"I keep thinking," my friend said, "that if only I'd done more, we wouldn't be in this mess we're in now."
It was something like one in the morning (and on a school night, haha), and my friend was talking about how they felt like the Mess We're In was their fault.
I had to tease that one out as completely as I could. So you're saying, I said, that everything that's gone wrong with the state of things now -- the Trump presidency and all of its fallout, ecological collapse, bad Adam Sandler movies -- is somehow your fault? How, exactly?
The logic, as they laid it out, went like this:
When I was young (they said), I grew up with the largely unquestioned sense that the world I was going to grow up to inhabit would be run by adults. I wouldn't have to fight to have the most basic conceits of daily life, the 2+2=4 of our quotidian existence, affirmed. I could get on with the business of solving the really difficult problems of life, now that all the basic stuff was a given.
By the time I was old enough to get drunk legally, I'd become aware of how responsible adult life required some degree of participation in the public sphere. But I still took the fact of a well-regulated public sphere for granted. I took a great many things for granted. And one of the side effects of taking all that stuff for granted was being that much more skeptical of people who preached doom.
Well, here we are. And now I feel like I, in my own way, contributed directly to the mess we're in by not doing more, earlier.
My response went something like this:
There's a difference between being responsible for something and being at fault for something. We're responsible for the world we inherit, because it's always a good idea to leave the place in as good condition, or better, than when we found it (and if not in whole, then at least in part, like the part we're closest to). But it's not our fault that it's in the condition it's in when we receive it.
I mean, sure, you can contrive an argument that all this is our fault because we didn't spend every waking hour of our post-adolescent lives writing our congresscritters and marching. But all that does is make everyone who didn't do that look like a wimp, which is not the point.
It also does not mean the doomsayers have been correct about everything, least of all the lens through which they observe the fragilities of our world. That the fragilities exist is true; how to observe them and what to do about them, they have no exclusive rights to speak about. One does not need to be a doomsayer to say things urgently require our action. In fact, it might be better not to be a doomsayer and say those things, because then we might be taken more seriously by the ones who most need to act.
Some time back I read something by one of the Buddhist teachers I follow, who offered up the following thought experiment: Try, as best you can, to accept complete responsibility for all the things in your life -- even the things that are beyond your control. (Not blame, but responsibility.) One side effect of such things is that you are no longer able to shift blame to others for the things that are, in fact, your responsibility, even by anyone else's standards. (I'm constantly surprised at how often even well-meaning people do this.)
Another side effect is that you stop paying attention to things that are, in the larger picture, simply not that important. Pushing the blame to others becomes unimportant, because you and the other person have less separating you than you previously thought, and you see firsthand how doing so is just a fancy way to punch yourself in the back of your own head. (This realization comes with other Buddhist disciplines of practice, and is often realized most effectively that way, but is by no means limited to them.)
We live in a world of staggering size and complexity, and we are reminded of this every day, often in humiliating ways. It's not that modern life has grown too complex for us to manage effectively; life has always been far more complex than any one of us alone can wrap our heads around. It's that we are not fair with ourselves about this issue, that we subtly expect each of us alone to in fact be able to make sense of it, because we do not expect the rest of the world to be of any help in this mission. So we put all the weight on our own shoulders, and we're shocked when our shoulders sag.
Maybe we need to do something about the fact that we no longer expect anyone or anything to be on our side. That's a worthy mission. But one of the other antidotes to being crushed by the scale of life and its complexity is to cultivate a sense of proportion and humility that is also kept in healthy tension with one's aspirations. I can't help everyone, but I might be able to do something about the person in front of me. And I do that because at the end of the day, dammit, I do want to help everyone. It's just that I also refuse to let myself die of a broken heart, because it's hard to help anyone at all in that shape.
And what's more, I don't believe in this as a way to tell other people what to do. Every inner directive loses its power when it becomes an outer directive. None of these rules I've set for myself have any meaning if I try to make them into a standard for everyone else to follow, or else. But we're tempted to try and corral the rest of the world into following along on our own crusade, because we figure how the hell else are we going to get anything done at the scale that's effective? In a world with seven billion and climbing people, and so many things at odds with each other, doesn't it only make sense to steer as many as we can in one direction? In the abstract, yes; in reality, no, because it never does work that way. Such efforts always end up being about the mere fact of the steering, and not about what's being steered towards. The most we can do is work to create places within ourselves, and between ourselves, where the discipline we need to have on our own can be cultivated, but not imposed.
I had to admit, I felt like my friend. I look back and I say to myself: I could have done more, couldn't I? But I knew at least some of that was the merciless clarity of hindsight, not real perspective on the present moment. We can't blame ourselves for being a product of our moment then, but we do have an obligation to be a little less of a product of our moment now.
That's what I told them. I think it helped both of us.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind