The place I work sends out a little electronic newsletter every day to its employees. Included in these e-missives is news about my employer, but also little snippets of “wisdom” culled from popular media outlets currently in favor. Self-help stories that warn you about the dangers of sitting all day, about the benefits of using a stand-up desk, or the stress-busting effects of taking a short nap or brisk walk at lunchtime. While in actuality you are expected to sit all day at your old-fashioned, stroke-inducing desk, scarf down lunch while continuing to work, and where any noontime exercise is viewed as lack of commitment.
Recently, a story in Forbes magazine told us about the three surprising reasons we should stay at a job we hate. Of course we should, because if most of us don’t stay at jobs we hate, the folks at Forbes, and the millionaires and billionaires they coddle, will have nothing to write or read about. The miserable of the world create and sustain the wealth of the ruling class. We mustn’t quit, but instead accept our misery as a path to self-realization. How wonderful!
The world today, more than any other time in history it seems, is overstuffed with barbarism. Young girls are being raped and set on fire. Schoolchildren are daily butchered by firearms in classrooms and shopping malls. A scum of plastic offal the size of Texas is floating in our oceans. Polar ice is melting but countries are rejoicing because now new shipping lanes will be opened up so that more needless plastic shit can be sent around the world and consumed even faster. Faced with this, how should we act?
My own sensibility veers towards a rejection of the world. Most days, I would love to turn the other cheek forever. Not from my friends and family, whom I love, but from almost everything else.
Corporate optimists love to say we are making progress towards a more equitable, sustainable world, but instead, everywhere we look the cup of the rich gets fuller and larger in order to hold more and more wealth, as the bowls of the poor remain parched. There is no trickling-down, and there never will be. Who would voluntarily give up wealth? Resources will diminish, the wealthy will build their gated Elysiums and their floating mega-yachts, as the poor are left to battle it out amongst themselves for stale crumbs and squirrel-meat. We’re all kidding each other if we think it will be any different.
As artists, we write about our despair not because we want people to feel sorry for us or give us money. When Melville wrote about the white whale, he wasn’t asking us to take up a harpoon. All we want is for people to know that there are other ways of being in the world. Hear my story, take it into yourself, keep as much or as little as you like, and keep going.
There has to be a third way, a middle way between despair for the future of our fragile, rocky, rainy earth, and the corporatist advice of Forbes magazine and TED talks. As if some savant in fancy jeans and an untucked $350 shirt, walking around with a Bluetooth headset on a cushy blue carpet could solve our problems. Like if we listened hard enough, the secret key would finally be discovered to the hidden tomb of reason.
There must be a poetry of sanity. There must be an ethic of individuality, of listening to the voice of your own reason, and rejecting the advice of so-called experts.
One way might be to simply live within our own habits. When I look around at my own life, I don’t have a lot of distractions, and I consider this a blessing. My work habits are efficient and organized. I suppose it helps that my idea of a good day at work is leaving with fewer than five emails in my inbox. It seems that if I always shoot for this goal, I win. I focus on results and not processes. I prepare today’s rice for tomorrow’s gruel. I fold my workout clothes into a pile and set them atop my running shoes for tomorrow morning’s trip to the gym. I don’t have a lot of clothes. My entire wardrobe neatly arranged would reach a height of about eighteen inches. I like tea, books, music, walking, swimming. I can go away for the weekend with a small backpack and the clothes on my back. I’m never bored because I always have a book with me. I enjoy technology but really don’t care if my cellphone dies, even though it never does. I’m lucky not to have any tricky dietary restrictions, and am in good health for a middle-aged husband and father of two. I’m usually broke, but I expect to be. A twenty-dollar bill is as good as striking the lottery. I like being alone, but also feel most alive when engaging in deep talk with dear friends; not about what we do, but about what we love.
A radical Buddhist idea, and one I believe, is that if we change ourselves, the world will follow. Current corporatist wisdom holds the opposite to be true; that governments and organizations must be changed and disrupted for the world to be saved from self-destruction. That we need specialized leaders with futurist visions to take us there. That if only we all go green, Eden will magically appear.
But as artists of our lives, we hold that our own individual responses to the world are the only ones that should, and really can, matter. No TED talk has ever changed the world yet, and I doubt one ever will. Me taking the time to find my quiet writing space, to exercise my inborn creativity, however imperfect and unschooled it may be, or to mindfully boil water for my cup of tea, are far more lethal weapons against both the overwhelming problems of our time and the fake advice foisted upon us to solve them. Folding your clothes for your trip to the gym, or painting a picture, writing a poem or singing a song, making your tea, soaking your beans for the soup tomorrow, is the only valid response to death.
Our energies are constantly pulled in opposing directions and dissipated. I’m advocating a return to quiet, to natural wisdom, to protecting your energies for the things that really matter in your life. Making art, like life, requires all we have. To live fully, to burn up your life so that there are not even ashes left over requires great skill. We need to know when to fight and when to rest. When to shout and when to shut up. Find your natural habits and stick to them. Just because something exists doesn’t mean it must be accepted or used. Don’t fear your own voice. Be contrarian.
Create your art and your life new every day. Even if you need to retreat to an imaginary coal-fire with your pot of tea and your cat, do it. The Woolfian room of one’s own can be anywhere. I’m lucky that mine is a space close to home, quiet and well-lit, with a sink, access to fresh water and a pretty good tea stash.
No one will hand you the space or the time or the materials to create the work of art that is your life. You have to fight for your art, and your life, every day. It helps to have a sanctuary, but mostly all you need are your energies and a sharp axe. Time and materials. Because if you want firewood, or just a pencil, first you need to chop down the tree.