What’s It Going to Take to Heal the Apathy in Our Society?

With a growing awareness of mounting ecological, economic, political, and social problems, there exists many growing currents of response.

On one hand, more people are waking up. They’re getting involved. They’re saying, “Not another day! This is where I mark the line.” Their desire to change the world is turning from simple wishful thinking on Monday mornings into tangible action. The thoughts they used to have only occasionally about their relationship to the rest of the world now occurs to them all the time. They’re beginning to see activism not as something that is done only at non-profit meetings and at protests, but that activism is a way of life – that it represents nothing less than our personal, spiritual choice to choose determination over defeat, and compassion over apathy. Ultimately, in some way, it is the choice to reject our culture’s post-modern slide into narcissism. It is to reject the modern consumer philosophy that true happiness and joy comes from personal material accumulation, from seeking personal desires and needs. It is the realization that the joy that comes from connecting to our relationship with the planet blows the old way of seeking joy out of the water.

These people are realizing that humans are social animals; we crave connection and community; we crave a wide, encompassing identity that connects us with the whole humanity of the world – not just our friends and family, not just our city, our country, our species – but every living being on Earth – plant, animal, and human.

It is a new philosophy, perhaps a very, very ancient philosophy, one that sees everyone on this planet as one family – that everything is interconnected, that the whole humanity and life of all beings resides in each one of our hearts, and that we reside in theirs. There is no “I” and “them.” Truly, honestly.

The happiness of another is my happiness. The suffering of another is my suffering.

There is no separation. For millions and millions of people growing around the planet, the problems of the world are their problems; the happiness others find as we collectively realize a more just, compassionate, and sustainable world is their happiness. It is the most profound and meaningful happiness one could possibly experience.

You can’t buy that kind of happiness at a store. You can’t get it from beating the last level of a video game. It doesn’t come out of the end of a pipe or at the bottom of a bottle. It doesn’t come from watching sports. It doesn’t come from how you dress or what kind of car you drive. It doesn’t come from getting a college degree or from getting a fatter paycheck.

It comes directly from the final and profound realization that there truly is no “self” and there is no “other.” We are inter-connected with everything. We are all of it.

To paraphrase Shunryu Suzuki:

If the world did not exist, I could not exist.
If I do not exist, then nothing exists.

Scientifically, this is true, but our culture makes it hard to see. But it is what Martin Luther King saw; it is what Gandhi saw. It is what every person that works to change the world in some way experiences – not in words, but in conviction. It is what animates the life of every person that has committed to not giving up until the last person has the same opportunity for happiness that everyone else has.

It is this realization, how ever it might be described (it has been described in hundreds of ways) that gave every inspirational person in our history the personal, spiritual power to face the most impossible odds and to succeed.

To quote from the documentary that Films For Action screened at Liberty Hall on April 26th, it is what “Martin Luther King called ‘Love in Action’, and Gandhi called ‘Soul Force’; what Velcrow Ripper is calling ‘Fierce Light.’”

It is what has made me want to dedicate my life to improving the world. It is why I do not feel like I have a choice anymore in the matter. It doesn’t matter if it’s impossible. It doesn’t matter if everyone around me says it’s hopeless. I’ve got to do it because my inner-most nature wants me to do it.

I’m not sure when it happened. I’m not sure how it happened, but at some point, reading more news about how the world is falling apart, watching more documentaries about how urgent and dire our situation has become doesn’t shut me down. I’ve watched over 150 documentaries at this point, absorbed an ungodly amount of “depressing” information, and I have not become jaded. I’ve been burnt out before, several times in fact. And over time I have come to see that if we don’t know how to absorb this information we will undoubtedly be crushed by it. I’ve seen this happen to many of my friends. They just shut down, not because they don’t care, but because there is too much to care about, and we just don’t know how to deal with it.

In an age where we receive more information from one edition of the New York Times than a man in the Renaissance might receive in his entire life, it is simply too easy to become overwhelmed by the barrage of stimulus, the barrage of causes and problems that beg us to care about them and to help out.

It is a problem unique to our generation (and I have to laugh as we throw one more on top of the list). But it is one that if we do not discover the solution to, frankly, we’re all gonna be screwed. Figuring out how to turn apathy into action is one of the most important and vexing problems we can try to figure out.

