So I've been back for about two months now, and life is just speeding along. Like fast, really really fast, and as I'm usually a slow kinda joe, its scary and exhilarating at the same time. Kinda like a roller-coaster.
The only problem I'm having is an old and familiar one. I keep "I should"ing myself to a state of utter panic, instead of, as my rather wise and wonderful Mary says "letting the universe unfold as it should".
This morning, as I was trying to ignore the "I shoulds" by wasting yet more time on Facebook, an old schoolmate contacted me about a class we took together, and long story short, sent me an essay I'd written last year which in a wondrous case of serendipity, reminded me of why I'm happier when I stop shoulding myself all the time.
So instead of continuing to beat myself up about not writing as much as I "should", I'll just repost my old self giving my new self some good advice, and call it good.
(Written for The Ethics of Nature, University of Iceland, Fall 2009)
Running Away From Utopia
I’m a raggedy kind of man.
Like most things about ourselves my raggedness is partly choice, partly upbringing, and partly my “nature” (as slippery and elusive a thing as that is).
I wear second-to-third hand clothes until the holes are too big to ignore. Not as a fashion statement, but because I figure if folks are going to make things disposable, might as well wear them out before we dispose of them. My apartment started out life as a guestroom and storage space, and although I did break down and buy new furniture (for the first time in my life) for the living room, the kitchen and most of the rest is at least 75% recycled, salvaged, or flat out McGyvered.
Every bit of electronics in my place was given to me, either as a gift or a hand-me-down. If people had not seen fit to foist this stuff on me, I would never have a TV, cell phone, or laptop.
(In the interest of honesty, I have since purchased a new cell-phone, as the US uses a different, far inferior system.)
I buy cheap food and do my best to cook it at home. I eat local, because it tastes better, because I was raised that way, and because part of me recoils from the idea of food from thousands of miles away. I dumpster dive on occasion, “liberate” food from work that would otherwise be thrown out, and take advantage of free eats whenever I can, not out of poverty, or even stinginess, but because I hate waste.
On the other hand, I hate having too much stuff around me. Pack-rattishness brings out my mean streak. I cannot for the life of me understand people who horde things useless to themselves instead of letting others who might make use of said stuff do so. Except for books that is. Parting with the written word is like loosing a limb for me.
(Amazingly, I got rid of 80% of all my books when I moved back to 'Merka, still reeling...)
I work, but as little as I can and only at something I feel is worthwhile. As in most cases, this ethical stance results in a certain level of poverty. Not that I mind. I’ve long been of the opinion that wealth is to poverty as obesity is to malnutrition.
So when faced with this particular project, (We were asked to come up with a project that involved out personal relationship with nature and report on our progress) I ran into a bit of a snag. I consume little, I don't own a car (never have, even if I know how to drive), most of the time I avoid even the bus if I can. I toyed with the idea of vegetarianism, but frankly the argument for it doesn’t hold water for me. Besides, I like meat, fish, and cheese. It’s not like I live the life I live to be greener than thou, nor do I live my life the way I do out of some pious sense of “duty”. I live my life the way I do because, by and large, it makes me happy. I like the challenge of living on limited means; I love the creativity and cunning that it takes. But when faced with this assignment, with the idea of essentially experimenting on myself, using reductionism and preconceived goals to measure my relationship with nature, I recoiled. One of my other traits came to the fore, namely a level of rebelliousness that tends to get me in trouble.
I simply didn’t want to force myself into yet another project essentially based on the idea that I should have to constantly strive towards a goal with no way of knowing if it will be of any real benefit to me. Frankly I’m tired of society telling me I’m supposed to be something more, something better, healthier, happier, stronger, better looking, morally superior, more educated, more environmentally and socially responsible than I am.
After all, if ethics is the study of “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” the world we live in is a study in “you shoulds” and “you shouldn’ts”.
And therein lays the rub. I’ve grown ever so weary of the proponents of positive social, environmental and political change stating their case in the same sad sorry self-help arguments that religions and moral-majoralists seem so fond of. I’m tired of my life, my body, my society, everything being reduced to one big project, grand glorious goals upon whose altar we sacrifice experience and pleasure in the hope of obtaining some heavenly utopian future. I have no interest in a revolution I can’t dance to, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to die for the cause.
