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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

sanity-check, global and personal

After taking half a Sleep Aid I slept through most of the night, and feel much better this morning. I felt freshness and enthusiasm in opening up the books from which I'm currently keying notes over my morning coffee (The Roman Conquest of Italy and The Pagan God). As Robert McKee says, knowledge increases a writer's choices, and therefore makes possible an avoidance of cliche. Tappity-tap-tap.

What I'm doing might be insane (laboring over a gigantic and obscure project that may or may not ever see the light of day)--but then, what counts as sane? How do people spend their time, and should I care? And if so, why?

In the evenings Kimmie and I are watching disc 5 of the documentary series Planet Earth. This disc contains three episodes that form an addendum to the main series, which focuses solely on wildlife and is narrated by David Attenborough. The extra episodes have an advocacy mission, and discuss problems with the environment and our global management of it. They feature interviews with various scientists, policy thinkers, and some of the Planet Earth filmmakers, including David Attenborough. Last night's episode was "Into the Wilderness", which examines the human effect on the quantity and quality of wilderness in the world, and the future of wilderness.

One of the experts interviewed (I forget his name) made the crucial point that our high-consuming Western lifestyle does not make us happy. We behave as though heavy consumption were itself how happiness is attained or expressed, but it's quite plain, for anyone who looks at it, that this is not the case. Beyond having a certain level of material security, surrounding ourselves with more and more possessions does nothing to make us happier, and, if anything, appears to make us less happy.

And yet almost all of economics and politics assumes that the goal for humanity is to promote ever more consumption as a sign of increased quality of life. "Consumption" means, ultimately, consumption of energy. The food chain is based on the transfer of energy from one level to another: sunlight and carbon are photosynthesized by plants; plants are eaten by animals; those animals are eaten by bigger animals; and so on, up to us. When we consume products and services, it's the same thing: if I buy, say, a bottle of wine, the grapes derived their existence and quality from the sun, while the harvesting, processing, bottling, labeling, and transportation of the wine consumed (mainly) fossil-fuel energy. Fossil fuels are the geologically transformed remnants of plants and animals that existed millions of years ago. The energy they derived from the sun way back then is still latent in them, and when we extract the fuel and burn it, we are consuming that solar energy. In this way we "eat" the corpses of life that lived long ago.

We make our livings in a busy economy based on relentless consumption. Economists and policy-makers worry about "growth", which means the continuing growth of consumption. The belief is that to prevent poverty, we have to keep consuming more and more. More and more and more, without end.

To me, the obesity epidemic, which is becoming global as developing countries adopt a more Western lifestyle (burgers, pop), is the living image of this mindset. Consumerism is the psychology of obesity.

Everyone wants to be happy. We expect to derive happiness from success. Success we take to mean worldly achievement, as reflected mainly in our material wealth. Material wealth is expressed as consumption. Therefore happiness = consumption.

It seems logical, and yet experience gives it the lie. For anyone who looks at it, it's plain to see that happiness does not equal consumption. Are billionaires happier than millionaires? I doubt it. I strongly suspect that Bill Gates is starting to truly enjoy his money now that he's giving large amounts of it away.

Where and when have I been happiest? Certainly one time was in 1985, when Kimmie and I were first going out. We did dine out and do some shopping together, but it was not a time that had very much to do with consumption. It was about a relationship.

Other happy times have been when I was involved in Buddhist retreats and programs, such as Seminary in 1994 or when I took temporary ordination at Gampo Abbey in 2002. On all those occasions, part of the happiness lay in the attention we paid to not overconsuming. As a monk I lost 10 or 15 pounds, and I enjoyed doing it. I still had my pleasures: I drank coffee in the morning, and loved it. And after a crammed day, your simple, cozy bunk feels mighty good.

But consumerism has become our spirituality, and it will be replaced only when another inspiration takes its place. The happiness of monasticism is possible only for those who are inspired by its vision. Nietzsche said that "someone who has a why to live can put up with almost any how." This is really the issue. In our materialist society, consumerism is the best that most of us have been able to come with for a why to live. It's not adequate--it fails even on its own terms. We're ripe for change.

Where does this leave me? I mentioned my sanity. Sane means sound, healthy. (Just looking it up in Webster's, I see this interesting note: "able to anticipate and appraise the effect of one's actions".) Sometimes, to be sure, I feel like Captain Ahab, obsessed with Moby-Dick--not exactly a poster-boy for good mental hygiene. People close to me have sometimes commented that I am uncompromising. There is certainly truth to that.

Ahab didn't compromise, and he went down with the whale. But what is a compromise, anyway? You give up something to get something else. It all depends on how much you want that something else.

So far, I suppose I don't see a need to give up anything. A comfortable bourgeois life and "success" do look tempting, but not enough to make me give up. Not yet, anyway. I want that whale.


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