Going in Circles

Thank you, dear readers. I owe you so much, and I don’t say it enough. You’ve told me for years what I should do to make this blog better, and it’s only beginning to sink in. For years I wrote in the third person, as an ‘expert’; since you seemed to like my “how to … top 10” lists I thought that was what you wanted (My most read post ever remains “10 Things to Do When You’re Blue“). Or I wrote in the first person plural, the “royal we”. My posts were full of unequivocal “modal auxiliary verbs” (should, must, needs to) because everywhere, everyone I encountered seemed to be looking for answers, for (re-)assurance, for direction, for certainty. My self-assured posts attracted lots of readers, including people I’ve come to meet and love, and people who gave me my last two jobs, and people who published my book, and people who turned my ideas, deservedly, upside down.

PC Vey cartoon

Cartoon from the New Yorker by PC Vey.

And when I started to become less certain, more conditional, proffering more questions than answers, writing more in the first person singular, my readership dropped off, and I worried that readers wouldn’t have the patience or the energy to put up with more meandering, introspective writing. When all along you were telling me that’s what you really wanted — authenticity, even when that entailed honest doubt, searching, second-guessing, admission of failure.

And that’s when I realized what this blog is really about, and why it doesn’t fit into any “blog categories”. Sure, as the subtitle says, it’s about understanding how the world really works and exploring models of a better way to live. But deeper than that, it’s a chronicle, now over seven years long, of my growing personal doubts about everything I had been told all my life, and, once I’d started to learn the real truth about this world, of my attempts to cope with that terrible truth. It’s my long-winded story about my transformation from someone who thought the world could be saved, to someone realizing it couldn’t be and didn’t have to be. And then asking myself, out loud: Now what?

So that’s where I am now, asking myself: What is my gift to the world? Now that I have, at last, the time and financial resources (and a little bit of understanding of what’s happening and what’s possible) to do anything I want to do, what should I do?

Perhaps that’s all any of us can do, if we really want to convey anything meaningful and durable and useful to others: tell our own story, as honestly as we can, and let others find resonance, perspective, understanding, ideas to explore, personal insight, hints, appreciation of what not to do, and why. Maybe even a few “ahas!” Everything we do in the real world falls apart, sooner or later. But those moments of magic connection we make sharing our stories with others endure, get adapted into their worldview, their imaginations, their work, their story, and then their story gets passed on to others and those magic connections multiply, again and again, in ways we’ll never know. In love, conversation, and community, stories are all we are.

So I have come full circle, and in trying to answer the Now what? question, I decided to go back to the three circles I introduced in my book Finding the Sweet Spot, at the intersection of which lies, as I optimistically told my readers, the answer to What We’re Meant to Do. Time to take some of my own medicine. So here I go again, thinking out loud, this time in the first person singular: Who needs my gift now?


The three circles above are my evolving list of what I think, at least today, the world really needs (things it needs that I care about, anyway), and a list of the things I love doing, and the things I am (I think, or have been told I am) uniquely good at. I’ve left areas 5 and 7 empty, because there are a depressing number of things in area 5, and because I think the things I made a living doing in this area (and which many “professional” people continue to make a profitable living doing) are oversold (i.e. the perceived need for them is manufactured and hyped) and even exploitative. Besides, since I have no passion for these activities there’s no point dwelling on them.

The first two items in area 6 (what’s needed in the world) — the capacity for empathy and the skill of facilitation — are, I believe, probably the most important things to learn, to practice, and to teach, in the 21st century. If we don’t care about each other, and if we aren’t able to work effectively in partnership and collaboration, there is no hope for us. I am optimistic that at least some subcultures appreciate this and are working on it. But I don’t think I will ever acquire this capacity and this skill so long as I remain misanthropic and self-preoccupied. I just don’t care enough about most people, or about how they get along, or don’t get along, and so for me to focus my energies on this would be an exercise in S&M.

