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Spirit and perseverance

By David Parkinson

Big enough for anything.

Sense must distinguish between what is impossible, and what is merely difficult; and spirit and perseverance will get the better of the latter.
(Lord Chesterfield)

Today spring is tightly coiled, soon to unleash its potential energy in the form of sunshine, warm breezes, longer days, gentler rains, and the unmistakable sense of being on the upward trajectory. Out of winter’s inward-looking retreat to darkness; out into days when indoor and outdoor clothing are the same; when the evenings decline slowly at a shallow angle into the twilight and then into a clear-skied cool evening. Today the bees are buzzing around the apricot blossoms, a perfect sign of hope.

With another successful Seedy Saturday behind us, the season of plentiful food is slowly stirring itself into action again. This is the time of year when the immobility of the cold months of short days stretches into a keen sense of possibility: we make grandiose plans to take advantage of the longer warmer days, and we promise ourselves not to let a precious moment go to waste. (Of course we will waste many moments, precious and otherwise.)

This year, more than ever I suppose, many of us in this region will be talking about the need to be better prepared against the certainty of rising food prices and the possibility of shortages and disruptions in our food supply. We are that much further out on a thin extremity of the supply chain, all the more exposed to the cascading effects of hiccups up the line; and more people all the time are becoming aware of the consequences of this precarious position, even if they might not understand their causes.

The big question is this: if the food supply chain continues to weaken, how self-sufficient can we become? This difficult question is followed by a few which are equally hard to deal with: how can we increase our self-sufficiency as quickly as possible? what happens if our ability to increase local production, processing, and distribution is outstripped by events beyond our control? when is the need for action going to hit the mainstream and become a topic of common concern?

Many of the people I spend most of my time in contact with are aware of the degree to which our regional food supply falls short of demand, and of the unbelievably huge campaign that lies ahead of us. By anyone’s accounting, it’s daunting in the extreme and involves education, money, changes in our attitudes towards worthwhile work and in our conception of what our communities are, what they mean to us, and how we choose to contribute to them.

To me, the most important questions are the how questions; specifically how the unfolding of events is going to lead to changes in these social arrangements. Many people I encounter agree that we all need to work together to rebuild our regional food economy so that it can support the population living here, or at the very least not fall so spectacularly short of doing so; but there is no consensus on how to get going. The number of problems to solve, challenges to overcome, and predicaments to learn to work around is huge, and our resources are as nothing.

The most natural outcome of this type of situation is for everyone to work individually on some aspect of the complex of challenges — it’s hard to say how each person chooses where to dig in: some do what they’re already good at; some go with inclination and a desire to learn new things; some run the numbers and choose what seems like the most efficient places to work; most could probably never explain their ways of responding to what might be only half-formed needs and wants. The upside of individual action is that the feedback loop between input and output is tight and fast; it’s easier to see the sequence leading from work to results, to fine-tune that sequence and create variations on it. It takes some faith to go from working alone, with complete control, to having to accommodate others’ needs and wants.

Another challenge here is that the people who are the most engaged individually are the ones who are too busy for much time spent trying to organize collective activities. They’re also the ones less likely to see the need for it, because they themselves are further ahead in ability to provide for their own needs in case things get weirder. All the while, as more people discover the urge to become more individually resilient within a community of mutual dependence and cooperation, they have to pretty much make their own way and learn on their own. To some extent, this is a good thing, since it encourages discipline and hard work, mental and physical. It’s a bad thing to the extent that it discourages those with less persistence and wastes time forcing them to solve well-known problems and learn workarounds to familiar predicaments.

I’m thinking a lot about this, because it’s so fundamental to everything else we might accomplish, together or separately. Without developing better techniques for pooling our work and distributing the results in a way which is fair and decent, our already small and marginal efforts to build alternatives will be further diminished.

It’s going to be difficult to find creative ways to increase the amount of cooperation and sharing of resources, time, labour, knowledge, expertise, and experience. If there is a theme tying this blog together, that’s it: more than anything else, I’m struggling to distinguish what is impossible, and what is merely difficult and then hoping to find the spirit and perseverance to make headway on the difficult work. The lucky thing is that there is an increasing interest around here in exploring collective styles of work, with a base of some very impressive and experienced individuals who have developed their skills and knowledge in areas which will be vital to the community. We need to continue experimenting in the hopes that we’ll wander into new arrangements that make sense.

