Patience in an Emergency

Editor’s Note: The past week or two has been particularly challenging for me. I want to point in part at the election raging around us—those of us in America, anyway—as a source of those challenges, but it goes deeper than that. I think of late I’ve been struggling with my own perceptions of myself, my internal views, and a question of priorities and focus. The world outside me has rarely felt more troubled, and broader geopolitical and world events beyond this sickening election cycle have left me troubled and wary. I worry about my future and the future of the people I love. At the same time, I feel at a loss for the best way to react and question how to attempt to make my own tiny impact on the world in a way that both fits my ideals and sustains me.

As a result of all this—of my cluttered head, my selfish motivations, my short-sightedness, my fear, and a good number of other common and clichéd human failings—I have been far from my best and I’ve been hurtful. As a result, I see that I need some extra time for thought and reflection, and I need to take extra time for consideration of priorities. As a result, tonight I’m putting the Closed System Economics series of posts on hold and reposting an entry from my old blog, Of The Hands, which feels very relevant just now. It’s a bit fascinating to read it today, three years later, and to reflect on what it said about me back in 2013, what it still says about me today, and in what ways it no longer fully reflects who I am. It feels from much longer ago, but I am sometimes amazed at how much different my life is today than it was just a few years back.

If there is one piece of this, though, that feels unquestionably true to today, it’s the quote from Wendell Berry from which the title is taken. I think there is little question we are in an emergency today, and I fear it is going to get worse. Perhaps it is time for me to rededicate myself to figuring out just what I am going to do about it and how I am going to take my own small responsibility. I have felt too much anger of late and it’s made me anxious, made me jumpy, and worn me down. It’s time to return to a certain patience. I just have to make sure it’s an honest one.

I expect to be back next week with a new post. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this. And I wish all of you both patience and good work in the hard months ahead.

— Joel Caris, 10/17/2016


Patience in an Emergency
Originally published November 4th, 2013

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 worldview 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 to instead embrace it 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.” That line strikes 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 currently 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 too often 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 my 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, but I have serious problems with it not only at ethical and moral levels, but at simple levels of efficacy and strategy.

The argument eventually lost its draw for me. I’m not a warrior. I rarely fight. I have little interest in machismo. I don’t like conflict, don’t thrive on 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. And I hope that it will open paths of cooperation for me, even as it closes paths of competition and defeat.

11 Comments

  1. Hi Joel,

    Your post was really moving and heartfelt, just like your editorials are. I’m glad I had the time to stop by and read your blog.

    What I find interesting about the word “emergency” is that it contains the root “emergence”. And perhaps as we emerge from the shells of our former selves (speaking for myself here) and emerge into new forms as the old falls away it is helpful and more sustainable to find patience. I like to be incremental in the (slow) changes I make. This lets things take root and integrate in their own time.

    Be well my friend.

    • Thank you, Justin. I appreciate the kind words, and I like your emphasis on the root of “emergency”. I do think I’ve been moving toward a better place over the last several days and I’m trying to pay closer attention to nature. That always helps.

      I’m glad you had time to stop by, as well.

  2. D. Bruce Turton

    October 18, 2016 at 8:17 am

    It has taken a long time in my own life to begin to consider the views of those with whom I disagree. I know that people “see” that their lives and the lives of their children will change for the worse with what is and will happen due to global disruption from the consumption of fossil carbon. I know that even those who do “know” that fossil carbon is the cause of global warming do not want to consider their “little” lives, their consumption, their clinging to liberalism and capitalism, as having much to do with the future (thus not changing their own living). I know that many “know” that “they” will come up with “something”, some technology that will permit our western way of living to continue for many more generations, let alone our own.
    But I also know my own complicity, even as I do what I can. Thus I can only rage in private any longer. And wait in despair for my kids and grandkidlettes. I do not thrust my thoughts into their lives.

    • Hi Bruce,

      I think that’s one of the more challenging and interesting questions of our times: If you understand the dark paths we’re going down as a civilization, what do you do to respond to that? I think personal change is a must, and that other options flower out from that base. Not everyone agrees. I still think I’m right, but perhaps I’m wrong. I know without question that this is all very hard, and I try not to push my thoughts and beliefs onto others. I very often fail. I’m still trying to get better.

      More time with the long view is a critical part of it, I think.

      Thanks for your comment.

  3. Yo, Joel – Well. I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned it before, but I’ve been a member of a 12 Step Program for many, many years. We’ve got a pretty rich oral history floating around. All those banal and irritating proverbs and sayings. Irritating, probably because a lot of them sound so simple minded, but are true.

