What I Haven’t Said

NASA BP OIl Spill from Space

the BP Oil Spill, as seen from space (NASA)

I have received a lot of questions from readers this past month, most of which fall into three categories:

  1. Why have I not written about the BP oil spill?
  2. Why do I not participate more in the comments threads on my blog, or respond to most of the e-mails people send?
  3. What’s up with me these days, anyway? Why am I not getting on with what I have so publicly intended?

For the past few weeks I have been keeping a diary, offline. It’s a record of a personal crisis of belief I’ve been going through, which the last few blog posts (and the dearth of blog posts this year) have hinted at. I’m going to try to capture some of what I wrote there in this post, to try to address these questions without the full sturm und drang of the diary. Beware — considerable rambling ahead.

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Last year I wrote, in a poem:

i do my best these days to still my mind and listen, sense and give attention,
not to think of what it means or represents,
or feel the grief of gaia’s loss that haunts me everywhere:
but just to sit and be here, now.

though i cannot.

you’ll always be a part of me, and i of you, my land, my love, my teacher too.
we’re so alike: untidy, neither natural nor civilized, a little sad, a little wild,
a little worn, untamed and proud
and every year
a bit more silent.

thank you for your voice, your gentleness with me,
the other creatures that are part of you
and all you’ve showed me of adapting and of wisdom.

i understand at last the message you’ve proclaimed
for all who dare to hear, since life began a billion years ago:
a whisper in the wind, a rustle in the rain,
a baby’s peep, a robin’s song, the turtle’s ancient swim to spawn,
the senses’ spell, the cry of love and joy
and being one with all,
and welcome always,

This is how I feel. These feelings seem different from the feelings most people have. They need no consolation. They need no words. To most people who share my company they are disconcerting, because they seem socially disengaged, impersonal. They are “present with gaia” feelings. They are profound, roiling, and when people get too close they can be hurtful, since they are connected to a deeper and more intense mix of grief, anger, restlessness, helplessness, guilt, self-pity, rage, impatience and self-loathing that is tied to my awareness of how we humans have fucked up this world, with the best of intentions, and all the suffering that is causing. It is what I call my “unbearable grief for gaia” and probably why I have sublimated my emotions so much for most of my life.

When they burn themselves out, these feelings have, in past, most often led to periods of dark depression. In good times, and especially more recently, when I have been free of the anxieties of day-to-day life, these feelings soften and dissipate, leaving me exhausted and then unfeeling, detached, disconnected. This beats depression but it is the antithesis of the reconnection I claim to be seeking.

So I’ve been going through these annoying cycles of connection, emotion, and detachment. They are getting me nowhere, and are very difficult for others to have to put up with, since the connection to gaia is impersonal, quiet, wordless, leaving the people who are with me feeling shut out, and then the subsequent emotion drives me to want to be alone so I don’t hurt anyone with the overflow of anger and emotion. This is what has been behind my silence on this blog for much of this year, after last winter’s burst of enthusiastic intention.

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gaping void hierarchy hugh macleod

cartoon by hugh macleod

One of my readers has (indirectly) described my writing as arrogant “doomer porn” — a wallowing in hopelessness, a presumption of knowing more than I do, and an excuse for inaction. This is an articulation of what many have said to me throughout much of my adult life, though it has less and less effect on me as I get older. I think that is why my readership, and my zeal for blogging, have both tailed off of late. People tell me to “get real”, to shut up and do something. But I think we pessimists are the real realists, and it is the optimists, the light greens, the technophiles, the new-age’ers, the “global consciousness raising” believers, who are the unrealistic idealists. I am tired of debating with them, because the debate is futile. We have evolved incompatible worldviews.

I have been spending more and more time in what might be called ‘alternative’ culture over the last two years. It is refreshing — progressive, open, vulnerable, experimental, and relatively informed. But it is no more my culture than the mainstream culture I masqueraded as belonging to from adolescence until 2008. My culture is an idealized one that doesn’t exist, and perhaps never will. I belong to the land, as part of all-life-on-Earth, but I am misanthropically alone.

I appreciate the importance of embodying and living what we believe, because all our feelings will not make the world a better place. At the moment, however, I don’t even want to embody what I believe most needs to be done. I don’t want to work hard to organize, to protest, to blockade, to create something difficult that will take years to realize. If I could find collaborators who care about the same things I do, and they were willing to do this ‘hard work’ I would be pleased to help in areas where I have something valuable to contribute and where I have passion.

I think that’s highly unlikely however. The “doers” of this world are not like me — they are practical people with patience and perseverance. I am, as many have said, a dreamer. My gift is imagining what’s possible, not realizing it.

I probably should be more modest, therefore, in my intentions, at least publicly. I am so tired of letting people down (which ultimately comes back to letting myself down, and that whole self-loathing thing). I am so tired, period. I just want to do what I do well and have passion for, and be who I am. Why in this world is that so hard?

Perhaps I am just meant to be an artist and not an activist. I recognize that the world probably doesn’t need more artists, and desperately needs people who are activists; fewer dreamers, more “doers”.