Little things that keep us together

By David Parkinson

Apricot, the first fruit tree to blossom in our yard.

In last week’s post I wittered vaguely on about the parallels between linguistic and cultural acquisition, considering the ways in which the patterns we acquire as children for understanding and creating our relationships with other people might be just as hard to shift in later life as the patterns we acquire for understanding and creating linguistic structures. I’m not familiar with any of the academic work in this area (although I know that there is some), so my speculations might be wildly off-base. (So what.) It’s easy to imagine that our cultural beliefs and behaviours are as much a mixture of innate species-specific predispositions with plenty of room for variation as are our linguistic behaviours. And although researchers disagree on the particular mix of nature and nurture, very few deny that both play some role in linguistics. It makes sense that the same deal applies in the acquisition and deployment of cultural knowledge.

Cultures, and the patterns of behaviours & beliefs that instantiate them, evolve as languages do: partly in order to stay viable in the circumstances of the real world and partly in order to find some kind of internal equilibrium. A shift in the role of one element or class of elements — the use of the past tense marker in language, or the perceived border between work and play in culture — might slowly set in motion a series of adjustments, the creation of new elements and the disappearance of old ones, new relations among this ever-changing constellation of rules, similarities, differences, tensions, and affiliations that make up the unimaginably complex system. And like any complex system, the outcomes are unpredictable and may hinge on unimaginably tiny events or patterns of behaviour which feed back into the system. For example, the belief that economic measures are the final arbiters or worth in human affairs is one that seems to have emerged in the late Renaissance along with a cluster of other beliefs, slowly gained ground over pre-economic visions of value, and created the conditions for greater freedom and individualism, which in turn strengthened the economics-centred view of humanity. We might be at an extreme point of this long arc, when the beliefs and behaviours remain but the real benefits are contracting to a vanishingly small number of high-status individuals. It’s not clear what new forms of social organization, if any, will come along soon to repair the gap between aspiration and reality. But the notion that individualistic striving is the only way to a happy life might be disappearing out the rear-view mirror, while countless tiny feckless experiments fail on the way to small successes which provide the launching-pad for better experiments, bigger successes, and on and on. All we need to do is stay awake, tune out the dumb rubbish, and plod on. Sounds easy, but isn’t.

We have no individual control over linguistic change. Generations of schoolteachers and self-appointed scolds like William Safire have done nothing to stanch the flow of split infinitives, “her and I”, and other frowned-on constructions. We may have more control over cultural change, but only at the cost of programs of social retraining involving massive doses of top-down propaganda necessarily benefiting the ones at the top sending it downward. We grow up speaking our culture as native speakers, so for us the cultural equivalents of the bizarre inexplicable linguistic patterns — let’s say, the idea that it’s more important for everyone to have a car than a close friend — don’t strike us as remotely odd… until we come into contact with another culture that organizes those elements differently.

We’re in the position of the speakers of the deadly language: not sure how to begin creating the rules of a new culture; worse, not even aware that such a thing is possible. All we know — and even then the message is slow to spread and vigorously resisted — is that our culture is causing harm. We might look to indigenous cultures for help finding the ways out of this predicament, as Wade Davis argues in The Wayfinders. We might hope that retreat and retrenchment will give us the space to build new and better cultural patterns, as seems to be the idea behind a variety of movements like eco-villages, anti-civ, peak-oil doomerism, and the new tribalism proposed by Daniel Quinn and others. We might argue that only actively working for the destruction of the present system will open up new possibilities.

The troublesome fact remains that culture cannot safely be created out of deliberate large-scale human intention; the only way to begin is to change the beliefs and the behaviours that result from and reflect those beliefs, in order that a coherent culture will ultimately emerge as those beliefs and behaviours pass from generations onward, evolve to adapt to changes in external circumstances and to competing cultural patterns, spawn new micro-cultures, and develop an internal complexity rich enough to freely generate new beliefs, behaviours, and adaptive strategies. And we can introduce only small changes, only in small doses. Maybe the only safe way to proceed is to use ourselves as guinea pigs. The trick is finding enough other guinea pigs on the same experimental cultural brew to see what happens when you combine forces and start to alchemize wayward individuals with weird ideas into a coherent cluster from which something cultural might emerge.

