A Work in Progress

November 20th, 2012

s Thanksgiving approaches, I recognize in myself a growing desire to get off on my own, to be alone with my thoughts, to reflect on my small fragment of the human condition. To begin with, what am I grateful for?

Or, I could possibly more easily ask, what am I not grateful for? Because life itself is such an extraordinary gift — in all its chaotic, disturbing, and often cruel outcomes, as well as its moments of sheer joy, awe, and exuberance — that it seems difficult not to be grateful for any of it.

In thinking about my own life, the phrase that comes to mind is just this, that it’s a work in progress. Like most people, I can’t point to one overarching accomplishment that defines my life. There are lots of small things I am proud of, and many others of which I am less so. I suppose that if there is anything I am not grateful for, it’s my own inadequacies, my own foolish weaknesses, the distractions that I have allowed to divert my thoughts and my energies from the singular pursuit of understanding who and why I am, and what I am doing in this world.

When I was growing up, for a long time I felt like an observer of the world, like I did not quite belong to it, nor did it belong to me. It was a deliberate choice to abandon that stance, to commit myself to being a part of the world, and giving some significance to my own actions. From being a spectator I wished to become a player, and did so largely by recognizing that I already was one. The idea that I could somehow stand outside life or history or the flow of time and observe it seemed to me one of the most seductive of illusions: since we totally absorbed in watching, we forget that all we are doing is watching, and that meanwhile life is passing us by.

So I determined to act, and adopted the view that my actions mattered, that I had to choose sides. It no longer made sense to me to stand by and watch the planet be dominated, exploited, and destroyed. I felt I should do something about it. So I went, in the first instance, from being a journalist to being a much deeper student of life, of history, and of human psychology, to get a much deeper sense of who we are, and how we have arrived at the present impasse.

This has, truthfully, been an extraordinary journey — not as artfully coherent as that of Forrest Gump, perhaps, but being privileged to have witnessed the last sixty or so years as a world citizen, as an independent social entrepreneur, and as a curious skeptic is in itself remarkable. And if I have not done more good with it, it’s my own fault. Existence, the universe, is whole and complete in itself; it embraces everything in it, including my unfulfilled and perhaps unfulfillable striving. Yet what good is it to me — or I to it — if I leave it without accomplishing something of value equal to its magnificence?

Yet is it not an illusion to think that we can impact anything except our own actions? As I’m writing this I’m watching yet another phase of the Middle East conflict — Israel bombing the Palestinians in Gaza, and the Palestinians firing off missiles — that they must have procured from someone, either for some money or because another, wealthier nation sees this as its form of charity. In Syria, the rebels are, surprisingly, more or less holding their own against a military than even the West is reluctant to take on. Can any one individual make a difference? Are we not simply doomed to watching these acts of self-destruction play out on television, with their disturbing scenes of newly-created orphans and injured children?

Perhaps what matters is that we come to understand these as acts of self-injury and self-destruction, the species turning against itself as mercilessly as it has turned against nature.

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