Liberty and Limitation, Will and World
“Must be the one whose magic touch can change your mind
Don’t let another day go by without the magic touch
Destroying you (change your mind)
Embracing you (change your mind)
Protecting you (change your mind)
Confining you (change your mind)
Distracting you (change your mind)
Supporting you (change your mind)
Distorting you (change your mind)
Controlling you (change your mind)
Change your mind (change your mind)” Neil Young, Change your Mind.
By Charles Jeanes
A metaphor for the human experience of freedom and necessity
Metaphor is a fine way to communicate some ideas using image and symbol. I will attempt one here. It is inspired by watching four pontoon airplanes as they fought a fire near Nelson on Sunday. They scooped water from the lake, headed to the fire zone, dropped their water, and came back to repeat the process on the water just east of Nelson’s big orange bridge – or as we say here, BOB.
Here’s my metaphoric teaching from this experience, as in a parable.
The airplane is a human being, piloted by a Self, or ego. ( To extend the metaphor into mystery, the airplane dips into the water – this symbolizes how a human is immersed into materiality, or, is incarnated in body. Our mortal lives are lived in the material plane in the form of a physical body.)
The airplane has physical limitations, and within them the pilot can make a number of choices that appear to be “free” – the will and intention of the pilot determines what the plane will do.
The fire is an obvious peril, and to control it, and terminate it, is the assigned mission of the pilot. But the pilot might conceivably choose not to fulfil the mission for reasons known to the pilot.
Why the pilot flies over and releases water on the fire, or refuses the danger and turns away, is not mysterious in this analogy: failure to do the job would likely result in the pilot being dismissed from his or her paid employment. The pilot is trained for the mission and it is nearly unthinkable that the pilot would neglect to carry it out.
There are authorities who plan the pilot’s movements and give orders to fight the fire, so the pilot is not entirely free to do the job as he or she determines; but pilots do have discretion to fly as they see fit and drop water as they choose with the knowledge and expertise at their disposal.
People on the ground in the potential path of the fire are dependent on others’ expertise to fight the fire; homeowners can only flee, leaving their fixed possessions behind, should the fire engulf their properties.
What the parable signifies
Humans of a certain social position, ideology, class, education, and cultural traits, born and raised in a few dozen wealthy developed nation-states on Earth, experience the sense of freedom of choice that the pilots in my analogy feel. Life is experienced as a series of choices, some open, some quite limited.
The fire is any world peril one might name: war; environmental disasters; economic collapse; to name just the obvious ones at this moment in time.
The authorities in the fire-fighting control centre are the powers and leadership of our social and political order, in local, provincial, national, and global affairs.
People with few choices over their own lives are the people in the fire’s path.
Every day when I open my social media pages, I can be sure to see posters created by various individuals and organizations with attractive images or photographs accompanying words of wisdom, of advice, of philosophy or religion or ideology, that instruct and educate. The point of all of these postings is to urge change upon the reader.
In these postings, choice is assumed to be in the mind or will of the beholder. Change your mind, change your attitude, change your thinking or feeling, change your behaviour. You can do it. It is a matter of willing yourself, or your Self, to be and act differently.
I have myself posted and shared many such exhortations to people to “improve” their living, their loving, their being, their character, their “Self.”
We know we are subject to many strictures on perfect liberty. Physical limits on the human body mean we cannot fly like birds nor breathe underwater, but we can acquire the machinery which makes these things possible. We can buy the technology and use it, or pay for someone else to transport us. If we are born with a disability or malady, we might be rehabilitated by technology or medicine.
We are born into a society and a political order that claims many controls over us, perhaps even into a religion that possesses power to enforce conformity (but in the rich West, religion generally will not have this power). If one is going to live among other humans in a collective society, not as a hermit, necessities of existence will limit one’s absolute individual freedom; that is a truism.
If you feel the restrictions are intolerable upon you, you can go elsewhere to find an order you like better (be a hermit, for example).
You might try to transform the order you were born into, by some form of activism, perhaps even devote your effort to a revolution of the status quo.