I’m lucky enough to have landed in a corner of the world which provides the right conditions for proper bottom-up random directionless experimentation; an isolated place with a relatively low cost of living, stunning natural beauty providing a sense of natural wealth and generosity, and a long history of self-reliance and regional coherence. Plenty of freaks. It ain’t paradise, but it has the makings of a good place to fail enough times to find the occasional success. And there are plenty more places like this hidden in plain sight, where the new trajectories are being brewed up and tested. Find the nearest one to you. Move there. Contribute.

Together we will nurture the small and embarrassing virtues, in defiance of a culture which makes us all slaves to bad ideas. We will work on projects which are small, non-economic, ill-fitting, sketchy, temporary; which don’t scale and won’t work elsewhere; which have no obvious hooks for monetization; which give us no faith in a better future but only (only!) make today more bearable. Nothing we do will catch  the attention of those who care most deeply about defending this culture’s values. Let them keep scanning the wrong horizons. And if we do enough pointless ignorant laughable things, someday we will be the tide that smooths the sands and shifts the pebbles on the beach. No great thing, but always rocking and swaying the small things of the world. That is not enough — never enough — but it will have to be enough.

The point is not the grammar, it’s the feeling

By David Parkinson

The element of style.

Every week, more or less, I tutor a young person whose first language is not English. This activity is tightly connected to the time of my arrival in Powell River, since one of the very first things I did when we got here was start attending the training sessions for the Volunteer Adult Literacy Tutoring program that Malaspina University-College (now Vancouver Island University) offered, and continues to offer, every year. I think the first training session was the night we arrived in town, tired, bedraggled, and unsure what we had gotten ourselves into; so it was a good thing to have something to do once a week that got me out of the house and meeting people in my new hometown.

I have a background in linguistics, and spent some time in grad school teaching and tutoring students whose first language was not English; sometimes English was not their second or even third language. And although the adult tutoring program was oriented towards basic literacy tutoring and away from English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) tutoring, my main interest was in helping people learn another language and integrate themselves into a new culture, one of choice — or if not choice, then necessity, or maybe accidental outcome.

There are real differences between the typical adult literacy learner and the ESL learner; the former is often dealing with feelings of shame and inadequacy for failing to have mastered what comes so easily to so many others; whereas the latter is typically someone who is highly motivated to learn a new language so as to better fit into the surrounding culture, find better work, take part in conversations, read newspapers, follow television, and so on. The ESL learner is obviously proficient in speaking and understanding his or her first language, and is very often literate in that language. For this learner there is no shame in not speaking or understanding the dominant language of a new home. It’s simply another hurdle which the learner must jump in order to be successful.

There is a huge amount of research into the differences between the acquisition of one’s first language(s) and the acquisition of any subsequent languages, especially those to which we are exposed in school or as adolescents or adults. The languages which surround us and form the background of our young lives slowly and gradually drift up in our consciousnesses like snow swirling through the cracks in a wall: you can’t keep them out. The child’s mind is always at work, finding patterns and regularities, knitting stray ends into a seamless fabric, chopping a continuous sound signal into sentences, phrases, chunks, words, and down to the smallest units of linguistic value. After late childhood or early adolescence our ability to effortlessly acquire a new language mysteriously drops off. What was instinctual and thoughtless becomes hard work.

It’s astonishing when you know enough about linguistic structure to understand what it takes to go from no language to full linguistic capacity in only a few short years. In fact, our only chance to appreciate how miraculous language acquisition is comes when we try to learn another one, which usually means not through total immersion in the language but rather at the blunt end of grammar rules, the rote learning of rules and their exceptions, and the horrible grind of learning one word at a time, usually outside of a meaningful context.

Many of us who grew up in Canada, a country with official bilingualism, will know something of the pain of struggling to learn a new language on the basis of infrequent exposure, questionable motivation, and often lacklustre pedagogy. After about nine years of good grades in French classes in elementary and secondary school, I landed in Ottawa and then Montréal to find that I knew almost nothing: my comprehension was terrible and my ability to speak even worse. But I was motivated to improve, and did so by working and studying in French, ending up pretty close to bilingual.

This week my student and I were working on clauses (main, subordinate, coordinated, and relative) with a brief foray into the tangled nightmare of the English verb system with all its irregularities and inscrutable tenses, aspects, moods, and voices. Believe me when I say that our mere ability to talk to each other about events or states in the past, present, or future — whether they are completed, ongoing, repetitive, or continuous — whether they are actual, desired, or only possible — all hangs together by virtue of a system of interacting patterns of verb endings, syntactic constructions, and intonations that would blow our minds if we had to learn them from scratch instead of slowly imbibing them in immersion, over long years of readjustment that slowly fix in place a complex system of mental constructs robust enough to handle new forms and creatively generate variations on patterns. It’s a miracle we all take for granted.

