Sunday, November 23, 2014

Making a Life

A little bit of contemplative time can be a dangerous thing. Rob has been away for a few days, and on my own this weekend with plenty of reflective time, I find my mind turning to the "Big Questions."

Blinkered by the daily toil, drowning in a sea of busyness, I do not often pause to wonder. I just get on with the task in front of me at the moment, and attempt to manage my way through the myriad of urgent matters clamouring to be next on the agenda.

How on earth did I get here?

I am not asking how humans came to exist, or how society evolved, or from whence came my soul. Rather, in this rare moment of lifting my nose from the grindstone, I suddenly realize that I find myself in a certain job (with all its complexities), in a certain city, with a pattern of regular activities, and a particular network of family, friends, acquaintances, and work colleagues. I have been going along, year-by-year, caught up in the immediacy of decisions and details, and all the while the minutiae have added up, and altogether this has come to constitute my life.

My thoughts this morning reminded me of a New Wave band I used to listen to throughout the 1980's, and in particular, one song. I rushed to the Internet to find it, because although I have the album (remember LP's?), it is packed away somewhere in a box in the basement. The song is Once in a Lifetime, and in it, David Byrne of the Talking Heads speaks rather than sings some parts of the odd and existential lyrics.

Here is the first verse of the song, and a link to the music video:  

Talking Heads -- Once in a Lifetime

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself
Well...How did I get here?

For me, this captures perfectly the sense of of lack of control, or dislocation I sometimes feel when I contemplate the course of my life. The following quote from an interview with David Byrne elaborates on the concept in the song:

In an interview with NPR, Byrne said: "We're largely unconscious. You know, we operate half awake or on autopilot and end up, whatever, with a house and family and job and everything else, and we haven't really stopped to ask ourselves, 'How did I get here?'" Songfacts

Most of the time, I like to believe that I have significant control over the life that I have. I have choices. I have chosen to have this job, to live in this city, to have these particular hobbies, and to spend time with this set of people. Outside of work, any given day, I have choices about how I will spend each hour of the day. At work, the job itself places many constraints on my time and attention, but still I have decisions to make and choices about how to focus my efforts. I think of the many fascinating strands of people, places, ideas, experiences, relationships, things, and creative processes that together over time make up my life. Lifting my head up out of the minutiae briefly to survey my life more broadly, it seems rich and satisfying.

And yet, so much of it is by chance, or dependent on external factors and the actions of others. Some of it I control, yes. I am fortunate to be privileged within this society in many ways, which has given me a greater breadth of choice than many citizens have. But for so much of life, people only really have control over their own responses -- to global events, societal practices, and even daily circumstances -- and quite limited ability to affect the broad sweep of events. Sometimes, the range of influence of any individual and means to engage even right in the here and now can seem woefully limited.

For example, I believe in the democratic process, so I vote. I do so knowing that my one vote contributes only in a very small way to the final decision. At various times, I have further contributed to the democratic process by holding membership in a political party, by volunteering during elections, and by donating to what I deem to be worthy causes. I read to educate myself about the issues at municipal, provincial and federal levels. In my workplace, I strive to create opportunities for consultation and collaborative decision-making. And yet, many times governments have been elected that are not the ones I would have chosen, and which I believe are making poor decisions for our country. At work, oftentimes, the committee process leads to mediocre and status quo decisions, rather than to bold innovation and making things better. Ultimately, my personal ability to make a difference is very limited and that can be so discouraging.

We are facing global warming. There is poverty across the world, including right in my community. There is war, inequality, mental illness, corporate greed, and environmental destruction. The current industrial approaches to agriculture are destroying our soil and water, killing the honey bees, limiting access to and diminishing the variety of seeds, and contaminating our food with pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, and GMO's. I feel that I should be doing something about all of this, and at the same time feel helpless to make a difference.

Knowing what I know now, and if I truly had the chance to choose, would I have chosen this life that I have? But how could I have chosen it? I could never have even imagined it with all its complex twists and turns.

Do the little tasks that I toil away at truly make a difference, or should I put my efforts elsewhere? My time on earth is just a tiny little blip, and yet I feel such a sense of responsibility to live my life in a way that makes a difference. When I ask, "How did I get here?" and look at the sum of my life to date, I scrutinize my life in terms of the unknowable, the big existential question: "What is it all for?"

If the metric by which I evaluate my life, ultimately, is whether or not I have made a difference, I fear that I have fallen short. Yet what arrogance to think that I, just one small person, should have the power to effect big changes. Maybe, after all, it is the accretion of little things, moment-by-moment, day-by-day, year-by-year, that really is what is all about.

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