This essay has been translated into French.
The year 2013 began for me with the birth of my fourth son, Cary, and my fourth book, The More Beautiful World our Hearts Know is Possible. In different ways each birth was both easier and more difficult than the ones before, and I think the same can be said for the year as well, whether for me or for humanity generally.
The day I was to send the final draft to the publisher, I called my friend Joshua Ramey, a philosophy professor who’d read my manuscript, in despair. “This book is terrible,” I confessed. “It is tedious, obvious, sophomoric, and unoriginal. If I were an honest man I would withdraw it from publication and go back to being a construction worker.”
Joshua laughed at me. “I had the very same judgments about my own book at the same time in its process. Your book is amazing and desperately necessary in our time.” I was comforted: there was no patronizing tone in his voice.
That wasn’t the only time I was assailed with doubts about the value of my work. I gave over a hundred and fifty speeches and longer events in 2013, and sometimes, even if the speech ended with a standing ovation and tears glistening around the room, I would wonder at night, “Is this really doing any good? After all, everyone went home and look at the news.” I would read that while I was speaking, a Yemeni wedding party was incinerated by a hellfire missile, or that torture had resumed in Abu Graib, or that indigenous tribes were to be removed in Ecuador so their pristine rain forests could be cleared for oil drilling, or that Fukushima radiation is causing fish to bleed from their eyeballs…
Every day there is another incontrovertible sign that the military-industrial-pharmaceutical-prison-educational-financial-political complex is ascendant. Against that backdrop, I sometimes wonder, does the world really need another smart white guy speaking in a room?
On a few occasions in 2013, brave people helpfully amplified that voice. One woman said, “No matter what the content of your speech, all you are doing is exemplifying white male privilege. You should step off the stage and give women and people of color a voice.”
A man in Berkeley, a successful producer and performer in his own right, said, “You are speaking to audiences that are addicted to the emotional high called ‘inspiration.’ But then they go back to their sorry, complicit lives, and nothing has changed. You are actually enabling them to continue doing that.”
It has always felt a little too convenient to dismiss such criticism as projection or envy. For one thing, it harbors valid questions. How can I use my voice as a member of a privileged class without replicating the conditions of privilege? What kind of experience in a room translates into real changes in action? But the main reason I cannot ignore this kind of criticism is that it evokes an emotional response in me, and I am sensitive and it hurts and I have to know how much of it is true. I cannot keep doing this work – the exhausting travel, the missing my family, the rejection by social institutions that confer money and status – unless I believe that it is worth it, that I am truly and effectively contributing to a more beautiful world, and that such a world is indeed possible.
Beyond personal criticisms, I could list a hundred events and news items from 2013 that together present a nearly irrefutable case for despair and the futility of my work. Why am I still doing my work? Much as I would like to say otherwise, it is by no means because of any personal fortitude. It is because of the timely help I receive from people like Joshua, people close to me and strangers from around the world who reflect back at me what I know in my heart and cannot believe without help.
I am not talking here merely of the positive feedback about my work, and the gifts of money, time, and hospitality that have been deeply validating and that have allowed me, in a practical sense, to travel and speak mostly in a gift economy. Of course I am grateful for all of that. It is not only personally validating, but it also demonstrates the reality of an aspect of human nature that we can and must build a world on. This support answers those who say it is foolish to trust in the generosity of others. It is living proof that we yearn to contribute to something beyond ourselves that is beautiful to us.
Beyond these personal gifts, it is the beauty, courage, and goodness of human beings that sustains me. It is my wife, Stella, in childbirth, utterly in the process, never despairing, never even complaining. Here is a what a human can be. It is the piano player at Gezi Park, miraculously halting the violence with the power of music. It is my son, Jimi, starting a “feelings group” after school and an appreciation box in the cafeteria. It is the Idle No More movement seeking to end ecocide, the striking non-unionized workers of Wal-Mart and McDonalds, the whistleblowers Manning and Snowden, the people on the streets in Brazil, Turkey, Thailand, Spain… It is the especially the people I meet who perform the most humble, invisible acts of service, caring thanklessly for children or the sick or aged or disabled.