Imagine if second-language acquisition were not merely a matter of successful integration into one’s new surroundings but a matter of survival. Imagine that we are the only tribe on our island and that our first language, the only one we know, has characteristics that actively harm us. Everytime we use the subjunctive form of a verb, a child dies. Everytime we coordinate two sentences to make a bigger one, a fight breaks out. Everytime we adverbially modify an adjective, someone breaks into uncontrollable tears and eventually goes catatonic. We need to change our language, but where to begin? How can we create a whole new language out of the air? We can’t know exactly which features of the current one are responsible for its ill effects; and anyway how does one work out the complete structure of an invented language not based on an existing one? We have no models around us from which to work here on the island. Meanwhile children, hearing this dangerous language spoken around them, grow up speaking it, dooming themselves and others to its ill effects.

What occurred to  me, as I reflected on all this after a long session with the clauses, irregular verbs, tenses, and aspects, is that our cultural patterns are very much like linguistic ones. As young children we imbibe the beliefs and behaviours that our native culture treat as timeless truths, and once we are fluent in the rules of this culture we find it hard to acquire new cultural norms. Even a growing sense that our culture has gone off the rails might not be able to change these patterns quickly enough. For next week’s post I’ll keep going with these reflections, maybe draw a provisional conclusion or two. Maybe not.

Wrong

By David Parkinson

Crocus, the trailblazer, unafraid to be the first flower to bloom.

Listen to my song,
It isn’t very long,
You’ll see before I’m gone
That everybody’s wrong.
(“Everybody’s Wrong”; Stephen Stills/Buffalo Springfield, 1966)

Winter is slowly turning to spring here; crocuses and snowdrops are up and trees are gradually budding out. The hibernation of the year’s round of activities is slipping off: Seedy Saturday, which I think of as the opening event in the warm season, is only two weeks and a bit away, and there is a ferment of activity around Powell River, with citizens engaging with the City’s plans for liquid waste management and its plan to rezone the former arena site in town. We’re in a municipal election year and people seem to gearing up for it.

Out there in the wider world, all hell appears to be breaking loose. I’m never sure whether my perception of an increase in general mayhem meshes with reality, but it does look as though instability throughout the global economic system is beginning to permeate the social and political sphere to a greater degree than usual. The flareup in North Africa and Wisconsin’s sudden desire to return to the 19th Century are visible signs of some kind of unusual tremors; but it’s the steady drumbeat of corruption, misdirected effort, make-work in high places, lies, idiocy, counterproductivity, bogus expertise, worn-out fairy tales, and infantile wish-fulfillment fantasies that just keeps sounding louder and more insistent to me. It’s hard to prove that things are any weirder or more unhinged than they have ever been: each new signpost stands alone and we can choose to explain them away as they emerge, or we can, without much effort, see them fit into a larger picture — just another brush-stroke on the canvas.

The danger here is to be as sure as we can be that the big picture is not a paint-by-numbers set, where the outcome is predetermined and our only task is to fit the paint to the pattern. I hope (although I know that this is a thwarted hope) that we all observe the world and the things that happen in it as pointed challenges to our worldview, as observations always in need of proper explanation and not just more data to slide easily into their assigned place in our static outlook. Once we stop paying real attention to the meaning of the things we see, choosing to treat them just as more evidence of what we already know to be true, we begin imposing a kind of internal conformity on our own minds. It’s bad enough to suffer from the need to suppress our own creativity in the face of overwhelming social pressure; but when the pressure to quiet our rebellious mental impulses comes from within, it’s a step along the road to complete shut-down. And this is where we find ourselves, more and more; a very sad and dangerous place to slide into. Especially without being aware that it’s happening.

I’m thinking about this sort of thing a lot lately, because I’m finding it a challenge to make sense of anything I see going on. The human motivations, the social reasons, the economic justifications for the ways we structure our activities and relate to one another are, if anything, getting harder to figure out and resolve so that I can comfortably put them into their place and move on to other things. They come too quickly, from strange new directions, bearing the signs of who knows what unforeseen arrangements of hidden forces.

