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.