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October 26, 2004

Caring and sharing

For the second time in as many months, a correspondent has suggested I search within myself for the reason I have such strong feelings about the environment, politics, the issues that sweep across the world.

On the one hand, this is a bit like suggesting that a fish bathe. I am the king of second-guessing myself.

Well OK, maybe not.

But I'm good at it. And that is, in part, the result of deep-rooted childhood experiences: being told you’re wrong often enough as a child can cause you to reflexively assume it's possible later in life.

On the other hand, this criticism — that my being offended at the wholesale devastation of the natural world for short-term profit, my outrage at stories like this and this is a reflection of some emotional failing on my part, some lack of enlightenment — astounds me. Isn't the whole message of human history, clichéd passages from Donne and "the greatest of these is charity" and Saint Francis and all that, that we are involved in one another's lives whether we admit it or not?

There's an advertisement I've seen lately on TV for a high-end car — I forget which one — that trumpets the vehicle's appeal by listing those of the seven deadly sins it inspires. A Bush advisor famously made a recent comment about his boss not being "reality-based," and he meant that as a positive. I get called maladjusted for fiercely loving the living world. When did the world turn upside down?

I don't want to personalize this unduly: the correspondent mentioned above is a good person. At least one of his comments to me was probably spurred by defensiveness at overly strong language on my part. At most, he said baldly and without pretense what much of the rest of society thinks, but is — or at least I had thought they would be — ashamed to admit it.

The craw-sticker here is the allegation of emotional infirmity, my reaction to which I have found illuminating. My tendency has been to consider people who go through life without thought to their effect on others as exhibiting a minor form of sociopathy. Perhaps, I wonder, it might not be useful or constructive to posit that people support Bush because they're twisted inside. If it makes them feel the way I have, lately, it's unlikely to change their minds.

I mean, it's still true. One either opposes things like this, or one supports them. I see no room for neutral ground here, no matter how one might dress up his or her passive support for torture in parables about non-attachment.

But the speed with which caring for others has become an embarrassment rather than an ideal is rather breathtaking. It was only twenty years ago that a fictional character whose catchphrase was "greed is good" was almost unilaterally regarded as a villain. No spin doctors then alleged the existence of a good side to avarice.

Likewise, it was maybe five years ago that devoting one's life to making the world a better place was seen, at worst, as occasionally being a character trait possessed by the mushy-headed. No one that I know of contended that feeling empathy for the world was a bad thing... just embarrassing if it was your parents who did so.

Still. It occurs to me I'd best be careful condemning anyone for hewing to the deadly sins, having great facility at anger, sloth and gluttony myself. And propelling all this is envy. I wish I could cease to feel strongly about the collapse of the fisheries, the extinction of one species after another, the wholesale murder of thousands of people and the captivity of the politics of my country by a rapacious elite of smirking liars. If I didn't give a shit, it would make the bad news I suspect we'll get next week all that much more palatable.

Posted by Chris Clarke at October 26, 2004 01:53 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Ah, yes, the burdens of being a person who actually gives a shit. I know them well. I too hate that things like politeness, and caring for others (including the non-human), and living a life in which it is not all about me, are now deemed the aspects of the pitiful, the un-hip, the clueless, the loser... and so on. Dammit, I'm proud of being a bleeding-heart tree-hugging liberal! It's not something to be ashamed of!

SUV ads in particular enrage me -- when did it become socially acceptable, nay, desirable, to trumpet that one is a greedy, rude, muscle-headed bully? -- and I think it is not coincidence that they, and cell phones, and exploitative tv, are the cultural fixtures that define this age.

America's always been a bit of an adolescent, but now it's gone from the sassy wiseacre version to the yelling asshole who hates his parents and takes their guns to school version.

When can I have my country back?

Posted by: Rana at October 26, 2004 02:56 PM
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For what it's worth, much as I admire the writing of the Correspondent in question, I'm in your corner, bud. He's fulla beans.

Posted by: Dave at October 26, 2004 05:52 PM
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"When can I have my country back?"

Hopefully we'll take a step in that direction on Tuesday.

Posted by: the_bone at October 26, 2004 09:01 PM
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Chris, I'm sure you know this already, but I am in full agreement with you.

My biggest problem with psychology is precisely this: it internalizes and personalizes everything. "You're uncomfortable with that homeless guy on the bus? Hmm . . . there must be some unresolved guilt you're not dealing with. Troubled by those gas guzzling cars? What is it in yourself you haven't accepted?" This is fundamentally wrong. I don't want this to turn into a total diatribe, but I have to complain. Of course it's right to feel guilt or outrage or anger at the injustice of the world! It's the enviorment that's sick, not you. Keep ranting. Keep writing. It's impossible to be healthy in a world that's dying. The situation needs to be fixed, not you.

