The Power of Letting Go   12 comments

This morning, I read a diary about guns at Daily Kos. For those who are unaware, Daily Kos is a liberal political blog focused on electing Democrats, and while there’s a range of thought on a variety of issues there—as well as some very smart people in the community—you primarily find orthodox liberal and Democratic views. As will likely surprise no one, gun control is very much supported at the site, though there also is a significant and vocal contingency of gun rights advocates there. The arguments over the issue are heated, even there on a site where most all the participants find themselves in much closer political agreement than within the country as a whole. Indeed, for many people there, the issue seems one of life and death—and no doubt it literally is considered that for a number of the participants.

Of course, you can see similar extremes of argument over a number of issues at the site, as you can at most any political blog of any stripe. Political discussion in this country is at a fever pitch of emotion and rhetoric and distinctly lacking, more often than not, in substance and rationality. The particular issue of gun control here isn’t so much important to what I want to say in this post, though, as is the form of political argument that makes these issues into life or death—into extremely charged outbursts of emotion. As I’ve recently written, there was a time when I engaged in similar outbursts and found myself absolutely vexed by the politics of this nation. I read and posted at Daily Kos and a number of other liberal blogs. I closely followed political news and happenings. I champed at the bit for a better world with more progressive policies in place in this nation and a contingent of Democrats holding the Presidency and majorities in Congress. To a large degree, I lived and died based on the whims of the political narratives, on my hopes and fears over various policy decisions and, even more so, on electoral outcomes.

I look back on those times with a certain bemusement. I don’t necessarily regret them—I had to go through all that to get to where I am today—but I don’t look at them fondly, either. I’m happy to be past that point in my life, because my extreme investment in this nation’s politics was rooted in deeper issues and thought patterns that I’ve had to abandon in more recent times to begin to live a life that actually makes me happy, and which I believe to actually be productive and beneficial to the community, as well. I’m thinking in particular of two myths that I believed in wholeheartedly and one resultant thought habit that I engaged in continually within the context of politics (and still engage in too often today.)

The myths are those of progress and apocalypse, and they’ve been written about extensively by John Michael Greer at The Archdruid Report. In the aforelinked post, Greer summarizes these two myths well, stating that “[b]elievers in progress argue that industrial civilization is better than any other in history, and its present difficulties will be solved if we just put enough money into scientific research, or get government out of the way of industry, or whatever else their single story presents as the solution to all problems. Believers in apocalypse argue that industrial civilization is worse than any other in history, and its present difficulties will end in a sudden catastrophe that will destroy it and usher in whatever better world their single story promises them — a better world in which they will inevitably have the privileged place denied them in this one.” Greer goes on to note that both of these myths are ultimately myths of Utopia. With the myth of progress, Utopia is brought about by the continuing progress of humanity while in the myth of apocalypse, Utopia is the ultimate result of the destruction of the currently wicked world, which conveniently kills off all the people the believer in apocalypse dislikes and leaves behind only like minded people who band together to create a utopian society out of the old world’s ashes.

My time within the world of politics was a result of my belief in both these myths. Initially, it was my belief in progress that largely drove my involvement. I saw the world as a beautiful place and our society as potentially a great one. But I also saw trouble: environmental devastation, discrimination and bigotry, a rigged economy and corrupt political system. I believed these problems could be solved via the election of the correct politicians and the application of proper legislative policy, but I believed they could also become worse with the wrong policies and politicians. In that sense, the myth of apocalypse played it’s role, as well. Initially during my time in politics, I had great faith in the future and believed it would be a better time, but I still saw the possibility for a much worse outcome with the wrong people in power. Thus, I agonized over our political scene and became emotionally entangled in the political process.

Over time, I began to transition from a favoring of the myth of progress to the myth of apocalypse. As I read about peak oil, climate change and ecosystem destruction, I saw a dark future ahead if we did not make dramatic changes in the way we lived. I wanted a ful fledged response to these crises, complete with a Manhattan Project-type response rooted in a full transition to renewable energies and a complete move away from fossil fuels. I saw this as imperative and, thus, I agonized over our political scene and became emotionally entangled in the political process.

