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I’m sitting on a plane flying from Australia back to the East Coast of the United States. I read the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times in between my 150 e-mail catch up (still have over 200 to go). Both newspapers featured stories about the U.S. unemployment rate allegedly dropping – that message grabbing the headlines – while subtly acknowledging that the actual workforce engagement numbers also dropped. In countless blogs, I’ve addressed the tragedy of our national workforce statistics which focus on the highly misleading notion that unemployment includes only those who have been recently jobless and ignores those who have been structurally dislocated from the workforce. Laborforce participation is now standing at 62.9%. Far from the headline rate of 4.4% unemployment, we’re at over 40% in reality. Many of the employed making around $12/hour or about $25,000 per year. We’ve got baby-boomers living on Social Security and pensions and young people living on $25,000 per year. That means that MOST Americans are seeing a reduction in their standard of living.
In a related story, a friend of mine posted an article about the calamitous negligence regarding the environment which has put humanity on an extinction course. And, “How,” you say, “are these stories related?” Well, thanks for asking.
I’ve been contemplating humanity a lot lately. And with good reason, I tell myself. Over the past several years, I’ve been overwhelmed with the mountain of evidence that shows that humans, when presented with compelling evidence of alternative existences which would be demonstrably superior to the conditions in which they find themselves, choose status quo destructive paths far in excess of constructive alternatives. And the reflex to this observation is a bull$#!+ platitude about risk-aversion and fear of change. “What if…?” is the consensus paralysis that…
- · keeps an executive holding onto a failed institutional model for fear of losing titular relevance;
- · keeps a talented person from recognizing that lack of self-care has persistently harmed relationships;
- · keeps government agencies charged with economic development resisting approaches that demonstrate the ineptitude of their bureaucracies;
- · allow fund-managers to lose their clients’ funds with impunity when superior performance is accessible and less expensive; and,
- · justifies inaction based on a cosmology of a “better” beyond.
In the face of these and an abundance of other illogical behaviors, I pause. OK, consensus apathy is rampant. Self-harm far exceeds harm done by others. Rapid suicide is epidemic. Slow motion suicide through obesity, substance abuse, destructive lifestyles etc. is pandemic. The Adam Smith heroin of rent-based marginal wage living is being pedaled to students to justify lifetimes of indebtedness. Get a degree. Get a job. Get a mortgage. And who wins? Oh, that’s right. The people who are selling the story by consuming the labor infantry like cannon fodder. So what’s the point in caring? What’s the motivation to do something? If We The People are self-destructing, is there any reason to work to stem the tide?
I watched the film Gold on the flight from Melbourne to LA. The movie is roughly based on the actual story of a group of mining prospectors who duped investors out of billions of dollars in an alleged Indonesian gold mine. By salting the assays, the geologist in the film provides the impetus for a gold-rush frenzy that spanned the globe. The story purportedly ends with the geologist getting pushed to his death from a helicopter flying low over the Indonesian rainforest while thousands of investors clamor for justice. At one point in the film, an investment banking executive is asked how this all happened. His explanation was that nobody – not the Indonesian government, not the corporate executives, not the investors, not the bankers – wanted to know whether the gold strike was real because they all wanted to believe that it was.
Unemployment, complacency, suicide, gold. What do all of these have in common? Probably a lot. They are all based on social narratives that in and of themselves are unconsidered. Unemployment is bad and should be avoided. Right? But is “employment” a considered social good? Complacency lets me get away with inaction which preserves my position. But is it ethical to perpetuate a system that we know is absorbing resources to a futile end? Suicide – fast or slow – is a tragic waste of life. But is the organic persistence of a meaningless life a better alternative? Gold is a safe-haven in volatile times. What? How long are we going to keep that myth alive? A metal that has little utility in most lives is worth the reckless speculation of millions?
Towards the end of the movie, the main character gives an acceptance speech when he’s awarded the Golden Pick Ax Award. In his speech he extols the value of the persistence of a prospector. Against all odds – the elements, government corruption, malaria, heat, cold, harshness, violence – the prospector persists based on the siren certainty that the strike is somewhere just beyond the next sunrise. Love lost. Health destroyed. Trust violated. Integrity out the window. All because the quest justifies it. And as I sit on the plane reflecting on the film, I recount my own Quixotic journey. Am I any different? Does my life matter? And more fundamentally, what does “matter” mean after all?
The Apostle Paul – the most influential contributor to the mislabeled “Christianity” since most of the “beliefs” of the religion are Paul’s, not anything attributed to Jesus – made the observation that without hope of an after-life, life wouldn’t be worth living. What is it that allows us to accept this madness? We come up with an ideal construct defined by a mythical, unverifiable “other” condition. Then we denigrate the notion of humanity by ascribing bad behavior to being “only human” as though that’s a bad thing. Then we convince ourselves that our own notions (ironically, a hubris that advances the ludicrous proposition that we could apprehend an ideal and recognize it if it was in our grasp and that what we have now is NOT that) are trustworthy. Then we enter into this bizarre torture of setting aside present goodness so that we can somehow access a better disembodied “other”. Is it any wonder that society is destroying itself and the earth when so much of our dogma is based on the explicit defilement of human experience and the earth?
Over 40% of Americans have check out. The Department of Labor refers to many of them as permanently disappointed. And of the 60% that are working, most of them are also disappointed. Not doing what they love. Not engaging life with meaning and purpose. Not experiencing a quality of life that feels worth living. And all because of the siren of “tomorrow”.
Here’s my view. There is no tomorrow. There’s no “better”. If you’ve chosen a path that involves misery today, there’s a better than even chance that you’ve neglected the goodness around you now and you’re not very likely to see it tomorrow – if you get a tomorrow. Something bad happened to you. Someone did you wrong. Your health isn’t what it used to be. You don’t have enough income to cover the bills. Guess what? That’s all going to be there again tomorrow when you wake up. Oh, that plus your could-have-been narrative today. So the hole will be deeper, the tunnel darker, the metaphors more cliché. There’s no “meaning” to life. We’re not on this planet to win or lose. Physics tells us that matter can neither be created nor destroyed – it can only alter forms and motion. So your life isn’t going to “matter” in some sort of mythical way. My life isn’t going to matter either. And it isn’t because life is not about some future consequence. Life is about stewarding NOW. It’s about taking each moment and choosing to engage it in such a way as to fully experience what it offers. It’s about bringing your best and inciting the best in others. And repeating this over and over again as long as you have breath. If what you’re doing isn’t the best it can be, stop doing it. Pause, breathe, feel the inescapable beauty of your body and the world around you and do what you’d love to do. With any luck, you’ll find others similarly persuaded (as I have) and before long you’ll be living – not for some disembodied future – but for the ever-unfolding presents.