Or maybe not.

As much as our education system extols activism and self-sacrifice in the public interest (without it, we are taught, there would still be rampant slavery and women would be even more subjugated than they are, and Hitler would have imposed his dreadful solution on us all), I am not so sure now. From 37 years in the corporate world, for example, I have learned that many corporations do enormous and relentless damage, but also that what they do is the sum total of what their poor clueless loser employees believe in and do, with the best of intentions, and has almost nothing to do with what the poor sick sociopaths at the top believe or want to do.


cartoon by signe wilkinson, from gocomics.com

The ghastly BP oil spill is not the fault of a small group of evil people, nor would it have been averted if the leader(s) of BP and the other organizations now playing the blame game, cared more about the environment. I am beginning to believe the same is true of all social organizations. The importance of leadership, and of change initiatives, I think, are vastly overrated. We are, each of us, just the space through which stuff passes. No one is that important, or consequential, and no one is in control.

That is why I have written nothing about the oil spill, or about the thousands of other ecological (and economic, and political, and social, and technological, and military, and educational, and health) atrocities that are occurring every day. There is no one to blame, no “root cause” other than human nature itself, and no “solution”, so what is the point of writing about it? This is just who we are, collectively, doing our best and discovering that we can do no better than bring about the sixth known great extinction of life on this planet. I applaud activists (at least the ones who know what they are doing), and their energy, their passion, their dedication, their patience and relentless perseverance. I wish I had what it takes to be one of them.

Perhaps then, for those of us who do not have what it takes to be an activist, it is enough to be an artist. To imagine what’s possible. To re-create. To express ourselves. To reflect what we see and what we feel.

And what we care about.

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Artwork “In Deep Conversation” by Irish artist Pam O’Connell

Some readers have expressed annoyance that I do not join in the conversation in the comments threads on my blog, or by replying to most e-mails. As I’ve said before, this blog is, first and foremost, my device for talking/thinking out loud, more like graffiti than conversation. I’m sorry that this makes some readers feel invisible or not cared about.

I’m coming to believe that we don’t really know other people, and the connection and understanding we think we have with people, especially online, is largely delusional. We imagine who other people are, and imagine their context for saying what we think they think they’re saying, so we believe we know what they intend to say, what they mean, when we don’t know at all. We cannot.

I am weary of conversation, and of, as GB Shaw said, the illusion that communication has occurred. Language is a clumsy and often dangerous tool. So I am choosing to converse less, not because I don’t care about the feelings and views of those who want to talk, but because I can no longer pretend to understand what those I converse with really mean, and really feel, so the whole conversation seems like a mix of con-game and self-delusion. Ultimately, as the Paul Simon song says, we hear what we want to hear and disregard the rest.

At the same time (and this may seem to be a contradiction of what I have just said), I suspect that what each of us says (through writing, art, music, speech) is more important than we might believe, because our ideas and knowledge and insights have viral power; they influence others who pass them on to others so that we will never know how substantial their impact is, even after we’re gone. Unfortunately, we will probably also never know how exactly they took our writing or our art. This is the paradox and power of poetry, and of art, and graffiti, and even of well-done rhetoric. What the reader or listener precisely understands or feels as a result of what has been written or said is not important, and may not even be predictable. What is important is that with words, we move people. To think differently. To believe differently. To see things with new perspectives and insights. We writers and artists are just agents, precipitators of viral change that will occur over decades and generations and centuries. The direction of that change is something we cannot predict or control.

We write, we draw, we speak, we sculpt, we sing, we decorate our homes and our bodies, we do what we do, because we can’t not. We do what we must. It is in our deepest natures to self-express, and we each do it our own way.

So I’m sorry if you feel I’m not hearing you, not participating in the conversations my blog posts spark. I read you, I hear you, and I do care. But my job, my calling, is to write, and I think I’m reasonably good at that. I am neither as competent at nor as passionate about conversation. So each time I have the inspiration and the time to read or write or converse, to attempt what TS Eliot called “a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate, with shabby equipment always deteriorating, in the general mess of imprecision of feeling”, most often that passion expresses itself in a new article rather than a conversation about something I have already written.

I hope you understand.

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Thanks to my readers, and especially thanks to Tree, Cheryl and Vera, for helping me think all this through, and for your patience as this blog continues to evolve to be what it is meant to be.

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14 Responses to What I Haven’t Said

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention What I Haven’t Said « how to save the world -- Topsy.com

  2. Dave, thanks for this wonderfully thoughtful essay. It mirrors my own feelings, at least most days, particularly with respect to debating people with absurd world views (i.e., different from mine). Good luck to us all in the months and years ahead, as the industrial economy finally goes down in flames. And best wishes to you, with profound thanks for all you do.

  3. nathan maus says:

    This is a time, where we as people, en masse, learn personal responsibility to create for themselves the world and the lives that they want to live in; to become more true to themselves. I am not a pessimist in the least. I’m firmly optimistic, in the “global consciousness raising” club you mentioned. I’m not a pessimist because I believe our souls created the Earth as a place for us to develop ourselves. That’s probably of little consolation, if you believe that the Gaia came first and we are evolved from dust somewhere along the line gaining consciousness, but in that belief system, I would pose the question, would Gaia in her infinite wisdom create us to destroy her?

