drawing by hugh mcleod at gaping void
In my recent post The Freedom to Do Nothing, I quoted Ran Prieur:
When you begin to get free, you will get depressed. It works like this: When you were three years old, if your parents weren’t too bad, you knew how to play spontaneously. Then you had to go to school, where everything you did was required. The worst thing is that even the fun activities, like singing songs and playing games, were commanded under threat of punishment. So even play got tied up in your mind with a control structure, and severed from the life inside you. If you were “rebellious”, you preserved the life inside you by connecting it to forbidden activities, which are usually forbidden for good reasons, and when your rebellion ended in suffering and failure, you figured the life inside you was not to be trusted. If you were “obedient”, you simply crushed the life inside you almost to death.
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.
This has certainly been true in my case. Now that I’m comfortably retired from paid work, I have the freedom to do nothing. I’ve been through a long list of things I think I should be doing (and should be passionate about doing), and realized that I haven’t the heart for them. I thought I wanted to work to stop the Alberta Tar Sands, and the atrocity of factory farming. I thought I wanted to create a model community, or at least be part of one. I thought I wanted to increase my connection to my emotions, to others, to all-life-on-Earth, to increase my resilience, capacities and competencies in ways that would be useful to the world.
But I don’t really want to do these things. At least not enough to overcome my internal resistance to getting to work on them. There are, I think, three main reasons for this (these are not excuses, merely explanations):
- I’m exhausted. For now, I just don’t want to work that hard at anything. I want things to be easy, and/or fun, at least for a little while until I am less tired, less worn out.
- I don’t think I could handle the stress. As I wrote recently, I have learned that I am anxious and fearful (of many things) and fragile and no use to the world broken, and I think working on these projects would break me, or at least my heart, to the point I would simply have to stop, and perhaps might never recover.
- I’m not convinced they would or will, in the long run, make any real difference. Industrial civilization has so much momentum, and is taking us over the edge of the cliff at such a pace, that trying to slow it down or divert it seems futile to me. In his latest book Twelve by Twelve (more about this book in an upcoming post), conservationist and international development aide William Powers laments that his work often seems pointless when years of hard work by conservationists can be more than undone by the forces of mindless globalization in a matter of days. When I speak with climate scientists, I find them utterly overwhelmed and filled with despair. The handful of credible economists and energy experts I follow are uniformly pessimistic that the idealistic pursuits of alternative economy movements and transition initiatives have even the faintest hope of working.
So, I keep asking myself, If not that, then what? What do I want to do with all this freedom I’ve just discovered I have? I know I don’t want to do permaculture gardening, which many of the post-civ writers I most admire do. I know local food security and sustainability are important; I just have no calling for them. I know I don’t want to chain myself to tractors or blow up dams or blockade roads or spike trees or break open the closed doors and cages of suffering farmed animals, as much as I know this work needs to be done and hugely admire those who do it. I don’t want to lobby or petition politicians or protest in the streets, in part because, as my friend Keith Farnish argues, this light green environmentalism merely plays into the existing power structure, and changes nothing. I don’t want to write op ed pieces or give talks or teach or otherwise try to persuade people what they don’t want to hear, or act upon.
What is the point of changing people’s beliefs? In the 1960s and 1970s we did manage to get a lot of people to think differently about a lot of things. But what has actually changed since 1970? In 40 years, what are the major changes in the Western world (I won’t presume to identify what major changes have transpired in the rest of the world). I think there have been six real megatrends in that 40 years, and none of them is good:
- Inequality and Desolation: Expectations regarding income, wealth and job security, for the large majority, have dropped. Average family assets have doubled but average family debts have tripled, so net wealth has not changed. It now takes two incomes to provide what one income could provide in 1970. Resource use and environmental damage have skyrocketed, and almost all of the wealth produced by that use and damage has accrued to less than 1% of the population, which is now obscenely rich. And the damage and inequality are accelerating, even under liberal regimes.
- Crumbling Public Institutions: Health and education systems, which most people believe to be the two most important services provided by the public sector, have steadily and seriously deteriorated since 1970 to the point that in many countries they are dysfunctional and teetering on collapse.
- Soaring Ignorance and Mindless Consumerism: The information media have so thoroughly discredited themselves since 1970 that now, virtually no one pays any attention to them or discusses any real news or important current events or problems. As people have stopped believing or buying their ‘information’, they have converted themselves into pure entertainment media, which has been much more profitable for them, since it requires no thorough, critical or investigative journalism, and focuses instead on celebrity gossip, trivia, fear-mongering and sensationalism.
- Staggering Technology Waste: Trillions have been spent on much-hyped ‘improvements’ in information and communication technologies, but for the vast majority, the principal technology remains the telephone, and the amount of information and the quality of communication of the average user of these extravagant technologies have actually significantly dropped compared to 1970.
- Endemic Political Cynicism: The idealism of the 1970s has morphed into the anomie and anger of the current decade, and interest and participation in the political process have plummeted.
