The Politics of Life: Courage, Imagination and Living a New World

Nature, in all of its wildness, is ultimately the seat of all beauty. If we are to continue on as a species we must find our place within it. Taken from the climber’s trail ascending East Peak, 9,380′, via the ridge from Mount Howard, in the Eagle Cap Wilderness of far northeastern Oregon.

Politics is the process whereby society makes decisions, the process it uses to establish the broader, though sometimes quite specific, rules by which we live and work.  Our government is a representative, democratic republic.  Our governance is a public matter intended to serve the public good…to support or improve the lives of its citizens…not that of a monarch, an oligarch, despot, feudal lord or leader of a church.  It is a democracy in which citizens exercise their right to be heard through their vote and we do this generally by electing representatives who work in our interest.  In some cases issues are referred to citizens or initiated by us on particular matters, but we do this primarily through our election of representatives.  Ideally representatives focus and amplify the will of their constituents, expressing this through the bills that they introduce and their vote.  If this will is muddled, indecisive or polarized, so to is its direction leaving an opening for other influences, such as lobbyists, to effect their votes.  It can be easily argued that a divided constituency is just what powerful interests want as it will increase their own influence…divide and conquer!  When that collective voice of the citizens is more focused and powerful, powerful interest lose influence and political decision making will reflect this.  We are ‘taught’ early on that our ‘voice’ is limited to our voting in elections, but this is not true.  Everything we do, all of our choices, have political ramifications, what we buy, where we buy it from, how we get to work, what we do there, how we choose to spend our non-working hours, how we treat others.  We help shape the world through our choices.  Government is an extension of our collective voice, our collective actions.  Government is not the cavalry, not the hero, in our story…we are and we are also our own enemy and fool.  If anyone is going to ‘ride’ to our rescue it is each one of us.

There’s a metaphor, attributed to Plato, ‘The Ship of State’, which likens the the governance of the city/state to that of a naval ship guided by its captain, a ‘philosopher-king’ who has an understanding of an all inclusive greater good, a vision toward which they are moving… a ‘philosopher-king’…a ‘philosopher-king’?  Where does this leave us today?  What is the greater good?  What is today’s vision?  Government, along with our population has grown to an immense size and with it has gained a certain momentum, that despite changes in leadership, tends to continue in its previous direction.  It is, in this way conservative, good or bad, slow to respond to change and the hand at the ‘helm’.  It is reflective of its diverse citizenry, a population that is currently divided, polarized, largely busy with its own survival and desires, not always informed or interested in the complexities and management of government…its consequences.  Ultimately, government is responsive to its citizens…especially those more organized and engaged among them and this includes the corporations and very wealthy who more clearly see how their wealth and status are connected to the process of government and have the assets to effectively shape the processes of governance…and so we find ourselves in today’s chaotic world.  In government and politics there is lots of talk about leadership, but little actual leading.  In place of a positive vision, there is blame and attack, a debilitating lack of faith in the effectiveness and value of the very idea of government, the idea that a minimalist government, an ineffectual government, is best and the idea of a country committed to a kind of social Darwinism in which the powerful have the right and power to rule, a world in which the spoils go to the victors and the loyal supporters are allowed a small stake…while all others are left on their own…a world in which value is narrowly defined and ultimately, life, all life, must earn its keep or lose its place at the political table.  The table today is set with few enough chairs already and that number is shrinking in a game of high stakes musical chairs.  It is long passed time for a change…and not just a change of party within the old game.  If governments are reflective of their citizens then we ourselves must change, become engaged in the politics at a human level.

There is beauty all around us! We need not travel far to find it as I did in this photo…it can be found within a smile or a simple act, in our own humble creations if our hearts are open and we act with courage. Taken at the Met’s Cloisters, in the Bronx, NYC, one of the many installations that comprised their ‘Heavenly Bodies’ show.