Due to my belief in these two myths, I fell into a habit of thought that is common in our society: that of binary thinking. In the aforelinked post—again written by John Michael Greer, within a series of posts that eventually turned into his brilliant book on magic and peak oil, The Blood of the Earth—Greer notes that humans “normally think in binaries—that is, polarized relationships between one thing and another, in which the two things are seen as total opposites. That habit is universal and automatic enough that it’s most likely hardwired into our brains, and there’s good reason why it should be. Most of the snap decisions our primate ancestors had to make on the African savannah are most efficiently sorted out into binary pairs: food/nonfood, predator/nonpredator, and so on.” Continuing on, he raises one of the main problems with binary thinking, which is that it leaves no room for middle ground. Within the context of determining if something is food, that’s not a problem. But it’s very problematic when we’re trying to deal with complex issues or attempting to tease out a variety of possible responses to a problem, all of which may have their own levels of efficacy. We have to break out of our binary thought patterns if we’re to approach these problems well.

However, during my times of obsession with politics, it was these exact binary thought patterns coupled with my belief in the myths of both progress and apocalypse that caused me so much trouble. I believed in liberal and progressive ideals, so I saw Democratic politicians that expressed a belief in the same ideals as good and Republican politicians that disagreed with many of these ideals—or interpreted them differently—as bad. I didn’t make honest assessments of any of these politicians, for the most part, but instead fell into binary thinking patterns that layered emotional charges over those little “- D”s and “- R”s. What were those emotional charges? Well, they were progress and apocalypse. I saw the Democrats as leading toward progress and Utopia and the Republicans as leading toward the apocalypse.

Let’s go back to the gun control issue. In 2010, there were 30,470 firearm-related deaths. A bit under two thirds of those were suicides and the rest homicides. Now imagine that you support new gun control laws. If you fall into binary thinking, you’re going to see new gun control laws as being capable of saving the lives of thousands of people and preventing horrific tragedies like the Newtown shooting. A lack of new gun control laws means another 11,000 or so gun murders this year and perhaps another Newtown-like tragedy. This is literally a life and death issue. Gun control laws equal 11,000 people alive while no gun control laws equal 11,000 people dead.

Now spread this form of thinking across all political issues and suddenly you have the difference between progress and apocalypse. The complexity of these issues gets lost and the reality of the world does, as well. It becomes a battle between two myths, expressed in binary thinking that manifests itself in the taking of political sides. This is why I lived and died on these issues for a number of years during my time with politics. In my mind, this was an epic struggle for a bright future of progress and joy versus a dark and dystopic future of destruction and pain, of human misery. No, I didn’t always imagine it in such stark terms, but every policy decision was a step down one road or another and so they all felt so very monumental.

You can see this in the gun control debate. You have a number of people wanting more laws with the belief that it will greatly reduce gun deaths. But it’s not just about reducing gun deaths—it’s about the continued human progress that so many have come to accept as natural and inevitable. That’s what many people advocating for new gun control laws really are looking for. Then you have those on the other side that believe that new gun control laws will result in the confiscation of all weapons and the rule of a tyrannical government—in some major steps toward apocalypse, in other words. But neither outcome is likely. Progress is not inevitable and our immediate future suggests a distinct lack of it in many areas (though at least the possibility of progress in other areas, such as in deriving real meaning in our lives from human-scale living.) And a few new gun control laws are not a path to a tyrannical dictatorship. No one is proposing confiscating already-existing guns.

But it’s not about the actual outcomes of these policy decisions. It’s about the myths. It’s about Progress and Apocalypse. It’s about Utopia, and how we get there (because of course we’re going to get there, some way or another, right?) That’s what it was about for me when I was down in the muck of the political world and I can’t help but suspect that’s how it is for a number (though not all) of people who visit political blogs of all stripes. The emotionally-charged reactions and arguments that seem to suggest that every policy decision is a struggle to the death confirms as much. After all, at the end of the day, a few new mild gun control laws aren’t going to change the fact that we have a massive number of guns in this country already. It’s not going to change the underlying societal and cultural dynamics that produce our culture’s significant levels of violence. It’s not going to outlaw and confiscate all guns or mark the rise of a new American dictatorship. It’s not going to eliminate gun deaths.

