Radical OptimismJune 6th, 2008
What a strange time it is. For me, at least.
Although I keep checking in with other people, and it seems that everyone has a particular set of neuroses floating around in their heads these days: I’ll say to a friend: “You know, I’m totally weirded out about the price of oil, people starving, global warming, the economy contracting…” and they nod as I say it, confirming that I am not completely and utterly insane.
I just lost my mother, so it makes sense that I feel an extra vulnerability in the world. My mother was the best of buffers, a human who held the promise of insulation from life’s crueler realities. Whether or not she could have shielded me effectively through a hurricane, let alone a nuclear onslaught, I’ll never know, but I certainly felt like she could. And now that feeling’s gone.
So I’m dealing with loss, and it’s hard for me to figure out if I’m projecting all over the place, or if we’re all going through a weird cultural loss right now. The loss of our dream of endless material expansion and possibility, perhaps? It seems like we are.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross said that, in dealing with death, we experience anger, denial, bargaining, grief and acceptance. Although it’s relatively easy to identify one’s cycling through these stages when a real, squeezable, huggable human evaporates, it’s not so easy to identify these stages when what is lost is a dream–a mental template by which we’re navigating our lives, upon which we are forming our very sense of self.
I was talking to a friend recently, having a little tantrum about climate change; I’m pissed off that we have to deal with it–not that I want the planet go kaput, but that it presents such a huge, surprise party-esque, mid-life skewing of my personal life path… and I know that sounds incredibly selfish, but hey, I’m stuck in this body, having these experiences and there’s not much I can do about how my psyche has formed itself. And when I get any perspective on it, and have a modicum of compassion for myself, it actually makes sense: I was toodling along in my life, accepting the terms of the American dream–work hard, dream big, don’t cheat–and everything will continue to get better. It felt like someone was whispering in my ear: “there are unlimited resources available to you. You were lucky enough to be born in a time of great wealth, technology and personal freedoms–take advantage of them and do your best to help others do the same. Your parents and your parents’ parents worked very hard to create the playground you are playing in, so enjoy it thoroughly!!
Those seemed to be the rules. Of course, they may sound ridiculous now, but we don’t really recognize our mental maps until they are challenged, and North America’s prosperity has kept many of us (especially of my generation) in a sort of extended adolescence of consumption.
So imagine my dismay, when–smack in the middle of my journey, just when I’d learned how to not break the toys and play fair with the other kids–the map gets shredded. Suddenly the earth is being killed–and quickly. Suddenly the two hundred years of “prosperity” racked up since the Industrial Revolution–the pride of our forefathers–is retroactively construed as a prolonged and salacious rape of the innocent planet. Suddenly–and this is where my tantrum comes–I AM RESPONSIBLE FOR FIXING IT!! NOW!!!!! I MEAN, RIGHT FREAKING NOW!!! Not next decade… Not after passing ‘GO’ and receiving my two hundred bucks… Forget building a hotel on Park Place! The message is very clear: CLEAN UP THIS DISGUSTING MESS NOW OR WE ARE ALL GOING TO HELL!!!
And Hell, by the way, is sketched out everywhere these days: huge, solemn chunks of ice–like tired old men–falling into the sea. Skinny polar bears sniffing their tiny ice floes. Lakes evaporating like puddles. And the price of a gallon of gas doesn’t help things, with its promise of endless upward mobility. The double bind of climate change (driven by oil) and the end of oil (it will run out just as the tallest Florida mansion slips underwater) seems such a funny, awful, rub-your-nose-in-it paradox it makes me think that God really is a creepy old white man with a cruel sense of humor.
So my mental map has been trashed. The playground is suddenly dirty, and I sense that many of the other kids are just as confused as I am. The future we carried around inside of us has been burnt to a crisp. Some of the kids are turning off lights religiously (bargaining), hoping their efforts can stem the tide. Some kids are still playing happily (denial) and I am genuinely jealous, like I’m jealous of those with living mothers right now. I think that many of the kids are sad like me, really grokking the loss we’re experiencing, but not knowing how to express it. The loss of a happy, vigorous, expansive future sucks. It literally hurts. And it’s a difficult one to negotiate–on the one hand, the stakes are ridiculously high: we’re talking about the future of our selves, our children and our grandchildren. The issues are global: The Chinese are buying cars, cars, cars! And yet, the ocean isn’t lapping at our gardens… yet. Everyone on this continent is still eating pizza, and watching Grey’s Anatomy and is walking around like everything’s sorta … normal. And yet, on some invisible level, we’re freaking out. The future we carried around inside of us has been burnt to a crisp.
