Do What’s Right, and Risk the Consequences

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All those with agency are confronted by a choice. We can use that agency to secure for ourselves a safe and comfortable existence. We can use our life, that one unrepeatable product of four billion years of serendipity and evolution, to earn a little more, to save a little more, to win the approval of our bosses and the envy of our neighbors….We can, quite rationally, subordinate our desire for liberty to our desire for security. Or we can use our agency to change the world, and, in changing it, to change ourselves. We will die and be forgotten with no less certainty than those who sought to fend off death by enhancing their material presence on earth, but we will live before we die through the extremes of feeling which comfort would deny us.

– George Monbiot

The above quote is from a book called The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order (2003). It’s posted on my cubicle wall at work; it makes my mind tingle every time I read it. It is, quite simply, magnificent. And at the moment, quite apropos.

Everyone says original thinkers are those who “think outside the box.” That’s not enough for me. I want to take the box outside, smash it to pieces, set it on fire, and forget there was ever a box in the first place. I want to start fresh. Every. Single. Time.

We have reached a point in our evolution as a planet at which this sort of thinking is the only way forward. Postmodernism paved the way, pointing out the moral potency of language and reminding us that individual perception is at least as important as collective interpretation to understanding the world we live in. But I would argue that we’ve moved past even that: it’s time now for the rise of a new metanarrative. We must reassemble what we’ve so assiduously deconstructed. The individual must once again become part of a whole.

That whole is the global community. Not a new world order, necessarily; that’s a loaded term that conjures for many the abandonment of identity. Perhaps instead a “new world understanding.” Not the rejection, but the redefinition, of identity. Now that we have come to appreciate the value of the one, how do we build something bigger, better, and stronger on that foundation? How do we reconstruct?

Here in the United States, the first step toward this new understanding involves a reassessment of who we are as a nation. The “superpower” paradigm is no longer viable. The world doesn’t need watchdogs; the world needs good global citizens. We need to embrace the global community that, in large part, we created, by way of corporations like Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, and McDonald’s.

This means reining in those very corporate actors, the ones who give us such a bad name around the world. The ones that go into developing nations in the name of solidarity, use up all the local resources, enrich the local despots, and then move on to greener pastures once the well’s been sucked dry.

This means actually being a member of the United Nations: not just drafting resolutions, but adopting them in good faith, and living by them instead of just forcing everyone else to. Addressing climate change and the global economy as more than simply electoral leverage, and recognizing the multitude of ways in which our actions affect strangers on the other side of the planet.

It means thinking past national security and “peace in our time.” Not thinking in terms of our problems and their problems. Their problems are our problems; there is no parsing that away anymore. If that weren’t the case, the attacks in Paris wouldn’t be making us so nervous right now. We know how easily troubles move about the globe these days. The next step is to accept our responsibility for helping to solve them. Which includes taking in the refugee.

It means rethinking the idea of nationality itself. I’m not saying we should do away with our shared identity as American citizens. But we should not allow our definition of the United States to stand in the way of a united planet. We can be American citizens, and global citizens, at the same time. We simply have to find the will to do it.

I would wager that most people are familiar enough with the cultural meme of the Good Samaritan, so I won’t take the time to explain the whole thing. I’ll just leave you with this thought:

Who is my neighbor? Everyone, everywhere.

As my good friend Russell commented on my previous post, we need to have the courage to do what is right, together, and risk the consequences. It’s the only way to survive the future.

Spread the word:
Open the doors!!!

Who Am I?

Dude! I’ve got plans up in this joint!

(I say this on the off-chance anyone’s taken the time to ask themselves: “I wonder what his plans are?” I’m sure there are quite a few of you who have been on pins and needles, anxiously gripping the edges of your seats, fretting away the sleepless nights about it.)

Anywho…

It occurs to me that most of what I’ve written, while it may address obliquely the question of who I am, never really gets to the heart of the matter. You see, to me, identity is less about the grand “WHAT I BELIEVE” (add impressive echo here) than it is about the little things, the experiences I’ve had that have brought me to whatever place I am now. Because, quite frankly, the “WHAT I BELIEVE” is largely dependent on those experiences. They are the reason why I believe what I believe.

