Tuesday, January 17, 2012

New Year's Resolutions 2: Anger and Frustration

My brother-in-law, Bill, has a saying I love:  "Sure is stupid out."

And indeed, at this very moment, it is fairly stupid.  Politics is broken in the United States.  So focused are the parties in their own power that they have lost sight of what's good for people and the planet.  Stephen Harper doesn't like evidence, so we're getting prisons (which evidence proves are expensive and ineffective) and we're not getting any leadership on the environment.  I find people are less aware of those around them because they're walking or driving in a virtual world.  Because I'm short, I get an awful lot of backpacks in my face from someone who's walking backwards, texting away.

In a review of two books on the environment, U of T philosopher Joseph Heath talked about the real reasons we're not doing enough that's effective.  It's not that we don't understand the causes and effects of climate change.  Dear David Suzuki thinks if we just knew more, we'd make the decision to be responsible.  William Marsden thinks we need to sort out our political structures.  But Heath makes a convincing case that there are two challenges to our addressing the problem of climate change that belong to each of us.  First, humans aren't very good in long term thinking, and I suspect this is particularly true now, when we're impatient about the amount of time it takes our computers to boot up or find a WiFi signal.  Second, we're even worse at putting the interests of someone else ahead of our own, so we don't think about how the environment will be liveable for future generations; we think about wanting the truck that will let us look manly.  We can hang a large set of blue balls from the trailer hitch and be really cool.  Heath argues that saying "I don't believe in climate change" is merely a socially-respectable way of saying "I don't care about anybody but me." 

Don't even get me going on masculinity.  The other day, looking at said pair of blue balls on the truck in front of me, I thought nostalgically about how idealistic and hopeful the sixties was.  (Nostalgia is always a bad sign.)  We thought we could change ideas of gender, and in many areas we have.  But it's still not "normal" for a father to stay home with a newborn.  And guys in the RCMP can still be sexist bastards.

But I've made a new year's resolution about this anger and frustration:  if I can't or won't do anything to change what's bugging me, I'm going to let it go.  I can't, for example, talk to Stephen Harper about evidence-based decision making.  (Better yet, I'd like to hogtie him while Julia McKenna talks to him about evidence-based decision making.)   And I'm not going to walk up to the man in the large pick-up and tell him that if he's cold he ought to go inside and not sit there creating CO2 emissions.  Nor am I going to tell the woman who's idling her car on a beautiful day to turn her friggin' car off and open her window!

As my mother cruised through her eighties and well into her nineties, I could see that she couldn't do reality checks any longer:  the pre-frontal cortex is simply shrinking too fast with age.  So the attitudes she took into those years were the attitudes she lived most of her days inside:  anger, frustration, fear.  Wonder, occasionally.  I could see that you don't only have to plan for retirement.  You also have to plan for brain's retirement.  Whatever your defaults are, you're stuck with them.  So I resolved quite some time ago to become the most cheerful, optimistic old lady you can imagine.  I will not become the old fart who's always angry.  Who listens to them?

But I need to take one more step:  be optimistic and be cool with it.  I find that my days can be poisoned by my attempts to think up the right speech to convince someone not to drink bottled water or to shout at someone for the clueless, unobservant way they're driving.  But that poison doesn't accomplish anything.  Instead, I'm going to go Buddhist and be in the moment.  Instead of lecturing Stephen Harper while I drive to work, I'm going to notice how the trees look today.  Is there enough humidity in the air so that they look like ink on wet paper?  Or is it dry and cold so that they look like taut black lace?  Because all that energy that's wasted on things I can't do or can't change is taken away from things I might be able to influence.  I'll teach a class on literature and the environment.  I'll write about the way art's autonomy creates a space for it to be truly critical.  I'll write a novel about the younger generation and the way we're not welcoming them into their adult lives.  I'll find a way to be heard, a context in which I can address the challenges of this particular historical moment.

Because it sure is stupid out.


  1. Hoo boy, do I ever hear you on this one. Where do we draw the line between wasting our energy on "useless thoughts" and taking action that might make a difference to the issues we feel are important?

    It is all too easy to get hepped up about something we see or hear on the news, and then walk away and forget about it. I think that's what most of us (myself included) do, and it's why things (gov't, corporations, society) are so slow to change and to do the right thing. If we all wrote a letter, sent an email, donated a dollar ... right when our passion's are afire ... what a difference it would make.

    So that's what I'm trying to do. I fall short of my good intentions all the time. Maybe with practice I'll get better at making my little contributions toward making the world a better place. In the meantime, like you, I am very focused on the present moment, on seeing the beauty and value of it.

    1. One of my mantras for this year is "focus, focus, focus." Right now, I'm (selfishly, perhaps) focused on my book on Virginia Woolf, which I think might change the way we think about art's contribution to our civil and daily lives. When I retire, the focus will be different: I'll pick a cause (environment and housing are high on my list) and find a group whose orientation is positive rather than whingeing. In the meantime, why not enjoy daily beauty?

      Ultimately, you decide what works well for you. But to quote my husband, guilt is one of the most useless feelings we have. I've noticed we feel guilty when we realize that we're not going to change our behaviour. So forget guilt. Do what matters to you and forget the rest. Certainly don't give any mind-time to guilt, which is like giving guilt rent-free room in your brain and your life.

  2. Yes, guilt is not worth focusing on for long, holding onto — but I don't think it's useless. Guilt is one feeling that makes people with any amount of honest self-awareness give some second thought to their own actions (or non-actions). If a moment of guilt makes me ask myself, Is this really who I am? Who I want to be? Is there something I can do differently? then it's a helpful instrument of personal growth. That said, personally I acknowledge it and then let it go. Holding onto it, nursing it, wallowing in it, is counterproductive.

    I have hardly ever managed to live up to my own ideals. I don't feel guilty about this. But I'm aware of it. I consider it a kind of imperfection, a weakness, but I accept it as part of the human condition and think it's unrealistic to expect myself to be superwoman or to be more disciplined or motivated than I am. I don't have to be more than I am; I'm not made of steel, not always courageous, not always energetic, not always driven, don't often get up early, accomplish all that I'd like, change things, shoot for the moon, talk sense, be kind, be generous, and on and on it goes. Pfft! Does anyone? I admire those who seem to be all these things, they inspire me, but I'm fine as I am too.

    If there is an action in front of me that it is obvious I can take to make a difference, I will usually try to do so. Often I don't see or recognize such a possibility for effective action, though, and there *are* times when the action doesn't suit me, and I don't feel guilty about not doing it. I think it's okay to put myself and my own needs first. But I certainly do take note of my inaction, and sometimes I could step up to the plate and choose not to. At these times I am disappointed in my "imperfect personhood" -- ha! my selfish protection of my own comfort and convenience -- but not for long. I figure if I don't look after myself, no one else is going to, and I owe it to myself. I matter as much as the next guy.

    Why do you think focusing on your book is selfish? It's important to you, thus it's important, period. Doing what's important to you is not selfish. It's smart, and self-respecting. You go, girl!