Living On The Edge

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about edges. The World of Ends, both in technology and in business, the marginalization of the poor and disenfranchised, the fact that most innovation starts at the edges. Five years ago when we were developing a strategy for innovation for the 100,000-person company that employed us, we made up T-shirts that read:

If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much room.

Needless to say, everyone who was part of that radical group has left that big employer, once we realized we were just poster children for innovation, and they didn’t intend to try to actually be innovative.

The other day, artist Andrew Campbell sent me a paper he had written a while ago on The Strong and the Weak. It quotes Laurens van der Post extensively, and in trying to learn more about his work and beliefs I stumbled upon this post by David T. Ratcliffe called Planting Seeds of Transformation. Ratcliffe’s paper also quotes van der Post extensively, and speaks a lot about humanity’s separation from nature, the grief it causes, and the fact that those of us who are still somewhat connected (or trying to reconnect) to all life on Earth are increasingly found at our society’s edges, surviving on our wiles and instincts. Here are some of the highlights from Ratcliffe’s article (emphases mine; if anyone knows what has become of Ratcliffe in the last two years please let me know):

On always analyzing instead of accepting: [quoting van der Post] `Why’ in any case is a severely limited question as the child discovers from the moment it begins to talk. It produces limited answers, limited as a rule to the mechanics and laws of the world, universe and life of man. But the human heart and mind come dishearteningly quickly to their frontiers and need something greater to carry on beyond the last `why’. This beyond is the all-encompassing universe of what the Chinese called Tao and a Zen Buddhist friend, in despair over the rationalist premises native to Western man, tried to make me understand as a newly-graduated man by calling `the great togetherness’ and adding, `in the great togetherness there are no “whys”, only “thuses” and you just have to accept as the only authentic raw material of your spirit, your own “thus” which is always so.’

On coming to grips with our separation from nature: [quoting van der Post] Until we transcend this darkness in ourselves, we shall never be able to deal with it in our societies. It is an axiomatic law that no human can take an institution or a situation or another individual farther then he has travelled himself, inside himself.

On the “process of self-rejection” that informs our separation from nature: [quoting van der Post] No human being is so completely helpless and lonely as at the moment of his adolescence. [Synchronicity: Yesterday I cited an article by James Kunstler that coined ‘Kunstler’s Law’ as: “Everybody feels inadequate…in any room containing 100 people, 99 of them each think that they are the only one in the room who doesn’t have his-or-her act together.” It is this very feeling of helplessness and inadequacy, ingrained in us early, that I think has allowed a tiny minority of our civilization to usurp all the power and resources.]

On the significance of the story of Esau, the hunter/naturalist, who was betrayed by his ‘civilized’ brother Jacob: [quoting van der Post] The essence of [Esau’s] being, I believe, was his sense of belonging: belonging to nature, the universe, life and his own humanity. He had committed himself utterly to nature as a fish to the sea. He had no sense whatsoever of property, owned no animals and cultivated no land. Life and nature owned all and he accepted without question that, provided he was obedient to the urge of the world within him, the world without, which was not separate in his spirit, would provide. How right he was is proved by the fact that nature was kinder to him by far than civilization ever was. This feeling of belonging set him apart from us on the far side of the deepest divide in the human spirit. There was a brief moment in our own great Greek, Roman, Hebraic story when his sort of being and our own were briefly reconciled and Esau, the first born, the hunter, kissed and forgave his brother Jacob, the strangely chosen of God, his betrayal. But after that Esau, like Ishmael before him, vanishes [readers of Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael or Story of B will recognize this ‘vanishing’ as what Quinn calls ‘the great forgetting’] from our story and a strange longing hidden in some basement of the European spirit still waits with increasing tension for his return. [Ratcliffe adds:] There has been a fundamental abrogation in our culture and civilization to face squarely the fact of this rejection of an essential part of our nature that includes the feeling, the intuitive, and the instinctual non-rational states of human consciousness.

