“The internet and the e-culture it anchors masks and drowns out the subtle and vital information contact with the real world once provided. There are lessons, enormous lessons, lessons that may be crucial to the planet’s persistence as a green and diverse place and also to the happiness of its inhabitants-that real, visceral connection with other people and nature teaches and the internet can’t.”
― Bill McKibben, lightly paraphrased
“We need to create a different experience of time where we live life in slower, more reflective ways, savoring our lives and recapturing exuberance and laughter.” — Cecil Andrews, lightly paraphrased
Over the years I have attended a long list of workshops but-out of all of them-only two stand out in my memory. One week-long workshop I took many years ago titled “Where People Fly and Water Runs Uphill,” was based on Jungian dream interpretation. It gave me insights to myself and my connection to all of life that I will never forget. The other workshop/seminar that continues to inform my life after many years was by Cecil Andrews and titled Slow life—good life. It was based on Cecil’s book Slow is Beautiful. It sticks in my memory partly because of the story she began the seminar with—a story about how she shops at a small grocery store where she examines the food she is buying carefully and appreciatively calling to her attention the many people who have been a part of bringing this tasty and nutritious food for her to take home for her family table AND and! when she has carefully and appreciatively selected the groceries she wants to take home she heads to the checkouts AND looks up and down the line of tills carefully evaluating which line is longest and which is shortest AND THEN she pushes her cart of groceries to the end of the longest lineup where she immediately opens a conversation with the person ahead of her! Cecil’s punch line that opened this intriguing story—the punch line I seem to remember every time I am looking frantically for the shortest line up– is: ‘Reviving the art of conversation maybe a necessary condition for the survival of the human species and persistence of our Earth as a healthy, life supporting planet.’
I am recalling Cecil’s comments about reviving the art of conversation this evening because I have been rather desperately wracking my brain over what we can possibly do about the racial, ethnic hatred that seems to be at such a flood tide around the world and the inanity that is the political/social/environmental destructiveness unfolding in the United States these days-so much of it based on twittering away all sense of our common humanity and our respect for the planet on which we depend for our sustenance and lives. It seems our digitized, twittered, facebooked communications have opened almost everything about our lives to be spied on, manipulated by powerful algorithms and debased by the bots of power and money with their fake news and alternative facts.
Then I went to see the World Community re-screening of “The Brainwashing of My Dad” which documents the transformation of the filmmaker’s father from a gentle, caring long time Democrat to an angry, right-wing fanatic–a change that was brought about by the massive transformation of the media from speaking truth to power to becoming an instrument of misinformation and massive socially destructive manipulation.
I was discouraged!!
Tonight in mulling over that long ago Cecil Andrews seminar I am feeling more optimistic about our future or I am, at least, feeling that there are things we can do that are good of-themselves and could help to address the current social ailments that of-themselves seem so destructively oppressive.
Could reviving the art of conversation have a major impact on the survival of the human species as something other than the disgustingly greedy, xenophobic, self destructive Yahoos which Jonathan Swift portrayed us as in the final chapter of Gulliver’s Travels—and Donald Trump has so emphatically underscored? Well, to me it seems that this huge shift to the right got its biggest, most significant/pervasive boost with the selling of the Thatcher/Reagan assertion that “there is no such thing as society.” Government based on assuming our common humanity/common good is inevitably doomed to fail, in the Thatcher/Reagan consensus, because it begins with the fundamentally flawed notion that there is a common good to be served. There is, asserted the Thatcher/Reagan doctrine, only individuals seeking to satisfy their deepest longings with an ubiquitous, relentless drive to consume everything in the shortest amount of time. As long as these fundamentally flawed notions about human nature and our relationship to our life supporting Earth remain unchallenged we are doomed to continue this massive shift to the right.
If the fundamental assumptions of the Reagan/Thatcher doctrine were correct then–thirty years into this digitally-powered, me first frenzy of speed, greed and garbage we should be seeing some positive results. But positive results are hard to find. The election of Trump, the Brexit vote, the rising tide of xenophobia are not indicators supporting the Reagan/Thatcher consensus that run away egocentrism is the inexorable path to personal happiness. As Andrews points out, our e-relationships have not satisfied the need for real, person to person relationships/real community; our relentless drive to consume everything is not only destroying our Earth it is, first of all, cutting us off from the sense of connection that—despite Reagan/Thatcher—is the source of our deepest satisfaction and necessary foundation for our survival. Without it we tend to live rushed, stressed, socially/spiritually impoverished lives separated from our true selves. We are fundamentally not isolated monads serving no higher purpose than the compulsion to consume everything around us in the shortest amount of time. We are social beings whose health, well being and even existence is dependent on recognizing our inherent/necessary connection to other beings and to our life supporting planet.