So what’s a human to do? Personally, my first line of defense is to eat sludgy food and drink coffee. This gets me into a full-blown combination of panic and depression that actually, and strangely, reveals the problem to me. It’s like an alarm system I use to give myself permission to see my shadow side–the fears and negativity that naturally accrue as life changes without my permission.
After freaking out, acknowledging “holy crap, I’m really afraid about the future and sad about the dream I’m losing”, I can feel the grief, write about it, share about it, and eventually crawl back to my meditation cushion and a bowl of brown rice. Like I did this morning.
Many people ask for signs from God that they are being heard, or directed. I don’t usually ask for signs, per se, but I have always experienced a freaky synchronicity between my life and the books that I read. And, by the way, I don’t read many books–unless you consider The New Yorker a book (which I do not–I just had to mention it to not feel like a total loser). So, it always amazes me when the book I’m reading has a direct and obvious message to give me. For instance, I was flipping out to my therapist yesterday about all this we’re-all-going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket stuff, and last night, right before going to bed, I looked on the floor of my bedroom and there was the book Radical Optimism: Practical Spirituality in an Uncertain World by Beatrice Bruteau. My cousin had given it to me for Christmas, and, like most books I receive, it ended up in a polite little pile, on the floor. I had seen it, peripherally and unconsciously, many times since Christmas, and yet never paid any attention. But last night, it jumped out at me and slapped me lovingly in the face with its first paragraph:
“The more troubled and difficult the world becomes, the more important it becomes to be optimistic. And the more deeply we need to root our optimism. When we cannot reasonably base it on the way things are going, we know that we have to base it in the ultimate reality of God. We know that it has to be radical.”
Whoah. I kept reading…
“Contemplation means withdrawing attention from outward, objective, particular and temporal concerns, and refocusing on inward, subjective, general and even eternal realities. This transcendent standpoint brings us into a deeper place with surer values and more authentic selfhood. From this place we are also better able to deal with the temporal and particular.”
What I’m hearing is: PEOPLE FREAK OUT ABOUT THE WORLD ALL THE TIME. IT’S NOT JUST ME AND IT’S NOT JUST NOW. I’m also hearing that sometimes the world gets so freaky that it’s literally difficult to be optimistic–this has been my problem of late.
And here’s the solution: Go inside, into that place below thought, below the freakout, under the price of gas, to the place I call The Great Nothingness which is The Great Everythingness.
This place is real. We are of it. And it is eternal. It’s the thing that unites us and will pull us through whatever we need to get through these days. It’s the place I can retreat to when my dreams fall apart and my map gets ripped to shreds. It’s where I get clear, and relaxed, and ready to receive and unfurl a new map. It’s the place where we’re all the same, and where real love comes from. It’s a generous, roomy place, and I think we all need that right now.
And, although I have been eating sludgy food of late, I know that natural foods bolster this eternal place as well. With the oomph of whole foods, I experience a real connection to Nature, our collective mother. After a while, I feel like all the problems we face are just gobbledygook on top of the strong, flexible, golden truth of whole grain. I realize that maybe all this insanity is just our strange way of getting ourselves back to nature, to make friends again on the real playground of the earth.
Of course it hurts when a dream shatters, and the pain is very real; delusions are real. But they are not the truth. And the truth is that nature is our actual playground and that we each carry part of the eternal whole inside of us. The truth is that everything changes… and changes again… Those aren’t such bad rules!
I trust that I will be given a new map on this playground, and I will play a new role in this new game. After a little detoxing, it might feel pretty good–exciting even. I just need to stay open and avoid the next Starbucks.
Another example of radical optimism, my friend Arthur: