Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Over the years I have discarded a few ideas, some early and some recently. Some that were family heritage, some that were traditional scholar’s assumptions, and some that I’d invented for myself.

One of the main ones to be cast off was the idea of progress, that everything is gradually getting better, which includes the increasing value that is supposed to correspond with increasing technological “advances” and more complexification of ideas. I surely accept change, because what could be more obvious? But I think that “better” and “worse” are braided together all through the passage of time and that one must do a bit of sorting right along the way so as to find the “better” in the moment and tough it out through the “worse.” There is NOT a steady progression onward and upward, though my family so sincerely believed in it out there homesteading on the prairie. To them progress was nearly synonymous with patriotism, the belief that America (which in their minds included Canada) is progressing, perfecting, always improving -- even though in their own lives there was only one short period of relative prosperity in the middle period of their lives.

Related to this is the idea that the “primitive” is either less complex or satisfying than contemporary ideas and lifeways. Life before agriculture, life before cities, life before the Internet, were neither more golden nor more leaden. They just WERE and the people in every time have varied in their ability to make the best of it. “Primitive” cultures were neither Eden nor necessarily hardscrabble. A culture of bone, hide, stone and feathers can be as elaborate and evocative as one of metal, silicon, electricity and radioactivity. After all, it’s always pretty much the same humans.

And again, I reject the notion that being younger is “better” than being older. Being a certain age can favor one person’s skills or another, but the point is to find out what you can do during the age you are, given the context of the times, rather than mourning over or glorifying the past, particularly when that glorious past was high school!

Another sequencing puzzle that I think will never be “solved” as good/better/best is that of the generations -- how the success of one converts to the failure of the next and then back again. Environment (both time and place), genetic endowment, and something elusive like expectations, all interact. Melding with this is one’s luck in finding other people or institutions who can protect and support. The right attitude and the right mentor make all the difference. Much of it is just pure dumb luck, but I don’t quite accept the idea that one is confined by fate to one alternative. I think there are always a set of responses that can affect the situation, even if they include passive acceptance, madness or physical escape.

The advantage of discarding all this baggage is that one is free to concentrate on the present moment, to extend one’s awareness. But one should not play it safe. It is always worthwhile to jump to a new context that will uncover whole new realms of alternatives, some of which might be vital to you, but all the while one must accept that some of them might simply kill you. (Homesteading, for instance.) On the other hand, one shouldn’t discard everything. I think one main plan and a couple of backups might be the right proportion.

Another discard category is that of awards, prizes, institutionally certified achievements and so on. I find them quite hollow. Obama’s peace prize in a time of war is not an exception. Ceremonies like ministerial ordination or Christian marriage are mockable and imitated with fake certificates. University degrees are unrecognized as the Ponzi schemes they can be: one cannot get them without pleasing the people in charge of the terms and then the receiver must validate that material by imposing it on the next generation. It’s a conserving system. To dissent is to be eliminated. Doing a thing and excelling at it ought to be its own reward. If others agree with your self-evaluation, it’s blessed. If you HAVE to jump hoops to get where you want to go, just do it. No preening.

But uniformities are dangerous: it only takes one small chink for the whole category to collapse, whether it is Irish potatoes or some culture now lost, maybe one that drank wine boiled in lead pots. Another trap is binary oppositions instead of integrations: right versus wrong instead of right variously interacting with wrong. And false continuums. To be human is to be part of a spectrum condition, but which spectrum and which end is advantageous is strictly situational. What could save your life in one predicament might wipe you out in an alternative dilemma. Being smart or strong or well-connected sound like good ideas, but if you didn’t bring your insecticide-treated mosquito netting and you’re living in malaria country, you’re no better off that the dumbest, weakest and most abandoned little kid. If the kid has sickle cell anemia, he or she might have a slight advantage, since that confers some resistance to malaria.

I had thought -- and been assured -- that the higher level of education I attained, the better the job I could get and therefore the easier life I would have. This turned out to be pretty misleading in several ways. One can “over” educate oneself right out of the job market -- in fact, this is easily true in small-town Montana -- or have the wrong kind of education. In fact, an attachment to place -- which I share with most of the people around here -- can undercut the kind of employment that our politicians insist on calling -- ungrammatically -- “good-paying jobs” because there aren’t any. (This place is great for people who have large chunks of capital for ranches or natural resources.)

When it comes to religion, what I want to discard is God. I’m not an atheist, an un-theist, an anti-theist -- I just don’t want to talk about theism. I think it’s a waste of time. There’s plenty of other subject matter that is religious and much more useful in daily life. I’m not inclined to deny others the right to talk about God, but they should be warned that from my point of view, they’re talking about their relationship to authority figures and not much more. More about that tomorrow.


Lance M. Foster said...

Great post, Mary-- has me thinking...

Progress. Yes, we have progressed in some ways technologically and medically. technology to the point where our kids mostly sit and play video games and get more obese, and medically to the point where we are scared to death of dying and destroy our family's and nation's resources in futile attempts to stave off the inevitable. Actually most native people believe it was the other way around. Things were created perfect and degenerated from there...entropy. And then there is the Norse Ragnarok, which corresponds in some ways with entropy.

Primitive. The anthropologists took care of that myth when they noted that hunting and gathering people took care of their needs in 16 hours a week, compared to our 40...HA! 40? Since when? More like 60-80 these days. Computers were supposed to create more leisure time, and people spend more and more time in their cubicles.

Prizes, accolades, and institutional approval. Well, I am glad Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize and then escalated the war, because that above all else freed me from the notion that awards meant anything.

Education and jobs. Yep. I wasn't even going to get an interview for a job here in Helena that I was well-qualified for. The hiring agency basically said I was overqualified. It's all "who you know" BS, like everywhere else. I already did the "work elsewhere" thing in big cities and other states. I wasn't money-driven enough to play that game very well or to want to play it any more. I just wanted to come home to die, sooner or later, like a cat that crawls under the trailer house where it lived. And now I and my wife have student loan debts we don't have a snowball's chance in hell of ever paying off because I was told the same thing, good education = good job. Especially since I can't even be sure of paying the rent from month to month. Screw it. I don't want to play Monopoly anymore. I'll just live life moment by moment. I'm really pretty happy until someone talks about money or the future. That just pisses me off.

Religion. I am mostly a confirmed animist. I talk to God, but am not sure if anyone's listening or it's just a habit that reassures me.

Art Durkee said...

"I pray to God to rid me of God."
—Meister Eckhart