A Life in Crisis
I have lost count of the number of people who ask me, with a puzzled face, why I don’t do something with my life. Sometimes they go so far as to tell me that I am “wasting my life”, the full catastrophe of my present condition laid out in front of my eyes, without anesthetic.
The last time this happened, it came courtesy of a new co-worker, who then proceeded to tell me all about her sister in law. How could you have been in this country for 13 years and still be “here”, meaning “in this cafe”? “My sister in law is Chinese, she came here 12 years ago planning to stay for a year only, and now she’s CEO of William Hill, and owns a house worth £700K”.
She also made sure to tell me that she herself had made great strides in the story of “life progress”, albeit in a more modest way. “I came here 4 years ago and now I am married have a baby”.
Life is supposed to follow a certain path, and beware the emotional slumps you will fall into if you dare to venture on untrodden ground.
I try to explain my life, my failures, but it’s no use.
Those who have not experienced the “crisis”, will not believe in its existence.
Which leads me to wonder… Is “climate change” really happening?
Is Capitalism really coming to an end?
Or is it just me, with a life that makes no sense, follows no path of progression, a life devoid of rewards and accolades? A life devoid of… “meaning”?
Not everyone feels the crisis
I work at the cafe of a big company. There’s a woman who works there, who recently went on holiday to the Dominican Republic. And when I say “recently” I mean “during the precise moment when the hurricanes wrecked holy havoc on the whole of the Caribbean”. Before she went, we asked her, “are you sure you want to go?”, she said “it will be fine”. She went and the hurricanes arrived. A week or so later, she came back, so I asked. “Well?!?!”. She said it was windy for a day, but then it was fine.
How nice of the Environment Gods to spare a white First World-er, allowing her to enjoy her holidays and return tanned and be-freckled.
Meanwhile, most Puerto-Ricans have no electricity to this day, and have to subsist on candy bars.
“I like to live in America”, sang the Puerto Rican ladies in “West Side Story”. “Everything right in America”.
Everything right in the First World. No climate change to interrupt their story of progress.
So I ask again: is Climate Change really happening, or is this just the usual story of Third-World-ers like the Puerto Ricans, like me, getting everything wrong as always?
A Refuge inside Environmentalism
I have found a refuge of some kind in the Environmentalist movement. Not because I am primarily concerned with the environment, but because the non-environmentalist world of politics has gone extremely toxic.
I’m sure that plenty of exiled environmentalists will chuckle at this statement, citing their own experience of increasing toxicity and madness within the movement. Yet this madness is a walk through the tulips compared with the madness of the “Liberal / Progressive Left”. Over there, people have lost the compass, having nothing to ground them to reality.
I don’t feel the “pull” towards environmental topics; I am wired to care about humans, and human stories. So I just trust in the environmentalists I admire, whose passion aligns with the health of the natural world. People like Derrick Jensen, Charles Eisenstein, Helena Norberg-Hodge, Joanna Macy. It’s an interesting dynamic. I accept what they say, without the desire to challenge it, or prove it in any way. I know that they are experts, teachers, and I’m a student. More than that, it’s an area I don’t wish to be an “expert” in.
It’s a relief to not have to “prove” anything, or know more than anyone, or argue over minutia. I can just trust.
There is comparatively less neurosis in the environmentalist movement precisely because it gets its cues about “health” and “unhealth” from non-humans. It’s easy to see that an unhealthy river would have less fish, an unhealthy soil would have less living creatures. An ocean filled with plastic is unequivocally wrong, and a clear-cut forest is impossible to explain away.
Yet the “unhealth” in humans is extremely hard to see, not least because we have no idea what a “healthy” human looks like. We need to get our cues from native people, from cultures almost extinct, and then extrapolate and trust. But very few can do this, and even less can accept it when it’s presented to them.
This is the area I’m interested in. The inner worlds, the mythologies and rituals that kept native people sane, that are missing from our culture, leaving us on the very edge of sanity. What did they believe? How did they understand life, the world, humanity? And how can we begin to align our psyches to this healthier state?
And is that even possible, given that most of us live in modern urban environments?
Perhaps all we need to do is taste sanity, then keep aligning ourselves to it, without expecting to reach some healed, perfect “state”. We just need enough to point the rest of humanity in this direction.
Yet this approach to “mental health”, for lack of a better word, is anathema to mainstream politics, or the Liberal / Progressive Left. I once dared say that we need to follow the teachings of Native people… it did not go well.
The Liberal / Progressive world would rather trample everyone and everything in the name of “equality”: Its goal is native people who are completely integrated to the Western way of life; my goal is for Westerners to be completely integrated to native people’s way of life.
We can have sanity, or we can have Capitalism. We can’t have both.
Success trumps failure
Stories of success trump stories of failure. It’s a universal human fact, at least in our culture. We see Jennifer Lawrence rising into stardom in her early 20s and we think “this is how life happens”. We never see the countless hundreds of thousands who never make it, anywhere.
My co-worker knows that her sister in law is now CEO of a company and makes a lot of money. That story trumps mine, her reality is more… “valid”, more important, more… “real”. She is more… “human”.
