the end of the industrial economy, the end of abundant cheap energy and the end of stable climate), we are going to have to relearn how to live in community.
  2. That will entail relearning to get along with (and to love, not just tolerate) people in our physical communities who we don’t like much. In our modern, anonymous, isolating society we have not had to do this.
  3. Getting along with people we don’t like will require us to study, understand and appreciate why they are the way they are. They are the way they are for a reason.
  4. Once we appreciate this reason, we will be able to empathize with their behaviour, and from that it’s a short journey to loving them.
  5. One of the likely reasons they are the way they are is that, because of how and where they were raised, they learned that this is a good way to be. A good way to be, depending on the worldview you’re endowed with (and evolve through critical and imaginative thinking) is one that is, at least for you: Moral, safe, rewarded and/or mandated.
  6. This good way to be, to others who do not share your worldview, may come across as: Unreasonable, cruel, insane, insensitive, irrational, defensive, insufferable, frightening, threatening and/or reality-denying.
  7. There are a number of evolved “rules” for behaviour in modern businesses (and most workplaces), and generally in the Anglo-American cultures (and some other cultures) that reflect a certain, now widely-prevalent antipathetic worldview. These rules include:
    • Do not express your feelings. That is a sign of weakness. Only exception: Male superiors may express (justifiable) anger towards subordinates.
    • Do not accept responsibility, and, more specifically, make and hold others responsible for as much as possible. You always want to have more power (authority) than you have responsibility. Otherwise you will get none of the credit and all of the blame (and most of the work).
    • Someone must always be to blame. It is always about “human error”, weakness, failure. To admit otherwise would be to acknowledge that we, civilized humans, and especially our leaders, are not in control and/or do not really know what is going on.
    • We must never admit that no one is in control and that no one really knows what is going on, because to do so would forfeit our authority, undermine our sense of self-control and the natural hierarchical order of things, and hence lead to terror and anarchy.
    • We must, ourselves, always appear to be in control and to know what is going on. The best way to do this is to convince ourselves it is true.
  8. There is no room for empathy, or the embracing of uncertainty, ambiguity or complexity in such a worldview.
  9. Evolving an alternative worldview that does allow room for these things is essential to us rediscovering how to live in true community. Such a worldview would have these qualities and favour these behaviours:
    • We know ourselves well: We know what we are competent at (and not), what we love (and hate) doing, what triggers us and why.
    • We believe everyone is doing their best, and everyone is, to some extent, suffering and handicapped and in need.
    • When someone exhibits behaviour that we don’t understand, we talk and work with that person and with others in the community to try to understand it. We try hard not to judge it.
    • We are distrustful of hierarchy and avoid it as much as possible.
    • We believe in the power of consensus, empathy, conversation and appreciative inquiry, and the wisdom of the crowd.
    • When something happens that triggers anger, fear, anxiety, sadness or grief, we recognize the trigger for what it is and don’t let it own us. We own it. We appreciate that the trigger is our “stuff”, not that of the person who provoked it.
    • We trust that the person was not maliciously trying to trigger us, and try to understand why they said or did what they did. We don’t try to “fix” the situation so it can’t recur, or “fix” the person who provoked it. We accept them for who they are.
    • We let it go and move on.
  10. When our economy collapses, and central organizations can no longer do things for us (give us jobs, provide us services, import and export things, transport us by air, inform us, entertain us, treat our illnesses and accidents, train us, or tell us what to do) we will have to learn to invite people in our local communities to come together to find ways to do these things for ourselves.
  11. By “ourselves” I mean all of us living in a local physical community, the people who happen to live in the same neighbourhood when the shit hits the fan. By “ourselves” I do not mean us as dangerously armed individuals behind a bunker and barbed wire with large amounts of emergency provisions and duct tape. These provisions, no matter how extensive or carefully assembled, will run out long before the Long Emergency does. And to believe that we can survive system collapse “alone” in some kind of nuclear family unit is pure hubris.
  12. None of this will happen quickly; over the next few decades it will get intermittently better and worse, but mostly worse, in periods of punctuated equilibrium. We will have time to relearn to do this stuff. But it wouldn’t hurt to start now; there’s a lot to relearn and we’re going to make a lot of awful mistakes in the process.
  13. The communities we find ourselves in when this happens will be accidental communities. We may want them to be intentional communities, full of like-minded people with broad, deep, complementary skills. But they won’t.
  14. Our accidental communities will include (probably many) individuals struggling with one or more of these challenges: Homelessness, alcohol, gambling, nicotine, drug and other addictions (to many kinds of substances and behaviours), chronic depression (possibly suicidal), physical mobility issues, Alzheimers, autism spectrum and other dissociative behaviours, visual and/or auditory incapacity, dependence on expensive and complex medications, autoimmune diseases, cancers, anger and sexual abuse issues (both protagonists and victims), propensity to steal, vigilantism, mental illnesses, incapacity to care for themselves (e.g. orphaned and abandoned children), inability to speak the native language (e.g. refugees), religious and political intolerance, chromosome dysfunctions (e.g. Down’s), learning disabilities, bullying behaviours, narcissism, obsessive/compulsive behaviours and beliefs (e.g. conspiracy theories), exaggerated and diminished sense of self-worth, and many others. As the struggles get harder and the crises deepen, we will all start to manifest more of these behaviours. There will likely be no central institutions to deal with these issues outside our communities. We will have to find a way to deal with them ourselves.
  15. Empathy is a quality that is neither essential nor common in our modern civilization. It takes spending some time with the worldview summarized in point 9 above, and a lot of practice, to be skilled at it. Bonobos appear to be skilled at it.
  16. I, for one, am not skilled at it.
  17. Empathy is not just a feeling; it is an offering. It is something you give another because you want to, and because you can. It cannot be extracted by demand, or by plea, or (for very long) by manipulation or coercion. If it’s not genuine it’s not empathy.
  18. Empathy is not feeling sorry for someone. It is the capacity to understand, accept, appreciate and care about another’s feelings, and, sometimes, to convey that to the ones one empathizes with (through words, expression, touch and other means). Its presence or absence drives the behaviours and actions we take as part of a community.
  19. In the coming decades, as our lives revolve more and more around the accidental communities in which we find ourselves, empathy will become, along with facilitation and mentoring skills, absolutely crucial. Without it, these communities will disintegrate. With it, they will be able to create new, stable, resilient societies.
  20. It is likely that, across the globe, some communities will succeed at this, and others will fail. It will be impossible to predict which will succeed, or why, so any success will probably not be replicable. Each tribe will succeed on its own. Or not.

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