I can only think that the systems we’ve developed, and the mind-boggling complexity of the ways they interact, reinforce, and contradict each other, are creating a kind of widespread counterproductivity that is making it harder all the time for anything genuinely useful and humane to flourish. Possibilities are closing off in the visible parts of the system, but new configurations are still struggling to be born. And I believe that, without having a vocabulary for this kind of rolling deadlock of ever-growing futility (and worse), many people are picking up on a feeling of dead-endedness. We have entered the doldrums and no wind is blowing us out of here. As is so often the case in human affairs, that which matters most is to be spoken of least. We keep mum for fear of appearing fearful, believing the others to know what we know we don’t. This is the borderline between comedy and tragedy that runs right up the middle of each mind and every society.

I just started to read John Restakis’ 2010 book Humanizing the Economy: Co-operatives in the Age of Capital, and it’s pretty hot stuff. John is the Executive Director of the BC Co-operative Association, and someone I would love to bring up to Powell River to talk and meet with people around here. The turnout and enthusiasm at Skookum’s recent public event suggests that there is a lot of pent-up interest in cooperatives around here.

Here is something I read last night resonated with this vague sense I’ve been having for months now that we need new ways out of predicaments we hardly know how to name:

The inability to imagine an alternative is the final triumph of ideology. As William Leach [in Land of Desire: Merchants, Powers, and the Rise of a New American Culture, Vintage 1994] put it so well, the enthronement of consumerism and the acceptance of corporate capitalism as its social mechanism has diminished public life, denying people everywhere “access to insight into other ways of organizing and conceiving life, insight that might have endowed their consent to the dominant culture … with real democracy.” It is here that the most difficult, the most necessary work must be done to advance a more fully human vision of what economies might be and how such economies might be constructed. (p. 26)

This really struck a chord with me, since I have come to believe very strongly that one of the causes of our culture’s growing brittleness is precisely this inability to conceive, or consider, or value alternative answers to the questions we ask — let alone all the questions we don’t know how to form — about who we are, individually and collectively, what we’re doing, and why. Lost opportunities to find alternatives consolidate existing problems, but we’re all too busy running along the predestined grooves to look up and take time for the frivolous exercise of our innate creativity. Keep running!

The promising shoots of new growth so often get blunted or neutralized by being drawn into the inertia of the system they’re meant to challenge, however weakly or unreflexively this challenge might be mounted. Our fear of being wrong is so powerful that we’d rather dither and burn out in the unheroic middle ground. Everywhere we look, promising new approaches wither away while the same old deadly, ridiculous, pointless methods and attitudes thrive and spread. The mere act of persisting in something that rubs against the grain is a necessary act; the only way to have a true purpose is to be wrong by wrong standards, to deliberately set out to confound and disturb the accepted wisdom (which is rarely wisdom, only unthinking habit pretending to rest on principles).

This week I read of a fine example of how unhinged things are, from Mark Bittman’s blog: a sidelong look at McDonald’s new breakfast offering, oatmeal, which, as you would expect, they manage to fuck up almost completely, turning a cheap and nutritious food into expensive junk. As Bittman notes, “Incredibly, the McDonald’s product contains more sugar than a Snickers bar and only 10 fewer calories than a McDonald’s cheeseburger or Egg McMuffin.” I come at this as a confirmed daily oatmeal-eater, and I know that picking holes in McDonald’s food and foodlike products is cheap sport. But what I thought of when I read this is how hard it is in this upside-down world to start up and fund a breakfast program for schoolchildren, one that might serve inexpensive healthful (and locally growable) foods like oatmeal. I know, from sitting at the table of the Nutrition Committee of the local School District, something about the hurdles that stand between hungry children and food. We tolerate them, although we know it’s wrong and a sign of a society in trouble that in the midst of extreme wealth and ostentation there are children showing up at school unfed. And we tolerate McDonald’s serving this nasty overpriced food, because after all there’s not much for us to say or do about it. It’s a free market. It’s wrong, but we’re stuck with it. And the alternatives are just too hard to imagine; if we can imagine them, they’re impractical or obviously crazy; and who are we to kick against the pricks?

The fierceness of desire from which rebellion springs

By David Parkinson

Tree is to bud as human is to dream.

