What I Live For

Guy McPherson

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“One result of my abstemious existence, as we venture into the darkest of days ahead, is that I spend considerable time reflecting on my life goals and evaluating—constantly re-evaluating—what I live for. I have abandoned vigorous attempts to right the sinking ship of civilization; just as, long ago I gave up on half-hearted efforts to convince university administrators that my cause is just and therefore worthy. In similar manner, my too-late attempts to warn humanity about the extinction of Homo sapiens were clearly too little, too late.—Dr. Guy McPherson

Going Dark

By Dr. Guy McPherson

“Dante et Virgile in Hell,” by Jean-Léon Gérôme.

“Dante et Virgile in Hell,” by Jean-Léon Gérôme.

“There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with people. Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world. But given a story to enact that puts them at odds with the world, as yours does, they will live at odds with the world. Given a story to enact in which they are the lords of the world, they will ACT like lords of the world. And, given a story to enact in which the world is a foe to be conquered, they will conquer it like a foe, and one day, inevitably, their foe will lie bleeding to death at their feet, as the world is now.”―Daniel Quinn, Ishmael: An Adventure of The Mind and Spirit

“Freedom begins between the ears.”―Edward Abbey

Guy McPherson

WESTCHESTER COUNTY New York—(Weekly Hubris)—November 2018—Among the questions of the ages, for the masses: Why am I here? Does my life have meaning? If so, where does the meaning come from?

I have long viewed myself as a social critic. I try to improve the lives of others by pointing out societal shortcomings that can be improved. As a teacher, my messages become personal. They are focused on individual learners and the changes each person can make. 

My life as a social critic has a significant cost: I have many acquaintances, but I’ve managed to offend most of my former friends. As an equal-opportunity offender, ever willing to speak truth to power, I’m largely an ascetic. To an increasing extent, I live as we all must die: alone.

One result of my abstemious existence, as we venture into the darkest of days ahead, is that I spend considerable time reflecting on my life goals and evaluating—constantly re-evaluating—what I live for. I have abandoned vigorous attempts to right the sinking ship of civilization; just as, long ago I gave up on half-hearted efforts to convince university administrators that my cause is just and therefore worthy. In similar manner, my too-late attempts to warn humanity about the extinction of Homo sapiens were clearly too little, too late. But my inability to adopt a completely hermetic life leaves me pathetically seeking solace from an indifferent universe, uninterested colleagues, a few friends, and you, my online comrades.

Obviously, it didn’t start out this way. As with each of us, I am a product of my DNA and my personal experiences. 

As a carefree child in a tiny, redneck, backwoods logging town in northern Idaho, I didn’t have a clue. According to the many email messages I’ve been receiving, I still don’t. But that’s another issue. I spent the 1960s and 1970s in youthful ignorance, chasing athletic fame and the girls who came with it. In college, hormonal lust had me blowing off a decent education while pursuing basketball and women’s studies, even though a Women’s Studies department didn’t yet exist at Idaho State University. I wasn’t particularly good at either subject, and immature adolescence eventually gave way to a responsible life in avid pursuit of the “American Dream” of financial security.

To paraphrase author and social critic Daniel Quinn, the problem was not that I thought too highly of myself, or that I thought too little of myself, but that I thought constantly of myself.

As I was working hundred-hour weeks in graduate school and beyond, I was socking away the money and serving the cultural machine of Western Civil-Lie-Zation. I was simultaneously reading and failing to heed the words of Edward Abbey: “All gold is fool’s gold.”

Somehow, though, despite my best attempts to hide from reality, I discovered that relationships are far more important than accomplishments. Stunningly, this important realization came to me even before I earned tenure. Not surprisingly, I learned it from my students.

Some two decades into my life as a scholar, pursuing the life of the mind, I temporarily left the ivory tower to work for The Nature Conservancy, only to find more of the same: money is all that matters. I returned to academic life and immediately taught Bill Calder’s Conservation Biology course in the wake of this friend’s death. It changed my life. It was the best course I’d ever taught because it was populated by students from more than 20 different majors, from creative writing to biology, none of whom was required to be there. During the autumn of 2001, we applied art and literature to the newly emerging enterprise of conservation biology in an attempt to bridge the eponymous two cultures of C.P. Snow (and Socrates before him, and E.O. Wilson after). In other words, I was able to turn my scholarly pursuit of meaning into a classroom endeavor for 40 of us. 

Needless to say, we largely failed. But we succeeded in one regard: Forty of us came together as a group, but society didn’t come along. We had our bubble, but reality kept sneaking in and thwarting our efforts. Along the path, I learned something important, albeit small and personal: I had to serve, in my own small way, as a teacher and social critic and companion and friend and mentor. I had to bridge the two cultures, as if that’s possible, and I had to show others how to do the same.

Along with this realization, I lost my anchor. Until I discovered myself, at the age of 40, I had believed science would save us. I had believed that rational thought was our savior. I had believed that, by abandoning fairy tales and magical thinking, we could find a secular way to enlightenment.

