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.)


1 Response to “Caught up in trivialities”

  1. 1 The fierceness of desire from which rebellion springs « Slow Coast Trackback on February 16, 2011 at 19:59
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