The third through fifth items in area 6 are from the “what you can do” model I adapted from Joanna Macy’s work. They are what I intended to do (I said last year) when I retired. The problem is, while I’m interested in learning new personal capacities, and studying how we might help to dismantle civilization, and learning about and imagining new models of a better way to live, I’m really not interested in doing the work of implementing, actually doing what the world needs done. I have no heart for detail, no courage for danger, and no patience for perseverance against relentless opposition and obstacles. I really love people who are, but I finally know myself enough to know that’s not me, and if I tried to tough out the slogging this work entails my lack of real passion will defeat me. If I’m going to stick with it, I have to do what I love.

So that takes me to the 13 activities in areas 1, 2 and 4. These are all things I love doing, and a couple of them in area 4 (good stories and syntheses) are needed in the world, while three of them in area 2 (imagining, reflecting and writing) are things that I’m uniquely good at (I think, or so I’m told). I’ve been asking myself two questions, to try to get some of the things in area 4 and 2 into the area 3 “sweet spot”:

  1. What would it take for me to become really good at telling and eliciting and capturing excellent stories, or at synthesizing (combining, integrating and distilling) useful, truthful information?
  2. How might my gifts for imagining possibilities, reflecting on meaning, and writing, be applied in a compelling and personally engaging way to address what the world really needs?

I confess I was a bit shy about answering question 1, because although I’ve dabbled in studying lots of things over the past decade, I don’t think my practice has produced any new competencies — I give up too easily. So I focused more on the second question. But as I tried to connect the area 2 stuff and the area 6 stuff, I kept asking myself why, when I was so intellectually fascinated by the idea of a gift/generosity economy, by the transition movement and its amazing global traction, by the utter logic of unschooling, by the challenge of relearning the skills of consensus and growing our own food and living sustainably, by the excitement of actually stopping the abominable Alberta Tar Sands or the loathsome Industrial Agriculture system — was I so emotionally turned off at the idea of rolling up my sleeves and actually making some of these ideas work, and happen, in the real world?

litter cartoon

Cartoon from the New Yorker by the late Charles Elmer Martin

And it came to me that most of what the world needs right now, most of what we are all increasingly working at, however we make our life or our living, is cleaning up the mess we have already made and are continuing to make at an horrific rate. The mess of global warming. The BP oil spill. The deforestation of the rainforests. Failed states created by thugs we have armed in places we have invaded, ravaged, occupied and abandoned. Chronic diseases caused by messed up water, food, soil, and nutritionally starved bodies. Abuse of spouses, children and animals. Poverty. Crime (including that by unrepentant corporations and politicians). Energy-sucking, endemic despair. War. The desperation that leads to nihilistic violence. Genocide. Emotional trauma and its massive toll on our mental health. Cultural homogenization and the collapse of cultural and biological diversity. Giant messes, every one. Huge amounts of work to be done, and no assurance we will make a dent in cleaning up these “intractable” messes, or even that we can stop them getting worse. And there is nowhere (at least in the real world) to go to escape from it. There are no untouched frontiers left on our crowded, globally messy planet.

I can find no joy in cleaning up a mess that seems daily to get worse. No wonder I don’t want to pursue my ambitious 2009 intentions to be of service in providing the world what it needs. Who wants to clean up a massive, ever-growing mess? It’s no surprise that so many of us want, instead, to be designers, to work in the clean world of cyberspace, to be artists and musicians, where we can start with a “clean” slate, with no mess to clean up before we can begin with the fun work of creating, of re-creating, starting anew. (Oops, slipped back into the “royal we” again.)

My aversion to mess-cleaning is aggravated by the fact that I’m tired. I’ve put in a lot of years of well-intentioned, hard work, even though I will now acknowledge that most of it was wasted effort, and much of it supported the system that creates the monstrous messes. It’s diabolical how the system that makes you/us/ me part of the mess problem makes you/us/ me too exhausted to help clean it up. I don’t want to work that hard anymore. Maybe I’m selfish, but let someone else save the world for awhile.

