The Antidote to Fear   14 comments

“The only antidote to fear I know is good work. I learned in pregnancy, facing labor (all of my labors were very, very, very long), to simply screw up my nerve, accept that the only way out is through, and to go forward into the pain. We’re in the same situation now—the way out of this current crisis is through it, to go forward from where we are, with what we have and who we are.”

- Sharon Astyk
Depletion and Abundance

Yesterday I woke up feeling sad. I felt it as I made breakfast, preparing for a day of work with Lance and Tammi. Thoughts of the future preoccupied me and I couldn’t help but feel a small depression at the trying times I suspect we face. I am a firm believer that there is much good work to be done in response to this future and that much of that work will prove rewarding, enjoyable and renewing for us. I’m a firm believer that the way we live now is not ideal and that many of the ways in which we will be forced to change will be for our good. Yet, there’s no denying that if my vision of the future is correct, even in just a general sense, then we will have to deal with some harsh realities. Most of us here in America and other industrialized nations would do well to be poorer, yes, but we very possibly face an extreme poverty that will prove at times painful. That doesn’t mean a good life is impossible, but an easy one looks less and less likely.

I see it already in the struggles that some of my friends are having with the economy. I see it in the fear of friends and acquaintances that their living may fall out from underneath them, leading to a frightening and uncertain future. I fear even for my family and friends who are secure now, because I believe none of us are particularly secure long term. Dwelling on these melancholic realities, a part of me wanted to crawl back into bed, to close my eyes and disavow everything I’ve been thinking of late.

Instead, I went to work.

In the morning, I moved and cared for the chickens, then pitchforked some cow patties. By the afternoon, I found myself repairing and restringing parts of a barbed wire fence. This fence runs along a sporadically busy country road and encloses a field within the Miami River valley. It’s a particularly beautiful valley—abundantly green, blue skies overhead that day, forested hills rising on either side, veined not just with the river but multiple meandering creeks. I felt lucky to be there, to have good and simple work in a beautiful setting, to be able to work at a natural pace. My earlier melancholy couldn’t hold in such a satisfying moment.

Tammi joined me a bit later and we finished that stretch of fence together. Afterward, we drove back to Nehalem—Lance, Tammi, and their daughter Abigail in their truck, I in my own car—to a barn where they keep some more animals. We were there for two baby goats, born sometime within the last two days. After a quick bit of herding, we had the mother and her kids separated and ready to be transported back to the main farm. We loaded the mother in the back of the truck and Abigail and I each held one of the baby goats for a few minutes, marveling at how light they were, how cute and plaintive. They seemed weak, possibly not yet fed, and we worried the mother had rejected them. But even in that sobering situation, I couldn’t help but be buoyed by the tiny, adorable creatures and their small warmth. This was one more of the many, many perks of being a farmer.

From there, Lance, Tammi and Abigail headed back to the farm with the goats and I drove back to my farm, the work day done. At home, I used the bathroom and washed my hands, glorying in the warm water on my cold flesh. It was a small but significant pleasure, and it’s the sort of pleasure that I think will play a much large role in our lives in the future. I drank two beers, ate dinner (lamb burgers), poked around on the internet, talked a bit with Brian, read the last few pages of Depletion and Abundance, including the quote at the beginning of this post. I felt sad again, and I’ve little doubt that the beer played its role in that.

For all my declarative statements, I don’t know what will happen in the future. I suspect poverty. I suspect a hard go of it. But we have a hard go of it now. We’re tearing apart the world, doing our level best to murder our ecosystems, losing much of our humanity in technology, fracturing our communities, our families, our covenantal relationships, distracting ourselves constantly, enslaving ourselves to an economy of degradation. We don’t do good work for the most part. Many of us struggle to find meaning. We feel at a loss, adrift, often alienated, cut off from living a life that feels full and real.

Hot water on your hands becomes a pleasure when you’ve been outside for much of a winter day, becoming cold at times while you do important work, leading a more immediate life. When you’re inside all day in a climate controlled environment, cut off from the actual, outside world, perhaps distracting yourself with television and the internet and a variety of electronic gadgets, or maybe just doing work that doesn’t do much to enrich your community—well, then hot water tends to be standard, expected, nothing wonderful or revelatory. I like hot water being revelatory. Yes, it means less comfort, but then you actually recognize when you’re comfortable. And the times when you’re not are much more likely to involve good work and meaning.

So, yes, I become depressed sometimes when I think about a future I don’t expect to be pretty. But then I have moments when I’m working outside, repairing a broken fence. Or holding a baby goat, not more than two days old. Or simply running hot water over my cold hands and sighing with relief. These are all things that are as likely as not to occur during a life of poverty and they all give me joy. Sometimes, that joy exists only because of this different life. And I think about all the things that have depressed me in my previous life—the lack of meaning, the constant distraction, the multitude of electronic gadgets, the destruction of ecosystems—and I hope and suspect that will be much less a part of our future as they are now less a part of my present.

