Walking past a packed beach on a sweltering summer’s day, the lefty progressive is like a fish out of water.
And by the way, he’s not staying: he’s taking a constitutional after a morning spent reading about genocidal sanctions on Iraq and before an afternoon spent writing about genocidal killings in East Timor.
Among the knotted handkerchiefs, Hawaiian shirts and burrowing thongs, he appears surreally overdressed in his black Doc Martin shoes, black jeans (full-length in the heat) and regulation no-logo T-shirt.
His dark, subdued clothing carries subtle meaning: ‘It’s not about me.’ After all, he describes himself to himself as ‘a mere intellectual worker’. There’s nothing particularly exalted about intellectual work; it’s just one aspect of the project to build a better world. Other people are excellent at organising, campaigning, protesting – he just happens to write.
He’s not in the business of drawing attention to himself because he is not the point. The point is that millions of people and animals are suffering, need help, and he is trying to help them. It’s about them. On the other hand, the first time he had an article published, he read it about a hundred times.
One of his primary complaints about corporate society is precisely that it exaggerates the importance of the individual at the expense of the collective. We are all trained for self-promotion – ‘me, me, me’ – regardless of the cost to others. As Noam Chomsky has said of his personal experiences:
‘I am not writing about myself, and these matters don’t seem particularly pertinent to the topics I am addressing.’ (Quoted Milan Rai, ‘Chomsky’s Politics’, Verso, 1995, pp.6-7)
It’s not about ‘me’, and it’s not about high-profile ‘intellectuals’ (whatever special quality that term is supposed to imply).
Our progressive’s self-effacing attire, of course, has its counterpart in the corporate world. The black shoes and grey or black business suit signal that the individual personality, with all its multi-faceted fire and fun, has been subordinated to the no-nonsense needs of the bottom line. The de facto corporate uniform reassures customers and colleagues: the job comes first.
For the lefty progressive walking past (not on) the beach, ‘It’s not about me’, and it’s not about the moment; it’s about investing time and energy in the cause of a more just and compassionate future. Downtime is allowed, of course, but fun is a four-letter word. With Baghdad burning, Libya in ruins, the climate collapsing, it’s hardly appropriate to be focused on fun. Relaxation to recharge, to redouble effort, sure – but fun?
Again, curiously, this has its counterpart in the ostensibly antithetical corporate worldview. The idea that an employee might prioritise his or her personal needs over the demands of maximised profit in minimum time would of course be viscerally annoying, if it were thinkable. Someone caught chatting with friends, snoozing, gazing out of a window rather than working will be warned once, twice… maybe.
For both the lefty progressive and the corporate employee the present moment is a means to an end, a resource to be mined, exploited, invested in the future. What matters is tomorrow: it will be better, more equitable and more profitable, respectively.
And so the progressive views the beach scene with a mixture of bewilderment and frustration: Do these people have no idea what’s going on? Do they care? They seem content to wallow in the heat to no purpose, paddling pointlessly with rolled-up trouser legs; wasting hours, days, weeks that could be productively spent bettering the world. If even one per cent of these folk could be mobilised, activated to work for progressive change – then the world might indeed change. He drops a sidewise glance down his nose at a middle-aged child, a kidult, slurping on an ice cream cone. Elsewhere, grown men and women are literally building castles in the sand, digging holes for no reason, filling them in – achieving nothing, zilch, nada.
As he moves among, but far-distant from, the revellers, our progressive resembles silver-clad Klaatu in the 1951 film, ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’, striding down the slope of his spaceship towards the primitive beings surrounding him with tanks and guns. They neither know nor care that he comes on a mission of peace. On some level, he feels the presence of his own intellectual version of Klaatu’s giant robot, Gort, at his shoulder: Marx, Proudhon, Gramsci, or indeed Chomsky.
For all his probable atheism, he perceives a purposeful existence. He believes the meaning of a dignified life is found in making the world a better place. And he may well believe that the universe is slowly evolving towards greater intelligence, compassion and justice.
