Patience in an Emergency   10 comments

I’ve always cared about justice and the proper way to live in the world. My specific beliefs around these ideals have changed and morphed over time, but they always have been a concern for me. I remember, as a child, calling McDonald’s to ask them to stop using styrofoam packaging after watching a 20/20 report with my parents. I remember, upon learning what it meant to be gay, being dumbfounded by why someone would care about, or become angry over, the gender composition of two lovers. As soon as I understood the concept of gay rights, I unabashedly supported them.

At the same time, though, I’ve never cared for conflict. I don’t like arguments. I prefer to get along with people. So while I have many strong beliefs (quite evident throughout this blog) my ability and willingness to rage against the world, and its people, has waxed and waned throughout the years. At my core, I want to get along, even when I disagree.

There have been many times, however, when I felt like I should not get along. I’ve written before about my history with political involvement, and that stretch of my life is one of the key moments when I felt compelled to rage. I immersed myself in a partisan world view that encouraged anger and defiance, that turned concerns about the proper way to live in the world into a blood sport, a war, a desperate struggle with immense consequences. Within that paradigm, I felt the need to challenge my aversion to conflict and instead to embrace conflict as the only effective way to make the world a better place. I came to see hard lines as a necessity and I tried to fit myself into that worldview, hardening and raging, pushing against a world I too often saw as unjust. And as, time and time again, my ideals failed to be implemented, I despaired.

In “A Letter to Wendell Berry,” Wallace Stegner tells Berry that “The lives you write about are not lives that challenge or defy the universe, or despair of it, but lives that accept it and make the best of it and are in sober ways fulfilled.” The line struck me, because it perfectly encapsulates so much of what I enjoy about Berry’s arguments. It’s not that he never rages against the world, or condemns it, but it’s that he accepts it, reminds us that we must ultimately bear it, and that he consistently recognizes and acknowledges his own role in the destruction and improper living. He is thoughtful, first and foremost. He tends not to let rage distort his view. He is considerate—in the archaic sense of engaging in long and constant thought—and iterates unflinching examinations of the world. Granted, they are of his particular view and thus are not truths for all, but they’re always honest and thoughtful, the product of extensive consideration.

I appreciate this approach. At my best and most honest, it’s my approach to the world. I’m not a rager, despite my occasional lapses into it. I have a very hard time hating people or maintaining anger. I want to like people. I want to engage with them, to be considerate, to find common ground. I don’t mean this as some sort of self-flattery; if anything, it often drifts into detrimental territory. But properly harnessed, I think it’s a powerful trait.

In my criticisms of the way we live as a society, I cannot often get away from considering my own role. It feels too dishonest. Yes, I get on my high horse and enjoy—perhaps too often—rousing bits of rhetorical flourish. But I always attempt to bring it back to my own behavior, my own thoughts, my own complicity and engagement. It’s the only way I see to make an honest difference in the world. I can’t help improve a destructive system if I can’t see my own role in it.

But it’s also more selfish than that. I’m not particularly happy raging against the world. When I tried to engage in politics, I consistently found myself worn down by it more often than not. I didn’t like the division. I didn’t like trying to force people’s hands, to push my way into their lives and try to get them to do something they didn’t want to do. I didn’t like making cold calls. I didn’t particularly like get-out-the-vote efforts. The scapegoating corroded me, made me anxious and frustrated, angry and brittle. The dominant politics of this country is not one of building and engaging community, but one of demonization and hatred, of the stoking of division for power, of simplified and binary thought patterns. It’s about identifying and eliminating the enemy, first and foremost, and any engagement of others to make the world better is incidental. A mere byproduct at best.

That’s not a path that sustains me. Nothing about my involvement in politics heartened and sustained me. It was a zero-sum game at best, and far too often a negative. It drained me of energy and constantly felt like a battle. I had to push myself to engage in behavior contradictory to my natural instincts. I did this because I thought it was necessary to make the world better—that this was the way to improve a society I so often found incoherent, painful and cruel. I punished myself with politics, and I told myself it was my duty to do so. It was the cost of being a good citizen.

Inevitably, I burned out on the process. I suspect the same constitution that made my engagement in politics so draining also guaranteed that I could not keep it up. I prefer to enjoy my life, and I’m not driven or self-disciplined enough to consistently and unendingly engage in behavior I don’t enjoy. But even as I drifted away from the sanctioned political realm, and even as I found farming and the fulfillment and sense of purpose that it provided me, I still could not entirely leave behind the sense of duty toward disruption.

For a brief time, Derrick Jensen’s argument that industrial civilization had to be dismantled—and similar arguments from others—captured my attention and imagination. My tendency to see the pain and destruction in the world opened me to the idea that I had a duty to do whatever I could to bring down industrial civilization and help limit its destruction of the world. I became at least somewhat sympathetic to the idea of sabotage and destruction for a greater good. Yet, again, my constitution wouldn’t allow it. I never seriously considered engaging in any destructive acts (let alone violence, which is utterly anathema to me) but I did briefly consider it a compelling and logical argument. I still consider it a fair argument to consider, even if I have serious problems with it.