By almost any measure, life as we know it, is in a precarious state.  Our governments, most powerful businessses, in fact many of the institutions upon which society depends, have time and again demonstrated their committment to the old paradigm, the biases, laws, technologies and economic practices, that enriched and solidified their positions, while bestowing limited benefits to the faithful supporters and workers, often at a surprisingly low level.  Rigid and unwilling to change, despite the undeniable need for it, this system has become a worldwide threat in its capacity to destroy the natural systems, organisms and beauty upon which our own lives depend….What are we to do?  Climate change, accelerating species extinctions, the glut of plastics choking the world and fouling the oceans, habitat destruction, invasive species, the massive losses of functioning habitat, the increasing problem of cancer in a polluted world, that has come to value only what it can ‘use’…dismissing the rest and the threat of epidemics that can spread like wildfire?  What are we to do with all of the hate and fears that divide us?   Isolated and polarized we flail at each other or look for diversions.

The overall effect of this could not be any more effective in preventing the public from taking positive action.  Resigned to our ‘fate’ we await a hero, the arrival of some kind of cavalry to save us from the onslaught of problems that assail us or lash out angrily at available targets.  So disillusioned, we often don’t act positively in support of those who are doing good work.   We seem unable to find comfort in the examples they set, the beauty they seek to protect and create…many of us have misplaced our hearts and courage, the courage which resides within each of us, to ‘heal’ ourselves, our families and communities, and seek out the love and support of those others, who like ourselves, are putting their lives and energies into growing the world into a new state of health, taking action that is at its ‘core’ supportive of life and of a healthy ‘Earth’, a healthy world that honors and supports life in its broadest sense….Anything less than that and the threat and declines continue.

As a species we are ‘social’ organisms, it is a strength and liability, despite our loud and almost manic claims of individuality.  Our lives are inextricably tied, dependent, upon each other.  If we are to have our needs met, attain our desires and take joy in this world, we cannot do it alone.  As John Donne, the cleric and poet, once wrote, “No man is an island entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”  We each play a role, several roles, in the process and in return, we reap the benefits of being members…as well as suffer the consequences of our collective ‘bad’ decisions.  Our incomes, personal standard of living, our social position, are all determined by the ‘rules of society’.  We are dependent upon the larger society and there are consequences to breaking away, to not following the expected path…but what are we to do when many of us have come to understand that the ‘path’ no longer meets our needs, that it in fact undermines the natural systems upon which biological life, including our own, depends?  That the structure and rules of our society, who and what it favors, what it demeans and under values, are all a matter of choice, and are as such within our abilities to change.  By choosing not to act, we are complicit in the problem.  In the end, even our own ignorance cannot protect us, or what we value, from the consequences.

Socialization, is the process members of a society undergo in learning our place and roles in our families, communities and the wider world and the consequences for not doing this.  It is how we come to be ‘accepted’ and ‘rewarded’ for our participation, our compliance, the faithful playing out of our roles, demonstrating our loyalty and commitment.  For this we are compensated or chastened, through the economy and find greater opportunities as supporters of the social order.  Once ‘schooled’ in the ways of our society and economy, once having learned our place in it, and enjoined to it through employment or the lack there of, the economy becomes a powerful, largely self-policing, part of this purposeful and political system, a system that we are taught is a given, that requires a wide range of personal compromises and sacrifices. We are ‘taught’ that life is not fair. That failure is a character flaw, that the massive disparity in levels of compensation are justifiable, that we should be accepting and quiet, because speaking out can cause us to ‘fail’, to be shunned, to lose our jobs, become unemployable and even irredeemable, fallen from grace, as it were, while all along it is the political-economy that demands this, not nature, but this particular ‘society’ itself.  And, so, we continue working within the ‘accepted’ rules of play.

Whatever it is that we come to love in this world, binds us to it. Taken one evening in our garden.