Because as I mentioned at the beginning, there are many ways people are responding to our mounting environmental and social problems, and among all the people that are waking up and getting involved, there are many that have responded by shutting down. The empathy center in their brains has short-circuited: too many images of oil-soaked baby seals, too many images of starving children in foreign countries, too much political corruption rampant in Washington, too many examples of the media failing to do their job on The Daily Show, too many ingrained and inter-locked institutions upholding the status quo. Logically, they could make quite a case for saying that trying to change anything is pointless. And it seems that the logical side of their brains has won over and suppressed the voice in their heart. Or maybe not.

But in either case, they have given up before they have even started. They’ve accepted that the world is spinning out of control and have resigned themselves to enjoy what little of the party pie is left before it’s all gone. There may be a deep seated rage in many of today’s youth, that goes suppressed, a rage from simply being born into these problems – that it was already out of control before they were even born.

And from the way it’s looking, the world they will inherit has already been squandered. Our parents generation grew up in a time of unprecedented growth, the age of cheap oil – a 100 year paradigm that fueled all the rich affluence that we have enjoyed up to today. But the 21st century, the young are realizing, will be a century of decline – declining supplies of cheap energy, fresh water, arable soil, and clean air; declining mental clarity in a world saturated by commercial noise, declining security in an age of climate change and growing resource wars. For the youth of today that have not responded by becoming incredibly pissed off, they have responded by becoming incredibly despondent – birthing the kind of philosophical narcissism and ironic distance that is so perfectly embodied by the modern “hipster.”

Of course, billions of people all over the world never even got a taste of the party that we in the affluent West have gotten to enjoy. Can you imagine the rage and anger one would feel knowing how so few in the West could enjoy so much while so many in the rest of the world will not benefit from any of it before it’s gone? And some people have trouble understanding (not condoning mind you, but understanding) why kids in the Middle East would dream of blowing us up.

We’ve got to listen to this rage, not fight it but listen to it. So many people in our society are apathetic towards politics or social change. How can we turn the tide? What’s the secret to transforming apathy into resolve?

I mean, what do you say to a person that says “everything is pointless”?

Like I said before, I’ve felt burnt out and depressed about our situation many times, but every time, a spark was lit and my enthusiasm regenerated. Now, it’s been quite a while since I’ve felt jaded. Something happened to me that made “pessimistic realism” completely unacceptable to me. Now, I get depressed if I play video-games or party too much, and I feel more alive than ever when I’m “working” on activist projects. I don’t even feel like I have a choice about it anymore. I do it because there’s simply nothing else to do. Anything less just feels like I’m denying reality. I know that a world of incredible potential and beauty exists if I will simply work to find it.

That’s the conclusion, but like many core convictions that we accumulate over life, I cannot remember how I got here. I know millions of people all over the world have had this same kind of conclusion. I know many of my friends have had this conclusion. They’ve felt jaded about the state of the world, and then something happens to them, and suddenly their old view of the world seems entirely unacceptable. A spark ignites inside them, a passion to engage with the world rather than insulate oneself from it. And the beautiful thing is, whatever this spark is, it is self-sustaining. It is the furnace that burns in you the rest of your life, and the more you use of it, the more of it you have.

So I would like to ask everyone reading this, what was the spark that lit the fire for you? If you felt jaded once but found your way out of it, what was the catalyst? What gives you the energy to not just care intellectually, but in action?

I would love to hear your stories and thoughts on this. Because if we can figure this out, then I think we’ll have found the key to riding this tsunami of growing problems like a surfer rides a wave. We can engage with the reality of the world without being drowned by it.

From this, I think we can discover a philosophy on how to live one’s short life on this planet with passion and vigor, with unconquerable determination. And from here, a whole other world becomes possible.


What Are these Monogamous Rules You Have Invented?

Monogamy!As time goes on, the logic of monogamous relationships become increasingly foreign to me, always a bit more curious, always a bit puzzling. But at the same time, viewing monogamous relationships from a distance, as seen from an outsider, I feel like I can perceive monogamy in its pure sense, on a level deeper than someone who is so absolved into its logic and customs that they do not have any perspective on it. It is much like the fish that cannot perceive the water all around it.