When first the opposition of fact and ideal grows fully visible, a spirit of fiery revolt, of fierce hatred of the gods, seems necessary to the assertion of freedom. To defy with Promethean constancy a hostile universe, to keep its evil always in view, always actively hated, to refuse no pain that the malice of Power can invent, appears to be the duty of all who will not bow before the inevitable. But indignation is still a bondage, for it compels our thoughts to be occupied with an evil world; and in the fierceness of desire from which rebellion springs there is a kind of self-assertion which it is necessary for the wise to overcome. Indignation is a submission of our thoughts, but not of our desires; the Stoic freedom in which wisdom consists is found in the submission of our desires, but not of our thoughts. From the submission of our desires springs the virtue of resignation; from the freedom of our thoughts springs the whole world of art and philosophy, and the vision of beauty by which, at last, we half reconquer the reluctant world.
(Bertrand Russell, 1903, “A Free Man’s Worship“, published in 1918 in Mysticism and Logic)

Midwinter is the time of soldiering on, resigned to the weather and the strange weightlessness of days spent mainly indoors, waiting for the better weather and longer days to come. This is the time of the year when we are most likely to give way to our darker imaginings; it’s harder to shake off the blues when the weather is at its most negatively pathetic-fallacious, and any emotional reversal is likely to make connections quickly in our psyches and sprout a network of worries, fears, and insecurities. No wonder so many of us flee to warmer places to wait out the wet and dreary days.

By some fluke of lineage or upbringing I am less affected by the winter blahs than most people around here seem to be, although I sometimes wonder if there aren’t more people out there who float unruffled through the winter, complaining in company with others but only as a form of considerate camouflage. After all, no unhappy person wants to have to deal with someone handling the situation perfectly well, thanks. So maybe we’re all secretly enjoying the rain and cold days, only none of use dares admit it out of a false belief that everyone else is suffering.

While the world idles, in the background, out of sight, under the surface of the soil, the plots and plans that will define the coming year are brewing. I allow this blog to slide off current events and on to matters less calendrical, more vague and inward-looking. I think a lot of the perpetual question of how we are supposed to dream our way forward into a better future, when there are so many pitfalls and distractions preventing useful action. Some people see a problem needing a solution — or a predicament calling for an adjustment of attitude — and then do something about it; some see the problem or predicament and don’t know what to do, caught up in the many compelling reasons for apathy or paralysis; some avert their eyes so as neither to do anything nor feel guilty for shirking; the great majority hope to find nothing wrong in the world around them and thus find nothing wrong. (They might be the happiest of us all.) The world is shaped by apathy, obliviousness, and acceptance. To remark on this is not to pathologize these very human traits but to take note of them dispassionately and face up to the inescapable reality that we are flawed creatures out of whose flaws come many wonderful things along with the terrors and nightmares you might expect.

It makes no sense to me to kick against the pricks and find myself in constant opposition to the world. Your mileage may vary. There is much going on around me and further out in my far outer orbits which horrifies me and fills me with despair. A good example is that, as the world slides into an economic blowout and as more people are falling into poverty and suffering, the political sphere shows all signs of becoming uglier and less forgiving. Using human misery as a rock-solid justification for sawing apart the safety nets strikes me as just about the lowest behaviour that a person can exhibit. And yet there it is: those with the most in this world are working tirelessly to cause ever-greater suffering in the service of a psychopathic ideology of extreme individualism. Oh, but enough of that.

Sometimes while reading I’ll come across a passage which resonates so strongly for me that I need to put it aside for future use. The Russell quotation at the head of this week’s post is one of these: I don’t know how many months ago I was reading the essays collected in Mysticism and Logic when this passage jumped out at me, but I wrote it down thinking that I wanted to return to it. I really like his characterization of a saner stance towards the things in the world that we find wrong and want to change, and I worry that too many people fall into a position of indignation which is emotionally satisfying but ultimately self-defeating and impotent. It’s just too easy to be constantly enraged; what we need is more of Russell’s resignation, which is not apathy but the humane recognition that we are born flawed, doomed to become caught up in systems beyond our control or comprehension, and that rage and resistance are no use when they pit us against unchangeable human nature or the impassable limits of our existence. The “fierceness of desire from which rebellion springs,” as Russell very aptly calls it, should be no more than the first and briefest phase of engagement, the launching point of a trajectory that has to pass through understanding and compassion or else burn itself out in some kind of psychic mutilation, whether directed outward or inward.