- Social Disintegration: The exuberant “whole world is watching” sense of global community and collectivism that prevailed in 1970 has been replaced in 2010 by a new tribalism characterized by extreme individualism, a loathing for government regulation, disenchantment with the idea of single-tier egalitarian essential public services, atomization and anonymization of communities, and the commensurate rise in power of ruthless gangs (street, drug, oligopolist and corporatist).
This is what the idealistic hippie-boomer generation, that vowed to change the world 40 years ago, has actually produced. For all the talk, this is what we’ve shown. How can anyone take seriously the blatherings of those who say we’re at the dawn of some new (social network enabled) global consciousness raising? What real difference has the largest, richest, most educated generation in the history of the planet actually made, except to make the world much, much worse? And that’s despite all the efforts of those who’ve done the hard, thankless work of activism, education, innovation, and other public service — the vital holding actions that have prevented things from being even more terrible than they are. It’s a matter of no small shame to me that I was able to convince myself, for that 40 years, that I was actually doing some enduring good, when actually I was complicit by action and inaction in these six distressing trends, and, aside from benefiting financially (which has at least reduced my fears and anxieties about being poor), it was 40 years largely wasted.
I’ve said before that my distinctive competencies are writing and imagining possibilities, so I keep thinking that perhaps my gift to the world is stories — about how the world really is (in contrast to how the media portray it), and about how we might live better. But what good have stories done so far? Even if they change beliefs, what does it matter if the behaviour, the stuff people actually do, is activities that produce, perpetuate and accelerate the six megatrends above? In my post last year called No More Stories I wrote:
I am coming to believe that all stories, from the unactionable dumbed-down crap that we’re fed by the mainstream media, to the preposterous ‘history’ they pass off as ‘fact’ in so-called institutions of learning, to the regurgitated tripe from Hollywood, to the mountains of lies of corporatists in their greenwashing and advertising, to the formulaic and emotionally manipulative fiction to which we escape from our brutal and mind-numbing lives — are propaganda. They are meant to keep us in our place and distract us from discovering what is really going on in this world. Stories, I am beginning to think, are just more of civilization’s gunk that gets layered on us (some of it self-inflicted) from the moment we acquire the dreadful skill of human language, stuff that prevents us from being nobody-but-ourselves, and from understanding what is really needed, now, what we have to do, with all of our hearts and our minds and our senses and our instincts.
So: damn stories. If one is inclined to “rewrite one’s own story”, perhaps it’s time to give up fiction, turn off the projector, get out of the theatre and improvise living in the real world, where there are no scripts, just work that needs to be done and actions that need to be taken, if only we can readjust our eyes to the light. The director, it turns out, is a mannequin with a pre-recorded playback device in his megaphone, and the script was written by a machine using lines selected with a random-number generator.
And the part that each of us has been playing was actually written for someone else. The set is empty, the props are all falling down and blowing away in the wind. All that is left is Now.
So what next? I have argued before that human behaviour is driven, more than anything else, by what I’ve called Pollard’s Law:
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. That’s not laziness or cynicism, it’s just the way we (and all creatures) are built. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s a successful strategy, to focus on the needs of the moment.
Let me clarify what I mean by “we do what we must”. Imperatives for action can be externally imposed (“do it or you’re fired”) or internally imposed (“I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do this”.) It’s tautological — if a cause becomes so important to you that you can’t not be involved, then it becomes, for you, a “must”. I’ve been told by people whose courage blows me away (e.g. people whose whole lives are consumed with looking after physically or mentally handicapped relatives; and people struggling every day to cope with the endless aftermath of some horrific past trauma) that it’s not courage if you have no other choice (or believe you have no other choice). It’s just doing what you must.
So now there is nothing I “must” do, I am spending time doing what’s easy and what’s fun. And in this terrible world, when you’re informed, and feel a sense of grief and responsibility for the state of our planet, and a feeling of hopelessness to do anything about it, nothing is really easy or fun. So I’m, largely, doing nothing. Living in my sleep. It’s not bad. But it’s not enough. I owe myself, and the world, more.
When I get discouraged looking for my Sweet Spot, I often try another exercise called Future State Visioning, in which I imagine myself (say a couple of years) in the future, doing what I would like to imagine myself doing, to see if that provides any insight on what I’m meant to do, or at least what might be easy and fun.
And if I’m completely honest with myself (to the extent I know myself enough to be completely honest), I confess I imagine myself doing mostly easy, fun, and pretty useless things:
I imagine myself surrounded by beauty (wild, natural places, art and exceptional people) and peace (places of quiet, little evidence of human activity, no stressful activities or emotions being expressed), living a life of safe, stress-free stimulation. Picture a cosmopolitan group of very bright people, meeting impromptu in a pub in the Alps during a (non-strenuous) bike tour, and talking about Transition. Picture being surrounded by vivacious people, cute animals, interesting lights and shadows, ancient forests, ocean beaches, dazzling sunsets, great music. Picture falling in love, easily, all the time. Picture an extraordinary Game of Cards with people of breathtaking genius. It’s an image of extraordinary awareness and complete relaxation at the same time. Perhaps it’s an image, an imagining of being always present.
