“I already didn’t like Billy Joel and someone went and ruined him for me” – Alicia Luma
I have to confess I’ve never been very bullish on the world. I was raised as an evangelical Christian. My parents followed a sect of Christianity that traces its roots to the Pilgrims. I was sent to a Baptist school until 8th grade, then to a generic Protestant flavored ‘academy’ that peddled things like political conservatism, abstinence only education, and the idea that the earth was literally spoken into existence over the course of 6 twenty-four hour days. The elementary school was even more rigid in its thinking. Dancing was frowned upon, as was listening to ‘rock and roll music.’ Rap was out of the question, and even cartoons like He-Man and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were opening kids up to Satanic influence. After all, “the only Master Of The Universe was God.”
I was a flighty little boy, too smart for my own good, not terribly ambitious, and a little weird. My birthday falls in late October and my parents made the decision to put me in school early. With 4 kids, all under the age of 5 it’s no wonder. You have to make compromises to save your sanity, and I was definitely sharp enough to hang. Socially things were different. I’m a late bloomer, and I have attention issues. I get bored easily, but I’m curious and a quick study. I made good grades but apparently my behavior left something to be desired. I mean, of course it did, I was a kindergartner in first grade.
And because I was a little behind the curve I got punished a lot. And in this school they used corporal punishment. Excelling academically but being punished for my behavior can send a boy mixed signals to say the least. I did everything asked of me, and still I was taken into a dark room and hit with a paddle. I became alienated from my peers. At that age, I was more interested in playing on the jungle gym, making paper airplanes, finding 4-leaf clovers, and imagining adventures than I was in playing basketball. But that was fine by me. I was far more interested in being interested than I was in being in competition with the boys.
I was a lonely kid, and there was a lot that didn’t make sense, but humans excel at sensemaking. We effortlessly infer rules about how the world works, and using a combination of temperament and experience we craft an identity. We seek out what makes us feel good and shy away from what hurts. If we have no choice but to hurt, we compartmentalize, rationalize, or endure. But no matter what our mechanisms, we come to view certain facets of our existence as immutable, and inevitable.
We file that knowledge away and try to feel the best we can within the limits of any given situation. Some have more trauma than others, some create more successful strategies than others, but we’ve all got them in some form. We use the details of our life and the world at large to construct narratives that become who we are and that we rely upon as tools by our side.
And from our narrow experience we slowly build a picture of the world. I saw things I could not fight. I was given rules for being a model human that I could not follow. At every age I tried to come up with a new strategy to make myself feel worthy, and when I could not, I hated those things that I couldn’t have. I dismissed the success of others all while wanting it with an impotent desire. I resigned myself to feeling the way I did, and trying comfort myself by trading my agency for a little immediate relief, rationalizing when I gave into fear, and saying things like “because it ended up this way there was never really any other outcome.”
From bible stories, shows, books, movies, and the way I saw other people behave, both adults and children, I crafted my concept of the Way Things Were. It took me years to shake that off, and only after so many wrong turns and missed opportunities due to fear or ignorance, or adopted intolerance, or just a need to feel comforted. It’s still there, like an old injury that flares up when it’s about to rain. But I finally see it for what it is, and that is kind of liberating.
The world at large operates in the same way. We all infer how things are supposed to be and take it as gospel truth. It is “fact” that we must all throw ourselves into debt in order to earn the right to be a full human. I mean, you don’t want to rent all your life, do you? There are elites that know better than us, and we should be thankful for the privilege to trade our time and labor to earn these scarce and precious things that the powerful have on offer.
You must earn the right to spend a few worry-free hours in a hammock at a beach house. Even nature that was there before human beings even existed is only for a select few of us. There are so many people in the western world that will never see mountains with their own eyes, not just through some photographers lens.
And wouldn’t you know it, the things we learn to value just so happen to enrich a select few. Even people that choose to live off the grid have been convinced that just letting the world do its own thing is the best course of action. Its problems are so insurmountable or intentionally complicated. It overwhelms you when you’re beholden to the thought that “it’s just the way things are.” Debt. Power imbalance. How you must live your life. How you must have sex. How you must look. How you can make art. Who deserves money.
It took me years to dissect everything I was given early on. In school a professor of mine recommended Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It was a life changing book for me, and opened up a way of thinking that was so far removed from my previous experience, it was like seeing in color for the first time.
The big irony of it all is that chance plays such a big role in all of this. You didn’t choose your family. You didn’t choose your temperament. You didn’t choose your sex. You didn’t choose what interactions you absorbed. You didn’t choose what felt good. You didn’t choose to be lonely. You didn’t pick your tragedies. So why is it that a persons fate is sealed by all of this?
I don’t think it is. But breaking free is hard. And it’s only moments of crisis that give us the chance to reevaluate our perception and patterns of thought. There is an alternate way of existing where our basic needs are met, where we are given space and time to fulfill our potential. But we have to clean out the old to make room for the better. To do that we have to examine every facet, to deal fairly with others but also with our own points of view. To criticize others is easy. To point out flaws is second nature.
To recognize flaws within yourself is hard. To deal with them fairly is even harder. There are things that I struggle with that I still feel beholden to, things I’m ashamed to say out loud, weaknesses and frustrations beyond measure. It is hard for me to admit that some people in power have something that I want. That certain ways of thinking and working and existing are better than how I exist (it’s so easy to wander into the territory of shame.) And to realize that there is a better way means that I have a choice to change. I’m a distractible lazy little motherfucker. But I’m not going to give up on working on myself.
When it comes to the world, and ways of existing, I don’t see why we can’t put everything up for discussion. I am certain that our modes of existence, with the endless cycles of debt, entertainment that peddles simplistic and destructive values, culture and resources and ideas being hoarded, stolen and debased, the utter violence, this can’t be the best way to do things.
Every human being has a certain kind of potential, why can’t we create a system that gives people the tools to fulfill that potential? There exists, somewhere today a little girl that will die before the age of 5 that could have created a cure for a rare disease, a little boy that could have changed music forever, someone sitting in jail for a violent crime that could have made a brilliant engineer, or even just a kind father.
I’m not being a Pollyanna. There will still be destructive aspects of humanity. This isn’t a video game and there is no final boss. There will always be loss, there will always be some kind of pain, there will always be something to work through, but I am sick and tired of pretending that everything is ok, or that our problems are too big to solve and we should settle for ’good enough. For me at least.’
Nor am I ignoring that there is grace and beauty within the limits of any situation—although it’s hard to remember sometimes.
I often see the phrase “we are living in the worst timeline” Well, this didn’t just happen to us. We chose this through all our little actions of disengagement and comfort and refusal to learn how to ask the right questions. It’s time to choose something new.
I firmly believe the only way to change things is to see them for what they are. Here’s a list of books that changed my life for anyone who is interested in reading them.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig
Homo Deus and Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
How Emotions are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett
Range by David Epstein
Mythologies by Roland Barthes
Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman
The Field Study Handbook by Jan Chipchase
Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman
Daring Greatly by Brené Brown