The argument eventually lost its draw for me, though. I’m not a warrior. I rarely fight. I have little interest in machismo. I don’t like conflict, have little interest in competition, and I don’t like defeating people—even in approved ways. When I played basketball in my teens, I liked to play point guard. Not because I was short, but because I loved to pass. I far preferred passing over shooting. A good assist was poetry to me, and it still is. It’s one of my favorite aspects of basketball. I like cooperation. I like to make others happy. I want to work with people.

Much of current politics isn’t about working with people, but about defeating them. There may be some incidental cooperation in that process, but abstract victory is the primary goal. Ostensibly, it’s in service of making the world a better place, helping people, improving lives. But honestly, that never seems to happen, and still the thirst for victory continues. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen people on the right and left justify something that a politician on their side has done even when it conflicts with their supposed core values. The desire to win is stronger than the desire to govern. It trumps ideals. It lays waste to all other priorities.

I couldn’t last in that environment. And so, I farm. I work to scale back my life. This is the reason I find the concept of voluntary poverty so compelling. It’s rooted in changing my own behavior. It’s rooted in dealing primarily with my own life, not others’. It’s not about competition. It’s not about imposition. It’s about changing and improving my own life, first and foremost, and it’s about then helping to change society via modeling and cooperation. The more I learn, the more I’m successful in scaling back, the more able I am to help others who are interested in my lifestyle do the same. The more I change my own life, the better I’m able to advocate through my writing here on this blog, through conversations with people out in the world, through a willingness to show others what I have learned and to tell them about the ways in which I’ve failed.

This is a model that actually works for me. It makes me happy and works in conjunction, in cooperation, with who I am at my core, with my own personal truth. And so it renews me. So I thrive in this behavior. So, even in its challenges, I seem to find joy and happiness. I’m more at peace and I feel like I actually am, in very small ways, helping to improve the world.

I’ve read and listened to and spoken so much rage in my life. Berry’s writing is a refreshing and rare change in the way that it deals in acceptance. In a recent interview with Bill Moyers, Berry said that, “to be patient in an emergency is a terrible trial,” but that “the situation [we’re] in now is a situation that’s going to call for a lot of patience.” Somehow, this feels far more possible and rewarding to me than raging against the world. A lot of terrible things are bound to happen and are already happening. I want to help limit those terrible things in whatever way I can. But I can only do that in trying to live well myself, not in fighting tooth and nail against the inevitable aspects of the future. Not in laying the blame for those inevitabilities at the feet of others in favor of myself.

Perhaps this is an escape as much as anything else. Perhaps part of my draw to this attitude is its ability to absolve me of certain hard choices. But it still feels more honest to me, and I know that it’s by far the more sustainable approach for me in particular. Rage doesn’t sustain me, but good work does. Digging in the dirt does. Bearing the future does, in its own strange way. Thus, I more and more these days deal in acceptance and adaptation, and hope that this path will lead me to good living and to poetic—if small—assists. I hope that it will lead me to a helpful patience. I hope that it will open paths of cooperation for me, even as it closes paths of competition and defeat.


10 responses to “Patience in an Emergency

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  1. Reblogged this on There Are So Many Things Wrong With This and commented:
    I hear you. Fighting is so draining. I’m digging holes for peonies today, much more sustaining 🙂

    • Hey mieprowan,

      Digging and planting certainly is more sustaining for me. I’m sure there is a place for fighting and warriors in this crazy mess of ours, but it’s not the realm I belong in. I wouldn’t get much done there, anyway. Give me a three prong cultivator, instead.

  2. Hey Joel, so glad to have you back! I’ve missed reading your blog posts, though saw a response or two on ADR over the summer. I so agree with you, I’d much rather knit or sew clothes or quilt than go to a meeting and listen to people argue. And, believe me, I have done more than my share of that. But I feel if I can try to improve my very little piece of the world, and maybe influence those people around me even a little bit by the way I choose to live, NOT with words, I’ve done my part.
    Looking forward to more posts from you! BTW, did you get a new computer? Or are you doing this from the library? If so, more power to you!
    Many Blessings,

    Heather E. Caparoso
    • Hi Heather,

      I borrowed a laptop, which is likely to become permanent. It’s already proved troublesome in some ways—and maybe I’ll write about that, maybe I won’t—but I may come to a compromise in January in which I have the laptop but not internet access at home. I think that could work well, as it would allow me to still blog on occasion by setting up the post at home and then going to the library to publish—without having to type up a handwritten post and publish all within an hour time frame—without getting me into the trap of losing too much time on the internet at home. I don’t know if that will end up working out, but it may.

      If things stay on track, January is going to be the start of something exciting and possibly incredibly overwhelming. I’ll be writing about that at some point.

      Good to hear from you!