Our individual standards of living are dependent upon our ability to earn an income in this economy and that same economy is consuming resources and degrading the environment at an alarmingly hight rate while adding pollutants and compromising the ability of natural systems to continue as they must.  Many of us already understand this…yet we keep our lives well within the paths made for us.  We attempt to become ‘successful’ within the rules, in fact, some of us, wildly successful, to insure our standard of living, our social position and power while we harbor the hope that at some point, after we retire, we will be able to live the lives we’ve always imagined.  When we fall short we often seek to compensate ourselves through gifts and rewards that never quite fill the hole.  We substitute consumption for accomplishment, acceptance and security.  We tell ourselves that it is not our ‘fault’ that the world is this way and we attempt to accumulate enough so that our children will have an advantage in their lives, because we know they are going to need it.  We know that the game is rigged…that opportunity is not shared equally and we know that the need for our success is even greater because the world is going to hell.  But this is just a story we tell ourselves, a rationalization we make to justify what we do in an unfair system that compensates unjustly and ignores the relationships that not only exist between all people, but between the human inhabitants and the rest of life.  This is the game most of us are caught up in, except for the many millions, billions, who in fact began their lives at a gross disadvantage.

Many of these desperately want in, the poor, the chronically poor, the working poor, those who have suffered some kind of loss and have been knocked off the path they once followed, those mired in generational poverty with inadequate support programs, friends and families similarly trapped, with few resources and very little opportunity…many are not aware of the rules of the game that have come to dominate the world…they are casualties like the vast bulk of the Earth’s organisms.  They are a ‘product’ of the very economy they wish to join…already, a ‘necessary’ part, providing, through their failure, the downward ‘pressure’ on wages and benefits to assure the compliance of others, reinforcing the system that awards fantastic wealth to others.  There are others, members of indigenous societies, without the tools and resources, to defend their way of life, or the understanding of what is happening before it is too late.

How can we as a society, as individuals, begin to make the changes necessary to reduce our own negative impacts, and move from ‘global warming’ to ‘global healing’?  How do we resolve the inequalities that come with our way of life? Who will step up to the challenge and save us? become the hero of our times?  Who is in the best, most likely, position to act?  The person who has little to risk by doing so or the person in a position of power already with large assets and powerful connections?  Who is more beholden to this economy, the person barely hanging on, the person who has adequate resources and security or the person who has accumulated greater wealth?  Which person will be able to step away and make the necessary changes?  We spend most of our younger and middle years caught up in the economy working, accumulating, attempting to claim some degree of security and then, once retired, hope to have the time to relax and enjoy the benefits we’ve accumulated.  The world of today leaves us with little time to think about these things for ourselves, to think critically about the personal choices we have made, while we are caught up in the rush of our own lives.  The choices we’ve made were based on our own understanding as youths, socialized in an earlier world, reinforced daily, which we carry through our lives.  This story shifts for each generation, but the main structures stay the same.  It isn’t just the time to think that we lack.  For many people retirement becomes a period of retrenchment, of erecting barriers to questions that cast doubt upon how we lived our lives.  We are well schooled in guilt as well and, just as we’ve learned not to see ourselves as heroes, we cling to the belief that we are not responsible either.

Will we as a society go through some kind of maturation?  How much longer can we collectively ignore the increasingly dire warning signs?  As terrible as it is to contemplate, at what point will collapse be inevitable?…we must do this to shock ourselves into action.  When will we be able to step off the ‘treadmill’ and do what is both healthier for ourselves, our families and the planet or will we just keep putting one foot in front of the other as quickly as we can? chasing the future laid out before us by those who want us only to continue on, buying and consuming, enriching them, too busy and committed to question, wonder and imagine.  How much longer can we as individuals wait?  At what point will we realize that society, that ‘we’, are composed of individuals, acting independently, towards either the betterment of the whole, or fearfully and selfishly, in individual acts that are ultimately destructive, leading to the dissolution of fellow humans and life as a whole?  As each of us find the strength to change our path, we will begin to discover that we are taking steps towards positive changes and the understanding that societal change is possible, we will gain not only a strength within ourselves, but also the needed faith in humanity, and by doing this come to better understand our worth as individuals, as a species and of the larger world that has birthed and supports all life….We will gain the invaluable knowledge that this is within our ability to do and that we are not alone in our efforts.