But to see the trajectory implies a human tradition of sanity that calls things by their real names and spends no time entertaining infantile fantasies of total control over nature and society. A critical look at the way we run our affairs suggests that we’re not about to develop this sort of tradition anytime soon. Any ideological system powerful enough to do this work will catch the virus which attacks all such systems, become corrupted and dangerous, and replicate only those aspects which serve the self-interested coercers whose excess benefits give them power to game the system, yielding greater future benefits. The only way out is the endless undermining of every system which threatens to become complete enough to become an ideological self-replicator. Skepticism, mockery, suspicion are the proper tools for this work, and that is why we are taught to despise them.

I’m especially interested in Russell’s invocation of Stoicism. I want to write much more about that, but it would take more concentration and a more sustained effort of composition than I seem able to put into this blog these days. (I need a sabbatical!) I find Stoicism to be a very useful set of tools for recognizing the limits of the world, laying out the boundaries of human possibility, accepting the fallibility and finiteness of all human enterprise and facing our common lot as mortal animals, and — most usefully — distinguishing between what we can change (our own attitudes to things) and what we cannot (other people, the bare conditions of our existence). There is much about Stoicism as historically recorded which is less useful, but these aspects mostly have to do with areas of inquiry which centuries of science have illuminated since Stoicism was a philosophical school. We now understand the cosmology and religious thought of the ancient world to be mistaken or incoherent, but in matters of human existence and the experience of being stranded on a hostile planet surrounded by mysterious beings and other unexplained phenomena, without an instruction manual… well, they still have something to teach us.

It strikes me that we could all do much worse than to adopt a position of radical resignation, so long as it is accompanied by the desire and the ability to make progress on the things we can make progress on. Resignation should mean only the abandonment of efforts to intervene in vain, whether through misunderstanding or the urge to self-aggrandizement. This is a lot to ask of the heroic personalities among us who would rather spectacularly fail to make a dent in history than quietly succeed at solving a small but serious problem — or learn to cope in the face of some predicament. I don’t really know why this misplaced heroism is such a common pattern; but it certainly is one, and that explains to some extent why things get no better. So much wild energy battering so many immovables. So many solvables staying invisible.

At the same time as we let the fierceness of our desire to change the world lead us astray, the place where our freedom is greatest — our imagination and capacity to dream better worlds, even small ones, into being — suffers from neglect and marginalization, maybe because we let ourselves foolishly believe that the only purpose of human creativity is to change the world. This means a constant ratcheting-downwards of our hopes and visions to make them mesh with the world we claim to want to change, diluting them and rendering them ineffectual or (worse) counterproductive. Again, misdirected effort directed against the things we cannot change, ignoring the ones we certainly can.

Caught up in trivialities

By David Parkinson

The window sees trees cry from cold and claw the moon.

… at least for me, there is one thing that matters: to set a chime of words tinkling in the minds of a few fastidious people.
(Logan Pearsall Smith)

After the emotional freakout of the last couple of weeks life is returning to normal — but normal under slightly closer scrutiny than is usually the case. I find myself more likely to wonder why I’m doing what I’m doing, what it’s all in aid of, and whether I wouldn’t be better off doing something else… or nothing at all. The dense texture of life, which we normally slide through as effortlessly as we hold the door open with our foot while balancing an armful of parcels, has become a little defamiliarized. This is a good thing to experience from time to time, and is one of the benefits of extreme events and heightened emotional states: habit and routine thrive in an atmosphere of benign oblivion, where their frankly bizarre nature gains camouflage from repetition and the rubbing away of novelty.

Grief and shock are reminders that the routine might not last for ever. Worse, that our routines are under threat. Especially the routine of waking up every day and continuing. So we step back and take in the big picture, asking ourselves simple but devastating questions. The friendship which just went silent was, weirdly, one of the outcomes of a previous period of reassessment for me, a number of years ago, when I found myself wondering why I was pouring so much of myself into my work that I had very little energy left to hang around with people, aimlessly socializing and participating in the cultural life of the world around me. That was a strange time, when I seemed to wake up abruptly to realize that I was becoming a soulless drone oriented towards work and not much else. I was able to shake that situation up and get out of the rut; but the older I get the more I suspect that many of us are not so lucky: we slide into these patterns of half-living and the sacrifice of the real to the imagined world, and either never see that there is a way out or find ourselves unable to take the first step.