No, any new gun control laws will do what most all of our policies do these days: futz around the edges, with predictably mild results. All of the few policy decisions you’ll see currently coming out of the American political system are completely unwilling to deal with the multitude of very real and big problems we face today. They won’t deal with our economic system’s dependence on the decayed undergirdings of cheap energy and perpetual growth, and the system’s resultant disintegration. They won’t deal with our atrophying culture and collective loss of faith in societal institutions. They won’t deal with the inability of our economic system to provide its citizens with honest work rooted in the necessities of life. They won’t deal with the collapse of the American empire and all the chaos and disruption that will create as we all find ourselves dealing with the resultant, significant decrease in wealth and security. They won’t deal with anything but appearances, with the hope that insubstantial tweaks to the same old system will pacify the public until the next election ramps up—which should be just around the corner.

In other words, the American political system of today is about running in place—and tearing your hair out while doing it. It’s a special kind of torture to place your most compelling hopes and fears upon the vagaries of our President and Congress. I say that from too much personal experience. This is not a system that has any interest in tackling our problems or in being honest with its electorate. It’s a system interested in perpetuating itself, first and foremost, and then putting on a particular sort of theatre for the common folk in the hopes that they won’t get too restless—or that their restlessness will be conveniently channeled into roughly equal, competing narratives that take the entirety of Congress itself out of the cross hairs.

And this is where the power of letting go comes in. Yes, it’s true that I still sometimes get caught up in the theatre. For the most part, though, I’ve tuned out the nonsense coming out of Washington D.C. and have instead focused on something that I can control and through which I can make some meaningful, if small, change: my own life. In letting go of politics and all the binary thinking it helps produce, I’ve allowed myself to get off the treadmill of disempowerment that is our political system and instead focused in on making changes within my own life, of doing honest work, and attempting to craft something of my own future. And I’ve never been happier. It’s challenging at times, of course, and moments of frustration and alienation are common, but I have a significant amount more of honest living in my day to day life than I did in the past.

Since I started farming in 2009, I’ve paid less and less attention to politics, and it’s been incredibly liberating. As I’ve introduce good work into my life, I’ve felt less need to outsource my future to others—politicians, primarily—and to live and die by their corrupt whims. In the last few years, I’ve mostly divested myself of the myths of progress and apocalypse, though they still make their appearances now and again. That, too, has been vastly liberating. I’ve come to better see the course of humanity’s history not as any sort of linear procession but as more cyclical, and even beyond that as more tumultuous. The passing of time is not a great narrative leading to a final ending but instead just a continual unfolding of the messiness and beauty and heartbreaking intensity of life. We are today at a time, with all its particularities, and tomorrow we’ll be at a different time, and further on at yet a different time. It’s not about a destination, it’s just this continual unfolding. And that’s good, because it’s thrilling and heartening and horrific, this life. It’s enchanting and astounding, overwhelming in all the best and worst ways. It’s a ridiculous blessing, being able to be here. And it’s a calling, too, to do good and honest work, to make our lives into something meaningful and lifting, to be human and embrace the insanity of it and to not let ourselves be guided by others or to be led sleepwalking through our existence, always waiting for someone else to make our lives into what we hope or fear they might be. That’s a slavery, a condemnation, and to instead take on our own lives and turn them toward the future we hope for—and to then continually deal with the future we actually get—is a liberation. It’s an empowerment, an honest freedom, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

12 responses to “The Power of Letting Go

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  1. Though farming isn’t part of my skill-set, I deeply appreciate the ideas you’ve expressed here, especially your examination of the roots of “either/or” thinking. I am constantly working on owning less, re-purposing and recycling more, and working directly toward humanity’s benefit in my occupations and activities. (I work in an Urgent Care and raise guide dog puppies.)

    • Thank you, Mikey! Sounds like you’re doing good work. While growing food seems to me one of the best skills you can have, there’s plenty of other necessary work to be done and it sounds like you’re doing some of that.

  2. Funny, I’ve gone through those same stages. JMG has great influence on my life as well. I’ve come to view politics as just another distraction projecting the American Hologram. It’s only important if you care about that hologram. I have strong opinions on gun control, and I find it easy to get caught up in that binary as well, so I won’t do it here. The ternary really is always a better option. Another way to view that ternary is as the middle path, in between the extremes.