  3. I spent the whole of my 30s in an absolute rage. I had my reasons, some, possibly even most, of them very good reasons. And it simply destroyed me, set some courses that will make my future much harder than it might have needed to be if I’d made different choices, and maybe found a bit of dirt in which to dig and pour out my heart. I still have my moments, born out of long habit, but I’m slowly learning to turn back to my true nature, which is very similar to what you describe. I’d prefer to quietly help where and how I can.

    I first heard of Wendell Berry via TADR, either at your mention or another’s, I don’t recall. But I am so grateful, because he strikes a strong chord with me for the reasons you have articulated here. I am reminded here of his essay, ‘The Way of Ignorance,’ in which he writes: “There is, as maybe we all have noticed, a conspicuous shortage of large-scale corrections for problems that have large-scale causes. Our damages to watersheds and ecosystems will have to be corrected one farm, one forest, one acre at a time…And so the first temptation to avoid is the call for some sort of revolution. To imagine that destructive power might be made harmless by gathering enough power to destroy it is of course perfectly futile.” The (terminal) political dysfunction of this nation is all built on notions of “if only we would…” And no matter the speaker, it all reeks to me of previous attempts in history to articulate a final solution with all the attendant horror and suffering of a crisis made much, much worse by such arrogance. I simply cannot bear the weight of it any longer. Future generations will curse my name for any number of things; I can only hope that won’t be one of them. Like Berry, my own route takes me back to a sort of faith, with my prayers being for a bit of dirt and a bit of time to serve it as well as I can.

    • “Quietly help where and how I can.” I love that. I (obviously) think there are plenty of reasons on the macro level for us to be enraged, and plenty of people have micro reasons, as well. And I believe rage can be used. But it can consume a person, too.

      I’d like to think that I was the one who inadvertently directed you to Wendell Berry. If I’ve sent anyone down that path, it pleases me to no end. As for that quote, it’s pretty much perfect. I’ve been mulling writing a post along those lines, but I’m not sure I have anything original to say. But it’s a critical point that is way too often ignored in our culture, that the solutions to our big problems lie mostly in small, individual, local behavior rather than grand programs. And the desire for grand programs strikes me as very dangerous.

  4. Inspiring post Joel!

    Seems we two are somewhat alike in many ways, except that I’ve got a few years or so on you.

    Time was, I too was drawn deeply into the political ‘wars’ and became for some while, a so-called Warrior-For-A-Cause, desperately working to change people’s minds toward what I considered to be more enlightened perspectives.

    I stumped for candidates and changes in the rules, knocked on doors, handed out pamphlets, gathered together with others to form a placard-carrying mass displaying our message; even tried to start a Third Party here in the Beaver State – all, as it turned out in the long, long run, to be pretty much to no avail, though there were some gains here and there.

    As in your case, much of this activity ran counter to my own ways and it exhausted me. I continued to punish myself for awhile and then someone showed me Wendell’s ‘Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front’ and it stopped me dead in my tracks. ‘Twas only shortly thereafter that I and my last ex bought the 20 acres I’ve posted about in prior entries.

    No longer living on that land – nor much of any other – now and then I once again allow myself to get ‘riled up’ about this or that and the urge to take to the street rises once again. Awhile back I did, in fact, mosey downtown to stand with the local ‘Occupiers’ for awhile, but I’m an old man now and such things no longer attract me so much, except to show support – at least until the cold crept into these old bones. I likes me comforts y’know, such as they are.

    Meanwhile, I live as well as I can with what I’ve got and gently talk with people about how to deal harmlessly with the days that are to come.

    • Hi Martin,

      Alike, indeed. I, too, took part in some of the early Occupy protests, which you probably know, since I’ve written about it a bit here. It felt exciting and potentially revolutionary at the time; that obviously didn’t pan out, though I suppose it’s had its impact. Of course, then I see things like this and, while I realize it’s the product of an offshoot group and not necessarily indicative of the entire movement, I shake my head. Again, it seems to come back to personal action, which is the lowest hanging revolution fruit. All these other movements seem so often to just end up folding back into the same dominant system while they trumpet some little tweak or two as a path to true disruption. Color me cynical.

      As for Berry’s poem, that’s a fine one, yes? It threw me when I read it, too. Just brilliant.

      • I dunno… The ‘Occupy Card’ looks to be more of a scam than an offshoot – but then I am truly cynical in my own way.

        As for the ‘revolution’; probably the best way to revolt is to be involved in ‘the game’ as little as possible – a thing I’ve found to be easier to do as I’ve grown older and less and less financially able.

        • Well, I think it’s more or less a scam one way or another. Not sure how much honest relation the people who started the card have to the general movement. The whole thing’s a bit amorphous, anyway, so that’s hard to nail down.

          And agreed on your second point. I think opting out is by far one of the most revolutionary actions a person can take. As well as necessary, in my mind, because the system needs a wholesale change, not just some tweaks around the edges.

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