A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Thursday, March 10, 2011

An Apology Part 2: The Tao of Life

Fortunetellers learn to avoid specifics, to skirt tantalizingly in the near edges of the abstract, pulling unconscious ‘tells’ and comments from their subjects with which to build their ‘knowledge’ of past events and their ‘predictions’ of the future. Writers of political commentary do, in large measure, a similar thing. But it is time, to use a strangely appropriate crudity, to “shit or get off the pot.”

It is naïve to think that one person can have an influence on 7 billion people or even a tiny percentage of that number, or give pause or guidance to the politically powerful who are driven by the iron and steel mechanisms of power greed. It is even more naïve to think that doing nothing will make the world a better place to live.

What are things that can be done? It is first essential to understand that the odds are long that any one person’s efforts will be effective on their own. Some people might, by virtue of place and occasion, directly influence a number of others, but most will have to accept being part of building that most nebulous of structures: human expectation and habit of thought. There are rewards, however, and they will not have to be waited on for delivery in heaven.

But first a look at the options: Derrick Jensen argues for revolution and a compelling argument it is. Humans are killing off life from the only place in the universe where we know for sure that it exists; they (we) are killing in a very special form called extinction, the termination of continuous lines of DNA replication going back to the beginning of life, the extinguishing of species. It is the greatest crime that there can be and any and every living thing has the absolute right and responsibility to fight the destroyers. I say fine, let’s fight, but I also want to win.

Thom Hartmann says to join the Democratic Party and take it over. He also says that getting rich is just fine so long as you are a ‘good’ rich guy. His suggestions miss the mark in so many ways that I’ll just go on.

The environmentalists I know are devoted, dedicated people fighting for a desert acre here and a riparian acre there as hundreds of acres are leveled and built over during the months of court hearings, private arguments and land swap deals required for their successes.

All of these actions are important and they should continue, but I don’t see a recognizable body of people showing the way to live in support of a recovering earth. Preparing for a revolution, becoming an activist in a political party, creating court challenges to corporate and political environmental malfeasance, all laudable and valuable, but of themselves don’t model the daily life that would bring about balanced ecological relationships.

People that use little of the earth’s resources are seen to do so because they have no other choice. They are in the popular mind poor, dirty, disheartened and failed. This image has to be changed. Many of us, enough of us, who know what is coming must live openly and proudly with less. We must be a demonstration that less can be more, that having and using less is not a loss but a gain. It is the only way and therefore worth the try.

As much as I respect the righteous anger of those who see the extinction of species by the foolish, mindless economic actions of a corporate world as murder times a thousand, direct revolution in any form will only exacerbate the problems of the environment and support the military/security establishment. Such action would give credence to the propaganda of environmental terrorism, confusing and frightening the pubic. I don’t see how it could win without destroying the world it is trying to save.

Working in the system is pissing in the ocean (not actually useless as is intended by the metaphor, but adds in a tiny way to the volume of the ocean). Politics and wealth have the whole show rigged like a Las Vegas magic act. As long as the actions fit the script it is possible to play at giving the magician a hard time, but go too far – that is, far enough to begin to make a difference – and you are made to disappear. The audience is amazed and chastened. However, some people must piss in the ocean and some people must disappear.

All great changes begin with the people. This time the changes will have to come without much in the way of armed conflict, but rather in the Gandhian style of direct and passive resistance. Its ‘leaders’ must be sprinkled among the people like flowers in a field; and the leaders must be leading themselves first to successful ways of living and ‘leading’ others second.

The people don’t have to be berated with the details of our dangers [1]. They know them but refuse to recognize them as long as there is no way to effectively respond. They must be shown how to live in ways that will improve our chances; shown not told. Shown that change is possible. Shown that change can be positive in their lives. And shown that change can be successful in mitigating the dangers. Then and only then can the dangers be seen clearly for what they are.

A couple of years ago I was teaching in a small charter school [2]. The students were mostly poor, most were Hispanic and many were from Mexico. I am an old man – especially so in the eyes of high school students. I also often rode a bicycle to school. As my relationship with the students became more open and personal, one day a student asked me with humor, but also with a real air of question, if I was homeless. Later on, as they learned more about me, they discovered that I lived in the heart of the immigrant community, lived very simply. I was informed that I am known to my neighbors as the old Anglo man who rides his bike in the middle of the road. Adding to the cognitive dissidence that was an important element of my teaching style, the students also came to think of me as a genius and as someone who loved them. I make no claim to the former, but I did love them.

I tell this only as a demonstration of the power of personal actions that violate expectations, in a good way, to create questions about how we should live. The students who rode bikes to school were not picked on so much. Students who were ashamed of living in such a poor part of town (but not poor in community) could say, “But ‘he’ lives like I do, and he is smart and loves us. That crazy old man!” It was a beginning.

Some people must see that they have to live in the ways that will allow all life to continue in ecological harmony and proudly model that ‘way of life’ for others. That is leading the way; that is the Tao of Life. The few fireflies don’t light the night, but they make the evening more delightful. If all I do is ease the mind of a poor child about the conditions of her or his life, that would be enough, but if enough people come to the understanding of both the need and the benefits of living in economic equanimity, there is the potential to make a great difference.

[1] This is tricky. Too much and people go comatose; too little and people are uninformed. In the 1950s and 1960s PSA type films about proper oral care were shown in mid and high schools. Some were very explicit with terrible pictures and stories of tooth decay, septicemia, oral surgery, etc. The punch line was, brush your teeth and get check ups. Some films with the same punch line were cartoon like, only lightly threatening. The easy-going films were much more effective in getting the students to pay attention to their oral health. If brushing your teeth caused you think about heart failure from the bacteria going into your blood stream or the images of a tortured face distorted by a metal frame prepped for surgery, then…

[2] Where I live charters are public schools with open enrollment (by lot when applications exceed the space). They follow the same rules as other schools, but are allowed a number of options to their offerings and procedures established in their state approved chartering application. They are not publicly funded private schools.

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