I fear the pain and challenge I think the future presents for all of us, but I celebrate all the joyous moments and sense of meaning it promises to bring, as well. Yesterday morning, I could have let the fear grab hold of me, crawled back into my warm bed, closed my eyes, pretended it all away, shirked my responsibilities, ignored the good work waiting for me and impoverished my future—and it would have been the easiest thing to do at that early morning moment, when I wanted no part of my visions of the future. But I went to work instead, and there I found joy and happiness and meaning. By going forward, I found a small bit of the antidote to my fear. Every day doing good work will bring more of it. To turn away from that and try to return to the false comforts of our current way of life would have been an abdication of responsibility and a personal condemnation to a life less meaningful, less happy, filled with delusion and sorrow rather than the sometimes hard joys of good work.

This, then, is why I go forward into voluntary poverty. Because I think it’s important work, because I think it’s my responsibility, because I can’t bear the standard world around me, because I don’t believe it will bring me happiness and joy. If I find myself living in a world in which I rarely notice and appreciate the hot water on my hands, I’m living in the wrong world. This world, this poorer one, is the right one. It’s the only one that can bring me happiness and meaning and satisfaction. It’s the only one I can bear. So I go forward, into poverty, into good work, gathering my antidote piece by piece, a lifetime of work.

14 responses to “The Antidote to Fear

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  1. I know that melancholy feeling you talk about here, and you described it so well. I’m glad I found your blog (through a comment you left at September’s Virtue).

  2. I don’t know if you’ve read the ‘Red Dwarf’ science fiction series, but there’s a story in it about ‘The Game’, an electronically generated world that is designed to be perfect in every way. ‘The Game’ was banned in the story because people would log in and live a perfect electronic life while on the outside they were starving to death. The heroes in the story overcome it by deliberately rejecting the perfect life and going back to the real, imperfect one.

    That’s the choice we have. The good news is that all of that discomfort and depression tends to go away once we choose to to go work and become fully immersed in it. Meanwhile the sleep obtained by refusing to get up is fitful and restless. Every time we have work to do, we make a choice, and every time we make the choice to work, that choice becomes easier. On the other hand, the more times we avoid the work, the more of it there is to do, and the less we are in the habit of doing it. Habit is very powerful.

    (I found you via the Archdruid Report. Please keep writing.)

    • Thanks, Kfish! I haven’t read the Red Dwarf series, though I’ll keep it in mind for my too-long reading list. I love that metaphor, which really isn’t a metaphor. We absolutely have to return to and accept the real, imperfect life. That’s where our happiness and meaning and authenticity lie. It’s where good work is, not empty distractions.

      I’m so familiar with everything you say in your second paragraph, from the fitful sleep to the avoided work and the power of habit. I used to avoid work quite a bit. I still do far more than I should. It always makes it harder, more daunting, and yet every time I finally get to work I’m always a thousand times more satisfied, always renewed and rewarded. I really think one of our biggest challenges is overcoming the idea that’s taken hold that work is bad, or that it’s drudgery, or that’s it something we must do but we should never want to do. There are contexts in which that can be true, but the key is finding the good work and then realizing its value. We could do so much if we figured that out.

      I’m getting pretty used to this blog and I seem to be finding a bit of an audience, slowly but surely. I definitely will keep writing.

  3. Any time you climb into your car (or any other conveyance, for that matter), start it and head down the road you are trusting that every part of that vehicle is going to perform as designed and that nothing untoward is lurking around the next bend to throw you into a ditch or worse. So – ordinarily – you don’t worry about it and proceed as usual while being creatively watchful for that untoward event and attentive to the workings of the vehicle as you go. If, however, you focus your mind on all the possible ways your car might break down and/or the multitude of crashes and wrecks awaiting you out there, you’ll never get in the car, much less even start the thing.

    Life’s kind of like that. Sure, there are likely hard times ahead. Possibly real hard. But really, all you can do about any of that is to prepare as best you can – which it appears to me to be exactly what you’re doing. Or, as the song goes, ‘Don’t worry, be happy’ – but stay aware as well.

    • Fantastic metaphor, Martin. Thank you. I also like to think that, while it’s somewhat scary to think we may be much more vulnerable to death in the future, we’re quite vulnerable to it in the present, too, despite all our modern and industrial amenities. As you note, every time we get in our vehicle and head down the street, we have greatly increased the risk of injury or death—yet we do that with great casualness. We’re accustomed to it, so we hardly worry about it. We accept it as a part of life.