    Life is going to continue moving forward and changing. Politics have become completely pointless and there was no Mayan Apocalypse, just more BAU. JMG is right about all of that. I recently wrote a blog about “Collapse Fatigue” that you may find interesting. It’s up at Doomstead Diner http://www.doomsteaddiner.org/blog/ It’s also on my blog at Epiphany Now.

    • Great post on “Collapse Fatigue.” Yup. Collapse is happening all around us, at different speeds in different places. Today is like yesterday and tomorrow will be like today, until it isn’t (swiped that from somewhere.) Of course there are those pesky Black Swans. But, they’re rare and their migratory route is unknown.

      I’m always a little … amused isn’t quit the right word, but it’s in the neighborhood, with posters (I see a lot of this over at the Arch Druid Report) who want an iron clad, black and white, 100% accurate schedule of the collapse. They want to know what to do and where to live in excruciating detail. I suppose that wanting to know has driven the fine old art of fortune telling, down through the ages.

      Another website that touches on Collapse Fatigue is http://www.peakoilblues.com. Worth a look.

      • As someone who’s in the past wanted more details and who can slip into an overwhelming desire to shape and control my own future, I find that need a bit amusing, as well. I’m not entirely past it, but I’ve been getting better of late of just accepting the fact that most of my future is just going to have to be dealt with as it arrives, not in advance. I’ll be writing some more about that soon.

        I’ll have to poke around at Peak Oil Blues. Looks interesting. In a similar vein, I have JMG’s new book on the psychology of peak oil on preorder. I’m really curious to see his take on it.

    • Hey Aaron, good to see you again. I really like your “Collapse Fatigue” post. I don’t feel like I’m in that mode so much these days, but I’ve most certainly been there in the past. And, of course, I think you’re spot on that we’re never going to have that moment that we get to point to and say, “See? Told you.” Or, rather, that there are plenty of those moments if you’re looking at it from a big picture stand point, but the people you want to convince are never looking at it in that way. Like you say, there’ll always be explanations and excuses.

      It seems to me that this is the reason it’s important to try, if at all possible, to find ways to prepare for our future that also reward you on a personal level. I love farming, I love working outside, I love working outside of the system, and I love being around animals and plants and all these other living creatures that don’t seem to deal in quite so much bullshit as we do (unless, of course, they’re eating or shitting it.) So much of what I do in relation to collapse makes me happy. Win win! If the collapse doesn’t get as far along as I expect it to in my lifetime, I still am happy with how I’ve lived my life. If I never get to say “I told you so,” then ditto. If everything somehow stays more or less the same and turns out I was completely and utterly wrong, I’m still far happier living this way than when I made more money selling unnecessary distraction to the public.

      Granted, there are still the challenges. Isolation, sometimes, and then my own personal nonsense I have to deal with. But there were challenges in the system, too, and I didn’t have the joy of honest living to help balance them out.

      Not to mention, there is some real fascination in living during this time, to be right in the thick of the transition. And I’ll admit, too, that every time I look back at the last few years and see all the ways I feel like I’ve extracted myself from a nasty and brutish system, bettered my behavior, learned some valuable lessons swimming against the tide and better come to understand myself and what makes me happy, I feel pretty damn proud. I think it’s an accomplishment, and I’ll venture to say we should all give ourselves an occasional pat on the back for our achievements—before getting back to work, of course.

      I’ll try to keep up better with your blog in the future. Glad to see you still writing.

  3. “Ah-h-h So, Grasshopper”

    • Yep. Slowly, slowly, all this stuff just applies itself in the background of my mind. I have at least a half dozen ideas for posts floating around in my head and started on two of those ideas before this suddenly grabbed my attention the other morning and demanded to be written. It all just clicked into place while reading that Daily Kos post. None of it was a sudden revelation—all thoughts had already been knocking around in my head for awhile—but that moment it all just locked into place into a quick and coherent narrative. Some of my better writing comes out of that process.

      Definitely a student of Greer’s, I am.

  4. Yuppers. I get so exasperated when people try to shoe horn me into one binary pigeon hole or another. My beliefs (subject to change) are all over the map.

    When there’s some new horror in the news (Aurora or Sandy Hook), usually, in the next conversation I have with my neighbors, they always state “Obama (or someone) is going to come and take their guns!” Ten years ago it was Janet Reno. I usually make the statement (once and only once) that I’ve been hearing that for 20 years and it hasn’t happened. Not going to happen.