Posted by: Siona at October 27, 2004 01:36 AM
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There are (to stereotype a bit) three kinds of people. Those who listen to the child getting beaten next door every night and are finally scared and outraged into taking real action. Then there are those who listen and say "How awful, but I can't do anything about it" and turn the radio up, feeling sick and sad. And those who just move out, into a building with thicker walls.

Thank you for being of the first sort, because I am very very afraid that the citzenry of the U.S. are becoming the sort who just keep building thicker walls, or who roll up the windows of their SUV to shut out the world (to quote another high-end car advertisement).

Posted by: Caitlin at October 27, 2004 06:58 AM
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Hey, there are those who love you precisely because you are who you are, and who will be there with you to the bitter end in that thinning crowd of ThoseWhoCare. Forget about it; we're stuck with being this way, and I for one am proud and glad of it, and more grateful than I can tell you for your companionship.

Posted by: beth at October 27, 2004 03:04 PM
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Well, I, of course, am one of those people who thinks that anger is always a poison. But it would never occur to me to pick on you as someone who particularly needed to examine it. In my experience, the people who are actually in the struggle are not the ones who are most poisoned by anger. The really poisoned ones have lost their capacity to act, except convulsively and extravagantly. Someone like you, who works hard and steadily and gets things done -- you look to me like someone whose primary motivation is love, and who is actually very rarely overwhelmed or swept away by anger. Show me someone who holds your opinions and yet is doing nothing, and I'll show you someone who's really poisoned.

The anger that comes and goes, the anger that inspires action, that "anger" -- I don't even know if that's the right word for it -- can sometimes even be harmless, maybe.

The problem of course is that the people who really are poisoned by anger are the ones who won't hear a word against it. They treasure it up and cherish it, regarding it not as an affliction, but as a badge of honor, and they're always eager to feed and display it.

That ain't you, not by a long chalk.

Posted by: dale at October 27, 2004 03:10 PM
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In defense of the guy who made these charges, though, it's worth remembering I think that he's still recovering from some 15 years spent as a religious fanatic, by his own account. so it's perfectly understandable that elck would react negatively to strong, seemingly messianic social/political convinctions.

Posted by: Dave at October 27, 2004 05:01 PM
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WE are the realists. Those who believe we (the entire planet - people, animals,plants, mountains,forests, rivers, oceans) are theirs for the taking are the idealists.
Where do we come from? We are born like that.Everyone is born with some e.g. music in them.But some can't live without music-making themselves.They become great musicians. The sense of the world as an Whole is the same and we express it thru love and protest

Posted by: margaret at October 27, 2004 09:39 PM
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I didn't read the post or entry which inspired your response, so maybe I'm seeing things out of context...

I don't think there is anything wrong with feeling passionate about the state of the world, regardless of which way you see things. Passion is something that comes from within.


Two things jump out at me. One is that, the more extreme one becomes on any issue, the more it spawns extreme views in opposition.

The second is something that I am just now guilty of, which is thinking dualistically. True, there are some situations, such as the torture example you provided, which are pretty much black and white. But, it's been my observation that such situations are extreme examples. I wonder if great passion doesn't sometimes blind a person to alternative views...not just "opposite" views, against which one measures his/her own views, but views truly innovative and not belonging to either of the "recognized" views.

For example, is it possible that an SUV, the favorite bugaboo of some of the commenters here, serves some useful, neutral purpose? Is it possible that there is more to the abortion issue than pro-life vs. pro-choice?

Posted by: Robert at October 29, 2004 07:04 PM
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All my life I have often wondered why it is that the natural world evokes such a powerful sense of identification within me and why so many others only see the world around them as a commodity. Perhaps it is the deep immersion I had from very early on with living things around me, that helped to dispel a great loneliness from being a lone kid in a foreign land. I ended up looking very closely at their lives and found them to be little different from ours, in fact a very accurate picture of ourselves. The older I grew the more I came to accept that the natural world is inseparable from who I am and that within it I am always whole and much more than I alone could ever imagine myself.

I suspect that your expansive sense of loving the natural world comes out of knowing that that world is who you are. One and the same. Like the love of a child. It is how the Native Americans or the Aborigines have always seen their worlds, no different from all the animals and plants around them. I believe it is sheer ignorance for people in our societies to maintain that living and loving in harmony with the natural world is but a dream... there are societies that have actually done just that. Wherein greed and selfishness are not considered virtues. Even their gods are native to this world.

Posted by: butuki at November 1, 2004 11:52 AM
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