On how modern tribal groups like the Bushmen retain the memory of this connectedness with nature: [quoting van der Post] For years I would watch the Bushman as I shall always remember him by countless such fires at nightfall, so confident and at home in his immense wasteland, full of an unappeasable melancholy. He was the Esau being we daily betrayed in our partial and slanted modern awareness and instead of blaming ourselves for the betrayal, we projected it on to him to such an extent that we had to kill him as Cain killed Abel. Yet, though he himself is vanishing fast from the vision of our physical senses as Esau vanished from the great story which contained as it fashioned the foundations of our culture, he lives on in each one of us through an indefinable guilt that grows great and angry in some basement of our own being. The artist and the seer, even though the priests who should have known it best have forgotten it for the moment, know there is an Esau, a first man, a rejected pattern of being within us which is personified by something similar to a Bushman hunter, without whom they cannot create and sustain a vision of time fulfilled on which a life of meaning depends.
As they create and dream their dreams by making his sort of being contemporary, by linking that which was first with what is new and latest and all that is still to come, they do work of cosmic importance and in the process are invaded with a compassion for this betrayed Esau element that leads unerringly to a love that is overall and which knew him long before we were made. Like that which created creation, named or not named, known or unknown, he is always there. [Ratcliffe adds:] The challenge we face then can be no less than to find a way to fashion an armour for the spirit to dispel the corruption engendered by the power we have acquired over the forces of nature. And this armour can only be created with rediscovering the wholeness lost in the beginning in a contemporary and greater form.

On the need and process to re-connect with nature: [quoting van der Post] [Jung told me] “you know so many civilizations have used their power to deprive primitive, vulnerable people of their story. And when their story is taken away from them they lose their meaning and they get corrupt and they cease to live. They lose the will to be an integrated society.”…As I thought of the first man’s instinctive sense for the meaning of life, I seemed to be more aware than ever of the loneliness creeping into the heart of modern man because he no longer sought the answers of life with the totality of his being. He was in danger of going back precisely to those discredited collective concepts and surrendering this precious gift of being an individual who is specific for the sake of the whole, an individual who believes that a union of conformity is weakness but that a union of diversities, of individuals who are different and specific, is truly strength. A grey, abstract, impersonal organization of a materialistic civilization seemed to be pressing in on us everywhere and eliminating these life-giving individual differences and sources of enrichment in us. Everywhere men were seeking to govern according to purely materialistic principles that make us interesting only in so far as we have uses.
[Ratcliffe adds:] This mass culture is fast absorbing and making homogeneous more and more of the remaining distinct and diverse cultures still not assimilated into a collective world asleep, where the one speaks to the many through mass media, and a partial, limited version of consciousness continues to attempt to usurp and take the place of the whole in life. This fact of the manifestation of partial being and awareness is painfully apparent to anyone who still is blessed with whatever degree of sensitivity that was not “unlearned” or seared out of one from early trauma or unbearable pain…Maintaining one’s own depth of sensitivity — physically and especially psychically — at this time on Earth is perhaps one of the most challenging and elusive feats imaginable. Everywhere is the call not only for instant gratification, but more pervasively, the pursuit of activities and goals promising escape from coming face-to-face with the fundamental incoherent nature of our lives and our culture. To cohere means “to hold together firmly as parts of the same mass”. In a seminar facilitated by David Bohm, he describes one of the ways our society attempts to stabilize itself by destroying sensitivity to incoherence in young people: “I think our whole society tries to stabilize itself by starting out to destroy sensitivity to incoherence starting with very young children. If people could see the vast incoherence that is going on in society they would be disturbed and they would feel the need to do something. If you’re not sensitive to it you don’t feel disturbed and you don’t feel you need to do anything.”

On how animals on ‘the edge’ of their communities behave, and how being on ‘the edge’ can enable greater self-awareness and perspective: [quoting van der Post] It occurred to me in time that this kind of separation, even in the animal, was necessary to create a greater awareness which it was impossible to acquire in the context of sympathetic numbers of their own kind. In the years I had already spent in devout observation of the creatures of Africa, it was most striking how these lone phenomena developed senses so keen that the beasts who preyed on them and their kind would leave them alone, because they realized they were no match for the qualities of vigilance produced by loneliness and isolation. It was, in fact, far easier to prey on animals who assumed that there was safety in numbers. If this were true and necessary for the increase and renewal of animal awareness, I often wondered how much more necessary it was for the human being. Unlike the animal, the human had no sheer, blind obedience to the will of nature which is instinctive. On the contrary, he had an inspired kind of disobedience to the laws of nature which led to a recommitment of life in a more demanding law of individuality designed for the growth of consciousness. This growth set the implacable pre-condition that any new awareness had to be lived out in isolation before it could be understood and known, and made accessible to society.