I failed to account for how badly scientists have lost their way. Science, as a process and a way of knowing, has unrivaled power. And you know what they say about power and corruption.

Science has not lost its way, but scientists have. They have been co-opted by objectivity, failing to recognize the impossibility of the task. They are unwilling to sacrifice their objectivity, which they do not and cannot have, in exchange for doing the right thing. Like nearly everybody else, they are unwilling to make sacrifices to serve the common good. Indeed, many of them believe they are serving the common good, although they most often simply conflate the common good with common culture and its rabid pursuit of fiat currency.

Science is no longer my anchor. But teaching is, in the limited ways now at my disposal. And also trying to live, for now, as though my life matters, as though it has meaning beyond the meanings I assign it. I’m a lot more cynical and a lot less enthusiastic than I used to be about my tiny role in this grand play.

I still struggle every day to find meaning in a universe without meaning. Whom shall I serve? For now, I can serve society by speaking, writing, and acting as though a single life can make a difference in a world gone awry. For now, I can demonstrate the value and importance of relationships, relative to accomplishments. For now, I can be kind to individuals while forcing institutions to do right, even if it means being unkind to individuals who represent institutions. For now, I can serve people by criticizing society.

And I can find meaning everywhere . . . in small observations and small acts. I can find meaning, and mystery, in cliff swallows and butterflies, the kindness of strangers, and a child’s love.

It’s too late to meet the three goals I had for myself as a teenager: Live fast, die young, and leave a pretty corpse. I’m too slow, too old, and too late, respectively. The pursuit of meaning will have to suffice.

Although what I live for changes in minor ways from day to day and week to week, I have found the meanings I’ve long been seeking. Better yet, I’ve discovered that a meaningful, meaning-filled existence can be pursued, and perhaps even captured, by nearly all who try.

To order Dr. McPherson’s books, click the cover images here below:

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Guy McPherson

About Guy McPherson

Guy McPherson is an internationally recognized speaker, award-winning scientist, and one of the world’s leading authorities on abrupt climate change leading to near-term human extinction. He is professor emeritus at the University of Arizona, where he taught and conducted research for 20 years. His published works include 14 books and hundreds of scholarly articles. Dr. McPherson has been featured on television and radio and in several documentary films. He is a blogger and social critic who co-host his own radio show, “Nature Bats Last.” Dr. McPherson speaks to general audiences across the globe, and to scientists, students, educators, and not-for-profit and business leaders who seek their best available options when confronting Earth’s cataclysmic changes.
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17 Responses to What I Live For

  1. Anita Sullivan says:

    Thanks, Guy! I especially appreciate the word “serve,” which is where I seem to be coming from also, these days. And the way you expressed it, there is another word close beside it, which is “gratuitous.”

  2. Guy McPherson says:

    Thank you, Anita. Obviously, my vocabulary needs work. And so does my ability to serve.

  3. Robert Schick says:

    Quinn’s gone. Abbey’s gone. So, with this issue, that leaves you (and a few others, you know who you are). As my brother said to me, whether deserved or not: “It’s a dirty job, and you were born to do it.” My definition of a friend: ‘Someone who’d take a bullet for you.’ i have few friends. i would take a bullet for you/your message. Your eyes do not lie as do so many–not all–of your detractors. Rumi would be your friend also, but could never be the devious detractors’ friend. Thank you, rogue composer here…(other than this one and one other, i don’t respond to blogs, etc…no point)

  4. Guy McPherson says:

    Robert, I’ll be looking for you if my demise doesn’t come before the bullets start flying. Thank you.

  5. paul marcotte says:

    Hi Guy,
    Continue being the teacher, my friend.
    Here’s a quote from a long time ago.

    THOSE WHO ARE ABLE TO SEE BEYOND THE SHADOWS AND LIES OF THEIR CULTURE WILL NEVER BE UNDERSTOOD, LET ALONE BELIEVED BY THE MASSES.

    PLATO
    You’re in good company.

  6. ed hamsher says:

    In a zen kinda way I discovered you and eckhart tolle about the same time several years ago. I am thankful for the miracles.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1g80tG3LV60

    humbly,
    ed

  7. John Gaylord says:

    Please don’t discount your talent as a stand-up comic! I increasingly find humor in your prose (even at times when nobody in the audience is laughing), and laughter is the best medicine for what ails us. Thanks for all you do.

  8. Guy McPherson says:

    Big thanks to my friend Paul for reminding me of Plato’s famous line. Big thanks to see and John — friends I haven’t yet met — for the kind sentiments. You set a high bar for me, gentlemen.

  9. Guy McPherson says:

    Sorry for my typo in the comment above: The second sentence is targeted at Ed, not see.

  10. Gordon Shephard says:

    A few years ago I came across a piece of writing that has served me well. Ernest Becker, a student of Freud, Rank, Kierkegaard, and others, wrote ‘The Denial of Death,” which deals with “meaning” at what I believe is the deepest level. Becker proposed that the essential driver for the development of “character,” (or personality, or self) is anxiety about mortality, about the deeply fearful sense that we humans, though we know ourselves to be “godlike” in our spiritual powers, are unavoidably entombed in a meat sack that will eventually be food for worms…and what will happen to our “selves” then?

