Stepping in the Raging River
So apparently, whether we like it or not, we will always have to render unto Caesar, and to live with war, unless somehow we can manage to agree to un-imagine the state. But, believe it or not, each of us does remain personally free, and our freedom consists in our ability and willingness to decide for ourselves what words mean. That priceless freedom goes hand in hand with an inalienable right to cherish a personal disdain for the state and its presumptions. And the ability to exercise that right arises from a deep-seated self-respect, which in turn is connected to a love and respect for other human beings as such, beyond politics.
What belongs inalienably to each of us is the ability to control our own temperament and attitude. People who met Albert Camus reportedly found him good company and a surprisingly cheerful person. Even as global war raged, George Orwell wrote moving essays about the flora and fauna he found in drab English suburbs and on remote Scottish islands, and about the humble domestic customs of his people, like a nice cup of tea. One of the tools available to us is the ability – if we wish – to practice the Buddhist principle of non-attachment, or what Hazlitt called equanimity. We may not be able to control what terrorists or the state do to us or to others, but we don’t have to acquiesce, and we shouldn’t. “Protest that endures,” wrote Wendell Berry, “is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.” Paul Rogat Loeb, in his wonderful anthology The Impossible Will Take a Little While, counsels:
Sometimes we achieve the impossible sooner than we expect. Knowing that can stiffen our resolve. But relying on quick victories can also tempt us to place too much emphasis on outcomes; it can cause us to become unduly impatient, brittle, with our will easily broken by setbacks. A deeper, more farseeing hope, by contrast, combines realism with resilience, acknowledging suffering and despair without giving in to them. … By letting go of impatient hope we can persist no matter how hard it gets.
And I know that Loeb’s words are more than mere words, because he’s a friend of mine and we walk the walk together. Literally: Paul and I belong to a group of friends who do twenty-mile urban hikes around Seattle, executing a different ambitious or inventive or whimsical route every six or eight weeks. We do it for no other reason than because we want to do it, and we thereby make America a better place. One time we crossed paths with a group of women who were walking to help find a cure for breast cancer. They asked us what we were walking for. “We’re just walking,” we told them.
In his 1966 essay “Rain and the Rhinoceros,” Thomas Merton describes modern society, of which America as we have known it is the prototype, as “an illusion of omnipotence: an illusion which the collectivity arrogates to itself, and consents to share with its individual members in proportion as they submit to its more central and more rigid fabrications.”
You have needs; but if you behave and conform you can participate in the collective power. You can then satisfy all your needs. Meanwhile, in order to increase its power over you, the collectivity increases your needs. It also tightens its demand for conformity. Thus you can become all the more committed to the collective illusion in proportion to becoming more hopelessly mortgaged to collective power. … Because we live in a womb of collective illusion, our freedom remains abortive.
“We still carry this burden of illusion because we do not dare to lay it down,” says Merton. But what if not only did the center fail to hold and things – America – fell apart, but, by some marvelous mystery, that turned out to be all right after all? What if the loss and change that we’ve been dreading turned out to be what we had been needing, even craving, all along?
Former Enron Corporation vice president Sherron Watkins, who famously faced exactly these questions in the summer of 2001, answered them for me when I bought her breakfast in Houston in November 2012, during my American road trip. “It’s this great unknown,” she said. “It’s this leap of faith. But as soon as you do it – it’s just like all those Old Testament things: you have to step in the raging river, and then the water stops.”
You are invited to read the eight-part chain of essays “America: Now What?” online here. It will also be published, in print and as an e-book, in early 2017 by Blue Ear Books as part of a collection of speeches and writings titled America: Now What? and Other Questions. Purchase Home Free: An American Road Trip now for $14.95 plus $3.95 shipping, and you will receive one of the first copies of America: Now What? and Other Questions when it is published in early 2017.