The title encapsulates a topic of supreme importance to me at present. The challenge has always been with us but over the past several years things have gone well over the edge and the job of keeping your wits about you has become herculean. I write this on a weekend while recuperating from the onslaught of news generated by impeachment hearings in the House, mayhem in Hong Kong, madness in the UK, pandemonium in Latin America and runaway wildfires in Australia. All of this generates a sense of impending doom. I remain possessed of my usual equanimity in the face of this deluge of lunacy and disaster but it doesn’t come without a cost. The price keeps going up month by month, year by year, as well, so I now find myself at the point of looking at the mental householding budget required to maintain basic sanity in the face of the reality the world stuffs down my throat on a daily basis. Hence this post.
Since I retired in 2015 I’ve spent a goodly amount of time sorting out a path for my own future. The conditions I face now are vastly different than those that obtained before I reached the retirement watershed. I managed to navigate the slalom course of work life and daily reality across the years of my adult life successfully enough to arrive at my dotage with my wits about me and enough in my wallet to keep me going until the Grim Reaper crashes the party. But the challenge of making something of the time between now and moment of that final visitation looms larger, far larger than I’d imagined would be the case. The world is not getting better with time. It’s getting worse, in ways that push my eyebrows up toward my hairline and kick into lively action my instincts for self-preservation.
I have the supreme luxury of sidelining myself from most everything save the necessities of daily life. As long as I have a roof over my head and there’s something still to be found on the shelves of the supermarket, I’m good — if one takes physical maintenance as the bottom line of the calculation. I entered retirement knowing full well that society writ large would be useless to me as a resource for structuring my life once the work world became history. In American society — as in most societies, I believe — retirement implies reduction, restriction, limitation rather than the opening of a new phase of possibility, expansion or increase. I’ve done my best to come up with a positive and expansive agenda for that new phase and my project has had a fair degree of success, I think. But you have to have something to work with. If the world itself becomes toxic then you find yourself faced with a set of sow’s ears from which nobody can make a silk purse. I certainly didn’t expect to find the world in such a state in my latter years. But here we are and we have to deal with it.
Just what are we dealing with? The first major thing is climate change. Second is the devolution of human consciousness as it manifests itself in the world’s political and social chaos. Third is the increase in individual limitation given the adverse state of the world. I distill these three elements from my own awareness and experience over the course of the past four years. The causative foundation of all three elements is that human beings as a collective are crap. There’s another four-letter word beginning with “s” you can substitute for the last word of that sentence if you like — its added force is justified by the circumstances. We are the problem. We ourselves are the doom we cannot escape. We are the agents of the ruination of our reality and of the biosphere itself. The best solution is that we should all drop dead and leave the Planet to its business unencumbered as it was for billions of years before our emergence. It will continue with that agenda once humanity has extinguished itself. May that day come as soon as possible for the Planet’s sake.
The first issue — climate change — has been the latest to crystallize in practical terms. After the fires in California, the outbreak of wildfires in Australia and Venice going under water, climate change suddenly became something immediate for me. It’s not in the future, it’s NOW — for some people in the most direct, lived sense possible. In the part of the USA I inhabit the changes are not on top of you like a ton of bricks. But it’s here with all of us now and the effects have begun to disfigure daily life for some portions of humanity, giving us all a taste of what lies ahead. My research into the phenomenon over the past couple years has always brought up the hope that I’d be dead before the worst of it bears down upon us. Perhaps that hope will be dashed … we shall see.
However the scenario plays out, climate change is the ultimate bottom line. It doesn’t matter whether we slide into authoritarianism in the West, or if China pulverizes Hong Kong, or if Latin America descends into political chaos and humanitarian crisis. We’re destroying the biosphere at an ever faster rate, which will eventually take everything down — including humanity. That reality underlies every single aspect of daily life. I carry that awareness with me every day and actively remind myself of its reality every so often so I keep clear sight of it. It’s the fundamental reality of our lives now. Humanity at the collective level has always been crap at dealing with reality and I don’t expect that to change. It’s a duuh moment because, I repeat, humanity is crap. We wouldn’t be in this predicament if the oppostie were true.
Since that harrowing climate reality is defining for the entirety of humanity, it colors my perception of the other things that work so hard every day to drive us nuts. Humanity will continue to ignore climate change and to pursue its interests as it has always done, expecting the field of resources for its mindless enterprises to be infinite, however finite they demonstrably are. It offers me some small comfort to know that at the end of the day it matters little what we do societally at this point. The only thing that will be on anyone’s agenda in the easily foreseeable future is survival. Now there’s a whap up side the head that puts things into the proper perspective.