I wonder, then, how many “unsuccessful” stories it takes to equal the worth of one “successful” one.
If 100 people experience the effects of Climate Change, but one doesn’t, what story emerges victorious? The one that says “Climate Change is real” or the one that says “no it isn’t, check out my successful life”?.
If Climate Change happens in a forest, but no one’s personal life is affected, does it make a sound?
The question is not meaningless. And, granted, I am guilty of mixing “Climate Change” with “The Crisis of Late Capitalism”.
How do we know that the current crisis is indeed happening if we never look at those it is affecting? Are the victims of Capitalism even “real”? Do their stories matter at all?
“Here’s the thing: from where I live, the world has drifted away. We aren’t precarious, we’re unnecessary. The money has gone to the top. The wages have gone to the top. The recovery has gone to the top. And what’s worst of all, everybody who matters seems basically pretty okay with that.”
Everybody who matters… That’s not me. My story doesn’t matter.
So if my story is that I gained a degree in science, and I’ve suffered unemployment and poor jobs to this very day, it doesn’t challenge the “Official Story” that everyone with an education gets a good job, because my story is unsuccessful, and it doesn’t count.
How many unsuccessful stories will it take? Millions in America have seen their lives decimated by the disappearance of good manufacturing jobs, yet their experience doesn’t matter.
My co-worker has also asked why I didn’t move to America, where people make so much money.
There’s a term for this situation, and it is found in the world of spirituality. People are choosing to stay asleep in the face of louder and louder alarm bells. Banking crisis? No matter, we can return to the status quo. Trump is elected president? No matter, you can still have a good life, just stay away from the Nazis. Brexit is happening? No matter, you can still have your holidays in the Sun.
And you, Mary? What is your excuse for not having a successful career, a good life?
Don’t give me no nonsense about the end of Capitalism. There’s a woman I know who is CEO.
This relentless insistence in keeping our eyes shut, in staying asleep in the comforting bosom of the status quo and life as we know it, is dangerous.
Take science. What kind of science would one expect to find in a world where people insist on staying oblivious to the present crisis? A bullshit science.
When you close your eyes to something, you close your eyes to everything.
Institutions like Science are crumbling before our very eyes. Sure, scientists will notice the collapse of the environment, but their minds cannot stretch as far as to challenge the status quo. So the answers they come up with consist of “the status quo, but, you know, minus the climate change”. Which cannot exist.
We are wasting precious time in trying to square an impossible circle, “the myth of progress”.
Though that reminds me… Is Climate Change really happening? Because there are a lot of people who went on to study science and are now “scientists”, with good jobs that pay the mortgage.
We cannot expect those for whom the status quo works to challenge the status quo. They will not listen. They suffer from willful oblivion.
Unfortunately, these are the people who matter.
I am “too far gone”
Some time ago, I met someone, and I liked them.
This feeling of liking someone places us in the vast, empty ocean of vulnerability. There’s nothing to hold on to, you feel exposed, raw, naked, and there is nothing you can do about it, even if all you do is sit at home, keep very quiet and just… like someone, from a distance.
I suppose we all have moments when we feel “not good enough” for those we like, and in my case it shows up like this: “I am too far gone”.
I am too far gone to fit into the “old story”, to go back to the cosy fire of security and stability, of being inside a well trodden path of the myth of progress, of stable family life and financial safety, I am too far gone for Christmas and holidays that are spent in front of the fire surrounded by family, I’m too far gone for conversations around the dinner table surrounded by in-laws who ask “what do you do?”. I am a writer who doesn’t make any money from writing, I studied science but I’m not a scientist and I make a living making coffee for other people. That’s me.
Try to square all of that, and you end up with a twisted tale. It does not fit nicely into any of the Official Narratives of our culture.
The truth is that I long to live in a different story. I don’t want a “good job” in the city, and a house in the suburbs. I would much prefer to live in a farm, as part of an intentional community. Or raise a child in one of the few uncontacted villages left in the world, experiencing that sense of belonging that only people who have grown up surrounded by loved ones can ever know.
I want these things, but I have no idea of how they could come about. I live in London, and I don’t have an independent form of income. I don’t own land. Furthermore, I don’t know how I could find someone who wants this life with me.
This is where I despair, for I cannot, for the life of me, find a way to make the future work, which leads me to lose all hope of ever finding happiness.
This is me, and many more like me. One foot in this story, one foot in a world that isn’t here yet.
You know that quote that goes… “if you don’t fit into this world is because you were meant to help create a new one”.
Yet even if you are willing, where do you start? If you have found a way to make money self-employed, that’s one way. But if you are entirely dependent on this economic system for your survival? If you don’t own land, or have savings, or know the first thing about farming and growing… anything?
All I can do is say, again and again, that I want to leave this culture, that I am not happy here, that the modern world is a basket of neurosis that threaten to either swallow us whole or sleepwalk us into an abyss. All I can do is say “I-want-out”.
I don’t know how to leave. I just want to leave.