You might try to remain living inside the nation-state you feel uncomfortable within, but find ways of living “off the grid/underground/ in the black economy /at the margins/ invisible to authority.”
No one escapes limits on their absolute liberty. But, enormous power and wealth can liberate an individual and render their choices far more extensive than is the norm for the majority.
Human history is a record of individuals who have exercised such power, for they it is who “make history” and have their deeds and declarations recorded by other individuals who call themselves historians.
Research reported in Mind magazine, a fairly new journal published by Scientific American, has an intriguing suggestion about human experience of free choice. Decisions are already arrived at in the neurological processes of our brain’s organic matter prior to being registered by “consciousness.” We experience our choices as free and proceeding from our “will” but that is not how the physiological evidence appears to explain a decision.
The research is not definitive and the conclusions are still tentative, but I expect we will hear more from the cutting edge of neuroscience on this matter, because it is one of the oldest questions perplexing philosophy, “the relation between free will and determinism,” or choice and necessity.
Whatever the neuroscientists discover, most humans do not live lives in full consciousness of what materialist science tell us is the explanation of reality. We feel free, and the course of Western history seems to have been driven by a terrifically potent urge to control Nature, to dominate it physically with our technologies, and to make our economy operate on a foundation of capital.
Capital is material and it rules the material world. Capitalist economics turns all objects and processes into marketable values that can be purchased with money. Money can make one feel very, very free – money is power and choice and enough of it raises one into the ranks of history makers. I would say the advertisements one sees and hears regularly for lottery tickets surely tells one that great amounts of money are equated with free and happy living.
Readers of this column know I will recommend Charles Eisenstein’s books as brilliant expositions of human history and our Story of Separation and Control.
Perhaps I have wandered far from my metaphor. What about the fire? What about pilot mission? What about people in the fire’s path?
I have to say it. The world is on fire. The fire takes many forms. But the peril for our species and many others is undeniable.
Some people do deny it.
I am trying very hard to exercise the freedom that I am assured I have, to change my mind. My mind is pessimistic by habit; I see shadow where others focus on the light. I am generally depressed by my study of history. I am not by learning nor temperament a person inclined to high opinions of humanity and our capacity for creating compassionate social, political and economic order — no matter how much I read uplifting messages at online sites or in the pages of Eisenstein or the Dalai Lama or a horde of optimists.
I would like not to say the world is on fire and not to say we are all challenged now to find, each of us, our individual contribution to put the fires out. But I am encouraged to be authentic, to be true to myself, and it would be false were I to withhold my gloomy judgement.
We are in a place in human history never faced before by our species. The challenge to do something forces itself upon any sensitive and informed consciousness.
Is facing this challenge the meaning and purpose of life?
It seems to me this is another of those choices we feel it is within our freedom to decide for our Selves.
My purpose in life might not be to make a contribution to the solving of crises facing humanity and its habitat. I may choose not to see my life as meaningful in the context of the world’s perils. I might choose to say the solution of world crises is not within my capacities, and the meaning of my life is not to make a contribution. No one could dictate otherwise.
History walks a course with precedents
I have already indicated in a column in May that I personally believe that “history as usual” is most likely to describe what our prospects are. Human civilizations have collapsed in the past, when faced with the kinds of crises we face now. Those civilizations occupied only a fraction of the planet. Sumer and Egypt, Akkadia, Persia, Greece, and Rome, took ever larger geographic areas into their sphere, at first one major river valley, then more valleys, then the basin of a large sea — and ultimately all of Europe. Then Europe expanded its Western civilization to encompass the world.
Today we have a global civilization, and nowhere to go to escape collapse except off the planet. Make no mistake that the most powerful and wealthy among us have laid plans to survive if this planet becomes lethal for humanity. Given sufficient time, technologies and materials for them to do so will be available.
