Dave Pollard's chronicle of civilization's collapse, creative works and essays on our culture.
A trail of crumbs, runes and exclamations along my path in search of a better way to live and make a living, and a better understanding of how the world really works.

August 31, 2014

Why I Don’t Want to Hear Your Story

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 12:25

meMost of us have developed a variety of different ‘bios’ for different purposes. We have one for work, that basically describes our acquired skills and experience and what we ‘do for a living’. We have one for meeting new people socially, whether that be on a dating site or just something we relate at cocktail parties or potlucks. (For most of us, thankfully, that is no longer mostly about what we do for work.) It is more likely to be aspirational — what we want to do in our future, and who (known or not yet met) we hope to do it with, though it likely also includes some data like our marital and family status. And then we have a third ‘bio’ that is the story we tell ourselves, and selectively our loved ones, about ourselves. It’s about how we define ourselves: what we love and care about, our purpose and intentions, our philosophy or worldview, and the adjectives and other ‘labels’ we assign ourselves.

Trying to combine these three bios is a messy business. They have different ‘audiences’ and there are many things about us each audience just doesn’t want to know. And most interestingly, each has a different predominant tense: the work bio is past-tense focused (what have we shown), the relationship bio is future-tense focused (what are we looking for), and the self-bio is present-tense focused (who we really are, right now). Sadly, because most of us live such busy and struggling lives, the third bio is probably for most the least developed, the most unknown.

When I was interviewing people, or looking for suppliers at work, I looked at their (mostly past-tense) bios, but I found I really didn’t care about them very much; people selling their services generally know if they have what it takes, and tend to self-select out of the application pool if they don’t think they have what’s needed. So when I was interviewing, I generally took it for granted that the applicants were qualified. What I wanted to know was a bit about their aspirations (to know if they would likely stick around long enough to have been worth hiring), but mostly I wanted to know about who they were right then — what they cared about, what they had passion for, what their personal ‘purpose’ was. That’s what differentiates people most, and what I wanted in work colleagues was shared passion and purpose. Those are the people we want to work with, and who will want to work with us.

But it’s awkward getting to that: We can’t just baldly ask someone, in an interview (or a cocktail party or potluck) what they care about. It sounds too nosy, too personal. Besides, many people really have no idea what they care about, what their personal passions and purpose is, so asking them is just putting them on the spot.

Likewise, when I belonged to OKCupid, the alt-culture dating site, I looked at their (mostly future-tense) bios, but I found I really didn’t care about them very much either; they were useful for eliminating inappropriate potential partners (in my case, those looking for the one perfect person to “complete” them, or looking to have children, or demonstrating a high level of neediness, or lack of intelligence, creativity, curiosity, self-knowledge or self-awareness) but not for identifying people with whom I might have an extraordinary connection. The list of what people like to do ‘in their spare time’ is not very helpful, either, since it really relates to their past story and what they’ve stumbled on that they’ve found valuable enough to continue doing. Knowing someone likes birdwatching or hang gliding or even shopping doesn’t really tell me if I’m going to enjoy their company. No, again, I want to know what they care about, what their ‘purpose’ and passions are — not whether they like seeing a rare Meriwhether’s Falcon, but rather whether they like studying birds’ behaviour to see what it teaches us about our own. Not whether they have liked something they’ve seen or done in past, but whether, based on their stated passions, whether there is something we’d likely like to do together right now.

So how can we tactfully and skillfully ask these questions that unearth who people really are right now, so that we can discover quickly whether the person we have just met is destined to be our brilliant colleague, life partner, inspiring mentor or new best friend?

Asking them to tell their story is precisely the wrong way to do this, in my experience. Most people (including me) are terrible story-tellers, and their stories tend to dwell on past facts and details that mostly have no bearing on what they care about or who they are now, or why. And most people love to tell their stories, because it’s easy and comfortable and they can censor out whatever they don’t like, or think you won’t like. Most people’s stories are polished fiction.

Before exploring what might work better, let me summarize what I think are the 6 most important questions to probe to find  that potential “brilliant colleague, life partner, inspiring mentor or new best friend”:

  1. What adjectives or nouns would you use to describe yourself that differentiate you from most other people? When and how did these words come to apply to you?
  2. Describe the most fulfilling day you can imagine, some day that might actually occur in the next year. As you describe each event in the day, explain why it would be so fulfilling to you. What are you doing each day that might increase the likelihood of such a day occurring?
  3. What do you care about, right now? What would you mourn if it disappeared? What do you ache to have in your life? What would you work really long and hard to conserve or achieve? How did you come to care so much (now that’s a story worth listening to)?
  4. What is your purpose, right now? What would elate you if you achieved it, today, this month, in the next year? What would devastate you if you failed, or didn’t get to try? How did this become your purpose?
  5. What’s your basic philosophy or worldview about why you, and other humans, exist? Not what you believe is right or important (or what you, or humans ‘should’ do or be), but why you think we are the way we are now, and why you think we evolved. It’s an existential question, not a moral one. How did you come to this philosophy?
  6. What’s your basic philosophy or worldview about what the next century holds for our planet? What do you see as your role and approach to dealing with that eventuality? How did you come to this philosophy?

It seems go me that the best way to broach these questions, without seeming too abrupt, with someone you have just met or are just getting to know, is to go first. Be an example of openness and candour that makes it easier for others to follow. I would volunteer my own answers to these questions, probably in the order they are above (i.e. simplest and easiest first), by prefacing my answer with something like “someone asked me the other day…”.

I would answer only the question in bold, unless prompted to elaborate, and then leave open the space for the other person to proffer their own answers. Once they did, or if they tried but struggled, I’d throw out the supplementary questions, especially the story-evoking ones in italics that elicit stories.

That’s it. My newest idea for avoiding small-talk and useless bios, and hopefully finding more meaningful connections more quickly and reliably.

So let me tell you what I care about, my purpose, my sense of who I am and how I see us, now. And then, rather than telling me your past or future story, tell me who you are and what you care about right now. If we find we care about very different things, then we can part company politely, knowing that. And if we find our answers to these questions largely overlap, who knows what might be possible?

My answers to the 6 basic questions follow. If you want to know the why’s and how’s, that the subject for another conversation.


  1. I am above all hedonistic, vegan, deschooled, unspiritual, joyful, imaginative, curious, and reflective. The decision to put hedonistic first is new and deliberate. Etymologically it means “attuned to sweet and pleasant things”. It in no way means shallow, reckless or insensitive. It acknowledges that there is only now, and that ‘just being’ — aware in this moment of what is — sensing and responding presently, intellectually, emotionally, sensuously, and intuitively, is probably the most honest, appreciative and authentic way of being anyone can aspire to.
  2. My perfect day would be spent gently exploring wild and beautiful places, talking, eating, playing, making love and co-creating things with a small group of physically, emotionally and intellectually strong, fit, self-aware and beautiful people.
  3. I care about the ongoing sixth great extinction of life on Earth, and the suffering it is causing. I care about making every moment of this short and amazing life count. I care about knowing how I, and the world, really ‘work’ and how I can be of use to all-life-on-Earth in the years I have left in ways that make a real difference.
  4. For now, my purpose — what drives me — seems to be making the women in my life that I care about, happy, in any way that I can. That may sound strange, but it seems true for me, and brings me a lot of joy in return.
  5. I believe we have evolved, each creature in its complex container of cells and organs, to experience the pure joy of being alive. Just that. Just to be, joyfully alive. Nothing spiritual in that — life emerged as an accident and has since deliberately been working to perpetuate itself when life is joyful and to extinguish itself when it is not.
  6. Because of living far beyond our material means, exhausting the planet’s resources on which we depend, and polluting the planet beyond its capacity to cleanse itself, I believe human civilization will collapse in fits and starts, globally, over the coming decades and centuries, until what remains of humans is a small number of people living diverse, simple, tribal lives a few millennia from now, without infrastructure, hierarchy, technology or even connection with other tribes. I have to believe theirs will be joyful, leisurely, sustainable lives, which is more than we can say of our wonderful, terrible civilization.