This whole blogging thing doesn’t really do much for me unless I can really share with others the person that I am, without code names, without censorship, without obfuscation (which is, by the way, one of my favorite words to say). I take the time to write because, as I was reminded recently by a friend’s post, I crave connection: I want to know people. This is, incidentally, why I suck at networking–my interest in others lies in discovering who they are, not in discovering what they can do for me. I find that often the people who could do the most for me, be it professionally or personally, turn out to be the least interesting people to know. And vice-versa. It’s also why people who are good networkers want nothing to do with me: I seriously doubt that I will ever be in a position to do anything for anyone, either professionally or personally, but I like to think I’m a pretty fun guy to hang out with. (Of course, that may just be a latent narcissistic streak of which I am blissfully unaware…)

What’s more (and this is intended as a commentary on no one but myself), I’ve learned the hard way that if I have something to say that I’m not willing to own, I’m probably not ready to say it yet. Nor is it generally really worth saying. I try to live life according to the following philosophy, couched in Shakespearian parlance: “‘Tis better to hold up thine head and be cudgelled in thy face, than to remain unbruised through keeping it hid.” In other words, as Martin Luther would have put it, sin boldly; if you are to stick your foot in your mouth, do it with pride. Leave a Sam-shaped hole in the wall, for cryin’ out loud!

All this to say, I want you to know me: not just what I think or feel, but where all that thinky-feely stuff comes from. I want to give you a face to go with all the cockamamie ideas. (Feel free to use it as a dart-board; at least this way you’ll get some sporting fun out of the experience!)

So, first things first: Lo! here I am:

148499_10100741148544263_1419274769_nThat’s “Jack Kerouac” me, to the left there. Generally, I find myself somewhat un-photogenic, but then, generally, that’s probably mainly my fault. Because I’m also an irredeemable goofball. If you really want to know ME, you need to see this (below):

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Or this…

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Or perhaps even this…

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If you’re sufficiently scared, we’ll move on…

You see, I’m not afraid to look like an idiot. I’ve spent far too much of my life standing on ceremony, minding that “image” thing everyone keeps talking about. I’m not afraid to admit that, as standards of beauty go, I’m no Mona Lisa. But then, if you stop to think about it, by our standards of beauty, the Mona Lisa is no Mona Lisa, either. Which is, really, what makes the Mona Lisa beautiful in the first place, isn’t it…?

I’ve got flaws and blemishes coming out my ears (in some cases, literally). But in those flaws and blemishes, I am ME, the individual no one else can be. Which brings me to the most important fact anyone can ever learn about me: I AM A TOAD! And I’m damn proud of it.

My goal in life is to fit no one’s bill but my own. I was born to break the mold (as were we all), and I am bound and determined to live that way, too. I want to be nobody else but who I am, because who I am is like nobody else.

(And here’s a secret: I only buy all that stuff I just said about individuality most of the time. The rest of the time, I’m one more insecure face in a giant, frightened crowd. Which is to say, I may talk a big line, but when you come down to it, I keep my head down as much as anyone else. But don’t tell–it’s a secret…)

Which brings me back from my constant urge to digress to the reason I started writing this post in the first place: Who I am. I am a scared, lonely, overgrown little boy who for a few minutes each day (if I’m lucky) manages to break free from the anchor-weight of living long enough to glimpse the breadth and depth of life. I am a boat tossed on a sea of uncertainty, hopeful of someday reaching the shore. I am a mystery shrouded in a riddle wrapped in an enigma coated in cliché. I am, in short, one of you. And you are more of me. And as such, I want to touch and be touched; I want to know and be known; I want to love and be loved. Don’t we all?