I’d rather live for it. Besides, hair shirts itch.
By framing everything in terms of improvement, goals, progress we fall into the inverse of the trap that we fall into when we discount the welfare of future generations to service our own present greed. Instead of living in the here and near now, learning to live within our means, learning to accept limits, as individuals, societies, and as a species, we sacrifice the possible present happiness (which would likely lead to lives that wouldn’t be based on the poverty of our progeny) for a future utopia which we will never obtain. In the meantime, while we try to perfect ourselves to fit our preconceived ideas of perfection the world rolls merrily along towards oblivion.
A greeny utopia full of beautiful thin healthy people who never get cancer, never get fat, always smell of flowers and live lightly on the earth, happily telecommuting and consuming a never-ending series of earth-friendly products from the cornucopian horn of progress is not the world I want to live in. I long ago realized that utopias are terrible things. No one is free in utopia, because you can’t have a utopia with free will. Utopias are static, unchanging, eternal.
And Nature hates stasis as much as it abhors a vacuum.
And yet I’ve long been guilty of utopian thinking. Hell, we’ve all been. Whether planning your own physical utopia of six-pack abs and breast implants, or commercial utopias of success and acclaim, or political utopias free of pollution, violence, sexism or whatever other sin you despise.
I’d beat myself up for buying too much, for not having a vegetable garden, for eating out, for my rather embarrassingly voluminous beer consumption. I turned bike rides on crisp fall days into mindless calculations of calories burnt, of how much faster I was than a week before.
So I decided to try to not be a utopian for a while. That’s my project. Which is really difficult. It’s a Zen sort of thing. A project that rejects goals, that refuses to measure progress.
I have no idea how I’ve done.
And I think that’s the point.
That said, I can say the experience has been positive. Riding your bike while counting calories is a chore, whereas zipping along, enjoying the cold air pumping through your lungs, feeling the force of your legs powering you along, will put a smile on anyone’s face. Letting go of self-imposed academic standards and just letting yourself learn what you’re interested in is far more satisfying than high grades (although a my internalized ethos of academic over-achievement has made that part of the plan hard to stick to). Being content is far more enlightening, I’ve found, than being ambitious. Better for the planet too.
In letting go of preconceived notions, I’ve gained a level of contentment that I haven’t felt in a long time, which has led to some interesting insights. Content people almost by definition consume less. When you are happy with who you are, what you have, and where you are, you won’t feel compelled to chase after products and services that promise you the contentment you already have. Moreover, content people have the time and energy to think things over, to act in ways that will allow their contentment to continue. By working towards present contentment they avoid the trap of utopianism, because utopias are generally the product of malaise. Content people are hard to sell stuff to, hard to frighten, hard to shame, hard to control.
Happiness is revolutionary.
That being said, there are drawbacks, mainly social. What with the ingrained Protestant work ethic now in a dysfunctional marriage with pop-culture worship of the wealthy, successful, or famous explaining to people that you are purposely living in the moment and intentionally avoiding making long term plans garners a lot of criticism. People will see you as lazy, as “part of the problem”, as a free-loader (even though I owe nothing, pay my taxes, and receive no government support) or they will worry that you are depressed, having a breakdown, or “just trying to put a positive spin on your unfortunate financial situation.” (actual quote from an acquaintance now bankrupt in Iceland)
Then there’s the pressure. Thing is, in the world we live in, striving for future success or achievement is taken as a given. One is told that “resting on your laurels” is a bad thing, rather than an acknowledgement of contentment. This process is so ingrained that I have a really hard time not replacing those preconceived goals I’ve given up (like getting a Master’s Degree, losing ten kilos, finishing my remodel at some predetermined date) with a slew of new preconceived goals.
That being said, the more practice I have recognizing the symptoms of utopianism the easier it is to avoid them, and by avoiding them, I hope to let my life unroll slowly on its own accord, not constantly goading it onward. Every preconceived goal is a paving stone on my own personal primrose path to perdition, and I’ve been on the road crew for far too long.