A personal take on sustainability and western civilization
I am different. I accept this. In a world of excess, I mostly just want to get rid of everything I own and live like a Buddhist monk. And I’ve pretty much always been like this. But I knew early on that it wasn’t the same for most of the people around me. Most of them see the world as a competitive place where they are either a winner or a loser. In their eyes, I’ve always been a loser. Or, at the very least, someone they can just step right over on their way to the top.
My wife was of a very similar nature to myself. She pursued a career in mental health. Helping others is where she found her place. She had no need to prove herself against any sort of competition. And she lived a life, both at work and at home, that was true to her inner being. Deep down, I think she left this plane so early because she had no work left to do here. But that’s my spiritual nature speaking and it’s a subject for another time.
I, on the other hand, took a job with a huge multinational company. The competitive culture was fierce. I never felt comfortable. I eventually came to work in information technology and I did quite well in that role. There are still people all over North America working in that organization that know my name for some of the unique systems I put together. But I really didn’t fit in. The company made a product I never believed in. And the idea of extracting resources from nature to manufacture an unnecessary product never sat well with me. But everyone needs to make a living, right? So that’s what I did.
After my wife died, the dissonance between who I am and the culture of the place I worked became progressively more difficult for me to ignore. I struggled more and more with my place in the world. I met and had relationships with a couple of different women. Both of them had strong competitive streaks and eventually that dichotomy (obviously, in addition to other incompatibilities) doomed both of the relationships. Deep down though, I think that it was least partly because, to competitive people, I look just plain lazy. And maybe I am. But to the competitive person, laziness is a weakness of character. When someone looks at you with that sort of disdain, the relationship isn’t going to last.
Here’s the thing though, lazy people aren’t out there destroying rain forests to create empires. We take what we need from the earth and leave the rest. The hyperactive, go-getter personality without a productive, necessary, world enhancing pursuit becomes a destructive competitor. The kind of competition that extracts resources from the world to create unnecessary products. And we have literally millions of unnecessary products. Our homes, storage units and landfills are bursting at the seams with them. Maybe we need a little more laziness in this world.
Western culture has demonized contentment as a negative. Growth begins at the end of your comfort zone. Bigger, better, faster, etc. And it’s all true. But, not all growth is good growth. Cancer is uncontrolled growth and it can kill you. The world is now in a place where all growth needs to be examined for both its positive and its negative aspects. Personal growth is no different. It’s why CEOs of huge companies step down citing stress and their work-life imbalance as reasons for leaving. They should be fixing the culture of their organizations, not leaving. Or maybe, they should be rethinking the value of the existence of their organization at all. That’s the kind of leadership we’re going to need in the future.
Minimalism may well be the evolution of consciousness we need right now. In a time of global climate change, everything needs to be rethought. If the current status quo continues we will leave a scorched earth behind. Nothing will be left. And, deep down, we all know this.
On the other hand, there’s no going back. Yes, most indigenous cultures practiced a type of minimalism out of necessity, but not many of us would be willing to live life on those terms again. Western civilization has brought us fantastic wonders that make our lives easier, better and longer. To pretend that life was better “way back when” is a lie we shouldn’t be listening to. We all benefit from a world made better by civilization. But it’s long past time to examine the balance a little closer. We need nature a whole lot more than nature needs us.
I woke up from a dream a while back. It left me kinda lonely and sad.
We were sitting in a shareholders meeting. Apparently, I was a major player in this organization and we were contemplating an offer to sell the company. I was examining financial disclosures and discussing them with the two other principles of the organization. I kept bringing up that this was just financial stuff. It didn’t even come close to representing all that we had built. All the people we employed. The lives and families we’d touched.
The response I got back was essentially that the financial stuff is the only important part. People don’t buy companies based on their benefit to society, the employees or the community at large. None of that mattered. I woke up kinda dejected and uncomfortable. It brought to mind the following:
Some people are so poor all they have is money.
Now, I’m not a powerful or wealthy person. In any organization. Like a lot of people in this country, nearly all of my net worth is in a retirement fund. I’ve never attended a shareholders meeting, nor do I have any inclination to do so. But I think my reaction to that dream is spot on.
We have the responsibility to build something with our lives that is way more valuable than what can be expressed on a balance sheet. If all you have to leave the world at the end of your life is money, you are indeed destitute. An empty soul.
There is music in the very air we breathe. Love makes the leaves on the trees tremble. Real Life has no connection to money whatsoever. Except how much of ours we will sacrifice in it’s pursuit. I’m fifty six old. Six months ago I bought a brand new van. As a project. To build myself a custom camper. Which I intend to take on the road after this pandemic runs its course. And I plan to live in this van for the next couple of years. Why? Because, like writing, I’ve always had this desire to see what’s over the hill or around the next bend. But it never called to me loudly enough to set aside other “more important” pursuits. And now, at this ripe old age I’m coming to understand that the most important things are those that give you joy or fulfill some long unrealized aspiration. Everything else should take a backseat.
Don’t let yourself become a poor rich person. Take those Tango lessons. Book that whitewater rafting trip. Learn to ride a motorcycle. Stop and talk to the old guy fishing on the pier, he’s probably got a fascinating story to tell. Become a person rich in experience, knowledge, skill, craft and insight. If you make tons of money that’s fine but it’s not a worthy pursuit in and of itself.