    There’s the good ol’ Serenity Prayer, which I won’t bother to quote here, as it’s got that “God” stuff in it. :-). I guess a more secular form would be … figure out what you can do (or change). Figure out what you can’t do (or change.) Figure out what classification whatever is bothering you falls into. Let go of the ca-ca you can’t do anything about.

    It’s an old concept. Cicero touched on it. So did Solomon ben Judah (aka Aka Shlomo ibn Gabirol) an 11th century Jewish poet and philosopher. Not to offend any serious Buddhist scholars, here, but from my poking about in Eastern philosophy, the over arching theme seems to be that all suffering comes from wanting things we can’t have. Relief from that suffering comes from identifying stuff we can’t have and letting it go. Do I follow my own advice? Not all the time. Otherwise, I’d be levitating.

    So. A prescription. More idle thoughts, actually. You might join a formal meditation group. I’d guess they’re thick on the ground in a city like Portland. Or, if you’re motivated, tackle it on your own. If you have enough discipline to practice on a daily basis. I also think you may be suffering from a bit of nature deficit disorder (is that a real thing?). What I mean is, there you were, digging in the dirt for a couple of years, and now you’re not. You may miss it more than you know. And, of course I have a book to recommend. “Dandelion Hunter: Foraging the Urban Wilderness” by Rebecca Lerner. It’s about foraging / wildcrafting / ethnobiology IN PORTLAND, OREGON. And, she’s funny and very self depreciating. Looks like Powell’s has some remaindered copies for less than $10 a pop.

    So, another bit of banal nonsense. “Get up, show up, take the first indicated step.” If this post is too personal or totally off topic, feel free to delete it. I won’t be offended. It’s just the ruminations of an old duffer who’s been there, done that, was too poor to afford the t-shrt. Lew

    • Hi Lew,

      No worries. God doesn’t bother me, nor does the personal nature of your comment. If I didn’t want to get personal, I probably wouldn’t have written much of Of The Hands and the Editor’s Note for this post!

      So far as I’m concerned, Nature Deficit Disorder is a very real thing and, agreed, I’m probably suffering it a bit. I also have been out taking walks less of late, and perhaps I need to make more time for that again. Meditation is not a bad idea, either. I’ve practiced it on and off at times throughout my life (far and away mostly off) and I did really enjoy practicing discursive meditation as John Michael Greer teaches it in a few of his books. I’m really NOT good at making the time and making it a habit, so we’ll see—but no, it’s not a bad idea.

      Thanks for the book recommendation. I’ll check that out. Does sound very appropriate for me, living here in Portland, eh?

      But mostly, I agree that I need to let go of some things. It’s not that I don’t know that, I just have this pesky tendency to forget and slip into bad habits. I was in therapy for a bit years ago, in my early twenties, and the basic gist of it came down to “You have limited control over the world around you, but you have complete control over how you react to it. So do a better job reacting and stop driving yourself unnecessarily crazy.” Good advice to this day!

      Thanks for all your good thoughts, Lew.

      • Yo, Joel – Sigh. Bad habits (of thought, or anything else) are so hard to get rid of and good habits are so hard to establish. We do like our well worn grooves :-).

        I also “ruminate” too much on the past. I like that word. Like an old cow chewing on it’s cud. :-). People that live on in my memory from long ago, who probably haven’t given me a thought in all that time. I have quit a … resentment against someone out of my past. It suddenly dawned on me the other day that THAT WAS 20 YEARS AGO!!! What a waste of brain power.

        I have a little daily meditation book that I’ve had for years. Probably wouldn’t be useful to you, as it’s got a 12 Step slant. I like it because it’s specifically “for guys.” I’ve incorporated reading it, daily, as part of my back stretching routine. I also jot down people’s birthdays and people who have passed that I want to remember. I’ve had it for over 20 years, and the poor thing is falling apart.

        One of the little meditations resonates with me, every time I run across it, year after year. It runs something like … some people live their lives as if they’re sitting in a chair in a room. There are many windows, with many different views. But over and over again, they get out of their chair and go to the same window, and take in the same view. There’s all these opportunities to look at the world in a different way, which they don’t take advantage of. That’s sure me, a lot of the time. Lew

  4. Hi Joel,

    Thanks for your honesty. This excerpt from Meditations by Marcus Aurelius has been a guiding light for me for many years — I hope you’ll find it inspiring.

    “Constantly regard the universe as one living being, having one substance and one soul; and observe how all things have reference to one perception, the perception of this one living being; and how all things act with one movement; and how all things are the cooperating causes of all things which exist; observe too the continuous spinning of the thread and the contexture of the web.”

    Jim

  5. I left a reply similar to the following on another blog wherein the writer had expressed sentiments closely related to yours: In the fall, plant spring-blooming flower bulbs – then wait with positive anticipation…

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