August 3, 2014

Three Ways of Being

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 18:50


   Rational Worldview (Way of Being)  Spiritual Worldview (Way of  Being)  Natural Worldview (Way of Being)
 What You Revere  Truth, Wisdom  Higher Being  Gaia
 Major Beliefs  Power of Intention, Science, Logic  Appreciation of Blessings,  Miracles,  Art  Complexity, Emergence,  Unfathomability of Nature
 Means to Self-  Fulfillment  Self-Knowledge, Self-Management,  Understanding of Reality  Selflessness, Self-Awareness,  Being of Service  Reconnection, Generosity
 Centre of Being  Intellect (Head)  Emotion (Heart)  Senses/Intuition (Body)
 Most Respected  Activities  Work, Learning, Contemplation  Prayer, Meditation  Compassion, Appreciation, Play,  Communing
 Some Favourite  Words  Critical Thinking, Integral, Coherent  Manifest, Sacred, Divine  More-than-Human, Biomimicry,  Biophilia
 Predominant Political  Philosophy  Progressive  Humanist  ‘Green’

As part of my research for my latest creative work, I reread my friend Indigo Ocean’s book Being Bliss. It’s a remarkably ambitious work that’s recently been reprinted, and Indigo is fearless in telling her own harrowing story to illustrate that the journey she recommends for us is possible for anyone. Here’s a brief synopsis of the book:

  • The thesis of the book is that you can achieve self-realization through a combination of setting intention (being clear about your goals, day by day) and living in accordance with that intention (through a regular practice of paying attention and being alert to what is really happening, self-empowerment and discernment in what you choose to do and not do, and letting go, being open to and leaving space for the realization of that intention).
  • Much of the book is focused on ways to free ourselves the self-limiting thoughts that keep us fearful, disconnected, and caught up in our egos and the stories in our heads. She stresses that the objective is not “self-improvement” but the realization of one’s true nature. She quotes Osho as saying “When you think about freedom, you think as if you will be there and free. You will not be there; there will be freedom. Freedom means freedom from the self, not freedom of the self.”
  • The book includes several exercises (each to be repeated for three days) designed to give even the skeptic a sense of the possibility of achieving this freedom, and it introduces a broad spectrum of different meditation techniques that you can try until you find one that works best for you.
  • She describes her own ‘Ascension’ yoga practice. It starts with aerobic activity of your own choosing, and then a choice of your own asanas (yoga poses) with shavasana (lying on your back in a relaxed, deep breathing position) before the first and in between each few poses. The shavasana breaks should be contemplative, appreciative and as full of positive energy as you can manage. The final poses should be balancing poses, and the concluding shavasana should be one of total relaxation and gratefulness, and for the setting of positive intentions as you end the practice.
  • She also summarizes a form of ecstatic dance consistent with this practice that might work better for those who struggle with meditation, and the form might be of interest to DJs who put together ecstatic dance sets. She recommends that if you dance alone that you do so free of disturbances and as much as possible with eyes closed. The music set she recommends is the following sequence of song types (~5 minutes each): (1) simple rhythm (connection to 1st chakra), (2) funky rhythm (2nd chakra), (3) hard driving (3rd chakra), (4) a beloved melody (4th chakra), (5) moving/inspiring (6th chakra). [My first playlist using this sequence worked quite well; it was (1) Pumped Up Kicks (Foster the People), (2) Young Black Pearl (Shydeeh), (3) Doly (Quatre Etoiles), (4) Om Namo Bhagavate (Deva Premal -- the non-chanted version), (5) Shine (Joni Mitchell), followed by a suite of Empire of the Sun, T-Vice and Cinematic Orchestra songs.]
  • The book concludes with some practices for grounding when you’re trying to cope with negative emotions, and some counsel on relationships, specifically about how helping each other heal is a sacred responsibility for us all in this broken modern culture.

In writing the book, Indigo tacitly keeps coming back at each subject from three different perspectives, to appeal to readers with fundamentally different worldviews about how to make ourselves, and the world, more ‘blissful’. I would call them the Rational, the Spiritual, and the Natural ‘ways of being’. The table at the top of this post describes what I think are the key elements of these worldviews. I think it could be very useful to think about, for those of us who often find ourselves working at cross-purposes with people who share our political and philosophical sensibilities but see the world through these different lenses. Many of us may straddle or vacillate between them, and many books have been written trying to ‘reconcile’ rational and spiritual worldviews, but perhaps it’s more important that we just appreciate the differences and how and why they have arisen, and accept them.

Indigo takes great pains in her book to use the ‘language’ of all three worldviews, so she doesn’t alienate readers regardless of where they are coming from. We would be wise to do likewise, I think.

June 21, 2014

Just Begin: A Meditation

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 00:59

why we do what we do

I spent today outside, among the trees, silent, naked, just paying attention. It’s part of my rather clumsy presencing practice. This is what occurred to me during this meditation-inquiry-contemplation session.

There has been a conversation going on inside me almost my whole life. But at some point in childhood, around age 7, I became unable to hear it. The conversation was among four ‘factions’ that make up the complicity of me: the intuiters, the sensers, the feelers, and the thinkers.

None of these factions is located in any particular part of my body. Living creatures are more complex than that. In fact these factions aren’t really ‘things’ at all. In a real sense, we are made of processes, not components. What we perceive as living ‘stuff’ — tangible collections of atoms or cells or other components — are merely vestiges, images, imaginings, at a point in time. But time is just a concept, unreal (as any informed physicist will tell you), a made up convention, so “points in time” are similarly unreal. So this ‘stuff’ we imagine “we’re” made up of is just an abstraction, a convention, a model to make sense of this staggeringly complex world.

So these four factions that make up me are just processes, ways of knowing, ways of perceiving, ways of making sense.

What’s more, the convention of calling the collection of stuff and processes that are/happen within our bodies “us”, is just another unreal model, a simplification. Most of the cells within “our” bodies are genetically unrelated to “us”, though without them “we” would quickly perish. And most of the processes that affect us transcend in every sense the boundaries of our bodies: they are the processes that are making us “everybody-else” as EE Cummings put it, processes that are collective, associative, neither initiated nor controlled by us, yet very much part of the processes that make us “us”.

Unfortunately, our brains are not cognitively capable of appreciating this beyond an abstract level. We cannot ‘see’, except perhaps under the influence of ayahuasca, that we are not individual, not a ‘thing’ or set of ‘things’, not a ‘self’, not in any way separate from all-life-on-Earth. Our ‘being-alive’ may express itself through our bodies, but it is not our bodies, nor is it the part of us we abstractly call our ‘minds’ — those plodding, oversimplifying pattern-seeking organs invented to coordinate our bodies’ movements and sense-processing functions, that now imagine themselves to be ‘us’.