Two thousand miles is a damn long motorcycle ride! Thirty years ago it was an adventure in overcoming physical limits, both for me and for a motorcycle built to race on a dirt track, not fly down the super slab with the throttle pinned to the stops. The bike and I both made it. And the memories are etched in my DNA. Sadly, that bike went to flat track heaven almost twenty years ago. I’m not easy on equipment. Horse people would derisively say that I ride ’em hard and put ’em away wet. And they wouldn’t be wrong. Bikes are tools, not living beings. I use stuff, and love people. People who get that backwards make me uncomfortable and not a little sad. Unfortunately, like almost everyone, I’ve known way too many.
Anyway, to celebrate my fifty-fourth birthday (and my impending retirement) I made a similar trip. The route was different. The timetable was different. Most of the people I set out to visit this time around weren’t even even born the last time I rolled through. The limits I had to face were more mental than physical. The bike, although also a dirt tracker (I guess I have a “type” when it comes to bikes too, who knew?), is much bigger, much faster and benefits by virtue of thirty years of technological advancement. Unlike that old Honda, which wore out both a chain and a rear tire on that first trip, I’m still riding this Harley every day as if last summer’s trip was a quick run to the grocery store.
One of my favorite activities is riding motorcycles. But, I think, the most significant insight I gained from this trip had nothing to do with bikes. It didn’t have anything to do with travel either. It came to me on the second day of the trip, when my eldest daughter took me and my granddaughter out for my birthday dinner. There was a saxophone player in the restaurant bar and we could hear him clearly from our table. Every time he’d start a riff, my granddaughter would would start shaking her shoulders and dancing in her seat. I would join her and we’d both break out in huge grins just feeling the freedom of the moment expressed in that wailing sax.
Music is creation’s universal language of life and love. The whales in the ocean, the birds in the trees, children, even before they can talk, make music. Every culture expresses itself through music. We bind ourselves together with it and often choose “our” song when we commit to another person. It can make a one year old come to know this old man sitting next to her in a restaurant as someone who loves her. Even if she only sees him once or twice a year.
A couple days later I would attend a little outdoor concert with a new friend. Coincidentally, much of the music played at that concert was written and first performed right around the time of that first motorcycle adventure. Life coming full circle? I don’t know, we both grew up with those sounds and today they help to make me feel like I still belong to the same culture. Even if so much of the world has changed, generations are still listening to the music of my youth. There’s a certain comfort in that. That first bike is gone, but the music remains. Like love, you can’t grab a handful of music and trade it for some other object. It’s ethereal and yet timeless. Long after all the “stuff” is gone, music and love will remain.
Sing a song (or write a poem) to those grandchildren. Leave them with something much more valuable than things. And change the world we live in, one kid at a time.
There’s a certain kind of power granted to one when they realize that they have no control over the future. We are minuscule little deflections in the matrix. Very little of what we do here matters, in the grand scheme of things. Does that mean we should just throw up our hands and concede defeat? Not at all. In fact;
It’s all terribly important. But none of it really matters.
In the end, nothing much of what we do here will be remembered. But, to those we love, it can make all the difference. And sometimes, it means everything to someone we’ve never even met. Every single one of us has the power to change lives. One at a time. That irrelevant seeming little post you make on social media means nothing to 99.9999999% of the population but there’s always the possibility that what you say reaches deep into the consciousness of that one person and gives them the hope they need today. Maybe you only save their life today. But tomorrow their whole world changes. Would you deny them that? If all you had to do was show up and be present?
We all wonder what our purpose here is. What if it’s as simple as telling someone they matter to you? In the darkest of hours, that can feel like someone just threw you a lifeline. We never know the circumstances of the lives we touch. Does that mean we should stop reaching out? I think it means we should extend our hands. Even if they are repeatedly slapped away. The ones who need that help will find us there to help them up. It’s the way of the universe. Ask, and you may receive. Whenever it’s in our power, we should be the ones who are there.
When no one else would hear my pain, I found you, with a hand open and willing to help.
I scanned through the e-mail thread.
“How’s Dick taking it?” read the question from one of her old college friends.
“He’s pretty stoic, I’m not really sure what’s going on in his head.” was her response.
It felt like an invasion of her privacy. She’d only died a couple days earlier. I was still in a state of shock. Even if none of it was unexpected. We’d been preparing for that day for three years.
And yet, there’s something about death you really can’t prepare yourself to grasp. The end of a life. The end of a marriage. The end of everything you’d built in the last twenty two years. A barrier between who you were before and who you are now. Nothing about life would ever be the same again.
I searched and searched through the computer. I was desperate to find something, anything she had left. But there was nothing there, nothing of any substance but that email. I was hoping, at the very least, that she would have left something for the kids. I guess she didn’t know what to say to them either.
Time passes. Few people would call me stoic anymore. Not when it comes to showing my emotions. Tears flow down my face with embarrassing regularity. All it takes is a memory. And not just of her.
Everyone I’ve ever lost took a piece of me with them.Even some who are still alive. It took losing my wife for me to feel those losses. I’m not quite sure why that’s the case but it seems like one can only hold so much pain inside. And when it comes bursting out, the dam is forever breached.
Grief is an honorable emotion. Show it the respect it deserves. Give it the time it requires. And always remember. Because that’s how those we love continue to live.