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Date Posted: 01:32:43 03/24/05 Thu
Just as we meet limits in the midst of life, we also find possibility, the undiluted freedom to create and live our lives. Everyday the sun rises is a new day full of possibilities. We do not have to approach today in the same way as we approached yesterday. Every week is a new week with a new set of tasks, demands, adventures, any of which reveal brand new possibilities.
This can be especially clear in a health crisis: when the doctor says you have three years to live, or one year, or a few months. There is still possibility. We have all seen people appraise their situation, affirm it, and then decide what they want to accomplish in their remaining time.
The exploits of young people like Canadian Terry Fox both thrill and beckon to people. Cancer had left him with a wooden leg, but he saw he could use the wooden leg as a gimmick to raise money for cancer research. Starting in Newfoundland, he walked on his wooden leg half way across Canada before his cancer caught up with him. Another young man, Rick Hanson, a paraplegic who used to be an athlete, pushed himself across the 5000-mile width of Canada in a wheelchair, and subsequently around the world, on behalf of spinal-cord research. Imagine all the people who told them, "You can't do this."
The possibilities are endless. And it is the same with the creativity that is breaking loose all over. People who are unhappy with current economics are creating their local trading systems; those who have become disenchanted with the nine-to-five job are creating new cottage industries at home; some very rich people, like Ted Turner, are working to give a lot of their money back to the world where it is needed, for the United Nations or to create open societies. Camcorders document abuses of power and become a force for emancipation.
More people seem to be setting out to do the impossible. Some sail round the world on their own. Mount Everest has a garbage problem on its summit, through the sheer numbers of successful climbers; even fifteen-year olds are preparing to climb it. US and Russian spacecraft have cooperated in space exploration further into our galaxy. Everything is up for grabs and open-ended at the same time. Just make up your mind what you want and start experimenting or pushing. If you want a child, but you think getting married is for the birds, you can arrange for a donor. If you're the kind of person who is always getting lost, you can buy yourself a small global positioning instrument to tell you where you are.
We easily become intoxicated with the miracles of technology that keep emerging, but technological advancement on its own without an ethical framework can be counter-productive. Is the integral development of the human being advancing at the same pace? What are we going to do about the hundreds of nuclear devices rusting out in the Soviet Union? Who is taking responsibility for all that nuclear waste? It is one thing for the wunderkind to create these technological wonders and monsters. It is another to think through a long-term plan for them. We have marvelled at the wonder of test-tube babies and the creation of embryos. But more than 25, 000 frozen embryos are waiting in US laboratories for people to decide about their future: to use them or trash them. It seems that there are big decisions waiting to be made in every one of the arenas we have mentioned. The lucid ones know that the future comes to all of us as crushing demand. It will constantly call on us to attempt the impossible.
There was a time in my life when I became a fanatic amateur futurist and read every book I could find on new things being developed and the kind of future they would create. One day I spouted on about it all to some friends over a beer. I told them that you know, all this flesh and bone could disappear and we could turn into a set of more efficient artificial prostheses, including heart and brain. As soon as I had said it, one of my friends asked with some feeling, "You think being a tin man would be great? Is that the kind of human being you want us to become?" I said that I had not thought about it personally, to which he responded, "Look, Brian, it's fine to get excited about all this, but someone's got to take responsibility for all these new inventions. We need to get to a consensus on this quickly, or certain scientists will have us all clanking around like tin men. It is fine to get intrigued about the many different forms of marriage and partnership today and the end of the nuclear family, but we've got to decide what form of the family is really going to care for people, children and society?" I said nothing further, just sipped my beer. His point was too obviously true to deny.
There are so many other cases: what shall we do about the Palestinian-Israeli impasse? What needs to happen in the former Yugoslavia? What is the key to turning Central, West, and East Africa around? How do we get a truly participatory governing system here, in which the economic, political and cultural dimensions of society are held in balance, without the cronyism between business and government ? How can we enable full rights for Aboriginal people? How are we going to change schools into places where people really learn how to live life and make a life? Who is going to recreate vital local health systems? Local community? Who are going to be the champions of the environment? Everywhere we look we see what needs to be done. Nothing has to remain the way it is.
It is the same with us. We can become whatever we decide. We are in charge of creating our own future (although we are not in control.) Many of the limits we create for ourselves are just that-self-imposed limits. In Chicken Soup for the Soul at Work, Canfield and Co. give the example of Azie Taylor Morton, past United States Treasurer. Her mother was deaf and could not speak. She didn't know who her father was. Her first job was picking cotton. Later in her life she witnessed to possibility:
Nothing has to remain the way it is, if that's not the way a person wants it to be. It isn't luck, and it isn't circumstances, and it isn't being born a certain way that causes a person's future to become what it becomes. Nothing has to remain the way it is, if that's not the way a person wants it to be. All a person has to do to change a situation that brings unhappiness or dissatisfaction is answer the question: How do I want this situation to become? Then the person must commit totally to personal actions that carry them there.
Whoopi Goldberg made a similar witness in The Whoopi Goldberg Book. She says she looks on acting as such a joyous thing because it is shot through with possibility. Anything can happen:
As I write this, I'm appearing eight times a week, on Broadway, in a part originally written for a man, but you'd never know, right? If you come to a thing with no preconceived notions of what that thing is, the whole world can be your canvas. Just dream it, and you can make it so. I believed a little girl could rise from a single parent household in the Manhattan projects, start a single-parent household of her own, struggle through seven years of welfare and odd jobs, and still wind up making movies. So yeah, I think anything is possible. I know it because I have lived it. I know it because I have seen it. I have witnessed things the ancients would have called miracles, but they are not miracles. They are the projects of someone's dream, and they happen as the result of hard work.
We hear of such examples, and say, "Yes, I see that. Yes, that's wonderful for them. But my situation is different, you see." Now our problem is not insecurity or emptiness, but overwhelming possibility. The problem is that life is too full, like a double-yoked egg. To decide which way our life is going to go, which ditch we are going to dig, which issue to aim it at, seems absurd, when there are so many. ICA Canada director Duncan Holmes tells about when he was a kid and ice cream parlors sold 12 varieties of ice cream -- that was something. His mother took him in and invited him to pick an ice cream. Confounded by the magnificence of all the offerings, he could opt only for the tried and true vanilla. Upon hearing "vanilla", his mother said loudly, dogmatically and in a tone that would brook no opposition: "Duncan, you are not going to stand there and choose vanilla. I simply will not allow it! Choose something different!"
There's a bookstore in Toronto, called appropriately The World's Biggest Bookstore, over half a block big and two stories tall. It is absolutely packed with books. To decide to buy anything there is a real achievement. Often I walk around for two hours and leave empty-handed -- just can't decide; it's too much.
Many of those who have made it in life had to break through impossible blocks, but they trusted in the possibility in life and did the impossible. A well-known recording company wrote in a note to the Beatles: "We don't like your sound, and guitar music is on the way out." Fortunately, the Beatles persevered. A well-known computer company said to Steve Jobs when he sought funding for Apple computers, "Hey, you haven't gone through college yet." English novelist John Creasey got 753 rejection slips before he published 564 books. Many of the great social reformers, from Emily Pankhurst to Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, were imprisoned for their pains. But that only made their determination stronger.
In this situation we tend to say, "Too much". Faced with overwhelming possibility and overwhelming demand, the question is "What do I?" What am I going to do with my whole life? Which of the many possible furrows am I going to plough? Which social demand will I commit to? This is not an economic question related to job or income, but a question of one's historical thrust. But as soon as we ask it, we want to take a nap. Like Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind, we tend to say, "I'll think about that tomorrow." Or, "I need more data to be able to decide. It's not all that clear. And after all, there's no urgency; I have my whole life before me." Or, when we do assign ourselves time to think about our future, we sit down with fingers on the computer keys, and nothing comes.
Yet, even as we postpone the decision, our life clock is ticking away, one heart beat at a time ker BOOM, ker BOOM, ker BOOM; life and death and life and death; decide, decide, decide. Samuel Beckett, in Waiting for Godot, puts such delaying tactics into the mouths of Vladimir and Estragon:
Vladimir: Well? What do we do?
Estragon: Don't let's do anything. It's safer… Let's wait until we know exactly how we stand.
Everyone gets only once around the clock in this lifetime. No one gets a second chance. This is it. Even as we postpone the decision, our lives are ticking away. We long for some quick solution to put an end to the demand on our lives, an end to our own procrastination. The irony is that when possibility breaks out all round us, we find ourselves longing for death. Camus put it this way in The Myth of Sisyphus:
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest -- whether or not the world has three dimensions or the mind has nine or twelve categories -- are games. One must first answer... One must follow and understand this fatal game that leads from lucidity in the face of existence to flight from light.... Killing yourself is merely confessing that life is too much for you.
There are many ways of committing suicide beside the drug overdose, slashed wrists, or hanging. I had a friend, a brilliant guy with a Ph.D. in microbiology and too much money, who slept about the same amount of time as a cat: sixteen hours a day. The rest of the time he drove all over the place in his car with no shortage of energy.