So van der Post and Ratcliffe are saying (1) that in order to reconnect with nature and ‘remember’ our true place on Earth and our true meaning and purpose as part of all life on this planet, we must first disconnect from the noise and influence of civilization’s incredible ‘gravity’ by moving out to its edge; and (2) that if we hope to help others reconnect, enough others to make a difference at this critical point in our evolution, we must first make the journey alone, and then draw others out with us, rather than pushing them to make the journey with us. Yes, I know Gandhi said that, but I just got it.

I tried to draw this graphically, and came up with the diagram above. Sorry it’s a bit messy. Here is what, I think, it says:

  • The distinction and struggle between progressives and conservatives is a dangerous distraction. The real struggle for the hearts and minds of the people of our planet is between those in the centre, who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo (which I believe will lead to our annihilation), and those at the edge, who see what we have forgotten and see, at least faintly, the way home. The 1% elite, supported by the 9% in the complicit second inner circle, are constantly trying to hold in (and keep in line) the 50% of humanity that is addicted to the cycle of consumption and debt and the 30% of humanity that is conflicted, idealistic and disempowered. The corporatists have the ‘gravity’ of the status quo (humans do not change until they have to) and a huge amount of money to spend to keep the majority addicted to consumption, debt, and growth. But there is also a centrifugal force pushing people out to the edge, where 10% of the population is also trying to draw people away from this unnecessary and dangerous addiction, and are becoming more vocal and energized as we realize that this wasteful and grossly inequitable civilization is simply monstrous and unsustainable.
  • The corporatists, despite their wealth and power, are utterly dependent on the 9% lackeys defending them — they are their ‘security force’. Without the advisors and lawyers, ad and PR agencies, lobbyists, pro-growth religions, junk scientists, corporate media and neocon and neo-liberal policymakers and corporatism and globalization apologists, there would be insufficient ‘gravity’ to hold this thing together, to keep the 80% in the third and fourth layers in their place. However, this 9% believes religiously in the perpetual growth illusion. Debating them is a waste of time.
  • The largest and most volatile group is the middle layer, the 50% of our society who are in debt to and/or employed by corporatists, and addicted to the corporatists’ products. They live in a ‘vacuum of meaning and purpose’ and hence value themselves and everyone else by what they own. But the hold that corporatist civilization has on them is tenuous because it is a pusher/addict love/hate relationship — show (not tell) them a better way to live and watch the stampede.
  • The most troublesome group (for those of us at the outer edge) is the fourth layer, the 30% of our society that is politically and socially engaged but conflicted and disempowered by our society. Unlike the agnostic and anomie-plagued third layer, those in the fourth layer have strong values and opinions, and are often ideologically at each other’s throats. This is just fine with the corporatists, because it keeps them focused on each other instead of on them, and their idealism causes them to vote and otherwise participate marginally in the political and economic decision-making processes, giving these processes unwarranted legitimacy. This group includes technophiles who really want to believe science and technology will solve, rather than exacerbate, the problems facing our civilization. It also includes the co-opted counter-culture, the well-meaning and rebellious who fail to realize “you can’t jam the culture“, and the libertarians who believe in the wonderful ideal of a free market without the need for government but haven’t yet realized that it has not ever existed and cannot ever exist. Those of us on the edge need to realize we cannot draw this 30% out to the edge until they’re ready. They will be ready, before any of the inner levels, to make that move, but we need to pay attention and listen, and be ready to welcome them.
  • The list of groups at the edge probably appears a motley crew, but all 11 groups in this outer circle share some of the sensibility that both van der Post and Ratcliffe talk about, the sensitivity which is essential to creating a new society that will render the old civilization culture obsolete before it collapses from its own unsustainable weight. It is among these 11 groups that we need to look for colleagues for the important work ahead: The addicts in the third layer and the conflicted in the fourth layer are not ready for this work — it is uncharted territory and hence frightening to them. It is among others in this outer circle that we will find affinity, the people with the courage and vision and understanding to help us change the world.

