If, like me, you can’t find any better words to describe your politics than “liberal,” “progressive,” and “left-leaning,” then, practically, you can find many international, national, and local groups and individuals who have been doing work for years on the issues we’ve been caring about in name only during Democratic, and also Republican, presidents. I won’t go into listing groups here. It’s easy enough to locate them. The challenge lies more in figuring out where you fit in, especially if you want to support groups who have been described as “frontline” communities and you are white and middle class. In this case—the case in which you are white and mostly safe and you begin looking around you in your neighborhood, in your city, and the specter of Baldwin’s drunken, stumbling man grows and casts his biggening shadow on what’s before you—the challenge is great. Because you will have to reconsider most of what you thought was good and accept that you’ve lost your credibility as a moral actor with those who’ve been suffering more than you. You must also accept that you might never earn back your credibility with anyone else, and try to earn it back perhaps only with yourself.
So what to do? Reacquaint yourself with your stated ethics. Retrieve from the basement in your mind the ideas you’ve boxed and labeled badly about what is a good life and a good death. Part of this retrieval involves untangling the good from the tinsel and Christmas lights you threw in the same box. Or to be plainer, to extricate to some degree what you have received as “good” from what you know, with all your being, to be good.
For my part, I’ve found a spiritual practice to be useful for this disentanglement. But I want to be clear about my notion, so far, of spirituality (which word sets my teeth on edge). For me, no God or gods or spirits or ghosts or angels or devils or saints or afterlife are involved (though I sometimes like to entertain the idea of believing in ghosts for the fun of fright). Sacredness feels true to me—learning how to feel it and honor it. Believing that one leaves behind a residue of ideas and physical impacts—that cause and effect bleed outward in space and time—is the closest I come to an idea of an afterlife. I suppose the butterfly effect is how I understand Karma: minus the reincarnation—unless you want to think of the reincorporation of my decomposed body into new forms as such—and also not to some insane degree that I think I can micromanage all I cause, or that I think if I fart ten times, the ocean level will rise by a micrometer. I can come up with no counterargument to interdependence and the principle of nonharm. I believe in the “power of now” if the present can be conceived as containing the past (consisting, in part, of histories) and the future. The phenomena that physics describes, and physics itself, are mysterious. And weather, dirt, rocks, mountains, plains, deserts, canyons, meadows, rivers, oceans, swamps, estuaries, flora, fauna, the sky, space are awesome.
I digress. You will or won’t find, or have found, your own spirituality, which might have nothing to do with mine. Or you got your spirituality a long time ago, and it may actually distort your ethics by systemizing a moral schizophrenia. Whatever the case, back to the exercise: you’ve unearthed your ethics and taken a good look at them. Now, look at what you devote your time to presently: what you work on, talk about, buy, watch, listen to, eat, think about other people you know and don’t know; look at how you travel and where you live and who’s in your neighborhood or along your normal paths. Hold your current set of behaviors in the one hand and your ethics in the other, at arm’s length, and notice the similarities and dissimilarities.
With some skepticism, I grant you a job well done if you see the one perfectly reflected in the other. I think you’ll most likely see that the one differs from the other, drastically in some cases. In my view, many of these dissimilarities arise from common beliefs about success in America. I’m sure these beliefs shake out differently in different regions and social groups, but generally if you make bank, have a lofty title, promise to be upwardly mobile, or belong to a recognizable profession or reputable institution, and can buy nonessentials and live “the good life” surrounded by “good” goods, you’re considered successful in this country (and many others, for that matter). Nowhere in the normal assessment of success is there a question about how kind you are, how fulfilled you feel and help others feel, how little harm you do to yourself and others, how much beauty or contentment or nurturing you bring to the table, even if the table is set only for one.
What happens in this context is that well-intentioned people, also considered people, can end up devoting most of their time to a way of life that is inconsistent with their values. They make meaning from their lives and define their worth by a standard that has alienated them from a knowledge of intrinsic human value (not to argue for the primacy of human value). A whole swath of highly skilled professionals has become moral contortionists to understand why their work siphons off wealth from economically pressurized people and causes harm to people, animals, and the environment that sustains them, us. Either that or these skilled workers become their own karmic CPAs, keeping a balance sheet with the effects of their work work and the lifestyle it supports in one column and good works and practices—e.g., volunteering, working pro bono, donating, going to church, meditating, praying, buying local, organic, fair trade, free range, grass fed, cruelty free, vegan, environmentally friendly, one for one—in another, with the desire of somehow zeroing out harm done. This is not to say that these practices, which yearn toward cherishing life, should be abandoned. But it is to suggest that those of us who make these sometimes unconscious calculations have to admit we’ve become comfortable with loopholes. In the meantime, the people who are so-called low-skilled and unskilled workers choose life and make a living where they can, even if it means being fleeced, and mostly work their asses off.
In light of the above, though I won’t tell you what you should do about your spirituality (hear: teeth grinding), I will risk being prescriptive in two areas of your ethics. Leave decency and a strong work ethic out of the picture. “Decency” is merely code for deference to social mores, which are more nearly unthinking, and possibly unfeeling, manners and habits than morals. And, knowing how much we’ve perverted the worth of work, a “strong work ethic” can be nothing like an ethic at all. It’s a hollow principle if the substance or product of the work tend toward debasement and destruction. And it’s also a hollow principle if it doesn’t follow through on its promise of redemption.
Alright, so you’ve set your principles side-by-side with how you move through the days, and sized up the differences. Now, look outside. Literally look outside. Maybe visualize a little beyond your window, but don’t think too far beyond your own city or town for now. This time, the focus is not on your behaviors but on how the world around you is put together. As a new friend of mine, Mich Levy, put the question to me so succinctly: “Is this the world you wanted to live in?” Think of everything from the architecture and city planning of your small part of the world to the signage and media around you to the way people are to each other to the corporate and government and quasi-government and nonprofit apparatuses you navigate. I’m not going to go into “This is broken” and “That is broken.” “Broken” is broken. Just look at the options the structure of life out there gives you; look at the assumptions the form of the constructed world makes and teaches about what’s meaningful. Keep looking and remember, again, your ethics. Do the two check?
In the last few years, I’ve come to a new way of thinking about depression and anxiety, partly, I think, because of going to a handful of Icarus Project meetings and seeing a show Jorrit helped with called “Vindicated Violence.” I’m not a psychologist or therapist or social worker, but I have experienced garden-variety depression and anxiety, and I’ve started seeing these symptoms, and also some forms of aggression and madness, as the effects of living in an environment that denies or devalues one’s life. My inner antagonist did not, in fact, originate completely from me, is not a figment of my imagination, but is greatly received, a figment of our imagination. If you probe those dark corners in your own mind, what do you find? What parts of yourself have been denied?
Envision, then, your inner life reaching out to touch and shape the outer world, lining up and mending the schism. As set free.
The temptation at this point might be to feel overwhelmed and curl up into a ball on the floor. I succumb to this feeling a lot—grab a glass of wine, watch TV, retreat into fiction. I try to remember that though my eyes may sting like mad from being peeled, they can get so dull otherwise—like lead musket balls, impervious to light and heavy in my head. Looking out, being interested in life—which usually leads me to make art—is my salve.
One last thing, an odd-looking coccyx to this essay: throw your language in the wastebasket every now and then. The old words turn into empty skins, or too-rigid joints, or knotty fishing line, or drawers full of dingy assumptions over time and use. Make your language prove itself.