But I have to do this as myself. I cannot do it as Everyman, because I am not every man. To quote one of my favorite Sting songs, “the mask I wear is one.” I am, at the end of the day, the only person I can be, which is myself. And this mystifies me, too. As much as I want to understand and know others, I want to understand and know myself even more, and after nearly 36 years of trying, I’m convinced that our selves are the hardest people to fathom that any of us will ever meet. So, back to my plans: I want to share me with you in order to decipher my self. Where I came from, those moments in life that define us in silence, without us even being aware that they’ve passed: all those events, encounters, characters that have cast shadows across my path and brought me to the place I am today.

Because the greatest, most important truth of all is this: I am one, but I am many. I am the sum not just of my parts, but of everyone else’s as well. In order, then, to truly undertand myself, I have to understand you. And him. And her. And them. In the end, “me” and “we” are mutually inexclusive. We are all pieces of a whole. without any of which pieces the whole cannot be…well…whole. Nosce te ipsum? First nosce illos ipsi.

So, listen, O bloggers, and you shall hear of all the little things that brought me here. And perhaps, when all is said and done, we will effect a parting of the waters and a meeting of the minds…

Book Review: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into ValuesZen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values by Robert M. Pirsig

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the best book I have ever read.

Every once in a while a book comes along that takes all the thoughts you’ve had milling around in your brain for years but have been unable to express, and puts them into words. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is one of those books for me. I find myself connecting with Pirsig’s thought processes on an almost visceral level: the neverending, almost obsessive search for the Quality that underlies daily experience; dismay at the extent to which the world has abandoned the Good in the interests of pursuing the Reasonable; frustration with the orthodoxy outside of which one risks being labeled a fool or a lunatic. Pirsig’s words resonate in me with surprising clarity, they strike a chord deep inside my soul (as they have done with countless others since their first publication in 1974). They help me to understand who I am and where I’m trying to go. Which is…right here…

At the heart of his book lies the quest to overcome the duality that has become so entrenched in the Western mind that we no longer accept any other angle of perception. Unless we overcome the cognitive divide that separates us as individuals one from another, we will never truly understand this world, this reality, that we inhabit.

“What guarantees the objectivity of the world in which we live is that this world is common to us with other thinking beings. Through the communications that we have with other men we receive from them ready-made harmonious reasonings. We know that these reasonings do not come from us and at the same time we recognize in them, because of their harmony, the work of reasonable beings like ourselves. And as these reasonings appear to fit the world of our sensations, we think we may infer that these reasonable beings have seen the same thing as we; thus it is that we know we haven’t been dreaming. It is this harmony, this quality if you will, that is the sole basis for the only reality we can ever know” (p. 343).

The only real objectivity, then, is reached by way of multiple subjectivities. We need each other to be able to fathom this world we live in. What is more, we need each other in order truly to understand ourselves. Quality, the centerpiece of Pirsig’s book, is the source of both subject and object, located in the intersection between the two, without which neither can truly, substantively exist. We learn ourselves through interaction with the other. We become who we are because of who others are. We define one another, and Quality is the touchstone for that process.

Quality resides in any “objective” encounter: between the individual and nature, between the individual and occupation, between the individual and the smallest of ideas. Until I pick up the hammer, it is not a hammer at all; it becomes a hammer only when I come to appreciate its uses and its purpose through using it to drive home a nail. I am not a carpenter, until that hammer allows me to complete the carpenter’s task through driving home the nail. In other words, until both object and subject allow the other to tap into the Quality that resides in each, neither is complete. They need each other to be who and what they truly are.

As a library cataloger, this is a particular stumbling block for me. It is very easy to fall into the trap of seeing “just one more book,” of forgetting the Quality that lies within both the object and myself, and that is activated and realized through my interaction with it. A piece of myself is taken by the object. I am, in a very real sense, IN the record I produce and the book on the shelf; without me, it could not be as it is. I, at the same time, take a piece of the object. Each volume that passes through my hands, each new cataloging challenge (and they are many) increases my knowledge and expertise, adds to the Quality of “library cataloger” that resides in me. This awareness of underlying Quality, of the true nature of the interaction between myself and the work that I do, brings to the task at hand a refreshing sense of intention and joy. There are no meaningless tasks. Everything is meaningful.

