Written fall 2012.
The modern world is a confusing place. It can be complex and daunting; Wikipedia alone contains more entries than your average 1970s phone book, and they’re all interconnected with those irresistible blue hyperlinks, and before you know it you’ve wasted four hours of your life reading the complete history of the mid-90s sitcom “Caroline in the City,” a show you never watched nor ever plan to watch, and you have to be at work in three hours and you’re not even sure how you found that page in the first place.
Modernity. It’s all-encompassing, it’s compulsive, and if you ever fall asleep, you WILL miss something important on Twitter.
There are perks to contemporary living, of course — all that information, always at your fingertips! Your favorite television shows, streaming into a device of your choosing, unhindered by “network” “schedules”! Toilet paper that is both whisper-soft and devilishly cheap! Plus, you know, it’s illegal to own people in America these days, and women can buy property in their own names, so those are two pretty significant Good Things.
But even with such inarguable ethical steps forward, it’s easy to feel like we’re sliding backwards at the same time: that, concurrent with the growing acceptance of gay marriage, internet comments offer comprehensive proof that our discourse is less civil than ever — or that, in spite of the progressive victory of our nation’s first black president, the growth and concentration of corporate power is a troubling indicator that our historical errors are not entirely in the past. In my experience, the responses to such contradictory circumstances tend to be pretty bifurcated — either the future is imagined as a rosy technological wonderland or else an unimaginable hellscape of intellectual emptiness, corporate enslavement, and weird to-the-death gladiator battles between middle-schoolers.
I’d like to suggest a middle way — not in the Buddhist sense, but in the common-sense-sense. Having read my share of treatises on the State of the World, I’m often troubled by their remove from day-to-day reality, which is to say that they’re usually long on Deep Thoughts and rather shorter on actual, actionable steps to achieving that rosy Internet-mediated playground, or avoiding some horrific dystopian “Hunger Games”/”Mad Max” mashup. But neither utopias nor hellscapes happen by accident, and if we want to build a positive future for ourselves and the world, then we damn well better figure out how.
This isn’t a point-by-point manual on how to do that, and it’s not comprehensive, but it does suggest some places we might start. It’s not objective — it’s biased by my own priorities — but it is buttressed by fact, and by research conducted by people much smarter than me.
Which of course brings us to the question: who the hell am I, to offer any advice in this arena? Unlike most other treatise-writers, I’m not an academic — in fact, I’ve studiously avoided graduate studies, which earns me regular needling from most other members of my highly-lettered family. I’m not much of an expert at anything except “X-Files” trivia and clawing my way back from the brink of total failure, the latter of which has proved to be a pretty handy life skill and is also the basis for much of this blog (the former, not so much).
See, I’ve discovered that a lot of intelligent, well-intentioned people look at the scope of need in the world and are overwhelmed by it. They don’t know where to start, or how to go about making change; it’s all too big and too much and too hard, and one person can’t really make that much difference anyway, so it’s just easier to stick with familiar routines and let other people figure out the rest. It’s an understandable human reaction, but it’s also an unnecessary one, because the truth is that a lot of this stuff is much, much easier than it seems — and I know that not because I’ve lived my life so successfully, but because I’ve screwed up spectacularly and yet still managed to get some of this crap right.
Yep, you read that right: I’m a screwup. I graduated from a super-fancy elite college in 2005 and managed to spend most of 2008 homeless, and not in some stupid boho trust-fund-kid-having-adventures-in-San-Francisco kind of way, either. No, I was homeless in the sleeping-in-my-car-and-living-off-ramen kind of way, too broke to breathe. If I could go back in time, I would visit my younger self about every half hour between the ages of seventeen and twenty-five, just to grab myself by the shoulders, slap myself across the face, and yell at myself to get my shit together — I’m sure my younger self wouldn’t listen, but it would soothe my conscience to know that I tried.
My bad decisions are part of the story, but not all of it. Some of my situation was bad luck, alongside which I was also blessed with incredible good fortune: to be surrounded by amazing, talented, generous people, from whom I learned more than grad school could ever teach. Admittedly, these lessons have mostly been about life and giving and relationships and not, like, Heidegger, but then that’s what books are for, right?
In fact, I’ve come to be grateful for all but the hardest of hardships in life. I remember what I was like at seventeen, or twenty-two or twelve or even (still) now, and I’ve always been one of those stubborn, independent idiots who has to learn everything from her own mistakes, rather than just shutting up and listening to the wisdom of her peers and elders. I’m so hardheaded that I have literally been slammed skull-first into concrete without medical repercussion — I was only six years old when it happened, but it proved a strange presaging of my future inability to get anything impactful through to my brain.
But hopefully you, dear reader, are of a different, milder ilk. I may be a chronic screwup, but alongside that bottomless well of self-destructive impulse I also have a pretty good capacity for reflection and growth, which is probably why I continue to be alive. And I’ve done more than merely figure out how to avoid bad things in my life: I have somehow filled my life with lots of good, wonderful, beautiful things, achievements and principles I’m proud to call my own. It’s all happened on poverty wages, without retreats in Bali or detox at Esalen or whatever the hell else people do to try to find enlightenment — no, the ongoing process of my enlightenment is littered with liquor bottles and taco wrappers, and it is not a generally accepted part of the spa experience.
I’m not an academic. I’m not a guru. I’m too lazy and sarcastic to be a good activist, and I think drum circles are more “hilarious” than “meaningful”. I’m mostly just a person who has made a lot of mistakes, striving to use my talents to do the most good in the world as I stumble through the place. And I do mean “stumble”: I curse like a sailor, can’t drink a cup of coffee without spilling half of it on myself, and oftentimes get so distracted by my own thoughts that I walk into furniture. From many angles and by many conventional standards I am a human disaster, but I keep pluggin’ along, and I’m much less of a disaster now than I used to be.
I’m a deeply imperfect person, but then, the world is a deeply imperfect place, and accepting as much is the first step to making it better.