So, in this conversation, the thinkers and feelers and sensers and intuiters are talking among themselves, trying to make sense of all this, despite our brain’s interfering and increasingly dangerous oversimplifications. Trying to do their best, in good Darwinian style, to ensure that the actions of, and upon, our cells and organs are ‘healthy’ — good for ‘us’, us being the complicity of our components and processes and inseparably those of all other life on Earth.

So what happened to me at age 7 that this amazing conversation was lost to me, or at least to the parts of me that I came to recognize as ‘me’?

I think what happened first is that I became afraid to feel. Unlike how I was during my idyllic first few years of life, by age 7 feeling had become too risky, too unsafe, too painful. The joys and the pleasures just weren’t enough to compensate for the suffering that came when I allowed myself to really feel. Too often feeling meant falling victim to the terrible negative emotions of fear, anger and sadness that were triggered almost non-stop in my interactions with other people and our culture. I couldn’t bear all the suffering that came from witnessing the cruel reality of this hard, terrible, unfair world.

But we can’t, of course, just stop feeling, unless we’re one of those rare and unencumbered psychopaths who have mastered not-feeling.

So instead, what I think happened when I was 7 was that the thinking faction of me cut itself off from the feelers, pretended they were unessential, unimportant, weak. What I was feeling became ‘divorced’ from what I was thinking. This is because, as Eckart Tolle describes, our large brains can easy push us into a vicious cycle (the red circle in the chart above) of egoic mind (fictional stories that our culture has told us are true and ‘factual’) and pain-body (the negative emotions such as anger, fear, guilt, shame and grief that these stories invoke in us). This is shown in more detail in the chart below:


So, returning to the top chart again, it’s perfectly understandable that my thinker and feeler factions, at age 7, should try to divorce, to separate my thinking from my feeling, to short-circuit the vicious cycle. My thinkers didn’t want my distressing stories to trigger painful negative emotions, and my feelers didn’t want my negative feelings to recall and reinforce traumatic stories. So “I” stopped listening to their conversation.

My intuiters and sensers were quickly rendered incoherent by this disconnection. Sensers can’t make sense of what they’re sensing, and intuiters can’t integrate what they’re intuiting, without the holistic feedback of a conversation that integrates all four ways of knowing/being. So now when I see beauty (as I did today) I feel good, and I appreciate it aesthetically, but the feeling-good is thoughtless and the aesthetic appreciation is unfeeling. Likewise, my intuitions can’t be trusted as long as what I intuitively ‘feel’ can’t be rationalized, and what I think intuitively reasonable can’t get emotional confirmation. So my sensers and intuiters have become discouraged and disoriented, and, all thanks to those damned childhood fears, all-of-me has become, essentially, incoherent. Damaged. Disconnected.

Guess which ‘side’ my brain took in the ‘divorce’? The safe, ‘rational’, trying-to-be-unemotional side, the side of the thinkers. So I lived inside my head for much of my life. Avoiding my emotions (except for brief periods of fearlessness when I was madly in love). Ignoring my senses. Distrusting my emotions.

Note that our language sees these four factions as so integrated it overlaps the words used to describe them. Sense is a word that describes what both our thinkers (“making sense of” and “sensible”) and our sensers (the five “senses” and the word “sensual”) do. And feel is a word that describes what both our feelers (“how are you feeling”) and our sensers (“feel this”) do. And then there are the phrases “makes intuitive sense” and “gut feel”. When these factions of our knowing/being become incoherent, so must our use of these words.

As you probably know, I’m not a big fan of “self-improvement”, so I don’t have expectations of reconciling and healing this disconnect and re-becoming coherent. I’m still afraid to feel. “No use to the world broken”, I say.

But it seems to me that these four factions are still talking, still sending messages, still trying to communicate. That’s a part of their, and our, prime directive of being healthy, and my brain’s short-circuiting of the conversation doesn’t change that, though I imagine the unanswered messages are probably a little confused by now. Here is what I think they’re saying, that I’m not hearing, at least most of the time:

Intuiters and sensers:

Just begin. Go outside. Do stuff. Little, non-scary things. Moonlight walks. Scented candles. Path lights. Sound of the surf. Every day. Just be, as attentively as you can. No pressure. Breathe. Let yourself not think so relentlessly. Close your eyes, feel the sun, hear the birds, smell the rain. Listen to us, just a little bit. You know everything is wonderful, amazing, magical; forgive yourself for not feeling it, not yet. It will come back. It will come again. It’s OK to be discouraged. It’s OK to be afraid.

Now, open your eyes. Look, and keep looking. If you get tired, rest and then try again. You remember what it’s like to really see. You can still do that. You’re not that damaged.


Ask yourself why other people’s happiness is more important to you than your own, why the only way that you can be really happy yourself is when you’ve made someone you care about happy. And you call yourself a misanthrope! And try this, you’re smart: Imagine coherence. Imagine what it’s like to be really present, what you would be doing, how you’d be feeling and acting. And imagine (since you probably can’t remember) who you really were, and imagine you are that again, imagine and picture what it’s like to be a process not a thing, to be a complicity not an individual, to be an inseparable part of all-life-on-Earth, not apart.

During a previous presencing exercise you wrote this, and several people wrote and said you were really on to something. Awesome writing, man! Writing on all four cylinders. Think about it. Use it next time you are trying to become more present:

How do I imagine, in my moments of inquiry and contemplation, my normal state of living if I were able to awaken, connect, and realize who/what I (and the unity of which I am inextricably a part) really am, every moment?

I imagine myself in a state that is at once very relaxed and very aware. A state where my intellect is largely at rest (and damn, it needs a rest!) and where my emotions are calm, even, compassionate, and playful — not “under control” but just at peace. A state where my senses and instinct come to the fore, with my senses acute, noticing, connected, taking in, feeling-at-one-with, enjoying, and my instincts are ‘directing’ ‘me’, gently, letting go, letting things come, just being present, being generous, ‘touching’ appropriately when that ‘touch’ would be helpful.

No longer my ‘self’.

I imagine myself being just a part, flying, floating. Green and blue and white, flowing and glowing.

Softening. Getting lighter.



When you’re dead you won’t feel anything. You’ll be safe, then, you’ll be free, free from the bondage of your fears. But in the meantime, you’re running out of time to really feel, fearlessly. Yes, you could fall in love again, but that euphoria, that ecstasy, is transient. Too easy. How much do you still have to lose by listening to your feelings? How much do you have to gain? You remember, don’t you, what it feels like to really feel. To really be alive. That’s the story to remember, to recall, to tell yourself and tell others. Why not take a chance, a calculated risk? No hurry, whenever you’re ready. But you know you’re nearly ready, don’t you? Your impatience could set you free.


May 29, 2014

What the 1960s Were Really About

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 00:20

Jo Jo

During the late 1960s, like many of my peers, I wrote lots of poems and short stories that featured pretty young people with flowers in their long hair –gentle, spontaneous, uncivilized “children of the Earth”. Joanne, the love of my life at the time (pictured above) challenged me on the one-dimensionality of these characters, and their lack of complexity, but that was what I wanted the world, and my own life, to be — simple, unmarred by trauma, untouched by the weight of civilized culture. Wild and free.

