Pretending It’s Better Than It Is


Painting in oil pastels, “Family Portrait”,  by the Polish graphic artist Sławek Gruca

“When one is pretending, the entire body revolts.” — Anais Nin

There seems to be a propensity among the human species to put on our best face in the company of those we respect and care about, and pretend that things are better than they are, that they are OK, fine, acceptable, that we’re coping, at least.

I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps we’ve all experienced too many gloomy, needy, annoying-to-be-around and otherwise vexatious people who are always moaning about their situation and implying that it’s not fair and that someone — perhaps you — could or should do something about it. We don’t want to be around such people. So maybe our “it’s OK” demeanour is compensatory — we don’t want to burden or stress or depress the people around us.

There’s certainly some role-playing involved as well. We don’t want our kids getting scared (or scarred) because the world, and our lives, are so fucked up, and we seem unable to make them better. We don’t want our spouses and significant others to find us tedious to be around and choose the company of others instead. We don’t want our friends and co-workers to see us as weak, struggling, a mess — a drag.

And there’s likely some pride, and shame, at play as well. None of us wants to admit our failures to ourselves or others. We want to be looked up to, not pitied. No surprise that some 80% of citizens in international polls say they think they earn more than the median income in their country. Even the poor slobs who ‘make their living’ gambling at casinos, racetracks, and in stock markets and real estate markets tend to wildly overestimate their success in front of others.

We all probably know people who get dressed up before they go to visit their doctor, so they look healthier than they feel, undermining the doctor’s ability to assess what is needed.

And we all know about the placebo effect, which has us feeling better, when asked, just because we believe something has been done which should make us feel better; the feeling, of course, never lasts.

I remember as a young child finding the acting of adults both unconvincing and inexplicable. Why are they all pretending — to know stuff, to be succeeding, to be happy? What are they playing at? To me this was not only a transparent attempt at deceit, it seemed a self-deceit as well. Who do they think they’re fooling?

So we all pretend, and make believe, things are better than they really are. As Yorkshire’s Flat Caps and Fatalism blogger poetically relates, our cities and our countrysides reflect this false pretence that things are OK, better than OK:

The cities lie. Their radical chic is stretched tight over the bare lust for money. Their cosmopolitan diversity hides the uniformity of clawing ambition. Their youth is stolen from elsewhere, used for a time, and discarded when its looks and gullibility begin to fade. They grow little food and make fewer objects every year. They offer only services no one needs and knowledge no one believes. A blustering businessman sinks deeper into debt; but, risking it all again and again, he’ll keep up his pretence until the bailiffs arrive. That is the soul of the city.

The countryside lies. The fertilised fields barely pay the bills, but five families worked this land before it was improved. The tasteful barn conversions shelter dreamers who touch the soil with their eyes alone. The very lambs in the fields deceive. They tell you that this place feeds others, but it has long taken more than it gives. It is hungry, always hungry, hungry for oil and hungry for money. The countryside is the skin of the land, but its glow is not healthy. It is sunburn. The energy poured into it has killed it, and soon it will peel away from the flesh below.

The wildlands lie. Their treeless beauty is kept for grouse and Gore-Tex. Ninety years after the trespass, they are still luxury goods selling freedom. They offer escape, something above the fray, something that was always so and will be always so; but they are only playgrounds that pretend to be churches. Nature promises nothing but death and change. The romantics scorned him, but Capability Brown was an honest man. He sculpted the land to please the eye and called it a garden. Infatuated with the sublime, we have done the same and called it conservation.

All our lands lie, but they have only one lie: the lie that this will go on, that the oil will keep flowing, that the supply chains will not shatter, that this empire will not sink into lone and level sands.