    To avoid this terrible dilemma, we (according to Becker) take on “immortality projects,” cultural systems that we suppose (believe, hope, desperately wish) will somehow project something of ourselves into some unending future, make us some kind of “hero” (“a working class hero is something to be”) who will be remembered forever. Those cultural systems (religious, scientific, consumerist) become the source of our “meaning.”

    Of course, some of us find those canned meaning systems to be pretty threadbare, so we go “searching” for meaning, hoping to “find” meaning somewhere, in something…for some way to contribute to something that will prevail beyond our own limited physical existence, some “immortality project” that will guarantee us protection from coming face to face with the inevitable reality that we (our conscious selves) will cease to exist at the same moment that our physical systems (from brain to bowel) cease to function.

    In my limited experience, the only source of “meaning” I have discovered, is the human being itself. Humans alone (so it seems to me) create meaning. In other words, we’re all just making it up!

    Otto Rank, a protege of Freud, who eventually broke with the “master” over the question of what is the true driver of “character,” wrote “Art and Artist,” about (among other things) the similarity between “artistic vision” and psychosis. Plato’s quote, above, fits neatly into Rank’s proposal, that artists (true ones, not the craftspeople who follow them) are cursed to see “beyond the shadows and lies” of their culture to present a new vision, one which may be embraced (as being “artistic”) or rejected (as being “psychotic”) by the culture from which they have sprung.

    Becker eventually arrived at the conclusion that there is no “hope” for a future in which humanity could move beyond the need for immortality projects. Not unlike (or so it seems to me) your conclusion, Guy, that there is no hope that the human species could move beyond its impending extinction.

    I just wonder what will happen to all the “meaning” that has been “found,” by humans, over the millennia that we have existed, once humans have disappeared from the universe, and all of the only known repository for meaning ceases to exist.

    I suppose that we can always hope that the Voyager space ship will eventually reach some other set of conscious, meaning creating beings, and that we will be “remembered” by them, thus immortalizing us long after our own universal mortality.

    Yeah, that would be good…

  11. Guy McPherson says:

    Thank you, Gordon, for your thoughtful comment. I’m familiar with Becker’s work. And I, too, was guilty of projecting my ego into a future that’ll never come (I called it my legacy at the time). As social critic Jonathan Swift pointed out in Gulliver’s Travels, immortality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

  12. Gerry Grimes says:

    I am still trying to find something I disagree with Prof McPherson’s views. It all makes sense and most people cannot cope with the brutal truth. Amazing how we got to 8 billion of us. We only did it with fossil fuel and GMO crops. I am amazed that ocean ecology has not completely broken. 37Celcius Sydney yesterday. Bad fire season coming. Cheers all.

  13. Guy McPherson says:

    Thank you, Gerry, for your affirmative message. Sadly, we seem to be clever but unwise.

  14. David Hayes says:

    Hey Guy I got some comfort from this poem I recently came across:

    The Dakini Speaks by Jennifer Welwood

    My friends, let’s grow up.
    Let’s stop pretending we don’t know the deal here.
    Or if we truly haven’t noticed, let’s wake up and notice.
    Look: Everything that can be lost, will be lost.
    It’s simple — how could we have missed it for so long?
    Let’s grieve our losses fully, like ripe human beings,
    But please, let’s not be so shocked by them.
    Let’s not act so betrayed,
    As though life had broken her secret promise to us.
    Impermanence is life’s only promise to us,
    And she keeps it with ruthless impeccability.
    To a child she seems cruel, but she is only wild,
    And her compassion exquisitely precise:
    Brilliantly penetrating, luminous with truth,
    She strips away the unreal to show us the real.
    This is the true ride — let’s give ourselves to it!
    Let’s stop making deals for a safe passage:
    There isn’t one anyway, and the cost is too high.
    We are not children anymore.
    The true human adult gives everything for what cannot be lost.
    Let’s dance the wild dance of no hope!

    Just wondering if you know where I might find the chords to the Nature Bats Last theme song by Afrizen? Wouldn’t mind rockin out to it, it’s a great tune!
    Cheers

  15. Guy McPherson says:

    Thank you for sharing the wonderful poem, David. It seems to have Buddhist roots.

    I don’t know about the chords, but AfriZen’s song is posted on SoundCloud: https://soundcloud.com/afrizen/nature-bats-last

  16. diana says:

    “And I can find meaning everywhere . . . in small observations and small acts. I can find meaning, and mystery, in cliff swallows and butterflies, the kindness of strangers, and a child’s love.”

    Thank goodness for these “small” events/observations every day. They — and some important relationships — are what keep me going as we hurtle towards disaster.

    Wonderful piece, and the comments are good too. Love that poem.

  17. Guy McPherson says:

    Thank you, Diana, for taking the time to comment with a compliment.

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