      And so it will be in the future, when the number of people dying in cars plummets but the number dying from decreased public health or even starvation rises. This is all part of the challenge and adventure of this life. That may be a bit of a romanticism, but it’s a useful one. We’ve romanticized cars, too, even though they kill us. We’ve romanticized smoking and drinking. We’ve romanticized high technology. We’ve romanticized any number of activities and devices that provide risks. If we’re going to do that, I’d rather it be the romanticizing of connecting to the earth, growing our food, making our own living, struggling in this life in an attempt to find meaning and purpose. That makes a lot more sense to me and seems a more worthy pursuit.

      • Joel:
        Just a footnote to the last paragraph in my prior entry:

        First of all, thank you for thanking me for the metaphor – it was just a thought born, I suppose, out of a lifetime of experience (I just turned 75).

        However, in further response to the initial theme of your posting, even though I threw in the ‘Don’t worry, be happy’ idea, I didn’t mean to belittle the fact of actual depression over the state of affairs in the world – I get depressed about it myself. Frequently. Especially because I know full well that ‘the game is up’ for me and most other people my age.

        Not to complain, but just to illustrate, I (we) live on social security. No one will hire me – even part time. I live in a rental unit and I don’t have enough money or time left to make the changes in my life that would be of any real significance in the face of what’s coming and what’s already here.

        So, what do I do? I plant a small garden every year in containers on my patio – it’s not enough to feed me full-time of course, but it’s something. I walk and do some exercise to keep as fit and healthy as possible. I read – a lot – currently a third or fourth re-read of E.F. Schumacher’s ‘Small is Beautiful’ (I bought it new back in the early 70’s). I read blogs like yours while thinking of starting one myself. And I generally enjoy whatever the day brings and just being alive.

        Most of the time….

        • I don’t think there’s anything wrong with enjoying our days, Martin, especially while life is good. The future may very well be harsh—or perhaps we have it a bit wrong and it won’t be so bad, if not worry free—but I think it’s important to strike that balance between reasonable sorrow and still appreciating and enjoying all we have now. And I’m sure there will be good in the future, too, despite whatever challenges arise.

          That’s good you’re gardening. Seems that’s a way right there to cultivate your own happiness, in a productive manner. I read a lot, too, and I find that one of my more enjoyable activities (so enjoyable, in fact, that I have to remind myself to actually go out and do things, not just read about them.)

          I have Small is Beautiful on my bookshelf and am planning on reading it soon. John Michael Greer’s The Wealth of Nature inspired me to finally read it.

          Let me know if you start that blog. I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’d also be interested in knowing more about your life when you were a child–how your family got by, what kind of household economy you had, what life was like. Seems there would be a lot of valuable information applicable to our coming future in various older individuals’ stories about their childhoods. If you feel you have some good stories to share, feel free to do that here or to email me.

          No offense, of course, if you don’t get around to it.

  4. I buried two cows today. One was a cripple. I called him Tripod, one of his back legs didn’t work. He was my favorite. Somehow doing this farm thing has brought me closer to death. First let me tell you my cow story. The 2008 recession, killed my woodworking business. My health has been failing and I just can’t work even a four hour day. Yet I needed to find a way to make a living. I live on the family farm. About 40 acres of pasture. My folks in the late 70’s raised bottle calves from the auction and sold them at the auction. Not much but they made a little. $60.00 calf, free pasture, beef selling for $1.40 a pound. how could I lose. The first cows I sold where calves that just would not wean. They sent me a bill for $35.00 for selling them. I bought and raised over 60 calves. This fall I sold 4. Two for about 42 cents a pound. I pay about 30 cents for grain. I figure I lost about one to two hundred dollars a cow. After the two I buried this morning I only have 16 left. Two out of three cows died. Getting around to my point these cows represent what we have come to and why it is time for our way of life to die.

    30 years ago my folks lost one out of ten. Today two out of three. We think the difference is 30 years ago a dairy had 100 to 400 cows. Many of my cows come from 40,000 cow dairies. Many of them never even got to nurse on their mothers. I’ve had three or four waves of pneumonia kill my cows. Vaccines, Tetracycline, and expensive drugs from the vet didn’t even touch the new super bugs. I’ve never had this kind of problem with any animal. The stories of pollution, cheating employees, dodging taxes, laundering drug money, corn fields of pot run all through the back ground of the surviving dairies. I can’t help but think that a guy with 60,000 cows has put 600 families out of a job. (and the government turned a blind eye to his questionable behaviors)

    I really thought Tripod would have made it. He had survived through wave after wave of sickness. I’m pretty sure we will lose two out of three people. Greed will only get you so far. Two out of three and we will lose our tripods. Those spirited people who shine a light in our lives. What death does is let’s us begin anew. I planning on taking a couple of my girls and breeding them with a beef cow. They have to have some wonderful immune systems. I’m hoping to have a few cows that will survive when we create a super bug that wipes out our agribusiness herds.