The exotic idea, apparently supported by the kidults around him, that the point of life is simply to enjoy the moment, seems pitiful, even alarming to him. If they were right, what would it mean for the entire basis and meaning of his existence? But anyway, how could anyone hope to argue that there is no meaning, no reason, in working for a better world? Would such a life not be unbearably boring? What would be the point of it? Would we not become lost in mindless hedonism? If you want a vision of the future: imagine an ice cream cone thrusting into a human face – forever.
This seems to offer an irresponsible, even horribly cruel version of life, where no one strives, no one cares, and everyone indulges as the world sinks into madness. He is the sworn enemy of this view.
On the other hand, as he strolls along, he finds himself casting a guilty look behind him at an attractive young woman sizzling in the sand. He knows that despite everything he’s been thinking – despite everything Gort has told him, over decades – the world would look very different lying by her side, gazing at the sunlight reflecting from her hair and face.
Warm Toes Moments
It’s a chilly winter’s evening in a small town in the south of Sweden and I’m teaching English to a collection of elderly students for the Folk University. My students aren’t studying for an exam, there’s no danger of them stretching my far from pluperfect grammatical knowledge.
Unusually for one of my classes, there is really no concern at all with ends beyond vague hopes of oiling possible excursions to much-loved ‘Lon-don‘. These are people in their 50s, 60s and 70s: they’re there to chat and make friends. Thursday after Thursday they turn up, my lesson plan falls away, the text books remain on the same page, and we have a fine old time.
Tonight, I sit back and watch them chatting and laughing, occasionally interjecting, correcting. I notice, suddenly, that my toes are warm: the class is so relaxing, so friendly. I feel a kind of benevolent bliss. But why? What is it?
It seems to me as I’m sitting there that the blissfulness lies precisely in the meaninglessness of the class: it doesn’t matter, it is of no importance whatever beyond the enjoyment of the lesson itself. From one perspective, we are all simply wasting our time – I’m being paid to let them have fun. There’s no stress, no pressure, nothing really to be achieved. There is almost no focus on results at all, just on the fun of the class in the moment.
At the time, I have no idea how this might fit into my fast-evolving and subtly ambitious philosophy of life. Two years earlier, I abandoned a business career, but not to sit around in meaningless English lessons. My motivation is to challenge a fanatical business system which I know, having experienced its blinkered logic first-hand, is sending the world racing over an environmental cliff. I have been reading intensely and am writing endless articles and stories.
So this curious warm toes moment is nice, interesting, perhaps a pointer to some hidden aspect of human happiness. But I don’t take much note of it, or take it seriously, because environmentalists like me are fighting tooth and nail to ‘save the planet’, and I have a strong sense that we are running out of time. What does that have to do with warm toes and nattering Swedes?
For goodness sake, even Buddhists talk of arduous struggle, of the need to amass as many meritorious thoughts and actions as possible to create a compassionate impetus that will free us from self-cherishing karma on the path to enlightenment. There’s no time to lose, they say – this precious human rebirth is rarely achieved, of tiny duration, and of such fragility that it can end at any moment, perhaps before the next breath.
How ironic: capitalists, greens, progressives and even (some) Buddhists agree that the present is just a resource, a means to an end: it is the end that matters. If that leaves you with cold toes – really, really cold toes – that’s just how it is.
I’m in Sweden again, 25 years later; this time, mid-afternoon in a small village outside Stockholm. It’s February and the snow is piled high outside. But it’s warm inside and I’m sitting on a sofa watching my cousin’s five-year-old playing with a vast array of Lego on the wooden lounge floor. The little boy’s mother lost a two-year long battle with breast and then brain cancer one month ago, and everybody is grief-stricken. I’ve come for the funeral.
As I watch him now, playing contentedly – cocooned, shielded by the innocence of youth – it’s as much as I can do to control my emotions. He believes his mum is visiting the International Space Station. He knows she’s not here, but that’s all he really understands of what he’s been told.
Outside, the winter sun is disappearing with typical Swedish haste and there’s a pink-blue glow in the sky, in the air and on the snow. I watch the little boy playing with his Lego and, from within the sadness, I feel delight at every wonderfully meaningless, unimportant plastic click, every stirring of plastic pieces on the floor, every sigh from his shirt as he moves, and from his mouth as he gently breathes, concentrating, whispering to himself. Despite the situation, the fathomless sadness, I’m feeling what can only be described as bliss: a mixture of peace, love, compassion and happiness.
