Reading accounts of life in preindustrial contexts is often a lurching experience. We find so many instances where we are used to, “And we started her up and motored on through!” Where, instead days weeks, even months or years, are spent dealing with a discrete obstacle of distance, or adverse conditions such as wind, or current, or altitude; we expect to simply power-on to get what we want, when we want it. The same holds true regarding getting things done. Instead of a few clicks and the delightful expectation of an overnight delivery, we read of the grueling effort required to make the simplest thing.
There’s a consistency to our reactions. We automatically assume that our attitude is the normal one and that the situation described is one of a tremendous lack. Swimming in a sea of unexamined exceptionalism we expect to have our whims met by whatever expenditure is necessary to avoid our impatience, or even merely our boredom. We certainly never let it get to the point of effecting our actual needs!
At the risk of sounding a trite and off-putting note, does any of this make us happier? Is there any connection between this emotional state we consider normal and the state of our general mental health? There is now talk of adding Lithium salts to drinking water. Is this a sign of how much better off we are?
Anyone who’s followed my writing at Horizons of Significance should expect that I don’t see eye to eye with these assumptions. I’ve been working on plotting out a series of connections between aspects of existence such as power and strength, control and mastery, technology and craft, futility and joy. This site and its organization around the interconnections between Art, Craft, Food, and Life; and their connection to the role of the artist as a catalyst for developing community, joy, and a sense of satisfaction with enough; is an outgrowth of that work and a potential next step.
What if the problem lies in our expectations and not in our material situation? Of course, our expectations have led to a deteriorating physical condition paralleling our increasing dissatisfaction with the state of our lives. But, the correlation may not be what we assume it to be, that wanting more and not getting it is a problem of supply.
If we take reality as a starting place instead of our wishes, then it becomes quite clear that as the distance between what we have and what we wish for increases and becomes ever more insistently a matter of focusing desire on those wishes instead of what is possible, then we not only get increasingly unstable physical conditions, but we get increasingly unstable mental states. It’s no coincidence that our aggregate public persona is now that of a spoiled, uneducated, and insistently demanding infantilized adult.
There have been those who have had something to gain by this. It didn’t happen without help. We might find that the greatest public investment of the past century has been directed to creating this ideal consumer/subject. It takes a bit more digging to see that the cost of this investment has backfired even on those who sought to gain at our expense. They have now been swallowed by their own propaganda – Oh! That’s not been an acceptable term since it got a bit of a bad press with Göebbles and Stalin…. The dream of a new feudalism with shiny space-ships in place of grimy castles on cold dank hilltops doesn’t appear to be panning out. They’re now setting their sites lower, and closer to the old paradigm. Still, the excesses of our day cannot be held at bay by walls and highly armed security forces.
Let’s get back to the dynamic surrounding our expectations and the gap between our own experience and those of just about every human that preceded us and the majority of people alive today who have never achieved a semblance of what we’ve aspired to.
One more digression. The question of wealth. John Michael Greer in his latest post goes a long way towards describing the mechanism of arbitrage that has powered the Ponzi-scheme of industrial development. I would, and have gone, a bit further to say that all wealth concentration throughout the civilized portion of human life on earth has been the same thing. The concentration of benefits has been a way of stripping away a general abundance and robust resiliency so as to provide ease for a few. Instead of creating wealth, it has created poverty, as Ivan Illich so well laid this out forty odd years ago.
Stealing sufficiency from others, human and non-human others, created the illusion of wealth creation while in actuality generating widespread poverty and a general and always downward trending condition of impoverishment for all life on Earth. My personal experiences of eating at a pinnacle-of-wealth restaurant in New York in the eighties and eating at one of the last true peasant households in western Europe gave me a direct measure of how that has played out. These were among the best meals I ever had. The latter was by far the best of the two.
The restaurant is closed. The peasant, my mother’s cousin, has died. The possibilities for either level of quality have diminished with the passing years and the erosion of the Earth’s abundance and diminution of human possibility playing out all around us. Every meal we eat today has the added consequence, payback for Tokyo’s gaudy night-life, in a load of Fukushima spread nuclear hazard – as just one discreet example of the ongoing toll of all that desire.
The lie of wealth creation is becoming harder and harder to maintain. I doubt anyone holding considerable wealth today actually believes in the mechanisms that brought them what is an increasingly meaningless comparative advantage. There are so many signs now of a grim retrenchment of the kind that led the wealthy suburbanites of Conimbriga to tear down their own villas and retreat to a more defensible citadel, using their marble columns and statues to build a new wall intended to keep the future out.
Craft, and Food. These are the ways into a readjustment of our expectations. There is a tremendous disillusionment we must get through in this process. We tend to shy away from such a prospect! What I’ve been discovering over at Horizons of Significance over the last year and a half or so has been the connection between disillusionment and the prospects of Joy. There is a direct connection between the pain and suffering of our growing sense of futility and the frightening level of our current delusions as they appear in what passes for common-sense, or as the basis for any general consensus coming out of our exceptionalist expectations.
As we progress through a process of disillusionment we find a new access to the vitality of our beings and the wellsprings of joy in the satisfactions of existence. From this we begin to see the way our present delusions set us up, not only for physical disaster as we force ever greater consequences as we reach for ever more trivial results; but that they also keep us bound within a bottomless pit of unquenchable desire that strips us of any possibility of satisfaction.
Food is one of our most immediate necessities. Craft is the overall umbrella of how we confront need. We are disconnected from both. We have been led, and have eagerly followed, a chimerical promise of never-ending ease; and have paid for it by the erosion of food from a daily celebration of abundance into an inexorable decline into ersatz food-product. We’ve left behind, and almost obliterated, a world of highly developed and sophisticated craft that tied us to the earth and to an economy of actual necessity as we’ve been seduced by the false-promises of power and its handmaiden, technology. Food and food-product are not the same thing! Craft and technology are also not the same thing!
Let’s tease out the differences and carve out a space for as much good food and honest craft as we can muster. At the same time, lets allow ourselves to go through the painful, yet ultimately healthy, adjustment to our expectations. Let’s make room for patience and perseverance, for acceptance and the opening to Grace it affords us.