How ironic that the demise of humanity should serve as the spoonful of sugar that makes the sludge of current reality go down more easily. It may be cold but I’ll take my comfort where I can find it.
Consider politics. We have degenerated rather than evolved, finding ourselves now at the point of repeating a deadly circumstantial cycle that runs like a recurrent plague through the history of humanity (yet another point that proves how crap we are). If I were a farmer in Iowa with a sketchy high school education and no knowledge of history, politics or economics, perhaps my perspective would be different. I thank God I have the knowledge I have, because it affords more access to reality. Knowledge expands awareness, however much a goodly portion of the American population chooses to be anti-intellectual and isolationist. Farming smarts will only get you so far, and it’s not far enough to give you the best tools to get out of the way of the train barreling down on your haywagon stuck on the tracks.
The reality dichotomy that has emerged in the past 10 years leaves my eyes rolled back into my head because it’s dead stupid, we’ve seen it all before and as a civilization we should bloody well know better by now. There are many books on the subject from people whose research and analysis are wholly worth the trouble of understanding. I’ve done due diligence with regard to understanding the current cycle of mass imbecility. I also did due diligence with regard to the cycles that occurred in the 20th century: European Fascism and Communism. I feel well informed. I can’t say being in that state makes me particularly happy but I feel that I’ve done my bit to make my awareness informed by fact rather than by stuff and nonsense.
What we see now in the political arena is for me nothing more than proof of the fundamental incompetence of human beings to manage their own affairs intelligently and to good effect. If it were not all the equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns due to the effects of climate change it would still be damning because it blindly repeats things within easy memory of people still alive. Humanity’s memory is so short-term and so faulty that it mimics Alzheimer’s. But we’re not memory-impaired, we’re consciousness-impaired — a state far more troublesome and dangerous. This state of imbecility comes at after an evolutionary trajectory lasting over 100,000 years. In the biological timescale that’s more than long enough to get your sh*t together. But no, not a sign of it. Humanity is a failed experiment of a species, we’re caught in a loop rather than moving forward into a new and more advanced state. That stuckness will spell our doom as a species because we’ll destroy ourselves and the biosphere in the process through our animal traits such as greed for power and the disregard for long-term consequences that continually overrides our “rational” faculties. That we should now have a political party in power that operates like a criminal organization and holds sway over a third of the US population hardly surprises if one understands from history that such collective lunacy is repetitive across the entirety of the human historical record. As I said, we’ve seen it all before. The medieval popes were masters of the art. Hitler had a good go at it. Genghis Khan’s approach was perhaps a bit radical given the extraordinarily high body count but it was essentially the same phenomenon, just on steroids. This repetition makes human history not only boring but unredeemable. It shows us as the crap we are. Why should evolution favor our survival on this abysmal showing? It won’t, of course. We’re busy bringing about our own extinction. Fortunately, I’ll be long gone before that grim mission is accomplished.
About a year ago I took up global nomading as the next phase of my retirement lifestyle after being plopped down in Asia for two years in one spot. Since making that decision I’ve been casting about in Latin America. The third phenomenon I mentioned above as critical at present is limitation at the individual level. The global nomad is in an excellent position to discuss growing limitations of the individual’s range of options.
As I think about Latin America now, I consider how things differ from how they were when I started my travels in the area. Bolivia has gone up in flames, Argentina is a mess, Venezuela is rapidly on its way to being a failed state, there was a national strike day in Colombia on November 21st (I should know, I was there, but in a place where nothing much happened, thank God). Mexico, where I was in September, has descended another rung on the ladder toward cartel violence. It became clear to me during my sojourn in the Yucatan Peninsula that even if an area is not declared unsafe by the U.S. State Department that doesn’t mean it’s particularly welcoming. There were plenty of pleasant interactions but the bad apples in the barrel made me wonder just how deep and how broadly the discontent runs. I decided after the second instance of rude treatment that I’m not interested in taking my chances to find out how bad it can get. I have better things to do with my life, thanks very much.
