What do I want? This is the hardest question for me to answer! I don’t know if that’s a general problem, I suspect it is. You would think that a question that doesn’t require that I deal with any outside power, or look for external approval – It’s not, “What do I want to do?” even, it’s simply “What do I want?” This should be one of the easiest questions to answer, yet, when I even let myself consider it, I go silent, my mind goes blank.
It might be interesting to follow why this might be so, but in the end that’s just a distraction. Unless what I want is to simply avoid answering, then I’d have to admit that what I want is to blunder along, keeping even myself in the dark about my own desires.
It is a question about desire. Wants are desires, some can be sorted into boxes labeled needs or wishes, given rankings of seriousness or value. In the end they are all desires and I’m uncomfortable with the power of desire. I’ve seen the pitfalls too often. I urge humility, on myself and on others, in large part as a defense against desire, and its ability to expand and distort one’s relationship with reality to the point that we become monsters, ready and willing to accept any horror if it gives us the slightest hope that our desires can be limitless, and that we don’t have to consider reigning them in. I’m not renouncing that now, by questioning my reluctance to accept my own desires. I’m questioning the way I’m allowing my own fears to create a desire, a desire not to question even myself about what I want. There’s no escaping desire, the attempt turns in on itself and bites you in the ass!
Renouncing desire is not humility. Humility demands – that sounds funny, but you know it’s an awesome truth – it demands that we come to grips with desire, our own as well as those of others. It’s a path towards a deeper sense of identification with others, a way to break down our urges towards exceptionalism.
I’m making what I consider valid points, but they are still acting to delay my confrontation with that simple question. A congenital difficulty for the contemplative is this need to inhabit and express the conceptual framework of a situation even when it’s best, when it’s time, to simply act. We tend to see the results of the downsides from precipitous action while downplaying the dangers of inaction. This seems to be a growing problem. It’s at the heart of the Enormity we face. The lubricants, that tend to ease us into channels of desire that our culture is in a position to fulfill, is teetering and tumbling off kilter. It’s hard to have any desire today and not have to blind one’s self to its consequences when taken in the aggregate. Six billion of the most benign wishes are still enough to throw the entire planet of balance.
This is true. No amount of bluster and “can-do!” attitude will wash that away. But life has always had its existential threats, it’s never been about anything but finding pockets of provisional and temporary joy amidst the inevitability of decay. To think now is any different is just another symptom of exceptionalism.
I recently came across this quote,
It made me laugh! It’s like Mel Brook’s career. As he himself claimed, his desire after living through World War II as a Jewish American infantryman fighting in Europe – He wanted to fight what had brought all that to be, the best way he knew. He knew the only way to combat self-important, fear-driven psychopaths was through derision and by belittling them through humor. Anything thing else just fed their self-importance and gave them the upper hand.
Whether we come to nihilism, the lack of any belief – in the end, the lack of any desire we are willing to own – Whether we come to it via a fear turned outwards towards scapegoats and traitors and those who “stabbed us in the back!;” or if we come at it through a misdirected internalization of inhibition, another kind of fear, a fear that everything we can do is complicit, is bound to fail, is only prolonging an inevitable decline and decay; in the end both paths lead to a functional nihilism, and Walter is right, we have nothing to fear from nihilists, we should pity them!
I began Horizons of Significance because I felt driven to do something to counter the effects of both of these responses to difficult times. In a way I’ve been led by the example of Outward Bound, and its origins in war, as a way to give people a chance to acclimate themselves to dire circumstances before the event, so that when they were struck, they would not fall into stereotypical responses that made survival that much more difficult. If the first time you face Enormity is when it looms over the end of your street, you will not do well.
In this case, it’s not a series of physical challenges that I’ve proposed, although such a regimen is also useful. This is not a crisis that can be faced from within an established world-view, like what went on for a downed airman or torpedoed sailor in WWII. This time, it’s the collapse of a world-view along with the forms that fed it, and the shock will be more like what it was like in the Americas in 1492 and beyond. If any of us are to avoid the internalized paralysis that befell so many on these continents, as their world-view was overcome by events, then we need to exercise our spiritual resilience, develop a conceptual robustness that can give us some chance of weathering the psychic shock, let alone then to be able to deal with the physical toil and toll.
This is one thing I want. It’s probably what I want more than anything else.
I feel I’ve had a head start at this. It’s funny, I recently realized that Cuba has a head start too! For similar reasons. We’ve had to deal with marginalization, with making do with internal resources, with adapting instead of demanding. This gives me a powerful sense that I have something valuable to impart, something that people need. It’s also built up in me a stubbornness to go on without any outside validation.
This last trait, one I also desire with all my heart to at some point do without, this ability to go on when there are no “indicators, or markers” no “spread or points” showing any sign that this situation will change. This trait is at the heart of what I have to offer. It’s what is so lacking in the “world” we live in. This is where that shock is, and will be, striking most furiously. For people who have always had a paycheck for their efforts, whether –at any but the narrowest of measures, their efforts have been of value to anyone else; these are the people who’ve been the players in today’s – yesterday’s that is – economy. When that validation and external reward stops, they will become paralyzed, they already are. It’s just that unlike in a physical paralysis, this psychic paralysis is most likely accompanied by frenzied lashing panic. Between those who fall into quiet inertia and those who start running around looking for enemies, we will find our greatest challenges to be dealing with this reaction, not fighting the underlying causes. It’s not the virus that kills you, it’s your body’s response.
This brings up the second thing I want. Not only to speak up about this, but to find a place for myself, a place where what I have to offer is valued, where I don’t have to justify doing what I do, have to find ways to support doing what I do by hook or crook. This also I see as a valuable desire. One that has implications beyond my personal circumstances.
What is ailing in our economic lives grows out of this disconnect between value and worth. We stumble, even someone like Greenspan, sitting at the center of the Crown of Creation, has shown the doubts of a Thomas Moore at the certainties he was raised on, lived on propounded and spread around the world! He joins the minor pantheon with MacNamara, of conversions from within the very heart of the beast!
Still, if I cannot find a way to make a living at what I believe with all my heart to be the crux of what matters, not just to me, but to us all; this isn’t just my problem. This is not a cry for pity or special dispensation. This is to say that here is another canary in the coal mine. My singing out, my ability to get myself heard will be a sign of a wider health than my own. My extinction, the extinction of my voice will be a wider sign than simply a tragedy for those few who know or care for me, it will be a sign of the continued unraveling.
This is not a plea for exceptionalism. That needs to be made clear. I want that to be clear. What I want is not to replace anyone at some hubristic center, but to work towards a world where there can be opportunities for us all to find our place. There are enough barriers to fulfillment brought on by external contingencies without us all spending so much of our own efforts and whatever rewards we have accumulated on perpetuating a social contract that works at every level and at every scale to treat us as fodder for its manipulators.
This is trending of into ground best left for later. It’s too easy to get caught up in potential “solutions.” This desire will carry us away before we have established where we actually stand. Going off half-cocked is precisely what I want to avoid. It takes patience and humility to stay with the question longer, to steep in it. That’s where a new path will come from.
When you don’t know what to do, be sure to begin by doing no thing.
This is my paraphrase of Lao Tzu. It hung, scratched hurriedly in pencil before I could forget it, on my wall for years.
I’ll return to this question, I think right now it’s the best way to get at what needs to be said.