At the time it seemed political — we were all about peace, ending the war, protecting the environment, civil rights, freedom to be whatever we wanted to be. And many of us were idealists who believed our generation could accomplish anything, and that it was our responsibility to remake civilization in accordance with those ideals — peace, love and joy. In my more hopeful moments I still sign my messages with those three wishes.

dan o'neill 2
Dan O’Neill cartoon from the 1969 Jefferson Airplane CD Volunteers

My political worldview revolved around the belief that it was “the system”, “the machine”, “the empire” that was to blame for everything wrong with our world, not individuals, that even the most monstrous of us was simply another victim of this system that gutted us of our humanity, our connection, our capacity to bring about positive change. That was my first inkling of what complex systems were like, how impossible they are to reform, and the source of the great disillusionment that plunged me into a deep depression through much of the seventies. I felt like a wild creature caged, unable to find any way to freedom, but constantly telling myself it’s never too late to break free and reunite with my fellow idealists and save the world, or at least a few of us.

The person who recovered from that depression was not me, but a poseur, safely bunkered in his own head for the next quarter century, broken and quietly disconnected from reality.

Now, with the benefit of a decade studying our culture, I’m finally able to make, I think, some sense of what happened in that astonishingly brief and amazing era of the latter 1960s, and why, like me, the movement seemed to fall apart.

I now realize that we’re all broken, wounded, made ill by the chronic stresses of our omnipresent civilization culture. “The system” not only destroyed the planet and prevented us from our plans to “save the world”, it damaged all of us, filled us with the anger, fear and sadness that we articulated so well through our music in the 1960s. And what we espoused and sought — peace, love and joy — was not just an idealistic plea for sanity and revolution, but the very antithesis of the anger, fear and sadness we were feeling caught up in and sharing with each other. It was an escape from the suffering that stemmed from that stress-induced anger, fear and sadness, that we wanted more than anything. And escape we did — sex (and love), drugs and rock and roll were (and still are) our escape vehicles, our way of coping with and sublimating our anger, our fears and our sadness.

We embraced “free love” and casual, frequent sex with true escapist passion – nothing is more effective at making us feel less fearful than the potent cocktail of chemicals that love and lust arouse in us. Nature does this deliberately — she doesn’t want us to be too fearful to express our love to a potential partner, or too fearful to get carried away when that partner says “yes” and hence make babies and protect them with our very lives. Likewise, drugs help us escape from our sadness and grief, and music often helps us escape from both anger and sadness.

When the whole world seemingly embraced this prescription for peace, love and joy, we mistakenly took their jumping on the bandwagon as sympathy and solidarity for our idealistic cause. We thought that we had become the first generation in history to overtly reject the messages and beliefs of our damaging dominant culture en masse, and the first generation privileged enough to hear and follow the desperate message of need for self-healing and reconnection that our bodies were giving us.

What we didn’t realize is that many (across the political spectrum, and people who were apolitical) who seemingly signed on to the movement had a much simpler agenda than ours.  They didn’t want to join us to “smash the system” that was causing the suffering and damage, and replace it with a humanist utopia. They just wanted in on the sex, drugs and rock and roll that were easing our pain, to ease theirs. Like us, they wanted escape. They shared our pain, but not our ideals. In many cases their choice of sex and music was (and is) violent and misogynistic, and their choice of drugs was (and is) the opposite of “mind-expanding”.

We found ourselves, after this revelation (in retrospect not surprisingly) alone, embittered, exhausted and disillusioned. While some of us “flower children” are still fighting the good fight, most have lost faith or health or energy or moved on to different priorities.

LOTM suzanah be kind

We are meant to be wild. We are suffering, every waking hour, from the chronic, relentless stresses that never give us rest. Our bodies are hurting, our souls are beaten and disconnected. And we’re fighting a system that is larger than all of us, that no one can control (or ever could), that no one is to blame for. We’re all doing our best. Our escapism isn’t hurting anyone, is it?

Well, of course, it is. We’re hurting ourselves, because the “peace, love and joy” we feel under the influence of oxytocin and endorphins and testosterone and alcohol and dope and a wall of sound are transitory, addicting, unreal, disconnecting and ultimately unsatisfying. As long as we live in their fog some would say we are not really alive. And as tempting as it is to say “the system is broken, it’s too big to defeat or to fix, it’s collapsing anyway, so wake me when it’s over”, if we live that way we are, I think, living a shadow of a life.

So what is our responsibility now, those of us still crazy after all these years to make the world a better place, and those of succeeding generations who never got the chance to blow an entire civilizational reboot, as we thought we did? What are we wounded surgeons to do? I have written a lot lately about four modest actions: (1) relearning essential skills, (2) learning to create and build community, (3) living an exemplary, self-aware, purposeful, joyful life as a model for others, and (4) healing ourselves and helping to heal others. And, I should add, supporting those activists driven to do more, those driven to fight the system without expectation of significant success, even as it crumbles. Surely this is enough to do?

I think it is. But the fourth of these actions — healing ourselves and helping to heal others — is essential for each of us, and we cannot hope to do it very effectively as long as we keep succumbing to escapism. That escapism isn’t just sex, drugs and rock and roll either. It’s escapism in our work, in our entertainment (TV or movies or online distractions or books), or in the mall, or the casino, or any other unnatural place we go or unnatural thing we do just to feel good, just to get away, to be numb to the pain for a while.

I’m not sure there is any escape from escapism. It’s natural, it’s human, it’s completely understandable that when we’re suffering we want to escape. I confess I’m an escapist and that this is probably impeding my ability to be more present in the world, more really alive, more able to pursue the four actions above. But I don’t believe any more in self-improvement or “self-help” programs. An escapist is part of who I am, now, and it’s enough, I think, to recognize that everything that’s happened before and since the 1960s has quite understandably made me this way. I suspect there are many like me, of every generation. We all have our coping mechanisms. I am tired of insulting, patronizing prescriptions to “face your fears, move past your anger, and learn to cope authentically with your grief.” They are like telling a paralyzed person that with practice they can learn to walk.

Better, I think, to know and accept who we are, and appreciate how we got here. The 1960s were a blast, and despite the half-century hangover I wouldn’t have missed them. They taught me so much — about what is possible and what is not, about myself and “my generation”, and about what it means to belong, and to feel, and to ache, and to dream, and ultimately, to fail. No shame in that.

May 25, 2014

The Power of Potlucks

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 23:08

Just at the end of a video on the Sharing Economy that Janaia and Robin at PeakMoment.tv were making with Tree Bressen, Janaia, Tree and I started riffing on the Power of Potlucks. This short, fun video is the result. No insult intended to the fine people of West Vancouver. [Link for e-mail subscribers]

May 13, 2014

Choosing Our Pleasures

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 00:47

Driftwood Papaloa Beach

Papaloa Beach, Kaua’i, photo by the author

Imagine you’re in this situation: It’s a half hour before sunset, and you’re in a lovely home in an exceptionally beautiful place. A small group of people is preparing a group dinner, and that number includes a stunningly attractive, cheerful and provocatively dressed person, who is not interacting with you particularly (you have never met), but not ignoring you either, and is very close by.

You know that, from where you are, it’s a short and gorgeous hike through the woods to the seaside where you could sit on the shore and watch the sun setting over the ocean, and still be back in time for dinner. Or you could just stay and chat with the group and enjoy the company of this very attractive person.