Our job as artists: to help in the transition
It takes a lot to retain a sense of wonder while living in this culture. To dare to dream, and love, and feel, and care, in a deeply, deeply twisted story.
But I am here, I am still here, and I suppose there must be wonder left in me, somewhere.
I believe the task of artists right now is to help those born into this culture to dream bigger, brighter, bolder dreams, of a much more loving world, and by doing so to break all possible illusion that this way of living holds any wonder left for us. Our disillusion must be complete; we must exhaust all hope. The story of Western civilisation, the Myth of Progress, the idea of ascending from a primitive past into a glorious tomorrow, all these narratives must burn, until they taste like ash, like stale air, lifeless and listless. We must reach the conviction in our hearts that there is no longer any future in this story.
If we don’t, and civilisation somehow collapses, we will go on with the delusion that this way of life is the idea to aspire to, and will recreate it again, somehow.
The lesson must cut deep.
The task of artists right now is to help in this transition, both by exposing how the emperor is naked, and by painting a picture of what our future could be, should be, will be.
Luckily for us this future is nutrient rich, teeming with spirit and myth, rituals and prayers embedded in our everyday human lives, to render every day, every hour, every mundane human activity into a pinprick of meaning. This future will be rich in the art of millennia past.
What stories will future generations tell about this time of confusion and dystopia, when the highest expressions of Western civilisation are reached, leaving us under no doubt that to follow this story means to risk the very definition of humanity. How will they describe this story, looking back? What will they say?
We must grow sick of this story
In the movie “Interstellar”, humanity had reached an impasse: climate change endangered the lives of most people on the planet, and science had failed at saving us. The planet needed farmers, not scientists, and so the myth of science had crumbled to nothing: people no longer believed humans had ever reached the Moon.
What this teaches us is that no myth is impervious to vanishing in the face of more pressing narratives. No myth is so safe that cannot be rendered obsolete at a stroke.
This is why as artists we must describe our modern day neurosis in its full, gory detail. We must leave no doubt to future generations that this way of living, for all of its glittering appeal, is built on a foundation of madness and horror that cannot be escaped, not even in the clean cut, polished buildings in the capitals of the First World. Madness and horror twists inside us, strangling our humanity, leaving us only with an appearance of the real thing. No one can be fully human, fully awakened, fully aware, while knowing the fate of the poorest half of the human race. To be privileged enough to escape the worst horrors of civilisation requires people to be asleep, their consciousness blunted, their hearts compromised, caged, constricted, caring only about the superficial and never, ever looking into the horizon.
Those of “childish consciousness”
There’s a woman who comes to the cafe where I work, and orders a macchiato every time she does so. She sports the largest diamond solitaire I have ever seen. Once she was having a conversation with my boss about her colleagues, and I overheard her say “if you’re good at your job, you’ll always have your job”.
I was stunned; the sheer force of the obliviousness that such a statement requires. How can someone possibly believe that the “system” is that fair, works that smoothly, that only those who are “bad” at their job are ever unemployed, or fired? Has she not read a word about the layoffs in America in the 90s? Or the layoffs in literally every country in the world after estate companies are privatised? Has she been so spared from the curse of unemployment afflicting millions in the “Rich West”, coursing like a hurricane after the recession of 2008? Has everyone she has ever met been spared?
What I realised in a flash of understanding was that this woman has a certain “naivete” about her, a kind of childish outlook on life that does not match her biological age of mid forties. In her world, jobs are found, and they are well paid, meaningful and stable. In her world, men propose, marriage happens, holidays take place, houses are bought. In her world, nothing bad ever happens unless someone makes a mistake, somewhere, and they “deserve” their fate.
I have never been able to look at her the same way. And I realised that in this company where I work, most people are probably like her, of childish consciousness, where life works out without major upheavals, and the story of civilisation isn’t breaking down, there is no climate change to lose sleep over and no major crisis looming over our heads.
I feel very lonely working where I work.
We must become real, and create a new story
What is clear to me is that not everyone can hold the “New Story”, the conviction that Climate Change is happening, and Capitalism is breaking down in front of our eyes.
People can accept “climate change”, right up to the point where their personal lives can be expected to change in any meaningful way. When notions of holidays or house ownership or careers begin to vanish before our eyes, not many can stay present to that reality. The story may be crumbling, but it feels safer to identify ourselves through a crumbling story than to venture into the unknown and create a new one.
There’s even less hope for those who still derive meaning and belonging from the system, those who still fit into the old story. Those who can afford holidays in the Caribbean, or sport 3 carat diamonds.
It seems pointless to me, to try and bring those people along, to try and convince them that Climate Change is real, and Capitalism is collapsing. What’s more, we might not even need to.
Those of us with “crisis lives”, who overcome the devastating effects in our psyche of a story that no longer fits, we can grow tired from it and start creating a new one.
I don’t know what that story will look like. Nobody knows for sure. In all likelihood, it will resemble the ancient story we left behind in our endless pursuit of “progress”. It will have more soul and more humanity.
It will make those of us who are “unreal”, whose stories do not matter, into full humans who are part of something greater than ourselves.
I believe it starts with us. I believe we are our only hope.