    I just finished “The One Straw Revolution”, by Masanobu Fukuoka, and it just left me at peace. Peace with our cultural insanity. We will pay for the consequences of our behaviors, but how can we not grow from it.

    Thanks for a slice of your life. It will be remembered tomorrow, when I defrost the rabbit waterers under the hot water. The simple joys endure.

    • Thank you, Dennis, for a slice of your life. I read Fukuoka’s wonderful book a few years ago, right before I began farming in 2009. I really enjoyed it and it sits on my shelf now. Another read this year, now that I’ve had a few years of farming to come at it from a more experienced and knowledgeable perspective, seems like it would be a great idea.

      Two out of three cows is bad. Two out of three humans would be just as bad and while I don’t expect that in my lifetime, I expect it eventually. We’re insanely out of line. We live bad on this planet, in this and most industrialized cultures. I don’t know. I can’t see this transition being smooth or easy—we’ve just fucked things up too much. We’ve gone too far.

      And I know we’re going to lose a lot of good people and I’m working on coming to peace with the idea that I may head out much earlier than expected. This is a strange thing to wrap my mind around—and that, too, is a strange thing to wrap my mind around, to realize how much different we’ve come to think about life than most humans throughout history. I think most other cultures have been much more aware of their eventual death and much more aware of their vulnerability to it. That we gloss over that, that we seem hardly to comprehend that we’ll die at all, let alone that we may die earlier than we expect or believe is right, is an odd thing.

      One of the farms I’m working on is partly a functioning dairy, with less than a hundred head, the cows raised largely on pasture. The other farm used to be a dairy, also under a hundred head, I believe—or not much over, at the most—and now just does grass fed beef and lamb. Just cleaning up after the couple hundred total animals they have now is quite a bit of work. I can’t even comprehend what it would be like to have tens of thousands of milking cows in your operation and to have to manage all that manure. It’s insane. Completely insane.

      It’s been an interesting experience working with animals. It’s making me think a lot about our relationship with domesticated animals and the morality involved in that. I should have a post up tomorrow, hopefully, on that topic.

      Your furniture, for what it’s worth, is beautiful. I was glad to read that your woodworking days were fun, even if they didn’t pan out economically. I don’t know how much of anything will be panning out economically in the future—if we can survive and enjoy ourselves, that seems to me a high success.

      I hope the rabbit waterers defrosted well and that you enjoyed the hot water. Thanks again for sharing a bit of your story.

  5. Life is very interesting.

    Your quote “Hot water on your hands becomes a pleasure when you’ve been outside for much of a winter day, becoming cold at times while you do important work, leading a more immediate life.” was meaningful to me. I’ve quite often had the pleasure of hot water on my hands during these winter months.The hot water heater is at the far end of the house, so I have to be willing to accept a higher electric bill to let the water run long enough to get hot water.

    It brought back memories of when I and your Dad were in the Peace Corps (1971-1973) in The Gambia in NW Africa. We lived in three rooms, no running water (we had a water spicket outside so I brought in buckets of water), no kitchen (we made one for ourselves), and no indoor bathroom. We had an outside enclosed toilet that actually flushed. We also had an enclosed outside shower with cold water only. There were two seasons – cool and dry (no rain and usually was about 60 degrees) , very wet (monsoonal) and hot (100 degrees +). In the cool season I would heat water on our small electric stove (yes, we did have electricity), put it in a bucket and go out to take a shower. That consisted of using a plastic glass to pour water from the bucket over me, soap down, then pouring glasses of water over me to rinse the soap off. Then I dried with a towel and went back to our ground level apartment (that is what they called it since we lived in the capital called Banjul or Bathurst). I did this in the evening before I went to bed. I really enjoyed having hot water to bathe with.

    The ultimate pleasure was when we took a vacation to the next-door country called Senegal. We went south (Senegal surrounds The Gambia) to the city of Ziguinchor. The Gambia was colonized by the English and became independent in 1965. Senegal was colonized by the French and became independent in 1960. We went out to eat a luxurious French meal of several courses, but the ultimate pleasure was having a hot shower in the hotel in which we stayed. I will always remember that warm water running all over my body. Oh, the pleasure!

    So I thought that I would share my ultimate joy of bathing with hot water ……. Dixie (your Mom)

    • That’s a fantastic story, Mom. Thanks for sharing it. I’ve heard some of the Gambia stories, but never the one about going to Senegal and having a luxurious French meal. I’m sure it was quite the earned joy indeed at that point.

      It’s amazing how much joy some simple hot water can bring.

  6. Pingback: Making It Work « Of The Hands

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