Which do you do? And why? For most people, I think, the choice would be one of relative scarcity and rarity: If you lived in a paradise every day, or lived with a stunningly attractive person every day, you would probably choose the rarer opportunity. But if both opportunities were equally rare, I’m guessing most people would choose to hang around and skip the hike.

What determines how we decide what we do? I’ve argued that our decisions are driven by what I call Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour:

We do what’s urgent (what our personal priorities of the moment tell us we ‘must’ do), then we do what easy, and then we do what’s fun. There is never time or energy left for what is merely important.

So every day when we get up we do what we must — breathing and eating, our ‘jobs’ at work and home, exercise and medications and other things we believe essential to our health, duties essential to those who depend on us, or on whom we depend. And then, exhausted (because we don’t even have enough time for the never-ending list of urgent things), we squeeze in some things that are easy and/or fun — TV or Internet or reading or listening to music, a drink or a toke, sex or snuggles or substitutes therefore, some impulse buying, picking up a lottery ticket, a casual chat by phone or online. And then we sleep and get up and do it all again the next day.

There is never time or energy left for planning that exotic trip we always wanted to take, or for that course we always wanted to take, or for that important but difficult conversation we keep putting off, or for that activity we think might make us a better person, or the world a little better place, if only we would just get it started.

And when we retire, the things we do change, but they’re still governed by Pollard’s Law. We have more time when we’ve retired, but we also have the sense that there’ll be more time tomorrow too. Somehow we never get around to the things that are really important but not urgent and not easy and not particularly fun. That’s not procrastination; it’s basic human nature. It’s engrained behaviour that has enabled our species to survive very successfully on this planet for a million years.

I believe we are all damaged by the inherent brutality and violence and trauma of modern industrial civilization — disconnected from our true feelings, senses, instincts, and all life on Earth, and in the process we’ve become, physically and emotionally, chronically ill. So we are all trying our best to heal.

And that attempt at self-healing, I think, plays into our ‘choices’ of which easy and fun activities to squeeze into each day once we’ve done what we absolutely must. We tell ourselves we deserve a break, a reward for what we’ve done. We’ll do easy things because it feels good to check some things off the list. And we’ll do fun things because, damn it, we deserve it. Even when we beat ourselves up for the “shoulds” we haven’t gotten around to (because they didn’t make the Pollard’s Law cut), we still don’t do them.

Our bodies, in their effort to optimize the survival of our trillions of cells, obey Pollard’s Law quite scrupulously. To get us to do ‘fun’ stuff (so we’ll want to get up tomorrow and perpetuate the species instead of sinking into illness and depression and killing ourselves) they’ll churn out a bunch of hormones and other chemicals to reinforce fun behaviour.

While the clueless neuro-’scientists’ (those modern-day phrenologists who presume to tell us who we are by interpreting parts of our brains ‘lighting up’) can’t seem to figure out which chemicals do what, it seems clear that some chemicals prompt flirtation and infatuation and sex, some prompt us to run and play and thrill-seek, some prompt us to get high by ingesting substances, and some prompt us to cuddle, to watch the sunset, to meditate, or to eat certain foods.  And some reward these behaviours after the fact and/or charge us up at the next opportunity to repeat the behaviour, until we are, supposedly, ‘addicted’.

These chemicals mostly work on us when we’ve finished the urgent ‘musts’ of the day and are ready for the easy and/or fun stuff. There’s a good reason for this: In prehistoric societies (anthropologists now believe) we had very few ‘musts’ — we lived a leisurely life of an hour or so gathering or hunting food (and even that was pretty much fun), and the other responsibilities of adulthood were shared among the community so that they were collaborative, low-stress, social, and not at all arduous. So those chemicals were at work most of the time, not just in the few hours a day we modern humans steal for easy/fun activities. Nothing much was urgent or important.

So those chemicals were hard at work during our ancestors’ easy, joyful lives, getting us to procreate, to nurture, to exercise, to eat foods with essential nutrients, to appreciate and want to preserve beauty, to love life and want to continue doing it, to handle the occasional stresses (mostly carnivorous predators) quickly, instinctively and effectively, and to play (play being the means by which, for most of our time on Earth, we have learned delightfully how to survive).

These ancestors wouldn’t know what to make of the situation I posed at the start of this post. They couldn’t fathom having to choose between erotic, sensuous, aesthetic or spiritual delights — they had lots of time for them all, often simultaneously.

We’re not so lucky. We live in a time of manufactured scarcity and chronic stress, where the chemicals in our body designed to prompt quick and appropriate action during brief times of fight/flight/freeze threat, are at a loss trying to guide us through lives of constant and intense stress and disconnection from our instincts.

Modern human behaviour is primarily dictated not by our bodies, but by our culture, which tells us (under the threat of serious and even lethal social sanctions) what we ‘must’ do urgently (i.e. what we must spend most of our waking hours doing). Our culture also presumes to tell us what are not acceptable ‘easy’ and ‘fun’ activities, even as it tempts us, for commercial purposes, with unnatural stimuli (e.g. violent media, false ideals of ‘perfection’) and unnatural products (e.g. artificial drugs, gambling, processed sugars) that exploit our bodies’ chemical propensities,  to addict us ruinously to what the culture asserts is only socially acceptable in moderation. Our blame-the-victim culture addicts us and then makes us pariahs for those addictions.

Our bodies, thinking we’re still living in a natural world, grab on to these addictions to fill our ‘easy’ and ‘fun’ moments as a coping mechanism to try to relieve the relentless stress that fills the rest of our days, inadvertently making us sicker instead of healthier.

We can’t help ourselves. We’re only human. We’re already doing our best.

What we can do, I think, is be a little more self-aware: Aware of what’s going on, what our culture is making us do, what our bodies are making us do. Not to change those behaviours, but to appreciate them, and perhaps, little by little, realize that some of those urgent culturally-dictated ‘must do’ things aren’t urgent after all, and stop doing them (reducing both the stress on ourselves and, just a little, the damage to our planet). And to realize that some of those easy and fun things aren’t so healthy, and that some other easy and fun things might be better for us (but not to beat ourselves up if we can’t change them — many of them are addictions, after all).

Most subversively, I think such self-awareness might help us give up trying so desperately  to sustain this massively destructive, debilitating, sickening civilization culture, and let it go enthusiastically, let it collapse, as it is inevitably and already doing. We’re meant to be wild, not civilized.

And it might help us realize that, after collapse, the next human societies might once again inhabit a world of ease, of abundance, of health, and of joy, where what our bodies are driving us to do will once again be good for us, making us healthier, happier, and more connected. Liberated societies in which we don’t have to choose between erotic, sensuous, aesthetic and spiritual delights, because we’ll have them all.

April 30, 2014

The Patience to Wait for Courage: A Meditation

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 17:21

by jordan wooley jrwooley6

photo by jordan wooley (jrwooley6 on flickr, creative commons)

So I sit in the forest, this place of astonishing beauty that I pretend for now is my place, preparing to meditate. “I am the open-source collaborative project of trillions of cells”, I tell myself. “My brain is a complicity of the separately-evolved creatures in my body evolved for their mutual benefit. My ‘self’ is not coherent, just an emergent property of my body’s semi-autonomous processes. Now I am just going to listen to, pay attention to, my body, my senses, my instincts, the trillions of cells that never get an audience up here in the hermetic chamber of my brain, that small conceited 1% of my cells that presumes to be ‘me’.” Mantra.

