Imagining Our Place in the World and Taking Right Action
For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. Wendell Berry
Lately, I have been giving a lot of thought to this topic of what is my responsible relationship to the world? I am semi-retired now. I find that I do not have the energy or enthusiasm for the work that engaged me for the last thirty years. Now that the feelings are gone, I find that I cannot work without them. Recently I declared to my coach,”I am going to figure out what I want in my life and go and get it.” In short, I am in the process of re-imagining my place in the world. The place I occupied previously no longer exists.
Sounds simple enough, right? It’s actually not that simple. I think if I were like a character in a Wendell Berry book, it would be clearer. To begin with, I would have a place, a real physical residence that was mine, which I would have–through my living in it– made it my own. I would have neighbors who know me and my quirks and oddities. I do not have that. Instead, I have a small apartment in an older house in an older neighborhood with new neighbors I see when I walk the dog.
If I were still practicing law, I would have work colleagues, occasional lunches, client calls, activities to fill the day. Of course, this would be coupled with the anxiety of not being as capable and as fast as I was at one time, but I have learned nothing in life if not how to mask anxiety.
I going to share a secret that older people don’t like to share aloud. It’s true, we are often not as quick and bright as we were only a few years ago. Most of us hope that no one will notice. I have friends who are still working who are older than I. Sometimes they tell me how they are counting the years or months to retirement. They hope they will not end up “in a closet.” A closet is where their co-workers are consigned when they no longer do productive needed work, but are to difficult to let go due to their seniority. Everyone recognizes they are not [as] productive anymore, but they show up everyday until the pension is fully earned.
I suppose that too can be a way of postponing imagining one’s place in the world.
To forestall hearing repeat of some advice given me a few years ago, when I had more time than I could fill with gainful employment, it has already been suggested that I join the Peace Corps so that I could experience real hardship. What a bizarre suggestion. I hadn’t thought of myself as a person who was seeking to experience real hardship; or, to the converse, whose life had been so easy that hardship would be new to me. I still puzzle over it. In any case, I have now spent just enough time in the developing world to realize that living in it for any significant period of time would kill me. Undoubtedly that would solve the difficulty of finding my place in the world, but that isn’t quite what I had in mind. That does mean the Peace Corps is out.
Still, I know I am not alone is wondering about my place in the world; therefore, my public musings may be of some value.
This Atlantic article discusses the increasing death rate of middle aged white Americans. It appears that a number of people have lost their place in the world. The article links the death rate to increasing alienation of people from their community, the loss of good paying manufacturing jobs, the increased divorce rate, the increased use of prescription opiates, the waning of religious belief and even the lack of a strong social safety net. Me? I think the strong social safety net works much like the closet for those still working, but not contributing. It allows one to avoid the question of what one is to do with one’s life.
For better or worse, having adopted Libertarianism as a guiding political philosophy and being by nature an existentialist (existentialism: a philosophical theory or approach that emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will), I tend not to think that a strong social safety net would fill my need to have a responsible relationship to the world.
One thing that I did find is that it is easier to come up with the negatives (do no harm) than it is to come up with the affirmative actions that are required to have a responsible relationship to the world. More and more I have settled on the idea that it is necessary to see as clearly as possible what is truly happening and then speak that truth. This is harder than it sounds.
Speaking the truth requires that I distinguish between fact and opinion, which I am pretty good at. (I find it is a distinction that is lost on many people these days.) Then, after sorting out the facts, one must look at right action. It is clearly insufficient to intend a good outcome. One must proceed carefully to see that a good outcome can be reasonably expected. On that note, I can’t get over the President saying his worst mistake was failing to have a plan for Libya after assassinating Gaddafi. I mean, WHAT?
According to the BBC here’s what the President said when asked the question what was his worst mistake as president, “Probably failing to plan for the day after, what I think was the right thing to do, in intervening in Libya.”
Mr. President, are you five? Have you not heard that the night follows the day? Have you no sense of history? No advisors to turn to? Nothing? If you had been forced to say what you expected the next day, could you have come up with an answer? The USG does a big thing on Thursday and has no plan for Friday. What the hell?
All of which I could almost stand, if I thought anyone had learned anything at all from that, but clearly they have not given the current plans for Syria. Assuming that the USG and its allies can and do remove Assad, then what? I have heard nothing of a plan for the day after that happens.
All of which I still might be able to stand, if I did not see this in every act of government at every level of government every day of the week. It is as if they never think of the consequences of their acts. They intend some unspecified good and let the devil take the hindmost.
Closer to home, recently I was reading (again) about the Uber/Lyft drivers in Atlanta who are being ticketed for picking up riders at the airport. My own City Council representative, Yolanda Adrean, is quoted as saying that ticketing and fining the drivers is “a waste of police resources.” I agree that it is a waste of police resources to ticket drivers and/or impound their vehicles when they are performing a highly desirable service at a cost people are willing to pay, especially when the results are to drive down employment and increase arrest records for what is, predominantly, a group of black Atlantans. (I’m not saying it would be OK if they white, but really, Atlanta has SUCH an issue with unemployed black people that one would think the City would not do anything to inhibit their ability to get paying work. One would be wrong.)
The most galling part of this expensive, time consuming, life destroying fiasco is the reaction of the “law givers” that somehow tickets/fines and jail time are a surprise. Did the Council not expect the regulations would be enforced, thereby not wasting police resources? I mean, really, what is their expectation? The City Council passes a law about something that no one, but them and a handful of taxi drivers, is concerned about. The effect of the law is the same as it always is–fines/jail time for the violators. Then one of the council members complains that the police are enforcing the law. How about we just not pass a law in the first place if we do not want the consequences of devoting resources to enforcing it? That would be one idea.
All of which brings me back to how I began this post, which is, first, about each of us having a responsible relationship to the world by understanding our place in it, and secondly, about being older, which it turns out has benefits as well as shortcomings. If one manages to stay awake, keep out of the closet and act mindfully, one can anticipate that, in a complex world, consequences (intended or otherwise) always ensue. If you are striving to be in that responsible relationship, act carefully, do no harm and remember consequences always ensue. Next time you are tempted to say, “we ought to do thus and so,” ask yourself, have I thought about what happens next?
Restoring Our World to Wholeness