And I see all the human psychological and physical damage this hopeless, endless, giant gaping maw of mess has created: The walking wounded, desperate and unloved and self-blaming and at a loss where to turn. The psychopaths, who perpetuate ever-widening cycles of violence. The broken people, who find escape in TV or alcohol or drugs or porn or anything mindless and emotion-dulling. Those in denial that there’s anything wrong — the technophiles and channel-switchers and turn-back-the-clock reactionaries.  And those too brainwashed or brain-dead or uninformed or living in some parallel universe I can’t even comprehend, to even realize what’s going on. And it just makes me angry at the whole human race. Dave, the misanthrope. I wasn’t always that way. And anyway, my loathing for most of the human race is just a self-deception, a cover, a diversion for my loathing of myself for my selfishness, my exhaustion, all the years I wasted… And then the grief sets in and I just want to escape too. Hide away on the hill in the forest where the mess cannot, if I squint and distract myself, be seen. Living in my sleep.

Tired. Feel like hibernating until it’s all over, and we can start again. Tomorrow I’ll look at the three circles with fresh eyes and see if I can come up with a better answer for What is my gift to the world? My guess is that I should stop thinking and get out and meet some people who aren’t tired and cynical, but who also aren’t naive, and see if I can learn from them. The hard part is finding people who care. Some romantic fool said that.

Thank you. We’ll be OK, really. That’s not a promise, it’s an intention. Sorta.

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20 Responses to Going in Circles

  1. Rob Paterson says:

    Are we old Dave? I too have been a doer but find myself very tired. I am starting to think that my gift now is to help younger people who still have the energy the mental muscle! Is there not lots that ols men like you and me can do to help others do the doing?

  2. Steve Bean says:

    If the hard part is finding people who care, the simple part is learning that we all love and caring doesn’t matter. How do we learn that we’re all love? I learned by reading Loving What Is, by Byron Katie. Have you read it yet, Dave? I’ve suggested it before. Can you be the happy example who demonstrates that whatever we do, we can live in love, who shows that being happy isn’t tied to doing all those destructive things we’ve been doing and that happiness can continue even after we STOP making messes?

    Still loving reality.

  3. Steve Bean says:

    By the way, that wasn’t a typo. We all love AND we’re all love.

  4. David says:

    “My guess is that I should stop thinking and get out and meet some people who aren’t tired and cynical, but who also aren’t naive, and see if I can learn from them.”

    That sounds about right.

  5. Nick Smith says:

    “Tomorrow I’ll look at the three circles with fresh eyes and see if I can come up with a better answer for ‘What is my gift to the world?'”

    Sounds like the eye trying to find the eyeball ;)

    Dave, if you ever find yourself in my neck of the woods it would be good to meet up. :)

  6. David says:

    From Ran Prieur (http://ranprieur.com/essays/dropout.html):

    “Freedom means you’re not punished for saying no. The most fundamental freedom is the freedom to do nothing. But when you get this freedom, after many years of activities that were forced, nothing is all you want to do. You might start projects that seem like the kind of thing you’re supposed to love doing, music or writing or art, and not finish because nobody is forcing you to finish and it’s not really what you want to do. It could take months, if you’re lucky, or more likely years, before you can build up the life inside you to an intensity where it can drive projects that you actually enjoy and finish, and then it will take more time before you build up enough skill that other people recognize your actions as valuable.”

  7. Jeff says:

    thanks dave. after 40 years of study and activism and process and living, i noticed i became tired a few years ago. and i’m only 52.

    i recently began this thought experiment: how did people who were active and aware in the 1930-1950 period feel in 1962? was there any sense of the impending transformative power of the generation who were 16 years of age or younger in that year?

    i have heard that archetypally, the 2010s will be like the 1930s and 1960s combined, in a 21st century context. whether or not one subscribes to plato and jung and the immense power of collective archetypal fields, there is surely something huge coming very quickly.

    my thought is that 50-somethings did not bring about the 1960s and will not bring about the 2010s. and yet we have a lot to contribute, and the communications infrastructure is much more potent (potentially) than it was then.

