Letting Your Heart Be Broken


blood diamonds
Prisoner-labourers in a typical African open pit mine, many of whom will “end up in shallow graves, executed for suspected theft, for lack of production, or simply for sport”
(photo by Jean-Claude Coutausse/ CONTACT Press Images)
For several years I’ve been touting what I call Pollard’s Law, which I think largely dictates what humans do, and don’t do, regardless of what they think, believe and intend:

We do what we must, then we do what’s easy, and then we do what’s fun. There is no time or energy left over for doing the right thing, what we aspire to do, what we think we should do, what’s merely important. None. At work and at home, we do what has to be done, and then, most of us do what’s easy and/or fun — watching TV or a movie or reading or tweeting or dancing or doing crosswords.

This has nothing to do with laziness. This is human and animal nature, engrained in our DNA. We are preoccupied with the needs of the moment, and when there are none, we rest, we play. It’s a billion-year-old survival strategy.

My British friend Nick has written about the importance of letting go of our beliefs, fears, hopes, desires, ambitions, assumptions, anxieties, plans, distractions, stories about the past and future, stories about who we are and are not, and about what is happening and should be happening in the world, our reactions, anger, despair, grief, preconceptions, concerns about what others think, illusions about control, and judgements. Much of what we think we must do is driven by these fictions we can’t let go of, and if we can let go of these things then we may start to realize other things, perhaps more important things, that we must do, that we cannot not do.

Nick explains that when we let go of these fictions, this gunk that’s become attached to us, we can bring ourselves to the present, to a realization of what really is, here, now. This takes an enormous amount of courage, because some of what is true, here, now, is terrible. It requires a willingness to let our heart be broken by unbearable truths.

In my recent post about what I care about, I wrote that the “social me” cares about:

  • Helping people cope with civilization’s collapse.
  • Obsolescing industrial agriculture.
  • Helping people find the right collaborative partners.
  • Deschooling society.
  • Helping people learn about sustainable community.
  • Helping people learn to deal with complexity.
  • Helping people discover the work they’re meant to do.

But, I lamented, the “visceral me” cares instead about:

  • Eating. Sleeping. That really hot girl over there.
  • All-life-on-Earth, especially cats, dogs, wolves, birds, trees.
  • The people I love.

Guess which list is more urgent (must-do stuff), and easier, and more fun? No contest. I do what I must: eating, sleeping, my job, household chores, exercises. Then I do what’s easy and fun: writing this blog, imagining possibilities (including some with that really hot girl over there), conversing with those I love, learning new things, listening to good music, walking in the forest, playing with cats, watching the birds, dancing in the moonlight. Hmmm… no time left today for that first list of seven important things. Well, perhaps tomorrow.

There are many assumptions, intractable problems and fears that underlie that first list. These are massive, almost unfathomably complex problems. What would make these problems must-do’s for me? I think if I were really present with these issues, if I were to go out into the world and realize the consequences of my inaction on them, it would break my heart. I would ‘real-ize’ that these are more than ideals, more than good things to do: my failure to act on them makes me complicit in the horrific suffering, the squandered opportunity to avert or at least mitigate ghastly forthcoming crises, the tragic mind-numbing waste of human life, energy and enthusiasm, the massive, devastating crimes against nature (mostly out of ignorance), the consequences of our dumbed-down society’s dreadful imaginative poverty.

One of my favourite posts is called No Noble Savage, and it describes some of the atrocities going on in the world, right now, always and everywhere. Maybe I should witness them now, in real time, real space. Despite my vivid imagination, visualizations are not enough to break my heart. It is too easy to turn away. I know people who are fighting these atrocities every day, and they tell me the reality is a hundred times worse than anyone could imagine.

The question is: Am I prepared to give up my comfortable life, and my paralyzing, reality-distorting fictions? Am I prepared to acknowledge my complicity, through inaction, in everything I rage about? Am I then prepared to let go of everything I have, and parse my time even more finely than I do now, in order to act, meaningfully, beyond just writing about them, to make the world a better way in at least some of the seven ways in my list above?

Perhaps for the first time in my life, I think there is a 50-50 chance that my answer to these questions is yes. As much as it breaks my heart to admit it, there are millions of writers out there, many of whom can write about the things I know and care and have ideas about, better than I can. Yet even as I say this my instincts, my nature, tell me that I am happy now and plunging into these important and complex tasks will make me less so, and how much of a difference can I make anyway?

I’m tired. I’m hungry. There’s something else I want to write about. And hey, is that really hot girl over there looking back at me?

Category: Human Nature


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8 Responses to Letting Your Heart Be Broken

  1. Ananth says:

    Is this not Buddha has said..? If anything, people who have done something have done because there was something which influenced them so much that it became a must do or it was fun to do. Thanks for this post because it lays bare the fact about what we do.

  2. Janene says:

    Hey –Not to be a downer…. I hope its not a downer… but you aren’t going to spend time on any of those things until those things become part of your every day life, Dave. To teach people about sustainable community is to be doing sustainable community. And so forth. I feel like a broken record, but stop beating yourself up over things that simply *are*… when, and if, you find a community that you are ready to be a part of, then and only then will you start doing things that are part of that communities vision (and, assumably) your own.Janene

  3. Niels K says:

    I don’t believe you can make the world a better place by doing something that you feel would make you less happy.

  4. Terry says:

    You should watch Watchmen that just came out on DVD. Pretty much sums up the human condition in a neat yet gory package.

  5. Terry says:

    I think there is a paradox in us wanting to live the good life or at least a life of contentment and going out there and making a serious difference. It never is easy.

  6. Don Dwiggins says:

    Well, this won’t break your heart, but you might get something out of looking at Sharon Astyk’s recent list of things she must do: http://sharonastyk.com/2009/07/24/goats-guests-garlic-and-chaos/. Not much that’s easy, but it sounds like there’s some fun mixed in.

  7. Mushin says:

    There is hubris in the first list, and a sense of megalomania in the thought that you need to be the one to do something about this.Not that it wouldn’t be good. Really. But it is so INDIVIDUALISTIC. So married to the idea of being, and thereby setting an example.Evolution has always worked with and through second lists (and people and things that make us hot). What’s the sense of picking a quarrel with evolution?We don’t know if any of what you project into the future or onto the world is really the case. Oh yes, today I go out and show up in the demonstration to support my Persian brothers and sisters, because it feels good to do that…Maybe trusting the collective wisdom of humanity a bit can help?Love and much appreciation for your wonderful blog,Mushin

  8. Paris says:

    Can we help people who do not even know they need help?Can we change people so that they become nice while they have been criminals or slave master all their lives?I believe people do not change (except very self willingly) but newer generation can be different, so that society changes slowly and gradually.Therefore I believe you have to be the change you wanna see in the world: So no need for “helping” people but instead try no to hurt them (no pollution, dont buy slave made goods, etc…)and this is done everyday by your eating, sleeping and working habits.Doesnt life sound easier this way? It stops the western schizophrenia dating back body and soul dichotomy.WE ARE ONE.

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