Once our civilization starts to come unhinged, brought on by nuclear or chemical or bioterrorism, epidemic disease, horrific economic depression, ecological catastrophe, and/or economic collapse stemming from our inability to wean ourselves off oil fast enough, we will suddenly find a lot of people looking to us for models and solutions, other ways to live. We only change when we have to, and by the end of this century, as I have argued repeatedly, we will have to change big-time.

I intend no romanticism, no ‘outlaw’ reimaging of the groups on the edge. We all still have a lot of work to do to complete our own personal and lonely journeys to the edge, before we can presume to offer answers and insights and direction to others. Perhaps the greatest challenge we face in doing that is in freeing up time for this journey, especially when we get weary and there are so many tempting distractions. But, perhaps ironically, what can make this lonely and individual journey a little easier, a little more bearable, is the knowledge that, out hereon the edge, so close to wilderness, we are not alone.

Thanks to Andrew Campbell for getting this whole train of thought started.

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11 Responses to Living On The Edge

  1. etbnc says:

    You’ve created an intriguing model, Dave. This seems like another helpful insight and another step toward integration and acceptance of the concepts you described a few days ago.Good work, and do carry on. Cheers,

  2. I’ve struggled mightily to get myself to the edges. While I consider myself an artist these days, my time devoted to writing and acting and designing, I’m still dependent on income that really puts me in that second ring (commercial acting, providing design services for The Man) as opposed to the fourth. Talk about conflicted!Your point about moving the discussion away from progressive/conservative and towards one of impact is an excellent one. Thanks for redrawing the lines and making them so much easier to see.

  3. theresa says:

    Compelling and irritating as ever (no offence :-)) Van der Post was one of the biggest disappointments of my mental life. After reading The Seed and The Sower I bought all his books and treated everything like it was written by some kind of sage. Later it was shown that he embroidered or fabricated much of his personal past. He was also a white man presenting himself as an authority on the bushmen, which I guess he was. Anyway, helped me to become more a more skeptical reader. There are still some passages in Night of The New Moon which are worth remembering. Also, he said once that if such a thing as ghosts exist, one can only see them in one’s own country. This made sense in terms of their existance in the collective consciousness. I believe Van der Post was a friend of Jung (if he was tellling the truth about that). That is off topic, though, sorry. About the model: I don’t see a place in there for what goes on in my neck of the woods between the mostly independant, small scale yukon placer miners and their war with the mostly dependent government employed environmentalists. There is also the survivalist mentality – sometimes seen in fans of Jack London stories – shown by southern people living in the north – and yet Alaskans are much more conservative than Yukoners despite their other shared values about mainstream society. Personally, I identify most closely with Ralph Nader’s constituency of fiscally conservative but otherwise left leaning and open minded people after an alternative lifestyle, until it becomes too trendy and mainstream if you know what I mean. I don’t quite see where that fits into the model either but I guess it comes down to not having much of a stake in the old order for whatever reason.

  4. Zane says:

    David–I find your diagram and framing of social agents very compelling. I have spent most of my life on the edge, as you define it, although I continue to flirt with elements that draw me into the centre–academics, employment, and debt. These excursions help me to understand the mindset of the people who live in this largest segment of our collective process.For now, I have chosen to live more on the edge, literally building a house and a life in a rural area. I need this core of connection to place in order to sustain my participation in and ability to shape larger social and policy change.I think more people on the edge are becoming aware of their collective resposibility and of their need to build authentic and sustainable community.I am less optimistic these days about derailing or redirecting the course the inner 10% have set us upon, but it seems that we need to try with all of our hearts.

  5. Good stuff…I find myself with one shoe in the outer ring and one in the fourth. And I’m being honest here. Much as many of us in the fourth ring would love to be on the edge, I think we probably are more in ring number four than we would like to think. What is key is to keep those of you edge dwellers very much top of mind, to develop the practices that get us out there wholehog.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Wonderful and valuable thoughts — thanks to you all. I’ve discussed Theresa’s comments with her offline. I have to confess that I’m in the same place as Chris, frequently seduced back to the fourth ring and with some vestigial sense even of the third, which I haven’t completely shaken. The edge is a scary place for those who have made the journey, and especially for the many who have found themselves there entirely involuntarily, who have been ‘cast off or cast out’. Medaille, your changing minds approach is brilliant (you clearly get Lakoff’s and Daniel Quinn’s), and your creating models approach is of course consistent with what several of us have been saying about the need for Model Intentional Communities. “Don’t tell me, show me.” We have a long way to go, but there seems to be increasing clarity about what direction to head in now.