I ask myself: What would I do if I weren’t fearful, if I were really connected? My instincts often tell me what I need to know, the real truth, before I feel it, before I think it, make ‘sense’ of it. What do these instincts tell me now? They speak to me, sometimes, mostly in the calm of night, in a beautiful, peaceful, confident female voice, a voice full of joy and clarity, with the undercurrent of a swallow’s song. Here is what they say:

No one is to blame. I am not to blame. We are all doing the best we can, even those of us who are damaged to the point of pathology. We are all ‘trying to get better’ in one sense or another. No one is in control. Nothing can ‘save’ this used up, worn out, teetering, overextended civilization, even if we wanted to; it’s going to collapse, and force us all into a ragged shift, a Great Migration, a dark reckoning. But we have time to rest, fight small battles, and experiment before we have to face that.

I am, for now, driven by aversion and not intention. That’s OK. I’m still exhausted, and it’s going to take time to recover from many decades of trying so hard to be who I’m not. No use to the world broken, depressed, paralyzed by anxiety. Just breathe, rest, heal.

With all the sorrow and grief I carry, the trauma I’ve worked through, bewildered and alone, it’s no surprise I’m fearful, settling for contentment instead of real happiness. No wonder I choose the numb addiction to analgesic endorphins, bliss-inducing norepinephrine, ecstatic phenylethylamine, deceiving oxytocin, calming serotonin, rewarding dopamine, and stimulating testosterone, over any real connection, real presence. Safe in my garden. Hard to imagine being any other way, when you’re under the influence of such disarming drugs.

Yet my instincts know there is another way of being, one that is more truly me; I catch glimpses of it sometimes when I’m not trying too hard.

I know this time of exhaustion and disconnection and indecision will pass. I must have the patience to wait for courage. We will all find courage when we must; that’s the nature of our species. No heroes before their time. No heroes, period. Just looking after the needs of the moment, which will become clear as they become overwhelming. When it’s time to take risks, to let go of everything, to tear down the walls, to fly, we will know, and we will do what we must.

Things I will do when I am no longer fearful: move to a warmer, wilder place (my body craves this); flirt shamelessly and joyfully; fall in love dangerously; write, invite and fight courageously. What difference all this will make I do not know. These are not my choices, but things the me-that-I’ll-become will have to do.

There are some practices that are not hard or hopeless, that will help me prepare for what’s next. Practices that evoke that magic merging of relaxation and awareness. Night walks. Quiet conversations about things that really matter, with people who understand. Lights: candles, path lights, lanterns, street-lamps, moonlight, sunlight through the trees and bouncing off the water, infinite starlight. Sad songs. Play. Laughter. Time with wild creatures and young children. More of all these, please. Put them in the calendar; don’t just wait for them to happen.

My instincts are, it seems, always right. They are ‘me’ more than my intellectual self or my emotional self or my physical self are, so I suppose they must be right, for me. I may not yet be quite ready to follow them, but it won’t be long. Change coming, ready or not.

Breathe, concentrate, focus. Let go, and slowly rise.

Themes for this meditation/reflection: Self-knowledge, self-awareness, self-acceptance, attention, appreciation, imagining possibilities, patience, openness, trusting intuition, acceptance, healing, anticipation without expectation, practice.

Deep breath, that turns into a sigh. Walk back up the hill to prepare supper.

March 22, 2014

Several Short Sentences About… Jellyfish

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 00:11


there are things
     – loren eiseley


  1. The jellyfish is one of the simplest creatures that has ever existed.
  2. It is the oldest living animal species that has more than one organ.
  3. It has no brain.
  4. It has no central nervous system.
  5. It has no spinal column or bones of any sort.
  6. It has no heart.
  7. It has no blood.
  8. It has no circulatory system.
  9. It has no respiratory system.
  10. Despite all of the above, it is not simple.
  11. The jellyfish is, in fact, staggeringly complex.
  12. Despite centuries of study, very little is known about these creatures. We basically have no idea how they do almost anything, because just about everything about them is different from other complex creatures, and remains mostly a mystery to scientists.
  13. The jellyfish is not, even vaguely, a fish.
  14. It has brain cells, dispersed throughout its body and tied into to a neural network that communicates information neuron-to-neuron, not through a centralized system. So it is, essentially, intelligent everywhere, and cannot ‘die’ (or be rendered ‘unconscious’) through injury.
  15. It has thrived for 650 million years.
  16. There are over 10,000 enormously diverse jellyfish species, some of them microscopic, some of them with ‘bells’ over a meter across and tentacles over 100 feet long, and weighing up to a quarter of a ton.
  17. Some species have 24 eyes, which enable them to see 360-degrees in three dimensions, though only 2 of its eyes, apparently, can see in colour.
  18. It can fire venom through millions of tiny barbs fired through tiny tubes on its tentacles, in some species enough to paralyze or kill a human adult.
  19. Before it fires venom, it analyzes the chemistry of what it is touching to ensure it is either food or threatening (and hence worth immobilizing), but even taking time for this analysis it still fires at a speed 10 times faster than a car air-bag inflates in an accident, and faster than a bullet, and at a pressure of up to 2,000 psi, enough to penetrate deep into the skin of most creatures it encounters.
  20. The tentacles of a jellyfish can continue to detect threats or food, and to fire venom accordingly, long after the tentacle is separated from the ‘rest’ of the jellyfish.
  21. It reproduces both sexually and asexually, through a wide variety of ways, including (usually daily) spawning, splitting (division into two creatures), self-cloning, and ‘budding’ (producing new organisms on various parts of its body).
  22. Some species can revert from adults back to immature polyp form when threatened, and then ‘re-grow’ into ‘adults’, over and over, and are hence theoretically immortal.
  23. Jellyfish polyps can remain dormant for years, if the environment is not ideal, before starting to grow and reproduce.
  24. Most jellyfish ‘die’ by wearing out and decomposing, usually within a year of maturation, or by being eaten by creatures who have a natural immunity to their toxin.
  25. Korean robots have been developed to ‘kill’ large blooms of unwanted jellyfish (they have been clogging and shutting down the cooling systems of nuclear reactors, coal-fired power plants and desalination plants, and destroying oceanic salmon farms) by shredding them, but biologists think this will actually increase populations because “when you cut open jellies, you get artificial fertilization — that’s how aquarists get eggs and sperm from species that are difficult to spawn; all those embryos will then metamorphose into polyps which can live for years and clone themselves”.
  26. Jellyfish move with an efficiency (energy produced / energy used ratio) 50% greater than any other sea creature. We’re not at all sure how they do that.
  27. Some species are bioluminescent — they can create their own light to hunt in darkness.
  28. Some large-mass jellyfish live at ocean depths greater than most other creatures can tolerate. Biologists are just beginning to discover the nature of these even-stranger species. A deep dive off Chile last year unearthed a huge never-before-seen jellyfish with multiple solid ‘legs’ and ‘feet’ that was able to self-propel at astonishing speed in any direction and turn on a dime; photographed but uncaptured, its constitution and lineage remain a complete mystery.
  29. The collective biomass of jellyfish is so large that their vertical daily and tidal migrations are believed to affect ocean food systems and indirectly even ocean currents (they compete for food with krill, whose global biomass is second only to bacteria, and greater than that of humans)
  30. Jellyfish, at various stages of development, often form ‘colonies’ that manifest behaviours that resemble those of a single ‘creature’ more than those of a collective. If they are sharing intelligence between bodies exactly as they share them within a ‘single’ body, where exactly does one creature end and the next begin? The Portuguese Man-o’-War, a dangerous jellyfish-like ‘entity’ almost as ancient as the jellyfish, is in fact not a creature at all, but a collective of four specialized types of polyp (whose functions are, respectively, mobility, reproduction, digestion and defence) which have evolved together and now cannot survive independently. [And some octopi, which are immune to the Man-o’-War toxin, carry torn off Man-o'-War tentacles as weapons to use against other prey.]