I imagine spending half of my time alone, in wild, beautiful, yet still comfortable (to this spoiled Westerner with zero survival skills) places. That “alone” time is spent in equal parts sensing (paying attention), reflecting, imagining, creating (poetry, short evocative fiction, music, film), and writing this blog (with a greater focus on imagining and conveying how we could live more self-sufficiently — unschooling, self-managed health, locally-created entertainment etc.)
I imagine myself spending the other half of my time in the company of people who are exceptional: extraordinarily intelligent, informed, sensitive, imaginative, present, articulate, and emotionally strong. I picture myself just enjoying their company silently, or collaboratively writing, creating, throwing around interesting ideas, playing. I imagine some of these people being just-for-fun lovers who, in order to have acquired the above qualities, are probably 40-somethings, but who I picture looking much younger. (That is probably pathetic and unrealistic, but I haven’t yet outgrown it. During part of my 20s, my love life was actually like this, or at least that’s how I remember it — poly, just-for-fun, joyful, uncommitted, educational, varied, ego-nourishing, free — and I miss this.)
Why should I want my companions to be intelligent, informed and articulate if I just want to enjoy their silent company, when I’m increasingly disillusioned with, and tired of, conversation? I don’t know. I guess I just want to be comfortable with them, to know they’re “my kind” of people. Perhaps, since people are often known and judged by the company they keep, I just want to be known as the kind of person who hangs out in such company — an ego thing, an insecurity perhaps.
Perhaps this is why I was (and still am) drawn to the beautiful world of Second Life. There everyone you meet “is” young and beautiful and, if you take an appreciative approach to the avatars’ actions and conversations, you can imagine your companions having whatever qualities you want them to have. Everyone, especially you, is larger than “real” life. And maybe, then, they do “really” have those qualities. Maybe we imagine people even in “real” life to be who we want them to be. Maybe we imagine ourselves to be who we want ourselves to be, instead of knowing and accepting ourselves as who we really are. An idealist’s dream.
Would I quickly get tired of this idyllic, lazy, always-present, easy/fun life I imagine, if I were able to find it in “real” life? Would I then be ready to put this Vision, which I’ve had for most of my life, behind me, and move on to something more mature, more useful to the world?
Of course, a personal Future State Vision like this is just another story, subject to the same frailties and objections to stories that I outline above. Perhaps it’s just a trap, a fiction, an impossibility to chase, futilely, narrowing my focus to the point I miss the possibilities that could arise if I just went out and did some things that are completely different, since my stories are inevitably constrained by what I know, and not open to what I have never experienced or learned about myself. Perhaps my real Sweet Spot has yet to be discovered.
As much as I accept the validity of this argument, I know myself well enough to know that (a) the things I have recently done that are completely different have turned out not to have been particularly interesting or, in my mind, worth pursuing, and (b) as soon as I venture outside my comfort zone I again run up against the risk of stress, and commensurate meltdown.
“Where do you grab the dragon’s tail?,” William Powers asks his mentor in Twelve by Twelve, thinking about the need to address climate change and other crises of our time. She replies: “I think you should grab it where the suffering grabs you the most.” But what if that suffering, that grief, grabs you so hard you ache all over, but you lack the courage, the “intestinal fortitude” as it used to be known, the emotional strength, to grab the dragon’s tail?
Maybe sometimes it’s best not to fight the dragon.
Just in case anyone is still reading this endless exercise in self-examination, this public diarizing of my semi-competent personal truth-seeking, perhaps it’s time to wrap it up. What I think I believe, for now, is:
- I should acknowledge my exhaustion and my many fears, not with the intention of trying to “fix” or change them, but just to accept them and accept that, at least for now, I should give myself time to recover, to get my strength back, appreciate who I really am and who I am not.
- Since my Vision for myself seems to revolve around always being present, I should look more actively for ways to achieve that state of simultaneous awareness and relaxation — perhaps with greater presence, my purpose, my intentions, my gift to the world, what I should do next, will become clearer. Brief anecdote: I woke up from a dream last night just at dawn and the fog outside the bedroom windows (I normally have an amazing view of mountains and ocean) was so thick that for a moment I felt as if I were floating. Suddenly I became aware of this strange sound, and listened to it carefully, and then realized that it was my breathing. For the first time I was really focused on listening to my breathing, not (as I tend to be when I try to meditate) focused on thinking about listening to my breathing. This seems an important distinction, a revelation. Is this a taste of what real presence is?
- I should acknowledge that, in some of its details at least, my Vision is not realistic, and, like all fictions, it’s a story I should, at last, let go of. No more stories. Less thinking and living inside my head. Instead: See. Be. Do.
That’s all I’ve got.