  7. Thanks for the chart. It seems especially useful to me this week, as I am immersed in Alaska Folk Festival, a remarkably robust, highly interactive experience. The variety of musical acts and the devotion to art we celebrate makes this an inspriring time. The festival is free admission, member funded, and a bridge between your forest green ring and the pale orange ring (travelling folks spend money in town, we’re on the front page of the paper and get some tv coverage, and brave souls sing out!I’ll be able to pass on your thoughts when folks say, “wish folk fest went on all year long”

  8. Paul in Indiana says:

    Consider how different that graph would look if you weighted the areas by either (a) resource consumption, (b) resource control/ownership, or (c) monetary wealth. The larger area, the more resources burned, owned, or money as an indicator of power in the system.

  9. Joel Sax says:

    A fascinating graph,but I have to note a glaring omission: what about those of us who are disabled in some way, the sick who cannot work? I could be factored, I suppose, as either a dependent consumer, a marginalized person, or a drop-out but these fail to recognize the central fact of my economic being: I have debilitating diseases.I have a love-hate relationship with the drug companies who manufacture the pharmaceuticals that I use to manage my conditions. On one hand, I appreciate what those medications do for me but on the other they try to give me stuff that is not entirely appropriate and at a price that I sometimes can’t afford.It saddens me to think that I and my friends like me have disappeared from the economic radar.

  10. eRobin says:

    I traveled the same arc of disappointment with van der Post but I still appreciate a good deal of what he wrote. Baby, bathwater thing.

  11. ehj2 says:

    Thank you for this chart and this very effective presentation of this idea, or organizing principle.I would remind some of the commenters here that the corporatists and their enablers have learned to effectively discredit those of us in the outer circles. We need to be careful how we credential the opinions and facts of those who discredit and “de-credential” those of us on the edge. Why do we believe them? People from Martin Luther King to John Kerry have been discredited by lies and half-truths. Organizations from Labor and Unions to lawyers and the ACLU and even the Red Cross have been discredited by lies. Corporatists steadily dismantle the agencies and instruments of effective governance, not by saying that what these institutions might do isn’t useful or necessary, but by droning that they are ineffective and inefficient and counterproductive (a waste of taxpayer funds). An effective corporatist ploy in this decade is to so starve an agency of funding that it can’t function well, and then to argue that it’s failure to function as a crippled agency is sufficient reason to abolish it.We need to take our truths where we can find them and defend them when we can. I’m enough of a student of Jung to have read virtually everything he has written, and most of the works of those who surrounded him during his life. I’ve also drunk deeply from the writings of Laurens van der Post and feel he’s enough of a spiritual friend to want to stand up for him here in this conversation.Without credentials of my own in this context, I’ll simply quote professor C.A. Meier, M.D., successor to the Chair of Psychology created for and held by C.G. Jung at the Eidgenossische Technische Hoschschule at Zurich. “Van der Post is clear, downright, correct, and yet beautiful; in other words, he is a most reliable guide for all those who are interested in C.G. Jung without having known him well personally. In the future they will have to read not only Jung’s Memories,Dreams, Reflections and his letters but most definitely this highly worthwhile book (Jung and the Story of Our Time), which reveals so much more than the longer volumes to come ever will.”Jung himself has written “The brighter the light, the darker the shadow.” If you have found darkness in van der Post, it is because there is an equally bright light in him. Some of that light is demonstrated in the words and thoughts reproduced in this post.If you are disturbed by that shadow as if van der Post has betrayed you, then it is possible the issue is numinous for you, projected, and you are using your feelings about van der Post (a hook for your projections) to explore feelings about your own shadow as a similarly lighted person at the edge of a world which almost demands levels of subterfuge and cunning to survive at the edge./ehj2and thanks to Chris Clarke for the link to this site.

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