So here we humans are, clumsy, fragile, watery bags of bones and organs, neophytes in this world of unfathomable ancient complexity. Still drawn to the ocean, from where we came. Only recently did we come ashore. Who can guess what might emerge after we’re gone. And when it does, whatever it is, it will probably have to continue to deal with jellyfish.

photo by Mitchell Kaneshkevich

March 8, 2014

The Qualities of a Great Story

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves,Working Smarter — Dave Pollard @ 21:02

sncap2Lest my readers conclude, as a result of yesterday’s article, that I’m down on stories, let me say again: I love stories, and find them useful for learning and imagining, and also very entertaining. So today I’d like to summarize the qualities that I think the great stories I’ve read all have.

This will probably be an unorthodox list: I’m not talking about ‘elements’ of a story here, and in fact I don’t believe there are any essential ‘elements’ of a great story. I’ve read great stories that have no well-developed characters, let alone sympathetic protagonists (some mystery stories come to mind). I’ve read great stories that have no discernible plot, at least in the traditional sense of a beginning, a conflict, a resolution and a conclusion. I’ve read great stories that have no drama or struggle or tension (such as comedies, unless you really bend the meaning of the word ‘tension’). Some of my favourite stories defy traditional narrative structures, which I find tedious, constraining and unimaginative (thanks to Bob Lasiewicz for this intriguing link).

So what do I think are the qualities of a great story?

I’d start with TS Eliot’s two qualities of great poetry, which I think apply equally to stories. In his essay The Social Function of Poetry he wrote:

Poetry has to give pleasure… [and] the communication of some new experience, or some fresh understanding of the familiar, or the expression of something we have experienced but have no words for, which enlarges our consciousness or refines our sensibility… We all understand I think both the kind of pleasure that poetry can give and the kind of difference, beyond the pleasure, which it makes to our lives. Without producing these two effects it is simply not poetry.

So (1) it gives pleasure and (2) it provides some fresh understanding; it connects with us emotionally and intellectually. Eliot has written that he thinks the best way to make the emotional connection is through imagery that reliably evokes a particular feeling (joy, or wonder, or grief, or laughter, or pathos for example). My favourite story writer Frederick Barthelme also writes, in his 39 Steps for Writers, about the importance of imagery: “Don’t let too many paragraphs go by without sensory information, something that can be felt, smelt, touched, tasted. Two or three paragraphs is too many”. This sensory information roots the story, gives it a sense of place, whether familiar or strange.

While I think all Frederick’s “steps” are useful, steps 21-22 are the ones I would nominate as the third essential quality of a great story:

If you write a sentence that isn’t poignant, touching, funny, intriguing, inviting, etc., take it out before you finish the work. Don’t just leave it there. Don’t let anyone see it. To repeat, there is no place for rubbish & slop in the highly modern world of today’s fiction. Every sentence must pay, must somehow thrill. Every one.

Quality (3) then is every sentence must pay.

Quality (4) is that it takes a camera or “theatre” view. That is, it relates what the camera “sees” and “hears” through action and dialogue, not a bunch of back-and-forth “he thought… she felt”. It lets the action and conversation tell the story and convey the ideas and thoughts and feelings of the characters. I’m ambivalent about first-person narratives — stories that relate what happens or happened to one person from behind her/his eyes or inside her/his head. Even Shakespeare used “asides” and monologues to convey important thoughts or feelings of characters that could not be brought out naturally in action or dialogue. But great stories, IMO, use these devices sparingly.

Quality (5) is that it respects the audience’s intelligence. That means no manipulation of the audience’s feelings or thoughts by painting a simplistic, black-and-white picture of a situation or character. That means no deus ex machina. That means no helpless creatures injured or killed for no reason just to stir up audience emotions. That means the story has to be coherent. That means it requires the audience to think, to pay attention to what’s happening, to read between the lines.

Quality (6) is that it leaves space for the audience. It omits enough detail (without omitting anything essential) that the listener or reader (or even viewer) can fill in some of the details from their own experience or imagination and become part of the story, make it their own.

Quality (7) is that it must be in some way really imaginative, clever, or novel. The writer has to reach down and come up with something that tickles, that the reader would never have thought of, that’s a total surprise, astonishment, wonder. Something that makes you say “wow”. I don’t understand the appeal of many series, sequels and trilogies (though there are exceptions). I appreciate that we can come to love characters and settings and that their familiarity is heart-warming, but unless every ‘episode’ includes something totally new, something that astonishes, really shines, I think it’s lazy, mediocre writing. And there is so much of that, in this age of imaginative poverty.

That’s it. Just seven qualities. Fewer than one in a thousand stories, in my view, has them. There are other nice-to-have qualities, but those are the essential ones.

Of course, all of this is just my opinion. Many, even most of the very popular stories I’ve read do not have these qualities and I can’t even finish them, and many of the most beloved stories in the English language are, I think, dreadful, absolute dreck. These are the seven qualities I aspire to when I write stories now, and I’m going to be writing a lot of them this year.

Image from Sports Night, written by Aaron Sorkin

March 7, 2014

The Trouble With Stories

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 19:47

image from Justin Bale’s OWS archive 

 We hold stories dear to our heart. Some even believe “stories are all we are“. I love stories. I’ve encouraged groups doing strategic planning — looking for the best way forward — to start with ‘future state’ stories that describe a day in their lives once the group’s goals have been achieved. I’ve learned that telling stories is the best way to hold an audience and help them remember your message. And that they’re subversive — you can get people to think about a point of view they would normally balk about considering by couching it in a story. And that if a story is sufficiently compelling, it really doesn’t even matter if it’s true. We want to believe. Make-believe. Make us believe by telling us a story.

So what’s with the title of this article? What could I possibly have against stories?

The trouble with stories is that they make us believe what’s not true.

I wrote a rant against stories five years ago, in which I said:

Stories are addictive. They oversimplify complexity to the point we become complacent, that we think we know what is really happening and that all the alternatives have been identified and considered. Stories are sedative: We tell our children “bedtime stories” to lull them to sleep. Stories are manipulative, readily subject to spin, especially on complex subjects about which there can never be absolute or certain knowledge. And they are subject to censorship and the crime of non-reporting, which the mainstream media do constantly. Stories give us false hope. Many live their lives dreaming of what might be instead of realizing what is. Stories lead us to live inside our heads instead of in the real world. Stories are excuses for inaction: When we get worked up about a story, we can mistake that for actually doing something about it. And stories are only stories. The true horrors are not just stories. Just as a map is not the territory, a story is not the thing that the story is about.