We flee from the question of Who am I? by hiding from it. We escape from the question, what do I?, by floating. It's as if we were up there with those round-the-world balloonists. We look down at the passing scenes on the world below. The balloon passes over people picking up food from garbage dumps, and we exclaim, "Gee, that's terrible -- someone really ought to do something about that!" But the balloon moves on, and we see the forests in the Amazon burning, and we say, "Look at that: good rainforest going up in smoke -- that's ecologically indefensible. Someone ought to stop that!" But the wind takes the balloon on and now it's over what remains of Yugoslavian communities: we catch scenes of internecine strife; people digging mass graves and shoveling the dead into them; explosions, machine gun fire, old and young being cut down. "Terrible! Shocking!" is our response. "They need someone to take responsibility for that situation." Then the balloon moves on, and we witness slave labor and the terrible living conditions of the New York garment workers, but the balloon moves inexorably on and on. It never lights down. Just floats and floats, on, and on round the world, until maybe it just flops down in the ocean and sinks.
Cynicism is another escape. We denigrate life, hoping to excuse ourselves from serious engagement, because "life is really a pile" or "people are just no damn good you can't trust anyone these days." Or, show up at a meeting with a "grenade" in our back pocket. As soon as it looks like a creative proposal might go somewhere, out comes the grenade to bring the creative flow of energy to a grinding halt: "Hey, we tried that three years ago, and it didn't work!"
Yet each of us has the chance to live one great life and die one great death. Life is like one of those Roman candles: we light the Roman candle and someone sings out, "Hey, shoot it this way!" And we turn round and aim it in that direction, until someone else says, "Hey, over here!" And we shoot it that way, and another way. Then someone says, "Shoot it over here!" And we turn the candle that way. Suddenly, oops! No more sparks. The candle is finished. Like that Roman candle, a human is just a burst of energy. The question is always where to direct it.
So each of us is faced with the option: Do I choose my destiny and grasp it every day of my life or do I spend my life waiting for it?
The Discipline of Lucidity
Lucidity about reality is not like learning to ride a bike: once learned, we never forget. Lucidity as a stance that has to be recapitulated day after day, so that we are not being constantly smashed by the way life comes to us. Hence the need to discipline our lucidity. We need to know how to stay grounded in our actual situation, and live in reality day by day. This is no snack, as T. S. Eliot reminds us: "Human kind cannot stand very much reality."
Some people I know start each day like this after climbing out of bed:
Life is never the way we want it.
We refuse to accept its promise.
Nevertheless we are free to live.
Be it so.
Tracy Goss has this summary:
Life does not turn out the way it "should".
Nor does life turn out the way it shouldn't.
Life turns out the way it does.
These are good mantras to use every now and then. These rituals can be the equivalent of rubbing the sleep out of our eyes. They remind us of both the limits and the possibility that life is and set one's course for the day. I know people who start the day by sitting on the floor and doing some yoga exercises. Some people go to Mass to rehearse the way life is; in monasteries, they make sure they get their stance straight by chanting the office of Lauds at 3 a.m. These are highly specific ways of starting the day. For some of us, the act of taking a shower may be the ritual by which we say to ourselves, "I'm going to stay awake today to life as it is". Other people sit down fully dressed to make out their "Do list" for the day and state their intention to remain grounded in the realities of their situation.
There are many other ways to keep ourselves grounded in reality. One is exposing ourselves to the full spectrum of reality through the movies we watch, the news we decide to listen to or read, the places we go. If we note that the last half-dozen movies we have seen are all romances, we might want to try a serious drama. If we notice that our TV watching focuses a lot on talk shows, we might want to watch the six o'clock news for a while.
Others like to immerse themselves in the experience of the four seasons: the burst of new possibility in the spring; the full flowering and growth in the summer; the wonderful colors and browning in the fall, the cold and death of winter, followed by the quickening and then the explosion of life in the spring. This for them is a rehearsal of life as it is.
Life is full of things that ease this sense of being in "the big squeeze" -- alcohol, drugs, possessions, illusions -- that take away our sense of limits or our belief in possibility. This is why lucidity is a discipline that every leader needs. It is never acquired once and for all, but has to be rehearsed every day.
The final question here is how we relate to life: that is, how we name it. We all know people who say: "Life is a bitch and then you die." We can relate to the crunch as cynics, or romantics, or we can relate to it as good and decide to dance the dance of life.
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