Our entire civilization, and its now-global and homogenizing culture, is a giant lie. Through the politicians, the media, our gambles and dreams of the future that can never be realized, our borrowing of amounts (from the earth, and from future generations) that can never possibly be repaid, we pretend that things are OK and will inevitably get better. Through the factory farms behind giant walls concealing the truth of our grotesque, brutal and torture-filled food system, showing instead playful lambs on our meat pie packages and contented cows on our milk cartons, we conceal the truth from each other and from ourselves. We dare not imagine what is really happening behind all the walls we build to keep the traumatized incarcerated, the abused helpless, and the desperate in refugee ‘camps’ serving life sentences, so we can go on pretending it’s all OK.

It is fear that keeps us hiding from the truth, in denial of what is happening, unwilling to know or even think what is happening behind all those walls. We are afraid to admit that we have failed — ourselves, our children, our loved ones, and the world — and that instead we have produced a monster, an artificial, prosthetic global culture called ‘civilization’ that has never worked, can never work, and which, having produced atrocities greater and more far-reaching than we can even imagine, is quickly falling apart. Our intentions were good, and we cannot dare admit that those intentions have led to this.

Some of my fellow collapsniks have told me that if we were to truly face up to the horrific legacy of civilization and its accelerating collapse, we would all kill ourselves — we could not bear it. I’m not so sure. I think if we avoid the blame game, and just stop lying to ourselves and to each other, stop pretending that this isn’t endgame that we’re witnessing, we might find that there’s less shame in that terrible admission than in the lies we depend on to keep going as if everything was OK.

I’m not saying we should ‘confess our sins’ — I’m an atheist and I don’t believe in sin, or good or evil, right or wrong, confession or punishment, or free will. We did our best, we cannot fix or undo what we did trying our best.

What I think we could do, and may well do over the course of the coming decades, is to admit that our best intentions went horribly wrong for reasons we could not know and will never fully know, and simply pause in all our efforts, and stop doing everything we’re doing. To refuse to participate in trying to resuscitate the dead patient that is human civilization on this planet. To realize that continuing to do what has never worked is a fool’s game. To stop pretending that everything is OK. We could do all these things, if we were to suddenly get brutally honest with ourselves and each other (which may require more self-awareness and self-knowledge than most of us could muster), and give each other permission to acknowledge that collectively we inadvertently fucked up, and that the consequences of that very large and very human error will be severe. And then move on from there.

What would that look like? — A secular pause, not to lament or grieve or plan or blame or shame or pray, but to accept that it’s endgame, and that our continuing to act as if it’s not is pure folly. To say goodbye to this bizarre and amazing human-created civilization, this ersatz world within a world, this world full of what Richard Shelton calls “the terrible knowledge of cities”, and to do so in a spirit of humility and relief. And then to acknowledge and re-embrace the more-than-human world in all its wonder and joy, to breathe it in, to notice what we never thought we had the time to see.

It would look like, collectively, walking away from systems that were sincerely designed to make our lives better, but which are ruinous and no longer of service to most of us, if they ever were. It would mean stopping the work we do in Bullshit Jobs, and instead taking on the almost-impossible task of finding work that has real meaning and value to others and which is sustainable, sufficient and in humble service to our communities. It would mean ceasing to buy or sell or make anything that isn’t essential, and ceasing to buy anything industrially processed, anything we cannot mend and repair ourselves.

It would mean getting together with others in our community and giving everything we (pretend we) own back to the commons, to be stewarded collectively and modestly for the community’s collective benefit, including the more-than-human community into which it would gradually be re-integrated. And, the gods help us, it would mean learning to trust and even love everyone in our community, even those we don’t like very much.

It would mean ceasing to use or value money, and living within a radically relocalized gift economy where the currency of exchange is personal knowledge and trust. It would mean relearning, in communities of our own making, how to make and do the essential things our particular local community needs to live comfortably and sufficiently. It would probably mean, for the vast majority of us, moving perhaps thousands of miles to a place that can healthily sustain a human population without the prosthesis of technology. And it would mean so much more.

