Some days I want change. Today is such a day.
My world, right now, is rather limited. So, too, is my ability to affect change. That is why I just dropped three crushed cardamom pods in my coffee press and called it “a change.”
It’s a tiny thing, this break in routine. But right now the act of making coffee is the closest I have to any daily ritual. If a ritual is understood to be an action repeated with intent, then there is also significance in the act of introducing anomaly to the pattern.
This is, of course, an imaginary construct against powerlessness. It is the ridiculous yet visceral urge towards irreconcilable opposites. It is the wish for the world to be different.
I want change, yes – and peace and creation and healing and the chaos of rebirth and destruction. I am selflessly greedy; I want none of this struggle to be necessary. I want the ideal of Spaceship Earth. I want people, as a species, to have fulfilled lives doing whatever they do best, without impinging on anyone else’s ability to do the same. (I’m not going to say “I want everyone to be happy” because, frankly, I suspect there are people who just wouldn’t be happy with that.)
Somewhere, if you catch Probability on a very good day – there’s a version of our universe in which, each time there is a chance for strife – it misses.
Each time we are faced with the opportunity to do harm, we don’t. We dodge each trap of choice, while retaining free will.
In this thought-experiment, there is no divine intervention which keeps choice or chance on track. This is no Paradise, no Nirvana. This is a place of human decision. So the word for it is: Utopia.
Now, for a bookshelf detour. There is a book called The Power of Myth1; it is a conversation between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers on why, and how, we need the mythic. I have recently acquired a copy, after brushing against references to this work off and on over the last decade.
One constantly recurring theme is the idea of the price of life. Campbell goes beyond simply discussing the old duality of life and death to suggest that the act of life requires an act of death – an act of killing. This is framed as the necessity of eating (animal or vegetable, both involve an organism’s death). Yes, that escalated quickly.
In Campbell’s own words:
“Life is, in its very essence and character, a terrible mystery – this whole business of living by killing and eating. But it is a childish attitude to say no to life with all its pain, to say that this is something that should not have been….Only death is no trouble.” (emphasis mine)Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
It appears my thought experiment has just been called “childish” by one of the twentieth century’s best-known thinkers on comparative mythology.
I can’t even say he’s wrong. It’s a demonstrable fact: life survives only at the cost of other life2.
Campbell continues to say that he thinks the world is perfect the way it is – there is nothing he would change.
“…People ask me, ‘Do you have optimism about the world?’ And I say, ‘Yes, it’s great just the way it is. And you are not going to fix it up. Nobody has ever made it any better. It is never going to be any better. This is it, so take it or leave it. You are not going to correct or improve it.’”Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
When life and killing are intrinsically linked, you can’t exactly go around playing Caped Crusader. (Well, capes haven’t really been in since The Incredibles, but you get the picture).
There’s not that much to argue against a person who will simply respond that you haven’t evolved the higher understanding necessary to agree with them. That aside (“questionable scholarship aside”) – Campbell’s words bother me because they heavily imply that what humans need isn’t an ideal of Utopia; humans just need better rituals to navigate the business of killing things. (Periodically he also mourns the fact that modern societies have no rituals.)
I think Campbell fails to distinguish between necessity and gratuitousness.
If you find you can do less harm – do so. That is the greatest act of change possible. If you can exist in such a way that lessens suffering, both individual and cumulative – do so. And look for ways to continue to do so. Globally it may be a lost cause. You can’t control anyone else’s actions. But you can try to lessen harm in whatever is placed in front of you, each day.
Campbell doesn’t have a lot to say about my thought experiment anyway because he’s already said there is nothing he would change.
Here is my unsubstantiated suspicion: Campbell could afford to say there was nothing he would change because, as far as these things go, he was at the top of the pyramid. He was educated (Dartmouth and Columbia), financially stable, a tenured professor. He had many safety nets against the rougher side of change. He had many insulations against precisely the cycle of desperate necessity he described as inevitable. Poverty and powerlessness were not his lot.
The rest of us dream of a changed world. The rest of us construct Utopias in our heads, and look for small ways to sneak glimpses into the everyday.
There are plenty of times in life when imperfection must be accepted, acknowledged, embraced, or celebrated. Imperfection has its own lessons for us, and I spend a lot of time reflecting on imperfection.
But the act of reflecting on “perfection” – even if we can’t agree on what it is or how to get there – also holds lessons. This act of imagining Utopia? It’s powerful stuff. It is an action I repeat with intent: a ritual, if you will, performed as often as I can get away with it. The understanding that I will always fail to create it for others does not release me from the drive to use it as the template for anything I do create – even if it is as simple as a single chance to “do no harm.”
Good grief, that cardamom coffee3 is good stuff. I wonder what else I can find to throw in there tomorrow?
1The Power of Myth is a complex book, and it’s ideas – for better or worse – have shaped a lot of modern cultural production. Here, I have pulled at one small thread of many. My caution? Campbell is often viewed as some sort of Messianic figure, and I think that is precisely a view he seeks to bolster. The book should be understood as a heavily subjective interpretation at best – Campell cherrypicks sources and versions of myths, and he constantly draws from other fields – in which he has no in-depth knowledge – to back up his subjective claims. Having said all of that, if you are at all interested in narrative or symbolism or philosophy or the weirdness people get up to when they’re trying to make sense of themselves and the world – I think the book is a very worthwhile read.
2 Of course, he’s ignoring plants and single-celled organisms who form chlorophyll from solar energy. But he would likely argue that soil is formed by decomposed life.
3 Upon coffee-enlightened reflection, I’ve now backed myself into a corner labeled “hypocrite.” Neither coffee nor cardamom are, strictly speaking, necessary. So in this act of consumption of once-living plants, I am back to square one. Dammit, I need better rituals for this sort of thing…