Saturday, December 25, 2004

Tikkun Olam - what really matters

Something to think about, whatever holiday you have celebrated, will celebrate or are at the moment recovering from...Perhaps there is someone out there who longs to hear their own life taken apart for its foulness, excess and banality, but I do not know them, and it would be a risky thing to write this blog hoping that there were thousands of such people. Most people (and I do include myself here) who decry the collapse of our culture into rampant consumerism, the environmental disaster that is modern life, and the sadness of our empty collective experience are extremely tedious, and they do so because they enjoy self-righteousness. Whether they do a great deal or nothing to resist and relieve these conditions, they enjoy the sensation that they care more than the rest of us, feel deeper outrage and are the better for it.

Outrage and compassion are good qualities, but in themselves, they take us nowhere - we may feel the better for experiencing them, but they alter nothing except our interior state, and when we imagine that what is important is our feelings, or our intentions, we glorify ourselves when we are most unworthy. There are two things better than self-righteousness, better than moral outrage, better than mere abstract compassion: courage and principle.

But I have a hard time fixing the problem of overconsumption, and the fact that our language does not really allow for an alternative way of thinking. I am the origin of the difficulty, abetted by corporations, by the notion that money and trade are what matter most, by the notion that being humane is too hard, by the sense that we cannot really make deep alterations in our state, that we are simply cogs in the wheel. But the bottom line is that I did not have to buy what they sold me. I did not have to buy the barbie dolls, the packaged mini-carrots, the notion that grandparents belong in a home because no one can be there to take care of them. And while I am skeptical, even ironic, about these notions, I also have given in at times, conceeded, kept my pleasures and polluted and enslaved and mistreated others.

The reality is that my wealth is borne on the backs of others who are less wealthy. I can have not only vaccinations and urgently needed medical treatment for my children, but they can have orthodontistry to the tune of many thousands of dollars for slightly crooked teeth. But other children cannot have vaccinations, can die from diarrhea or starvation. We all know this, we all believe in our hearts it is wrong, but there is something lost in the translation. Either we do not believe that the one depends on the other, that my wealth deprives another, or we want so badly to give the gift of everything to our families and children that we enjoy our wealth and close our eyes to the consequences. Or perhaps it is that we cannot see how depriving ourselves will help another.

But it is the simple truth that I am wealthy in goods because goods are cheap, and do not represent their ethical cost. I have cheap clothing because people who are effectively slaves sew it for me. I have cheap food because people who are effectively slaves fertilize and spray and pick it for me. I have cheap gas because it is extracted by oil companies who destroy wildlife, pollute seas and rivers, and prop up fascist governments so that I can take all the money I have saved and drive my kids to Disneyland. My wealth is built on slavery just as much as that of the plantation owners before me. And I'm not very wealthy. I struggle to pay my mortgage. I have credit card debt on which I pay the minimum. I am wealthy on paper, in calories and in objects, but my wealth does not translate to a sense of security or confidence, it does not bring me happiness (more people are depressed now than ever before), freedom from fear, or anything but more work to preserve my wealth and more stuff to fill my overflowing home.

Most reasonably well educated and socially conscious people realize that there is something horribly wrong with the way that they live. You do not need me to tell you that on hot days, you can scarcely breath for all the exhaust hanging in the air of your suburb. You don't need me to point out that because you cannot afford housing near your job, you spend an hour a day commuting. You don't need me to tell you that more of our children have asthma and psychological difficulties than when we were young. You don't need me to tell you that by letting our kids watch hours of tv, they are being influenced by powers that you cannot compete with. You don't need me to point out that teenagers (and younger children) are murdering, robbing, raping, abusing at a rate far higher than anything you knew before. You don't need me to tell you that your mortgage and credit card bills are leaving you hanging on the edge of bankruptcy, while things keep accumulating in your house. You don't need me to tell you that the truth is that the oil that finances our economy, that pollutes our planet, that feeds our unending lust for gas, is eventually going to run out, and that some scary things are going to happen in the meantime. You don't need me to tell you that you work longer hours than your parents did, and now, both of you work, and you rarely have any time alone. You don't need me to tell you that an economy based upon consumer spending, all financed with imaginary, credit-card money, is eventually going to collapse inward. You don't need me to point out that it feels increasingly hard to make good choices, to find a way to feed and clothe your family without putting chemicals that you disapprove of into the atmosphere, and without using slave labor to pick or sew or make the things you depend upon. You don't need me to tell you that something is very, very wrong.

We all know all of these things. We know it in our guts and our bones, and we're afraid. And we try desperately to fix some of these things - to make sure that kids at risk have more counselors, to get more exercise, to eat more veggies. Maybe we've even tried some of the more radical approaches, like taking the train instead of driving or eating less meat. Maybe you recycle everything, are a vegetarian, only watch PBS and ride your bicycle to work. You have courage and conviction, a set of principles that say you want the world to be a better place, and you want to do your part to make it that way. But you only have limited time. You can't ride your bike every day, because that takes away time with your children. You can cut down on tv, but not cut it out altogether, because your kids like it, and because you don't have anything to fill the void with - you have to work. You cannot fix it yourself, because you do not have the time and energy and resources and you don’t understand the complicated system that needs to be worked to enact major change. How do you contact your congressman? What does that do if you do it? How do you get a question on the ballot? How do you find like-minded people? How do you make them care?

Even if you care, when you are tired, you buy the grapes coated in pesticides. Even if you care, in a hurry, you drive in just this once. The piecemeal solution depends upon private willpower, individual engagement, and the vagaries of your life permitting you
to make the right choices. Modern, corporate life offers no incentives for you to succeed, and every incentive for you to fail, to feel that you tried biking and it was too time-consuming, too hard, too slow, and it took time away from your family. You give it up because the benefits to you are purely abstract.

The only solution I have been able to come to is the most radical one of all, and because it is radical, it is easier and better than the piecemeal solution. It is to make your life what you want, and to build into that life a set of rules and techniques to do what you think is right. You receive the reward and the incentive simultaneously. You start over, find what you want, and figure out how to make that come about. It involves great sacrifices, for you will get off that other man's back once and for all. It is difficult. But the reward is that you get the thing you most desire - yourself, your family, your love, your life.

It is not easy, and I can't tell you how to do it. I have not yet wholly succeeded in doing it myself. But it seems to me the only goal worth working towards and the only thing worth praying for - that I can break my dependency on doing wrong, and begin, at this moment, to do right, to take up my true share of tikkun olam, the repair of the world.

More on this soon.

Shalom,

Sharon

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