Beyond that, it would mean giving up pretending we know what we’re doing, erasing the absurd pretence that anyone is an expert. It would mean giving up pretending that things are better than they really are, and giving up all the lies and denials that prop up that pretence, all those desperate lies to ourselves, our children, our friends and communities and co-workers.

I know of a few communities that are trying this. Mostly, they are making many mistakes, some of them fatal. Mostly, their members, so accustomed and inured to lying because the truth is too hard to admit, are still lying to themselves and to each other, and when that leads to community failure, they will have to start over again, and again, until they discover and demand the absolute truth of themselves and each other. Until they learn to be humble. Until they once again become part of the more-than-human world in which they find themselves.

That’s the world I dream of living in. It will come eventually — only those of us who learn to live sustainably and modestly as part of the community of life on earth, to once again belong to the earth, will survive civilization’s collapse. There is no other way, despite what the deranged billionaires would have you believe. It will be hard, astonishing, frustrating, and magical.

I doubt I will be around to see it, but I will be thinking of those that will. Pulling for them, not to succeed, but to live natural lives where no one has to pretend it’s better than it is. Because it can’t get any better than that.

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4 Responses to Pretending It’s Better Than It Is

  1. Ray says:

    …There is no other way …
    But maybe there is no way out or back. Maybe industrial civilization is like a trapdoor that has slammed shut behind humanity.
    It might have fatally transformed us into some strange, unworldly creatures who are bereft of the possibility of ever going back to a simpler community life that goes light on the land and it’s resources.
    At this stage, we just don’t know. The unlucky survivors will find out in the not so distant future.

  2. Joe Clarkson says:

    There are plenty of people who are now living “sustainably and modestly as part of the community of life on earth”, but almost none of them live in industrial economies. I live in the US, definitely an industrial economy, and since I am not going to try and “parachute in” to an indigenous culture somewhere in the Global South, I have to live with at least one foot in the industrial world or be crushed by the modern legal system. But, unlike Ray, who apparently doesn’t want to survive the collapse of industrialism, I think it is very appropriate to simultaneously live a conventional western life and still actively prepare to survive the day that modern industrialism disappears.

    I have had personal experience with the culture shock of moving rapidly from modern American living circumstances to living in an indigenous village without sewers, running water, electricity or motor vehicles. Many other Peace Corps volunteers have had the same experience. For most of us it was astonishing, exhilarating and remarkably easy. After a few months, our new lifestyle became completely normal, almost humdrum.

    Surviving the collapse of industrial civilization will not be nearly as easy as we Peace Corps volunteers found our experience of leaving industrial civilization, but I have no doubt that collapse survivors will rapidly adapt, physically and psychologically to living a much more simple life and to directly providing themselves with all the wherewithal of an ongoing indigenous-like life.

    Most people are remarkably adaptable. Given the chance to grow or gather adequate food, drink reasonably clean water and have some kind of shelter, most people can be quite happy. As long as one is truly prepared to see industrialism vanish, life can be pretty good without it, and definitely much better than starving to death. Given our current proximity to the end of modernity, I don’t understand why there aren’t more people preparing to live without it (especially those living in a 40th floor apartment).

  3. George Smiley says:

    Instead of grieving or accusing ourselves and each other, maybe we should rejoice in a way, that the universe is unfolding as it should and has probably done so a zillion times scattered about the galaxies; whenever some small creeping creature gets a big idea and runs amok, breeding successfully until he destroys the basis for his own existence through sheer persistence and increasing numbers. Given an untouched island paradise with Brooke Shields, even KNOWING the outcome I know it would all come to pass and nature would shrug us off and go on blithely as ever under the eternal rule of self interest.
    Whatever initial conditions we leave with our departure, another green and blue creation will evolve, fantastic life forms we cannot imagine eventually including some excessively cunning little sh*t with huge appetites, ambitions and seven legs this time maybe…….

  4. David Beckemeier says:

    “I don’t believe in sin, or good” Interesting,,, I mean the title of this article has the term “better” in it,,,,,,,,,,

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