    I don’t have a gun, but now that I’m living in the country, it makes more sense. People around me think I have a gun, however :-). There’s coyotes that want to make my cat an appetizer and bunnies that want to use my garden as a salad bar. There was also a crazy guy, recently in the neighborhood, who was pretty scary. But that problem resolved itself with no blood spilt. I was raised around guns, so it’s no big deal. Also, my friend Ron usually initiates a conversation with some anecdote about guns with leaves me totally adrift. It’s his version of “small talk” and I’d like to participate.

    Good post, Joel. You’ve really, clearly pretty much abstracted what John Michael Greer is all about. And, condensed most of his posts from the last couple of years.

    Well, I’d better be moving along. I’ve got a date with Sam and Dean Winchester, Season 4 of “Supernatural.” Sam and Dean are trying to head off the Apocalypse. The old timey one with the Gates of Hell opening, and all. Ought to be a real barn burner. :-) .

    • Howdy Lew,

      Yeah, I have this odd mix of liberal and conservative these days. And yeah, similar thoughts on the gun issue. I’ve never owned a gun, I’ve only shot them a couple times, and they don’t appeal to me in the least. I’ll be honest: I don’t much like them. I’d be perfectly happy if the damn things had never been invented. That said, I see them put to decent use out here in this rural farm community, both on farms and in the hunt. They serve their purpose. But I just don’t like the scale of them, personally. Kind of like how I’m not much a fan of tractors, even though I use them fairly regularly these days. They’re big, loud, noisy, crass, completely out of scale and brutish in their approach to problems. I wish we’d never gone that route. Give me a hand tool any day.

      But they’re there and they’re not going away. And a focus on limiting them as the solution to shootings always annoys me because that’s just one more instance of taking the very small view on a problem. Guns are a very finely-crafted and efficient tool to conduct violence with—no question about that. The desire to commit violence does not come from guns, though. I may be completely wrong on this, but I can’t help but shake the idea that much of the violence in our culture is rooted in our empire. I think that’s corrupted us in numerous ways and the violence in our society is a big symptom of that. No one has much interest in honestly tackling that issue, though.

      Hope you enjoyed your date. I haven’t seen Supernatural, but I’ve heard good things here and there. Another show I’ll avoid getting sucked into. But the third season of Game of Thrones isn’t far away and not long after that will be the sixth season of True Blood, then Dexter returns . . . yeah, I’ve got my distractions, too. Parks and Rec and 30 Rock right now, plus Portlandia. Oh, media.

  5. Never seen “Game of Thrones,” but if you like it I’ll look into it. I’ll tell you one thing. Dexter was my wife and I’s absolute favorite until “Walking Dead” came along. Holy shit that show is unholy good. If you’re going to be distracted anyways, have a look at it. Doesn’t get much better and it’s in it’s third season. The first and second are available on Netflix for instant streaming. But if you want to avoid that trap you can pay two dollars an episode on Amazon.

    I agree with you about the guns and the violence being a product of empire. All very true. But like that tractor, guns are here. That is the reality. Along with that reality means that criminals will have them, and I’m not just talking about petty criminals here either. I’m talking about the government goons. Guns are sort of forbidden aren’t they? Once we crossed that line there was never any going back. So I have a couple of guns, but they are for hunting first. I have a 30/30 that my father gave to me, the same one that one the West. Winchester model 94. I love that gun, and I’ve shot both of my deer with it. I use iron sites cause I think a scope is just too unfair. I also have a .22 long rifle. I had a 12 gauge but I sold it back to the guy who sold it to me on account of his fears with the changing gun landscape and it being registered in his name. I hope to replace it soon because you can’t really hunt birds with a rifle. I find it rounds it all out nicely and the sound that racking a 12 gauge makes has acted as deterrence enough in the past. If you hear that sound you know you better do something different. I don’t know, I have a love hate relationship with guns. They are violent, no doubt, but our empire is violent and people in that empire are violent. If I was just a lone wolf without a family I suppose I wouldn’t care much about guns. Nobody is going to mess with my family.