The alternative, to history as predicted from past precedents, is a transformed humanity that changes so profoundly that it adjusts its population to live in balance with only the one planet. This new humanity lives in ways harmonious with other living beings in the use of inanimate matter for the continuance of our species. Furthermore, our evolved new-model species is not distinguished by vast divisions between those with happy and fulfilled lives and those (a big majority) without such privilege. This vision is the “quantum leap in human consciousness” so much described by thinkers and writers of Eisenstein’s ilk.
The achievement of this vision is not the work of a few, but of all living today. Those of us already privileged by our good fortune to be born in the rich West and enjoying broad freedoms, are the pilots in the metaphor, while the hundreds of millions of humans without such privilege are analogous to people in the path of the fire.
Conclusions: quietism and activism both help put out the fires
I know that the posting of a proverb, advice, exhortation, insight, that will urge readers to be better, live better, and love better, is the “work” of a second; a click or two on my computer, and I have added to the sum of cheerleading people into being better selves. I believe this is an illusory contribution to transforming human consciousness and I have decided not to continue in sharing these messages. I have an alternative I believe to be better for us.
Our online technology is a problem, not a solution; it puts us in front of a screen rather than in the living presence of another human individual and looking them in the eye while you urge your good advice upon them. One will reach far fewer people with your message by not sharing it online. But, you will reach each one more effectively by taking the time and effort to be with them in person and converse deeply about increasing one’s compassion, love, kindness, consciousness and quality of relationships.
Surely we have learned how ineffectual a well-worded ‘New Year’s Resolution’ is for making changes to oneself? Self-change requires so much more than the good intention of a promise one makes to oneself and to others. That is all I see in the “be-a-better-you” postings online: good intentions in fine words.
There is a vast literature in the English language on methods to help one make change, and it is vast because the problem of change is so much more difficult than hearing wise advice. And the highest and deepest reason for changing is not selfish or egocentric. Changing yourself in the ways I speak of, is a contribution to the transformation of human consciousness.
I come to this conclusion not as an alternative to “political activism” of the sort that Naomi Klein or Christopher Hedges urge upon us to fight the powers who rule us. This is not an alternative, it can accompany any activism.
But for those like me who feel a profound weariness with struggle in the public sphere to make our rulers act to put out the fires, quietism is an honorable path. The focus on one’s inner world and making the Self more harmonious with our world is not accepting defeat by the Powers. This path is the way of the Tao’s teaching, that “doing not–doing” (weiwu wei) is very effective.
My conclusion, that we can make the world better by small acts in a very small circle of people we know and meet in person, is a real way to be both part of the solution for the fires, and to avoid the intense exertions of public political activism. By all means be an activist if you so choose. Let those of us who retreat from the battles not be judged harshly. We too are doing our part.
Appendix: my words from an Arc column two years ago
I look back on columns I have written before, from time to time. The following is from conclusions I drew some time ago. Apparently my evolution is ongoing…
“Each of us can pursue an individual path of self-development we determine for our own taste, if we are born into fortunate circumstances. Most of humanity is not born to such freedom to choose who to be, although where I live in Nelson, the cliché is we can be whoever we choose to be. “Follow your bliss, and you will never have to work a day in your life,” and other wisdom sayings of that ilk are commonplace in Nelson, and on the pages of many Facebook friends I have in the region. Ah, if only it were that easy.
Nature in the human is constantly being probed by our materialist sciences, and there are many who believe that science will improve us, even save us. Culture-nurture is forever under construction, mutable, examined, criticized and transformed by new human insights, revelations and discovery. It too is believed in, as with religion, as a path to re-engineer the human into a better being.
But finally, there is mystery. We cannot go deeply into the mysterious roots of what is the meaning of a human being. In the mystery lies the unchangeable aspect of a human. It is not given to us as a species to alter ourselves into some other form of being. What we do and the fate of the planet we rule is not entirely under our control despite our illusions.
“You are a spirit, experiencing the condition of being human in a material existence. You are a spirit/matter experiment.” For me, at this time of my life, this is the premise I choose as a defining condition of living as a human. Government and politics and politicians do not seem as important to me now as once they did. They do not touch the most important aspects of life.”
Freedom and change are a constant focus of my thought and writing, it would seem.