Let things ripen, and then fall; force is not the way at all.
Just let go and we will see: the way to do is to be.
(– Lao Tzu, song adaptation by Laurence Cole; thanks to Shasta Martinuk and Brian Hoover for introducing me to it.)
About five years ago I published a musing based on an exchange I had with my friend Paul Heft. It took the “three circles” diagram from my book Finding the Sweet Spot, that endeavours to help you discover what (work) you’re meant to do, and morphed it into the more existential three circles diagram shown above, that endeavours to help you discover what (who) you’re meant to be.
The differences are analogous but substantial: What I’m meant to do lies at the intersection of what I do well (my Gifts), what I love doing (my Passions) and what the world needs now (my Purpose). What I’m meant to be lies at the intersection of what I am good at being (my Capacities), what I love being (my Joys) and what I and my community(ies) need and want me to be (my/our Desires).
There are subtle but important distinctions here: Compassion, for example, is a Capacity of Being rather than a Gift (skill). Being self-sufficient is (for many) a Joy (something we(‘d) love to be, rather than a Passion (something we love to do). Patient is something those in my communities might want or need me to be (a Desire), rather than something they might want or need me to do (a Purpose). And, importantly, these qualities of Being are not just personal, but rather both collective and personal; we are social creatures, and without each other we cannot be much.
I’m re-exploring this because I’ve come to realize (especially since my retirement from paid work) that we are indoctrinated to spend most of our lives trying to figure out what to do, rather than what/who to be. The world doesn’t care who we are, this would seem to suggest, only what we do. It’s a materialistic argument that comes from a worldview of impersonality and scarcity, and I’m no longer sure it serves us well.
I’m deliberately using the expression “what I’m meant to be” rather than “who I’m meant to be” because I’m not convinced we can really change who we are. If I were to say I want to be empathetic (when I know I’m really not), that’s an aspiration about who I want to be, and I think that’s generally futile. On the other hand, if I were to say I want to be provocative (which is certainly within the realm of who I am), that’s an aspiration about what attributes of myself I want to exhibit (“be” in the state of) more often. Hope that’s not too confusing.
To my surprise, while the Sweet Spot of What I’m Meant to Do continues to evolve each year (though I confess I no longer pay it much attention), the attributes and states of Being at the intersections and centre of the three circles (shown in italics in the diagram above — What I’m Meant to Be) has not really changed for me in five years. I know the people in my communities, those I love, want me to be perceptive, sensitive and patient, and that I will try my best but largely fail to be so. I know I’m intelligent and intuitive and that is valued by those in my communities, but this brings me little happiness. I know that I’m good at being reflective and playful, and love being so, but those in my communities don’t much care about that. Oh well. I’ll be that way anyway. And I know that I want above all to be more present, but that I really suck at it — my moments of presence come when I don’t expect them, and all too rarely.
But I also know that being articulate, provocative and imaginative are in my “being Sweet Spot”: I love being these things, and am good at them, and being these things is valued by those I know and care about. My moments of true connection, appreciation, and feelings of being “nobody but myself” come when I am being these things. Same as five years ago.
So I’ve been having a bunch of conversations with people I love, people I know, and people I’ve just met lately, to explore how I can be these things, instead of trying to be who I’m not and do what I have no Passion, Gift or sense of Purpose for. Thanks to all of you for your forbearance and inspiration in that process. Because through these conversations I’ve discovered two ways I can be articulate, provocative and imaginative, and at the same time do things that are in my “doing Sweet Spot”:
First, I’ve realized that my ‘place’ among the collapsniks — the growing group of informed, thoughtful people chronicling the crumbling of our global industrial civilization with the knowledge that collapse is inevitable and even desirable — is as the one who articulates an appreciation of how complex systems work and why (provocatively) it is the momentum and inertia and positive and negative feedback loops of such systems that prevent us from steering them away from catastrophe and collapse, not any inherent failing of human character, will or ingenuity. No one is to blame; it’s the system we collectively evolved. And also, my ‘place’ is to be the one articulating how that appreciation of complexity can help us ‘be’ more resilient as we face the crises that will culminate in civilization’s slow (over a few decades) collapse.
And secondly, I’ve realized that my ‘place’ among writers about grief and history and possibility is as the one who puts our current predicament — the end of our brief few millennia of cheap energy, economic ‘growth’ and climate stability — in the context of a million years of human existence on Earth, and writes stories of an astonishing future centuries and millennia after the fall of this fragile, unsustainable, ghastly blip of ‘civilization’, when a small remaining human population combines the ancient knowledge of how to live gently and joyfully on our planet with the select knowledge of science and art and manufacture, to create a world of unimaginable beauty, wonder, harmony, creativity, diversity, peace and joy. No dystopia after the fall; but instead, finally, the realization of what humanity might be, as part of (not the creators of) a better world. I want to tell those stories, to give us all the vision, perspective and courage to navigate the blip of civilization’s collapse.
Articulate, provocative, imaginative. That’s what this joyful pessimist hopes to be next year.