All of these people confirm my intuition of what human beings really are, and what the world could be. That same intuition is fed by the occasional bits of good news that seemed especially significant in 2013. For the first time, public opinion stopped the U.S. from going to war (in Syria and maybe Iran). A sacred plant medicine, cannabis, became fully legal in Uruguay, Colorado, and Washington. Thanks to public outcry, the EU Seed Law was halted.
None of these heroes or happenings can overpower the logic of despair by fighting evidence with evidence. None of them “prove” that the world is on the right track after all. We can always discount any good news as an insignificant counter-eddy in the whirlpool of our planet’s destruction, just as we can dismiss altruism and generosity as exceptions that prove the rule of greed and self-interest. So also, I can take my vivid memory of a man who faced me after a speech, trembling, tears flowing down his face, unable to speak yet transmitting an overwhelming gratitude, and dismiss it as the soppy outpouring of an emotionally deranged individual who is grateful because I’ve justified his pathetic failure to live up to society’s expectations.
It would be irresponsible to inspire hope where there is none. It would be irresponsible to validate and celebrate the small, invisible acts that can have no causal connection (that we can understand) to the survival of our planet. According to what I learned growing up in this culture, according to what I was told about how change happens in the world, the situation is indeed hopeless. The world will be what it has always been. Human misery and environmental degradation will see no end.
I say a more beautiful world is possible. I say it from a knowing, and it touches the same knowing in anyone who listens. And that knowing generates fear and pain, because it has been betrayed, repeatedly, by a world that denies it. It denies its possibility and denies our power as creative agents to bring it into being. It says, like my inner voice of doubt, that the vision is a hallucination and that any efforts to serve it are futile. That denial, that betrayal of what we know was so brutal that we dare not believe again, and so we retreat into cynicism or despair.
I speak from a knowing, yet I just as much as anyone need help to believe. The help takes the form of the people, the gifts, the stories, and the positive developments in the world that I have mentioned. It also comes as wonder, awe, touch, dance, being held, being loved. All of these pierce the logic of normal and communicate more than any words can that my knowing is a true knowing. In those moments there can be no doubt. What I, as a child, knew becomes obvious once again. Yes, the world can be more magical, beautiful, playful, and authentic than what is offered as normal. Yes, I am here to contribute to such a world. Yes, I and everyone I meet, without exception, bears special gifts in order to make that contribution. Yes, every act, even the smallest, has untold significance and, therefore, yes, my life matters, as does the life of every being, without exception.
As ever, at the end of 2013 we can make a case that the world is spiraling into hell, or we can make a case that we have turned the corner. Evidence and reason can be arranged to support either side, although I will admit that in the worldview we have inherited, in which we are separate selves in a objective universe governed by impersonal laws and devoid of purpose or intelligence, the case for despair is by far the stronger. No matter. It isn’t evidence or logic that sustains me, nor can it sustain anyone else in a life of service. What sustains me are the things that pierce me. My eight-year-old son, looking at me as I departed for a trip, full in the face and without artifice or calculation of any kind, saying, “Dad, I love you.” It pierced me. The trembling man. A flock of gulls. A man’s story, a woman’s touch, a baby’s smile. A loved one’s brave anger, pent up and finally expressed. A secret, shared. A bitter pill. A sacred gift. Generosity and courage, right in my face, that I cannot explain away in the moment I know it is real. All of these have held me in my knowing that a more beautiful world is possible, that the positive developments of 2013 are no trick of the universe, nor a self-comforting delusion. These are the gifts that keep me in service, however imperfectly that may be.
We are all together in this. We cannot pierce ourselves, but when we receive the gift of being pierced, courage and generosity are born within us, and we are able then to pierce others with our beautiful acts.
What pierced you in 2013? What spoke to you in a language older than words? What connected you with a knowing that defies logic? What gave you the experience of being in the presence of the real? What motivated the best in you, and what confirmed beyond a doubt, at least for a moment, “It is all worth it”? Let us hold that 2014 pierces us all the more.
(Photo credit: Filiz Telek)