And multiply this bind by a few billion and there you have it: human life snowed under by a planet-sized heap of minutiæ, all of us unable any longer to remember what the point of it is; or that there might even be a point to it beyond what sounds so sane and sensible when other people say it. (But, oddly, not when we do.) Work hard; accumulate stuff; be safe and secure; save money; look out for yourself; don’t stick out too much; and so on.

It’s so hard to mount any kind of realistic defense against this massive campaign to thwart our abilities and our will to be completely human. Maybe this is being completely human. A state of constant acceptance with an undercurrent of struggling to get away and find something more authentic. Where to begin? Most paths lead off into sterility or isolation or cultish futility, and they’re so poorly marked and rarely traveled that no one knows which ones go nowhere and which just bring you back where you began, only to begin again or stop your wandering and accept that what you get is what there is.

It might be a function of getting older, but I can see more clearly how this all comes from within ourselves — or from strange and inscrutable forces we set in motion when we humans create societies. (And what else do we do so consistently?) There are no grand conspiracies whose purpose is to hold us back and blunt our thirst for knowledge or wisdom: our greatest talent as a species lies in frustration: we are the active subjects and the passive objects of conformity, forgetfulness, nonchalance, and many other benign but ultimately paralyzing ways of encountering the world and the creatures in it. Brief precious slits of time in which universe spawns consciousness of itself, only to find itself clipping coupons for a blowout sale at the mall. And then back to oblivion.

Once you have this sort of triviocracy up and running, any number of viruses can spread and proliferate, throwing the delicate imbalance even further out of whack, like a washing machine on spin-cycle in which the sheets have tangled up on one side, creating a crazy high-pitched oscillation which only draws more weight towards the heavy side until the whole thing keels over. Take a cold clear-eyed look at the real meaning of the many things we believe without articulating, and you have to ask yourself how crazy you’d have to be to act as thought that were normal? To take one example: the idea that we should park young and impressionable children in daycare in order that the parents can make enough money to take care of their children. That is, by anyone’s definition, insane. But only when you really unpack it and dispassionately look at what it means. We’ll do anything but that, though, and so we’ve spent the best years of our life as a culture cultivating the party game of deflecting attention and grabbing hold of the most pointless aspects of every momentous thing.

Of course, I have no solutions to offer. The idea of a solution to something this monumental is laughable and pathetic. As John Michael Greer likes to point out, there is a real difference between a problem and a predicament, both in their nature and in finding reasonable responses to them. A problem has a solution, but a predicament can only make us find ways of coping with a state of affairs for which there can be no fix. A general inability to distinguish between these two sorts of situations, and to treat all predicaments as problems in search of solutions, is one of the real predicaments facing us. And it is a predicament not a problem: for reasons which I think we’re fated never to understand, we humans are cursed with just enough smarts to get ourselves into trouble that we’re just not quite smart enough to get ourselves out of. If this sounds depressing or fatalistic to you, then congratulations on your sunny worldview. I believe that this gnarly situation is strangely beautiful and deeply human; we have made a mess of it by looking for solutions instead of coping strategies.

Everywhere I look, I see people waiting for Superman, hoping for the technofix, certain that others are better equipped to do the work, looking to swap one set of clueless managers for another. And who can blame anyone for sitting on the sidelines while the star players make it look easy? God knows they’re a pack of bumbling good-for-nothings (as we would be in their position), but they seem to know what they’re about, and they’re so enthusiastic and shout so loud that it seems to bad to interrupt the fun. We’re probably better off working away in our own little corner or the world, doing the best we can to make some sense out of something for ourselves and those around us.

If we treated our genuine predicaments as predicaments, we would realize that there’s no sense waiting for the experts with the perfect fix. We’d simply muck in and get to work in the knowledge that our best efforts won’t be good enough — but that to make no effort is the only worse thing. We may solve no problem, but if we also manage not to destroy anything then we’re already ahead of the game. And sometimes we learn something from our failures and reverses and half-successes, so next time around we recognize a pitfall or a shortcut. Then again, maybe not, because someone may have shuffled the deck when our back was turned. In the end there is nothing real except doing one’s best to puzzle things out, push forward, and try not to get distracted by what doesn’t matter. (Hint: that’s just about everything.)

Farewell, brother

By David Parkinson

Thirty-nine years old with a wife and four young children, gone in an instant. All that lay ahead, all we could have said and done and shared is torn apart and finished for all time. Nothing left but fond memories and aching. I love you, Darnell. Goodbye.


Post facto

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