My partner is sitting on a cushion in front of the cupboard in her lounge. It’s one of those cupboards where you chuck everything you can’t fit anywhere else but that you can’t bear to throw away. No-one has dared to look inside, to sort it out, in years and decades. She is sorting through the pieces of bric-a-brac with great, unhurried care: a small foam dinosaur that refused to expand in water as it was supposed to, a small plastic roulette wheel, a pack of ancient playing cards.
She examines each object with love and respect, no matter how tatty and trivial. Everything is worthy of attention and put in the correct pile for keeping, throwing or giving away. But again, none of it matters – it’s not about achieving anything; it’s for the fun of seeing what’s there. We are both just enjoying the moment, our dog is snoring on the floor – the world seems to stop turning for a while. My toes, needless to say, are once again warm. I feel the relaxation through the stress of the day, the happiness glowing.
I’m sitting on a sofa doing nothing. I’m feeling the rise and fall of my chest, and any emotions I find there: sadness, anxiety, happiness, excitement, anger, boredom, emptiness… whatever it might be. I’m not doing a very consistent job of watching because my attention keeps straying to thoughts of various kinds. I try to notice when I’m thinking and then return to feeling the breath and emotions. After a non-eventful 45 minutes of this, I feel a change – any emotional pain has been replaced by a kind of tickle in my chest. This grows into a pleasurable feeling: someone described it, perfectly, as like ‘Having a twinkling smile inside’. Or it feels how you’d imagine a puff of pink laughing gas might feel. The feeling deepens and becomes a patch of delight in my chest. There is nothing mysterious or difficult about this – exactly as I’ve paid close attention to the outer world, I’m simply now paying attention to my inner world. This is what people call ‘meditation’.
Together with the delight is a feeling of benevolence: kindly thoughts arise for the unlikeliest of candidates. If someone pops into my mind who I normally find deeply annoying, I feel warmth towards them, generosity. Buddhists call this ‘metta’, or ‘lovingkindness’.
Unwittingly, this is what was also happening in the first three moments described above. In all cases, benevolent delight arose from sitting quietly, watching what was happening, with no thought of achieving anything. I was just experiencing the moment as it was, enjoying the very fact that it was not important: students chatting, a child playing, sorting through a cupboard. These were not crucial events. And yet, as we are drawn into their meaninglessness, purposelessness, nonsense and nothingness, our egos – with their deep, dark clouds of ‘vitally important’ memories, plans, complaints and goals – move aside, allowing a kind of inner sun to shine through.
On the face of it, this seems absurd: peace, delight, love, kindness and forgiveness are famously elusive, are they not? We ordinarily imagine we have to fight tooth and nail through political action, corporate profitability, or meditational head-banging to even get a glimpse. How can we experience these things by doing nothing? And yet this is the point Zen master Basho made:
‘Sitting quietly, doing nothing,
and the grass grows, by itself.’
Well-being arises without cause, from nothing. All the mystics, without exception, have made the same point: it is already there! Whenever we stop striving, stop living in the past and future, become non-serious, purposeless, present – we find it.
This offers a curious challenge to our lefty progressive striding determinedly away from the beach, does it not? Because in all his striving for future goals, he has become tense, frazzled, angry, frustrated, even despairing and depressed. He feels profoundly alienated from the world around him, though his whole purpose is to make the world a better place. He himself is not in a better place. He himself is not the change he would like to see.
How ironic: the relaxed individual who is able, simply, to be – to observe and enjoy the play of life for the pure enjoyment of doing so – becomes a fragment, now, of exactly the kind of compassionate, loving, blissful world the hard-working progressive is trying to create in the future.
Could it be, then, that the lefty striving so vigorously to ‘make the world a better place’ for others unwittingly feeds the disaster inflicted by capitalists striving so vigorously ‘to make the world a better place’ for themselves?
Could it be that our devastation of the planet, at its deepest roots, is symptomatic of our near-universal neglect of the only moment that actually is – this moment? Could it be that, when we disregard the world as it is, the world as it is starts to die?
David Edwards is co-editor of www.medialens.org