Europe? Well, there are yellow vests in France, neo-Nazis in Germany, authoritarian wannabes in Italy, total pandemonium in the UK, and night has already fallen once again across Hungary and Poland and looks like it might do the same in the Czech Republic. So it’s like running an obstacle course. Is it worth all the energy needed to avoid the potholes and hotspots? It can be done, of course, but the very necessity of researching where NOT to go puts a pall over the entire business. In Germany, for example, where I lived for two years in my youth when the Iron Curtain was still in place, I wanted to see some of the places I’ve read about all my life that were centers of German literary and musical culture in the 17th and 18th centuries — Leipzig and Dresden provide prime examples. In my research I discovered that in Saxony the neo-Nazi party AfD received 57% of the vote in recent elections. Most of the refugees from the Middle East have ended up in what was formerly East Germany. There has been a marked increase in hate crimes against non-white people in the region. Does that sound like a good time? Would it really be so much fun to be caught in the middle of a neo-Nazi march in Leipzig? Maybe not. And if I have to calculate risks and devise strategies to keep myself out of harm’s way in a place, my basic response is: screw it. I’d rather stay home. Hanging out in the region where I lived would be OK, but for how long? All of a sudden Europe seems as much a mess as Latin America although the political events are not so hair-raising. I don’t want to be in the middle of any of it.
So for this global nomad the world has shrunk considerably in the past year. When I look at the map now I think first, “Where is it OK to go?” The points on the map where that case obtains dwindle more and more. At this point after trying to slalom my way through the world for three plus years, I’m ready to call it quits. I’ll just stay home, thanks very much. It’s not only the cheapest thing to do, it’s also the safest. For the time being, that is to say. Fingers crossed it stays that way for the foreseeable future.
As for the sh*tshow in the USA with the GOP busily attempting to undo democracy and establish its own kleptocratic, kakistocratic autocracy, all I can say is, “How effing predictable.” It’s been building for decades. It may offer some a flashpoint for activism. What it does for me is to add a most unwelcome burden of citizenship forced by circumstances outside my control. Yes, I’ll do what I can to push back against what I want neither for myself nor for the American body politic. Am I happy about having to do that? Of course not. I would infinitely prefer that things work the way they’re supposed to work so that regular citizens like me can just go about our business secure in the knowledge that government works along the lines we’ve known in the USA for two and a half centuries as Business As Usual to secure what government should secure for its citizenry. But things have gone yet again off the rails, so regular citizens have to take up the burden of doing what they can to deal with the derailment. I suppose I should consider myself lucky that I have the time to devote to such efforts in my retirement, it would be even more annoying were I working full-time.
So what about a general strategy for staying sane in this mad world we inhabit? First and foremost, I’ll keep to the safe zone. Things have gone far enough off the rails that it’s time to abandon my global nomad gig. The world is too dangerous and too unpredictable these days. I want to be done with the burden of scanning the environment all the time for signs of danger. It’s far easier just to stay home. If at some point danger threatens the home front, that’s a completely different situation that requires a completely different response strategy. Fingers crossed that it never comes to that during the rest of my natural lifetime.
Secondly: information curation. I don’t spend my day wandering in social media. I made the decision a long time ago to forego that data stream because I could tell from my early sampling that most of the content was crap. And so it is. People can communicate electronically in all sorts of ways that work perfectly well. I don’t need a sh*tfeed of the banality of people’s lives and of their looney ideas and opinions flooding my device, thanks so much. The paroxyms of apprehension about Russian interference in the 2020 election using social media as they did in 2016 never suggests the most simple and obvious solution: don’t use social media. Sorted. I comb standard media outlets to filter for the important stuff. The rest of my headspace is free for focus on something wholesome and uplifting — like Nature. I want to enjoy it while I can, the day may come when that pursuit becomes much more difficult.
At the risk of sounding extreme, I have come to understand that minimizing contact with people is also part of my strategy for sanity in mad times. My reaction to a lot of what I hear is: just STFU. Plain and simple: just STFU. I don’t wanna hear it. I don’t need people’s litany of looney ideas or prejudices foisted upon me. Communication with people needs to be strategic just like media communication now needs to be strategic. It’s unfortunate that you can’t turn off a person like you can a phone or a TV, so I’m especially careful about who gets within close enough range to buttonhole me and commandeer my attention through imposing social propriety on any face-to-face proceedings. It’s been so long since I’ve had meaningful discussions on substantive issues with people that I’ve almost forgotten what they’re like. I have a vague memory of having had them in the past, but the details now seem lost in the mists of distant memory. All I have in my current experience in the split reality we inhabit is people in two categories, people who are OK for non-commital chit-chat and people who need simply to be kept out of range of contact. Such is life these days. It’s a pity, but there it is. You gotta deal with it.
Would that there were some tidy quotation or aphorism I could offer to end on a note of optimism. All I could hope to find is irony, not hope. And those of us who live in the state of irony know that it offers only cold comfort. So I’ll just end without this optimistic note. From the purely individual level, on the evidence of the reality I create for myself, my life as I live it is my statement of optimism. Everything I have under my direct control goes along swimmingly, with good will and intentional harm to none. At this point in history, that’s about the best anybody can do.