This is a book everyone should read. Given this emphasis on work (especially, as Pirsig notes, the dull kind) and the Quality inherent in it, this book is one which lends itself to use as a training tool for supervisors in all lines of work. It holds the key to change, and opens the eyes to the potential for creativity and meaning in every aspect of daily living, however mundane it may seem.

It really doesn’t matter whether you ride or not: “the real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself” (p. 417).

View all my reviews

Getting Good and Lost

This morning, I jumped in my car and just headed off. In a way, I was also headed to church–my church, the place I go to experience the awe and wonder I used to find sitting in a pew. Awe and wonder not in any supernatural sense; awe and wonder in a supremely natural sense. I rolled down my windows, cranked up the music (Evanescence, today), and hit the road.

The road, you see, is my chapel. It is where I worship (if worship’s the right word). And no, I don’t worship nature in some pantheistic, animistic way (although I do sometimes wonder whether primitive tribes were on to something we’ve lost, insofar as respect for the true identity and purpose of nature is concerned). I seek simply to immerse myself in this world of which I am an integral, inseparable part, and which is the extension and completion of my self.

But my purpose is not just communion with the world at large: it is to become one with that world, to atomize my being, if you will, and engage with existence at an essential, basic level. It is to do away with the line between myself and the other, to become other, to bond on a molecular level with the rest of reality.

You may be scratching your head or cocking an eyebrow at this point, wondering what in the world I think I’m playing at with all this mystical mumbo-jumbo. Obviously I cannot boil myself down to my elements and sprinkle myself across the landscape, or dissolve myself into a puddle of water and seep back into the earth. So what am I talking about? And is it safe to feed me?

I speak, of course, metaphorically, and in this sense I believe I can do all of the above. And what it comes down to, quite simply, is the willingness to get lost. Completely and hopelessly. My rule of thumb on these little outings: always carry a map, just in case, but never, ever use it unless you have absolutely no choice. Just…get lost. Or rather, lose yourself. Don’t even let it be an accident; do it with purpose, with gusto. Go out and…lose yourself.

(Oh, yes–and leave your cell phone at home.)

Our world is obsessed with locate-ability. How many “apps” are there for people who desire to broadcast their position at all times? “I’m at the mall”; “I just finished my meal at Cracker Barrel”; “I’m walking down the hall toward my kitchen and preparing to take a left at the den.” New cars come with GPS installed; we don’t even need maps anymore, or road signs for that matter, because some British guy or digital hooker (depending on which voice you choose) will tell us everything we need to know. We have cell phones with Internet access so we can be out of pocket without being out of range: I can go on vacation and still take my whole life with me. Talk about defeating the purpose!

We have, technologically, made it almost impossible to get lost, or to be lost. We are connected to everyone, everywhere, all the time. (Yes, I can more than likely hear you now.) And in this giant information superhighway we call life, our very connectivity becomes that which disconnects us from what matters: being.

When I am lost, I have, in a sense, no identity. I am no one. I just AM. I am in the world; I am of the world; I AM the world, and the world IS me. Time stops, in that it stops mattering; no one can reach me; nothing can touch me but the overwhelming presence of nature borne into my path on the breathing wind. I am an atom in a sea of fellow atoms, woven into the fabric of existence, part and parcel of life. In that moment, I have–I NEED–no other meaning than that.

After I’ve lost myself, I always find myself again, and the self I find is refreshed, redefined, re-formed. It is almost like I’ve chosen to put something back on that I once willingly took off–the sweater-vest of social identity, you might call it. And, counterintuitively, the act of intentional disconnection strengthens my connection, when it is resumed, to everything and everyone around me. I have ceased being myself, of my own free will I have thrown myself into the universe and been handed back, by the universe, a new person. And all is rediscovered, as if for the first time–the faces, the voices, the thoughts, emotions, relationships. All is new. All is adventure again.

Herein lies the secret of eternal youth. Forget the fountains and the chalices. Just. Get. Lost.