"[O]ne may say, albeit in an oversimplifying vein, that people have enough to live by but nothing to live for; they have the means but not meaning"--Viktor Frankl
I love that German concept of a zeistgeist, a great "World Spirit", a sort of Universal Mind which enfolds everything. Today a Serbian leader was killed, and an odd synchronicity with the events just preceding the First World War somehow arise in my mind.
I do not believe we are perched on the brink of actual world war, nor that the current world crisis is beyond solution. I certainly do not plan to eat Freedom fries or Freedom Onion soup or visit New Orleans' Freedom Quarter, as one Republican wishes us to do (linguistically, anyway) in light of France's recent insistence that military action in Iraq not take place absent a clearer violation of current inspection protocols. I also do not plan to support, for that matter, people who decry war or decry our enemies in war, but do not decry injustice and human rights abuse, whether it arise in Texas, in Iraq, in North Korea, in China, in Saudi Arabia, or elsewhere. I do not see the world as endlessly bleak, or the sun as incapable of emerging from the heavy clouds in which it now seems shrouded. But I do see this country on the edge of a horizon that began with September 11, and whose end I have not seen.
I do believe that I live in times fraught with peril. I watch the financial markets roil from the triple witching effects of the bursting of an economic bubble of unprecedented size, the talk of a war which will virtually certainly wreak havoc both in terms of lost lives, future instability and in terms of setting back economic growth and causing mass corporate bankruptcies (with attendant unemployment), as well as the effects of governmental neglect of societal infrastructure, punctuated by ruinous tax cuts defeating the monetarist core of our recent prosperity.
But I notice that as grim as some of the externals of the world seem today, the day to day reality that people face right now involves far more stressors than the current challenges of the dark against the light. In every generation, the dark hovers, waiting to be fought. In every generation, the choice to follow the light is neither easy nor always obvious. But I hear the sounds of voices crying, and they are not just crying about the nightly news.
The reality is that even for those whose externals are apparently aligned with the "good things in life"--education, employment, workable relationships, and friends, there are numerous stresses that just go with being alive in this crazy modern society.
I've always enjoyed reading about how the various countercultures of the left and of the right have prescribed nostrums and remedies based on rejection of the current society, and replacement of that society with an easy formula--a litany, rather like the Dune bit about "I must not fear. Fear is the mindkiller". If one can only define a demon, then one can fight against Hell--be the demon "secular humanism", "capitalism", "socialism", or "religion".
In the counterculture of the 1960s, psychologists and theologians, seemingly acting in unison, theorized that the society itself had a fundamental insanity, justifying deviance from its norms. But although I find those theories fascinating reading, and instructive in many ways, they do not satisfy me. All of the law and all of the prophets do not tell me how to live my life so that I have happiness and meaning. I am a theorizer, and a fellow traveller with many faiths and notions and ideas, and a person who is constantly building aquarium castles of theory in my own personal fishbowl. As life unfolds for me, though, I see that so many times I can find my way through this fog I'm facing only through a kind of pragmatic simplicity.
I think that so many times the problem for me is not that my life's theories need to be more ornate, or that some magical answer needs to be handed to me to solve my fundamental Question. I think that instead the key challenge is to do what I truly believe in doing--to live my life as if my values matter. I don't need a lottery ticket, or a visit by the Angel of the Lord, or for some wrong from my past to be heroically undone. The challenge for me is to relax and just do what I can do.
This is a time in which the "World Spirit" seems to moan with discontent. For some, this is the first time of "real" danger and financial oppression in their adult lives. For others, the day to day burden of life inauthentically lived has become too heavy.
I think that for me, it's so tempting to respond to these times with despond or with self-defeating strategies. It's so much easier to be a despairing victim than to live in a time filled with despair. It's also much easier to judge myself than it is to live with myself. I am never going to win any prizes for self-esteem, or for freedom from defeats.
But if my "true calling" is not the search for pleasure and happiness, per se, but instead the search to do what truly matters to me, then I feel that I am in need of far less theory and far more practice. I believe that one toxic part of our culture is the tendency to demean any worthwhile thing. It's no longer acceptable to live a quiet, kind life, striving to do what one finds worthwhile to do, paying one's debts, and keeping one's promises. But really, I want to focus on being the person who lives my values, not the person who feels defeated by the values of others. It doesn't matter that I don't believe in the policies that our current government is pursuing. It matters that I am doing what I can to pursue my own "policies", including, where appropriate, trying to ensure that this government is voted from power at the first opportunity. It doesn't matter that I am in no respect an important, rich or talented person. It matters that I attend to my family and friends, keep my promises, and pay my debts, personal, moral and financial, as they arise.
I get so tired of a world in which one is either a great something, a great anything, or one is nothing. I don't believe in that world anymore. That's a world that leads inevitably to dot.coms and art exhibitions rich people pay for but nobody cares about and water cooler discussions about staged exhibitionism on television. During my recent business trip to New Orleans this week, I stopped by an art gallery. They had Chagall lithos for sale for tens of thousands of dollars each. Meanwhile, homeless people begged in the streets, ignored by all. I don't want to live in this world. I want to live in the world I wish to inhabit, when money is neither a mark of power nor a mark of shame, and people use their time, their money, and their hearts for good.
Everywhere I hear calls to escape. One voice suggests that if I just dream, then my dreams will come true. Another voice suggests that unless I alter my formulation of the Mysteries, I am doomed to damnation. A third voice calls me to lose everything to hedonism. A fourth voice calls me to lose hope altogether. I think it's time to ignore the voices, and do what matters to me.
I always thought it was too catchy to say, as the pop theology Unitarian said some years ago, "everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten". But I do think that two things are true--I, and most people I know, are far too hard on themselves, filling themselves with bile and self-hate, and I, like most people I know, eschew the chance to use my skills to do what matters the most to me.
I think back just four years to the world of 1999, when kids out of business school and law school made king's ransom salaries, businesses with literally no business model were funded from a sense of greed and endless optimism, and conspicuous consumption again became fashionable. I drive the freeways of aging SUVs, speak with people laid off for over a year, and watch as everyone I know who made a fortune in the market rise now has lost their fortune in its wild decline.
But it's not just a money thing. I think the stresses today go far beyond the economy, and even the war. I think that the key challenge today is to grant oneself the grace to function with one's own limitations. It's such a time of comparison and ribbon-gathering. I am tired of seeking out merit badges.
I don't have the magic formula for sanity in this insane, turbulent time. But I know that it has something to do with writing on a steno pad what matters to me, and then doing it. I want to plan my life and execute my plans as if my limitations and frustrations do not define me. I want to live as if I am called to live in dangerous, despairing times. I want to recognize my defeats as the cards I am to play. I want to recognize my victories and pleasures as parts of a journey and not ends unto themselves.
Most of all, I want to live as though this is my time, and the things I believe in doing are what I must do. I will find no escape in radical change for change's sake; I will find no solace in any mid-life crisis.
I can only find the path ahead, and I can find that only by trusting myself to step forward, in the way I believe is right to go. I call that thing I sense which is high and true God, to which I pray that I find the right way. But it doesn't matter what I call my experience of life--what matters is that I do what my conscience tells me is right, and live by my values, which I understand all too well, not the madness all about me. My "call", to continue in this grandiose vein, is to be a very small person indeed. But I wish to be the small person in whom I can believe and rely, and not anything the various theys in this world might sketch out for me to be.