At that time, I also described two “laws” of human cognition and behaviour that, I said, conspire to make stories so powerful, and so dangerous:

  • Daniel Dennett‘s Law of Needy Readers: On any important topic, we tend to have a rough idea of what we believe to be true, and when an author writes the words we want to read, we tend to fall for it, no matter how shoddy the arguments.
  • George Lakoff’s Law of Frames: Frames trump facts. All of our concepts are organized into conceptual structures called “frames” (which may include images and metaphors) and all words are defined relative to those frames. Conventional frames are pretty much fixed in the neural structures of our brains. In order for a fact to be comprehended, it must fit the relevant frames. If the facts contradict the frames, the frames, being fixed in the brain, will be kept and the facts ignored.

That article was criticized by those who thought stories to be so essential to human nature, that to argue against their use was to deny who we really are. At that time my principal argument against stories was that we substitute reading them and telling them for meaningful action to deal with the real issues the stories are about. And we do. But since then I’ve become more sanguine about what we can really do about these issues. My further study of complexity has led me to believe that it’s too late to change the massive, global, evolved systems that are destroying our world, if it were ever possible at all.

So my problem with stories, now, is not that they’re unactionable, but that they’re untrue, and our belief in them as being true causes us to behave in dysfunctional ways.

Most of the harm of stories stems from their deliberate (and necessary, for brevity) simplification (sometimes to an extreme degree) of a complex situation, a situation rooted in complex systems. Here’s what I’ve learned about complex systems:

  • They are not changed by heroic action; nor are they controlled by a conspiracy of ‘evil’ people. They are the way they are for a reason, and they have evolved over a period of time, due to the combined influence of a nearly infinite number of people, actions and variables, to be the way they are. Because they contain a mix of reinforcing and balancing feedback loops, they tend to remain in stasis and resist change, but no one is in control of them.
  • Likewise, complex systems cannot simply be replaced by better-designed systems, despite what Bucky Fuller said. Systems evolve and systems collapse, and when they collapse new systems (possibly but not likely ‘better’) replace them, piecemeal, one step at a time. There is no ‘progress’, there is just evolution, punctured equilibrium, with stasis then shift then a rebalancing and a new stasis, and, unless the system is tiny and local and autonomous, no one is in control of it, no one ‘designs’ it. Around and around, that’s the way things go in evolution. Trial and error, a slightly better fit for an ever-changing situation. Not a better system, just a slightly better fit for the situation as it has evolved.
  • The ‘interventions’ in large complex systems that do work — in fact, without them, many complex systems would collapse much more quickly — are workarounds. All large corporations and other bureaucracies accomplish most of what they do by virtue of workarounds instituted by people on the front lines — workarounds that often circumvent and even violate official ‘policy’ but are the only way to get what is needed actually done. The heads of the smartest large organizations realize this and don’t try to stifle workarounds, and may even quietly reward them.

Stories, in short, are fictions, deceptions, simplifications, inventions. They are propaganda, even though they may be well-intentioned. They are not true. They may be useful, for teaching, for persuading, for brainwashing. But they are not true. The truth is complex, and no story can tell it.

The stories in your daily news, the biographies you read, the ‘self-help’ books with stories of transformation, the case studies you take up in business school, the myths and fables you grew up with, the war stories, success stories, creation stories, the epic novels and plays and films of all genres, and even documentaries — all stories, convenient, arousing, manipulating, entertaining, distorting, oversimplifying fictions, packaged and sold to us avid (or reluctant) consumers. We want to believe it’s simple, that it can be fully understood, that there’s a simple answer, and we loathe complexity because it won’t give us simple ‘truths’. But if it’s about organisms or people or societies or ecologies, or even scientific phenomena (all complex systems), it’s never simple.

Look at the elements of archetypal stories: They have a sympathetic protagonist, a struggle against a heinous unredeemable enemy (which may be human, or not, and may be metaphorical, or even within the protagonist), a ‘turning point’, and a resolution, redemption, or salvation — a great and victorious change. None of these things is real — reality is always far more complex than this. Consider the situation in Syria, for example. Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys and how should we intervene? Think you know? Not so fast. Here’s just a teaser (courtesy of the Vlog brothers) on how complex the situation there really is, and there is no intervention that is likely to help the situation more than it worsens it. (In fact, it’s even more complex than the Vlog brothers portray it.) And the situation in Ukraine is even more complex than that.

Let’s consider some of the stories that progressives love to tell: Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” story. The invention of the Internet. The abolition of slavery and forced segregation. The defeat of Nazism and the fall of  the Soviet (and other tyrannical) empires. The extension of rights to women, gays and minorities. The ending of the Vietnam War. We tell these stories, with the best of intentions, as if they were true.

But as tempting as it may be to see a powerful cause-and-effect in a few actions by one or a few people, the sheer complexity of these systems is such that change, which in history books is written by the victors who always overstate their successes and omit their failures, occurs slowly and unpredictably as the result of a million factors, most of them uncontrollable. Social change occurs when the majority are fed up with the status quo. Each new generation is less attached to that status quo, and hence more open to changes, some of which are for the better, and some of which are for the worse. And all inventions are built, as they say, on the shoulders of giants. The Internet was inevitable once certain prerequisite technologies had been invented or evolved (many of which were invented for completely unrelated reasons), and it was impossible without those prerequisites. A number of those prerequisite technologies were, no doubt, invented for military ends.

Of course, you can change people’s minds about issues you care about (most effectively by telling them stories). But often they will change them back again. As Dennett and Lakoff say, changing the worldview that underlies someone’s beliefs is something very different. It’s a slow and unreliable process. And even then there’s the additional step of actually getting them to act on that changed worldview. And that action, if it happens, is only one a million variables affecting the system, most of which have evolved to keep the system in stasis as long as possible.

We want to believe that individual conviction and effort can make a difference. And of course, at the local level it can. But trying to change large, complex systems quickly (in less than a generation) is like trying to get the waves of the sea to part. And even when these systems collapse, as all systems do, we can’t expect to be able to impose, on any significant scale, a new ideal ‘designed’ system on the ensuing chaos that will work. Lenin tried that.

Instead, what we can do is find workarounds that make things at the immediate level where we do have some control, work a bit better. And if we build strong connections and a sense of local community, we can co-develop and share those workarounds for the benefit of others. Then, as the current economic and political systems continue to collapse, we will have the rudiments of new systems that can gradually replace them. This is already happening in different ways in many places.

And we can, instead of trying to change teetering, large, complex systems, adapt to the realities of these systems by learning new competencies and capacities that will enable us to thrive as these systems collapse, to starve them to the extent they’re destructive, and to stay out of their way.

And, instead of dwelling on the stories we tell about the past and the future, and about ourselves and the world, we can simply be present, attentive to what is and can be done, right here, right now.

This is how wild creatures deal with complex systems (such as their ecosystems, and human systems that intervene in their habitat). They work around, they adapt, they learn, and they live in the moment. They have no need for stories.

Such mundane, local work is not, of course, the stuff of great stories. There are no heroes, no enemies vanquished, no great victories after epic struggle, no dramatic turning points, no great redemption or salvation. There are no inspiring leaders, taking us valiantly forward. There is no great change. No ‘progress’.

I love stories. They’re a great way to remember things, and to learn simple things, and to imagine possibilities, and to entertain each other. But we should be careful not to believe them, not to base our beliefs or actions on them, and not to hope (or fear) they will ‘come true’. They aren’t true. Not any of them.

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