    I tried activism for a little while. It wasn’t a good fit for me. Activism seemed like a therapy group, where people of like minds discussed their problems, and spent more time talking about fixing them than fixing them. I would suggest that instead of trying to fix the world, you instead try to focus on each day, becoming a more and more perfect version of yourself. To suggest that the world needs less artists and less activists doesn’t make any sense to me. To me, the world needs each of us to be who we are, and to spend less time not being who we are. All of us, are stuck in dead end jobs spending all our time being someone else and not ourselves. We came into this world with Gaia’s permission so that we could share our gifts most fully. Our gifts are perfect in and of themselves. What is an activist anyway? It’s not somebody who goes above and beyond themselves, a Gandhi or Che or the like. In my altered version of reality, an activist is just a person. A person who lives in accordance with their own values and their own truths.

    Don’t worry about what other people think of your blog. It is not your responsibility to feel bad for them. They are the ones who are responsible for their own feelings. You cannot fill their empty holes and they should not expect you to.

    Here’s an idea that you can take or leave. It popped into my head and it may or may not be of value to you. You suggest that you are not so much a doer and more a dreamer. I would suggest that dreaming is very much a doing. The problem with dreaming is that it stays bottled inside and never gets let into the universe. Maybe you can continue to share your gift of dreaming with the world. To go further and share the most beautiful and loving dreams that you can create. Dreams of how we can bridge the world of where we are to the one where we want to go. Then to share with us examples and stories of the doers that are living it.

    Thank you for this space and this opportunity to share my truths. I truly appreciate it.

  4. Mushin says:

    Ah dave, the fine art of the pessimistic/realistic perspective on the humun dis-ease of this planet. Yes, you might be right – but that doesn’t really matter, anyway – and then, it’s just another perspective. And it’s one, that rings a cord, and actually makes we want to be able to reach out and bring a useless, but nevertheless fine and enjoyable, smile to your lips.

  5. M Wms says:


  6. Ria Baeck says:

    Thanks for being this kind of artist, because I am not! Please follow your passion – I was never really interested in your activist side. I felt deep in my bones it was not authentic, not from your deep soul. Glad you have found this out!
    All the rest was said by Nathan and the others. Be well!

  7. Kevin Carson says:

    I think the supposed dreaming/doing dichotomy is really a beautiful illustration of the stigmergic principle, and particularly the things that can be achieved by viral replication in the ideological realm. Doing everything you can to say what you feel needs saying, and to get what you regard as the relevant information out there, is probably the most effective form of “activism” you can engage in. Using public consciousness indirectly as a fulcrum to leverage a “thousand flowers” of political action is far more cost-effective than joining some action group. Woodward and Bernstein didn’t join the ACLU and start a petition drive to rein in executive power. They published a series of stories in the Washington post, and the political action was taken care of by the resulting firestorm of public opinion. What Radley Balko does every day in publicizing the empire of militarized SWAT teams, civil forfeiture robbery, coerced perjured testimony from jailhouse snitches, and planted evidence is worth a thousand NORML ballot initiatives. And what you’re doing, likewise, is the best thing you could be doing.

  8. pradtf says:

    the sage said “If you do not understand my silence, you will not understand my words”
    the activist said “We will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
    the two need not be incompatible.

  9. Phil says:

    It won’t be long and we’ll all be dead Dave. Do what is right for you, not your readers or other demanding souls.

  10. And having said all that, yer still an Islander, so if you want to go grab a tea or a raw salad or walk some trails and pick salmonberries, give me a call….I’m back home on Thursday.

  11. Steve says:

    Well i for one wait for the next installment of “how to dave the world” and i am patient. When it comes it’s always good.

  12. Terry says:

    Interesting. I thought I could change the world but it seems most people are living in a repetitive circle of sleep, work, shop and TV. So when I write about consciousness, or awareness I may as well be talking to a brick wall. People are more interested in losing 20 pounds in a week, getting rich quick or anything else that provide instant gratification. Sometimes I just want to shake them all and yell at the top of my lungs.

  13. John Graham says:

    Dave, well done following through on one of your intentions – apologising for things that are clearly not your fault! It’s an approach that continues to give me food for thought.

    And thankyou for giving us another glimpse of your “Enormous Room”. This post has a much richer, “YES-AND” quality than some of your more ‘logically consistent’ posts, and seems to resonate truer because of it – that “YES-ANDness” invites us past the level of debating sides or putting each other straight, which can be so frustratingly fruitless.

    A couple more cents-worth: creating, and enacting society, is all we ever do. We can choose to recreate “fuck the world” – or we can create something fresh.

    I love Peter Gabriel, and at first I heard one of his lines as “she’s so fucked the world”. After a while I re-learned the line as “jeux sans frontieres” – Games Without Frontiers.

    It’s a fine line. Each moment, ‘two roads diverge in a wood, and I…’

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