  8. I care and there’s alot more out there that care. Yes it’s tiring watching the same stupid mistakes be made over and over again. Does anyone feel like we’ve done this all before and failed? Well we don’t have to this time. It’s time for humanity as a whole to wake up. We have to quit focusing on all the things we don’t like and despise or we’ll create more of the same. WE have to focus on what we really really want. Everyone wants different things, I get that but the ones of us who want a sustainable world have to gather forces and make our collective consciousness the strongest. Great post! You got me going.
    Namaste, Carol

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  10. The fact is our species has no guarantee of survival. We have at least 7 basic hardware faults (and many software errors)…anyone of which may be insurmountable. First. Our minds capacity to believe anything. Second. We don’t do what we know we should do. 3rd. We can’t quickly contemplate or comprehend all the consequences of each of our actions…but our actions are usually based on only one or two considerations. 4th. Even faced with extinction we are easily distracted by trivia. … I’m so freakin resigned I can’t offer the other 3… Yet I’ll keep working to make the world a better place because I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t.

  11. Nathan says:

    Dave, I also hate the royal “we” so I appreciate the effort to avoid using it!

    At the moment, all I can think of doing is taking advantage of the land my family and I have to try and change our habits a little, and work towards being able to produce food, and maybe other things in something approaching a sustainable manner. Perhaps when one has started to master this sort of thing, one can start to influence others. I suspect everyone has to start with themselves, as it is easy to say people should do this or that but to do it is a different thing entirely. Cleaning up the mess may not be so important as changing habits, even if I don’t know if Humans can do it in time. Perhaps the thing is that you have to realise it is in your self interest to change, at least once you are aware how precarious the current mode of human civilisation is.

    As a reader of yours for quite a few years now, I think the most important thing is your honesty in writing things that others will usually hide. I would like to write with such honesty, but when it comes to a public blog that colleagues may see, fear creeps in that I may be thought a bit strange, or I might say something that is at odds with the company I currently work for. Freedom to be yourself all the time is difficult to attain when one’s living is on the line.

  12. David Drews says:


    Here are some suggestions, not one of which is guaranteed to absolve you from your dilemna.

    Stop beating on yourself. Doing so will dig you into a hole from which there may be no escape.

    Don’t even try to micromanage your psyche. It’s an undoable task.

    Never make lists such as, “The mess of global warming. The BP oil spill. The deforestation of the rainforests…” Blah. Blah. Blah. These things are certain to crush any hope that you have for a better future.

    Give yourself a pat on your back. “I’ve put in a lot of years of well-intentioned, hard work, even though I will now acknowledge that most of it was wasted effort…” The number of people who desparately avoid coming to this conclusion is in the billions. You’re not one of them anymore; a monumental step.

    “My guess is that I should stop thinking and get out and meet some people who aren’t tired and cynical…” Are you actually going to do this? Because if you allow yourself to do so, you will not feel so tired and beaten and hopeless and… Well, you get the idea.

    “It’s no surprise that so many of us want, instead, to be designers, to work in the clean world of cyberspace, to be artists and musicians…” Can you do any of these? Or something that will absorb you and remind you that there still is great beauty and some of it is human-made. Why not start now? Buy an electric piano and teach yourself how to sing. I mean really sing. In tune. you will find doing this to be astonishingly renewing.

    Last thing. Remember this simple refrain.

    And how am I to face the odds
    Of man’s bedevilment and God’s?
    I, a stranger and afraid
    In a world I never made.

    A.E. Housman, Last Poems


  13. Ron Lubensky says:

    You don’t have to objectify any more gifts than you’ve already identified in your passions. Keep practising your passions! Keep writing and being honest. Your next calling will surely emerge when you least expect it. You do like happy surprises, don’t you??

  14. Dave Pollard says:

    Just gotta say that Ran Prieur’s old essay, which David Parkinson quotes from above, is brilliant. Another great quote from it:

    “Do not try to find a job doing what you love. This is my most radical advice. There are some people in the world who have jobs they love so much that they would do them for free. If you become one of these people, you will probably get there not through planning but through luck, by doing what you love for free until somehow the money starts coming in. But if you make an effort to combine your income and your love, you are likely to end up compromising both, making a poverty income by doing something you don’t quite love, or no longer love. For example, if you decide to become a chef because you love cooking, it will probably make you hate cooking, because cooking will become linked in your mind to all the bullshit around the job.

    What I recommend instead is to separate your money from your love. Get the most low-stress source of income that you can find, and then do exactly what you love for free. It might eventually make you money or it might not. “Do what you love and the money will follow” is a lie. The real rule is: “If you’re doing what you love, you won’t care if you never make any money from it — but you still need money.” “

  15. Hi, I’ve been reading your blog for a while and sent you an email (which may have gotten lost?). You have been raising some fascinating points. I just have one response to the question “What is my gift to the world?”