But here is the crux of the problem: given the power of the Reagan/Thatcher ontology, given the power of the consume everything agenda with its information controlling e-tentacles, how do we even begin to make the switch to a slower, less consumptive, more caring, more meaningful life that enhances our sense of connection to our planet and its peoples?
Well, yes, protests are important and political organizing is essential; films, letters will make a difference, even facebook has a role to play, but I think Cecil Andrews has an important point; if we really want a better, more connected and sustainable world, we need to start spending more time talking to each other—real talking like face to face conversations rather than the rhetorical snippets of e-conversation which is social media. And, here is an easy to miss, important point; these paradigm shifting conversations don’t have to be—many times shouldn’t be—meaning heavy, political declarations of what should be. The magic in this is that in just talking sincerely about our lives, just in establishing the one on one, spoken, listening exchanges of our common humanity, just allowing the metamessaging of our “hi how are you” conversations acknowledges that Regan-Thatcher were fundamentally wrong—we do share a deeply felt sense of common humanity/community; we really are not isolated monads with no greater meaning to our lives than to use others for personal gain and to use up our Earth; in those simple “hi how are you?” conversations we can begin the rebuilding of a just, caring, sustaining and sustainable world.
I say this as if it were easy; as if I didn’t search out the shortest line up at the grocery tills, as if I had ever spoken to a stranger on a ferry ride as though we really did have something to say to each other. Nope it’s not me. I have done it—rarely and it has been rewarding. I was once forced to share an outdoor concession table with a fellow traveler while we were waiting for the ferry to arrive!—and it turned out very well. Just striking up a conversation in a grocery line up—yikes. But I do have a friend (J) who is really good at it. And when she does it, it seems, easy enough—even enjoyable.
I was cycling to Hornby Island with J one day when a Nanaimo cycling club was also on the Denman ferry. The ferry wasn’t twenty metres into the sailing before she had the cycling club, the foot passengers and anyone who had gotten out of their cars involved in a casual but intimate conversation as though we were arriving for the fifty year reunion of an important event in all our lives. We cycled all the way to the Hornby ferry chatting (they were) as we went; then on the Hornby side we angered motorists because some of the cyclists were so involved in conversation that they didn’t notice the lineup of cars forming behind us.
Last week I spent a morning xc skiing with J. At noon I took off my xc skis and hung them on the outside rack before heading into the lodge for lunch. I assumed J didn’t show because she was giving someone an overview of the ski trails-as she often does—and would be in shortly. She wasn’t. After finishing a leisurely lunch, I looked for her assuming she had found another instructor, student or friend to spend the lunch break with. She was nowhere to be found. Well, perhaps she was already waiting impatiently outside to get going on another ski run. She was outside but she wasn’t impatient and she wasn’t anxious about another run. She had simply started a conversation with a—until then—stranger and the conversation had become so connecting that they had sat on an outside change bench and talked away the lunch hour. I was introduced to her new “life-long friend.” Yes, life-long friend. Those were the words they shared with me about the acquaintanceship they had just struck up. A—a senior skier– said to J, as though discovering a profound truth, ”yes, today we have shared a short time in conversation on this bench and I feel like we have known each other for a lifetime.” I think there were cyclists on the Hornby ferry that said the same thing. The same thing happens in the pub after skiing and in the bus on the way up to the ski hill.
J once told me my way of cycling is nuts, I just cycle out to some end point and turn around and cycle back. What’s the point in that? She asks incredulously. Don’t I want to stop and look around? Don’t I want to have a cup of coffee along the way and meet some new, interesting people? Just as I was sitting down to write this post I was thinking of J and her so easy conversations with almost everyone she meets and realized that she is exactly the kind of conversationalist Cecil Andrews was talking about. I haven’t seen J in a grocery lineup but I bet she lines up at the end of the longest lineup and strikes up a conversation. I asked her about it—the seeming ease of making conversations. How does she do it? She just smiled, shrugged her shoulders and replied, “What’s so difficult to understand? Aren’t we all human? Doesn’t that mean we all have interesting lives to talk about/share? What do you get out of just cycling somewhere and cycling back? Did you never hear about the pleasure of stopping long enough to ‘smell the roses along the way?’”
“Aren’t we all human?” Is that not exactly the consciousness changing perspective that Cecil Andrews was speaking of. And J does it just because it is a much more interesting and enjoyable way to live! I’m going to give it a tenuous try. How about you? Could we, together, share our way to a better world with less need to consume and more time to appreciate and share and care for our common humanity and our common home?