“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
By Dr. Guy McPherson
“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
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.
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