    I’ve asked myself that question for decades, but I came to realize at some point that asking the question is fruitless if it doesn’t come coupled with its complement: What is the world’s gift to me?

    Because if you get nothing back you just can’t carry on. None of us can. Since I found “the other question” I’ve discovered many wonderful gifts I had been ignoring, and I’ve made it a priority to recognize and appreciate them every day. Seedlings come up every year. Dew shines on leaves. Yoga feels great. I wake up every morning and walk across the room. My family loves me. Recognizing that I am receiving as well as giving makes my efforts both doable and worth doing.

    And I don’t think it’s all cleanup either. There is much more good going on in the world than people talk about. It’s just that the good stuff is more private. Hugs aren’t news, but they are happening all around the world every day. If bad news is like a hurricane that tears apart the landscape, the little everyday things people do to take care of each other and the earth are like gentle rain that nourishes and supports. Hurricanes make the news, but rain keeps the world alive. I don’t pay much attention to hurricanes, but I watch the rain fall, and I find that sustaining.


  16. David Drews says:


    Your post about compassionless birds (or the shutting down of compassion) reminded me of an incident I witnessed at our bird feeders about 10 weeks ago.

    A Cooper’s hawk had captured and killed a mourning dove and was proceeding to rip it apart for dinner. Another dove (the recently deceased’s mate?) was a mere five feet away from the hawk and was pacing frantically back and forth watching the dismemberment. I had no doubt that this dove was in substantial distress, wanting to act in some way unknown to me, but instinct, or some inner drive, compelled it to survive first.

    The dove stayed until the hawk had reduced the carcass to a size which it could transport and then did just that. The surviving dove (the only dove without a mate) still visits our feeders regularly.

    David Drews

  17. Gena says:

    I started reading your blog not because I believed you had the answers but because you we willing to ask questions and find resources. I didn’t understand some of what you wrote. Still don’t. Other posts I agreed with and others pieces sounded like the Doom Patrol Chronicles.

    I bring this up because the narrative can heal a soul in pain. Sometimes it is the dialog or group conversation. A monologue works too. I don’t care how many ways you and I can save the world so long as we try living in truth. Or fake it till you make it.

    What stories do you hold for me, Mr. Pollard?

    My choice has been and continues to be that I will read what you have to offer. I will not hold you to a set format. I will be free to give a thumbs up or raspberry on the other side of the screen.

  18. Randy says:

    You write beautifully. Alas, you seem to look at the world through a knothole.
    Our modern world has opened up so many possibilities to access knowledge but it has alienated us from
    knowledge of the real world that nourished us for millenia.
    The severing of ourselves from the physical world is a wound that is deep and painful and persistent.
    Though our conscious mind occupies our waking thoughts with conviction that our choices are wise,
    our psyches know better. Our ennui is the irrefutable clue from the truth deep inside for which
    we have yet to find the off-switch.
    When one can lose himself in the restoration of ancient rhythms and systems, living becomes unambiguous.
    Perhaps we are more a part of the Earth than we can currently comprehend.
    I am hopeful because of these words of yours: “My guess is that I should stop thinking and get out
    and meet some people who aren’t tired and cynical, but who also aren’t naive, and see if I
    can learn from them. The hard part is finding people who care.”
    The truth is in your psyche. Come and find us. Join us in our endeavours. Feed your soul.

  19. 6.8billion realities says:

    Dave, its impossible to ‘save the world’.Its over. Time is almost up for us….open your eyes and BELIEVE them…we’re screwed! The only things left to do are be with family and loved ones, if possible move to shelter below ground in altitudes above 3000ft AND which are not on the west side of the north american continent, store food and water enough for at least three years, save seeds of every variety available, store books and manuals on our technologies…. meditate, make love alot…and pray/intend that I am wrong.
    Be prepared – the worst is yet to come.
    I send you love for your journey!

  20. GSX-R750 guy says:

    Madness takes its toll. Please have exact change.

    Sent via Blackberry

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