How are we to know which changes are the ones to make…easy…they are those that transform our action into that which is life affirming…and most of us already know many of these.  As we move along, on our own unique and personal path, others will become evident.

Beauty is not only based in nature, it is dependent upon the receptive soul, the person seeking it out….It is lost in a world of the fearful, greedy and indifferent. Gardenia jasminoides ‘Frost Proof’ in my garden.

An idea can be the most powerful thing in the world, but only if it is planted out, nurtured, protected.  Kept to oneself they can only languish.  Just as a plant gains strength growing in the light, so can an idea as others see it, come to understand it and, in fact be ‘buoyed’ by it.  An idea spreads and gives those it influences the strength to press on just as a negative idea can spreading suspicion, fear and hate.  This is why in so many limited, hierarchical societies, like those that comprise today’s ‘modern’ world, leaders and those in positions of power, are often invested in the patterns supportive of the status quo, the old paradigm, upon which it is built.  Their defenders work in both overt and subtle ways, with manipulation, threat and violence, to suppress such ideas, such challenges, while at the same time trumpeting their largely irrelevant, outdated and now destructive ideologies…an entire ‘package’ of dying ideas.  The defenders of the status quo, those relative few who still profit hugely from it and the many who fear the loss of what little security that they may have, become everyday more brazen, even irrational, in their defense of this dead past.  They become ever more willing to sacrifice the rights and freedoms of those who demand changes.  They feel threatened by this redefining of the world and bringing in of those and that which have historically been left outside of consideration.  They will not become convinced otherwise.  It is incumbent upon us to each do what we can.  Because only as this new world begins to unveil itself, as it grows and takes shape, will the fearful gain the courage to accept it, and its once powerful and wealthy beneficiaries, be forced to abandon the old paradigm.  When we ‘try’ to convince others we invest in their power.  When the world begins to change, their power simply drains away, as they and the old structure become irrelavent.

In our society ‘heroes’ are those individuals held up as exemplary individuals, those who save the day, despite all odds, and become an icon around whom we heap praise.  They become legendary…larger than life, individuals who stand outside of normal life, and as such, different from us, something we can measure ourselves by….When we do this, however, we will always fall short, because such heroes have been created to serve other purposes as well, they tell us how ‘unheroic’ we are…how impossible being a hero is, how much sacrifice is required, how hero status is confered upon those rare few.  We come to view ourselves as unheroic, small and ineffectual.  This is part of our socialization process, part of what being an American is today…but it is not part of what being a healthy, engaged human is.

I once read an article many years ago, the title and author long forgotten, that the best thing a parent can do for his/her child is to live an honest and courageous life, to be true to themselves, to never stop striving, despite the barriers and doubts, growing and learning.  The article went on to discuss how difficult this is to do in our society and how central it is to an individual in terms of living a life that is both fulfilling and ultimately satisfying.  It speaks to purpose and meaning.  It argues that a life built on a structure of compromises, of settling, of ignoring one’s own heart and by extension that of others, a life that dismisses the value of life itself and is willing to trade it away, is ultimately unsatisfying and demeaning of life, and as such, will leave an individual empty and wanting, forever searching for that thing that can fill the void.  Living a full life means embracing it in all of its aspects…not selectively, and supporting that which supports the life around us, its diversity, creativity, health and wildness.  Such fulfillment is within the grasp of each of us, if we allow ourselves to become the hero of our own story, and take up the real challenge of life.  Being heroic is ultimately embracing your own life, doing what is right and seeing its effect spread out, like tiny waves across a pond, changing others in small ways.  What greater gift can we give our or any child?  This is how the world will be saved!…reimagining our roles, each of us becoming the hero in our own stories…something any of us is capable of…not the limited few.  So, what will we do? wait to be saved? or act on our own behalf, to begin the changes within our own power?  We needn’t save the world, we need only live honestly and courageously.

May this holiday season be good to you and may you add to its life!  Know that I appreciate all that each of you do for this world in making it more beautiful, inclusive, vibrant and alive!

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