    I find I have a warrior spirit. Mike Ruppert has talked about this in the past. I’ve seen JMG mention it as well. It must be part of the human condition. It’s also built into the American narrative for better or worse. I find that at times I revel in it. At times I feel it’s justified and necessary to keep evil at bay. Using evil to keep evil at bay? We are our own contradictions aren’t we. I can rage against the machine and feel righteous. The machine doesn’t deserve kindness. That’s what the warrior does. He wounds himself for the greater good. To wield that fire you will get burned. Some of us can’t help it I suppose. When the time comes, if it ever comes, I’ll protect the greater good. I won’t, however, be made a martyr. I have no illusions of grandeur, and I have a wife, child, and another on the way to be here for. I’m proud of you Joel, for what it’s worth. You are doing something that I wish I had done. I didn’t have the knowledge in my early 20’s to enlighten me towards the right path. I came to a fork in the road. One path lead to Shasta Abbey (a Buddhist Monastery in Mt. Shasta N. California) and the other lead here, to a family in the upstate of SC. I had just gotten kicked out of the navy after splitting atoms for the machine to drop bombs on Afghanistan. I got myself kicked out because I preferred not to any longer. Anyways, I was angry and 22 years old when I flipped that penny and it landed on upstate SC rather than the monastery. I was no one to question fate at that time in my life so I went where that strong wind blew me. I don’t regret it, but I wish I had known what age I was living in so that I could have found the need for permaculture back then. So goes life.

    Now I have a family to think about. That’s got me in school studying to be an RN because I think it’s the best chance my family has for a decent future. It takes money to live when you have kids. That’s the difference between me and you. Because I want my kids to have the best chance possible. If it were just my wife and I, I’d be in Asheville NC permaculturing it up as a ruminant hippie druid. I gotta get that money first. When I get it, I’m gonna use it wisely. All that I have will go towards building a permaculture haven where community is the point. I’d love to be able to give a young me a place to be left alone from the machine. Not a commune. Just a place where good people can find reprieve from the angry raging machine. I know this was a long comment, but I’m sure you don’t mind. This space is important to me. I feel we are connected in an important 21st century way at the end of the world as we’ve known it. You are correct, it is good to be alive in this tumultuous age. I too am a student of Greer’s. The Druidry Handbook stays under the statue of Buddha on my night stand. We have a lot in common Joel. Thanks for creating this space and maintaining it. I hope you do read my blog. You might find some relevance.

    • I bet you’d like Game of Thrones. It’s all about the mad scramble for power and all the politics and brutality behind it. It’s a fantasy, but the world’s not too crazy aside from the occasional dragon. It’s a hell of a bit of story telling, very compelling television. Quite brutal, as well.

      We’ll see about Walking Dead. One of these days I’m going to have a hunger for a new show, I imagine, and perhaps then I’ll give myself over to the show.

      As for guns, I wouldn’t be shocked if I eventually had a hunting rifle or two and a shotgun for appearances. But perhaps not. I feel like I should learn to hunt, but I honestly just don’t have much interest in it. I’d rather raise and kill my own, I suppose, though I don’t think that’s a better way to do things. So maybe eventually a shot gun for appearances and a good rifle for the occasional slaughter and for keeping the coyotes and raccoons at bay. We’ll see. Maybe I’ll just borrow the neighbor’s guns. :)

      Interesting about the warrior spirit. I don’t have that, which might be part of the difference in our responses to guns. The whole warrior thing doesn’t interest me in the least. The best label I can think to put on myself is “agrarian.” I like growing and raising food, being part of that cycle. I don’t much care for competition, aggression, typical American male nonsense of any kind. Most of my friends are women; it’s almost always been that way. One of the nice things, though, about the way I’ve been living the last few years is I’ve met lots of males I actually like and enjoy being around. That’s been a nice change of pace from my early, suburban life.

      Anyway, thanks for the kind words. I’m proud of you, too—it seems like you’re doing a fine job of straddling a couple of competing lines. Kids, family, the need for money, the need for doing good things. Seems like you’re figuring out as best you can and seems to me that’ll settle out in the long term, especially as things continue to go to hell. One of the condolences in that future is that I think it’ll become easier to do right things if you have enough perspective to want to. You’ll end up with that permaculture haven and a number of people will thank god it exists. At the end of the day, however it comes about, the only legacy we can leave is to limit in our own tiny way the destruction of this crazy system of ours and provide opportunities to future generations to live better than us. Hopefully we’ll both manage that.

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