If my blog posts have been a bit few and far between lately, it’s because I’ve been focusing my writing efforts this summer on the bigger project I have underway, the personal/political memoir I’ve been working on for some years now.
The political subtext will be somewhat familiar to followers of my blog these past two years: the necessity for more ordinary folks like me to wake up to the realities of climate change and environmental destruction, and begin to take action in both the personal and the political spheres.
The personal narrative will be somewhat familiar to friends and family who have followed my life, or pieces of my journey, these past 50 years. Good moments and bad, easy stretches when everything seemed to be going right, followed by inevitable patches of heartache and turmoil.
In the course of charting my experiences in depth through this memoir project, I’ve realized that I have two qualities that have often led me into troubled waters.
One, probably because I grew up in a family with strong values of caring, respect and integrity, I have tended to be very trusting—to believe that people mean well and want to do the right thing by others.
And two, I have been slow to respond to situations that make me unhappy. I tend to try to stick with whatever I’ve started or gotten myself into, to try make it work even when it’s become quite obvious—even to me!—that things are never going to change for the better.
I’m trying to make some connections between these personal traits of mine, and the larger social landscape that I inhabit.
For example, it seems to me that we have all tended to be too trusting of authority figures like politicians and business leaders, expecting that they have our best interests at heart.
As a kid growing up, it would never have occurred to me that corporations would produce, package and market products aimed to appeal to children, that would, over time at least, make us seriously sick.
I remember begging my mom to buy me Froot Loops and Lucky Charms breakfast cereal, which looked so yummy and appealing on TV.
I wanted Ring Dings, too, and Yodels, and Twinkies. I wanted Coke, of course, and Dr. Pepper. I wanted McDonald’s hamburgers, fries, and McMuffins.
I was lucky that my mom was not swayed by the seductive advertising, and went her own way with food, raising my brother and me on fresh fruits and vegetables (often grown in our own garden), premium meats, and homemade, preservative-free desserts.
Others, who bought the advertising and fell for the products, are finding themselves now, at midlife, with diabetes, cancer, asthma, arthritis and all the rest of our common American ailments. To some degree at least, the explosion of health problems in the developed world can be directly traced back to our societal trust that Big Business, Big Agriculture and Big Government were doing their best to safeguard our health.
Turns out we needed to be more discerning—a theme that runs through both my private and public spheres.
Likewise, I can relate my own slowness to realize and respond to untenable situations in my personal life to our broader social reluctance, as human beings, to go against the flow.
Let’s face it, we humans are herd animals, as Nietzsche saw clearly more than a century ago. We run in packs, and we fear nothing so much as social isolation and disapproval.
For me personally, the kinds of situations that I’ve been slow to wake up to and act upon have been ones in which taking action means going against the grain of social expectations.
For example, my marriage. It was very hard for me to let go of my own attachment to being married. There are so many positive perceptions surrounding married people, while divorced people, on the other hand, are perceived as unstable, difficult, dissatisfied, disloyal, probably neurotic, bad parents, bad partners, bad lovers—in short, failures overall.
Even though some 50% of marriages in the U.S. end in divorce, these stigmas still hold a great deal of power, and for me it was hard to finally concede that I could go no further in my marriage. After more than 20 years, I had to cry uncle and admit that yes, I had failed. I could not make it work.
The thing is that once I got to that nadir, I didn’t care anymore what people thought, and I came to see the major life change of divorce as a positive liberation, not a failure at all.
Once I’d made the leap and let go of my inertia and fear of change, I discovered that it wasn’t nearly as hard as I’d imagined, nor were the repercussions as severe.
It turns out that most of the fears I’d had around becoming single—and a single parent—at midlife had much more to do with my own perceptions than with any reality out there in the world.
I believe that these kinds of fears in the personal realm apply just as much in the political realm.
For instance, we know that our longterm relationship to fossil fuels is, in the words of JT, “driving us down the road to ruin,” but so many of us feel stuck, afraid to go against the tribe in seeking out new, more positive relations to energy use on the planet.
We tend to just go with the flow, running our AC on hot days, driving our cars, using our oil furnaces for heat in the winter. Even though we’re beginning to see that this makes us unhappy—who, after all, enjoys prolonged heat waves, out-of-control wildfires, destructive storms and raging floods?—we still stick to what’s familiar, what appears to be socially acceptable, what everyone else is doing.
It’s time for each one of us to stiffen our backbones and be honest with ourselves about the situation we’re in now.
Climate change is upon us. It’s past time to start working hard to cut carbon emissions by reducing use and switching to cleaner energy like wind, solar and geothermal. We need to stand with 350.org and other environmental groups to pressure our government to do the right thing—to put the health and welfare of we, the people, ahead of the profits of them, the corporations.
On a personal level, too, we can also make changes. We can use bicycles more, and AC less. We can hang out our laundry to dry. We can start weaning ourselves off disposable plastics, and put some raised beds in our backyards or on our rooftops.
It used to be that only “granola people” did things like this—“granola people” pronounced with a dismissive smirk.
It turns out that those crunchy folks had it right, and we’re the ones who have stayed in our unhappy fossil fuel-based relationship too long.
We may imagine that breaking with the herd and striking out alone on the path of ecological sanity is going to earn us smirks and sneers. But a) this is probably just in our heads; and b) who cares, if it makes us happier in the long run?
Here’s what I’ve finally realized, at midlife, on both the personal and the political levels: life is way too short to waste time being unhappy if a path toward happiness is available.
Letting go of our attachment to the status quo is the crucial first step on that path, and it’s not easy. But it is necessary now, given the critical juncture we’re at as a planet and a human civilization.
Think about it. And then—act.