Seeing monogamous relationships from a detached perspective, the logic of it seems fairly straightforward. What makes monogamy desirable? For most of us it is the security. Being accepted for who you are, regardless of your flaws. This is what everybody wants in the ideal monogamous relationship – safety, certainty, security, and – most importantly, having the person that provides these feelings all to yourself. And being aware of this, when I try out a monogamous relationship, my actions and words actually tailor to fit this. If I’m with someone who’s in to monogamous relationships, I tailor my language to fit the paradigm. Somewhat subconsciously, I find myself saying things like, “you’ve got me,” which is a way of saying, “Don’t worry. You can feel safe.” And when I say it, I do mean it. I take care to say only what I mean. And if I say, “you’ve got me,” then I accept the responsibility that this entails. It means they can let their guard down without worrying that I will be careless with that trust – that even if the relationship changes, their feelings will be looked after with care.

The interesting thing is, people usually take this “you’ve got me” statement to have more serious “dropping the big words” kind of significance, a unique monogamous connotation. The reality is, I would feel this way towards anyone I was dating, whether it’s been for two weeks or two years.

So I kind of wonder what unique impression these last few people have had about me, seeing only a partial side – one version of Tim chosen among many. Because, the irony is – choosing this path seems completely arbitrary. I adapt to the paradigm I’m living in, and most people today want a monogamous relationship. But I could just as easily not be monogamous. I could just as easily be in an open relationship. If my partner wants that, great. It’s no trouble. My consciousness is open to following the logic and “rules” of either monogamy or polyamory.

In a monogamous context, I may get attached. It seems like that is not only likely, but it’s the goal in most cases in the long term. After the honey-moon phase dies down, however, the passion you feel is accompanied with attachment, and when it’s mutual – security, which is what everybody wants.

Of course, for the true monogamous game players, it’s more complicated than that. You don’t try to make someone feel secure immediately. You don’t show the person love and long-term consideration immediately, if ever. You’ve got to “play hard to get.” You want to be nice and thoughtful but not too nice and thoughtful. You’ve got to keep them uncertain. Don’t act too interested. He who says “I love you” first, loses. I have literally heard people say this. It is all a big mind-fuck, in my opinion – bullshit game playing for a culture that still has a lot of growing up to do.

I say, fuck playing games. I want to be real.

When you know everyone wants to be accepted for who they are, then that should be the goal. Accept people for who they are. Don’t judge them. Judging others only breeds fear in yourself, because ultimately people will judge you just as harshly.

In today’s dating environment, I can understand why some people might think it wise to judge and reject first to avoid the possibility of getting hurt yourself; so many people are careless with others feelings today. Has anyone reading this ever seen Jersey Shore on Cable TV? Case in point. Really there are too many examples to choose from.

Of course, some people might enjoy these games – the drama, the betrayals, the extreme ups and downs. But if you’re not into that kind of thing, I think we might enjoy the possibility of letting go of the script – letting go of the to-do list and game rules that everyone follows when moving through the dating-to-marriage cycle. “Don’t say I love you until the 50 yard line, oh! Fumble!”

No, I say, let’s forget about all of those conventions. Start with a new premise. One that starts with loving the person, being totally real with them from the very start, not 6 months to a year down the line.

Love them, just as they are, without discrimination. Love them regardless of whether they are right for you. Love them for them. Open your heart to them – today! – even if you know you won’t be together forever.

I think it’s a beautiful thing when two people involved have the emotional maturity to love deeply but be able to let their beloved go when the time is right. And until then, love them 100%. Isn’t that the deepest form of love? To love 100%, even when you know it’s not going to last? Isn’t that true of all relationships? We love, even knowing everyone we love one day will die, or move away, or want to share their life with someone else.

But until then – in this moment – you can love them like this moment is all there is.

How Am I to Live? How Am I to Be?

This question has been elusive to me since I was seventeen. There are so many ways of being in a given situation. If someone betrays your trust, for example, I could see many ways to act. I often feel differently about the situation at different times. Sometimes I feel anger and I want to express that anger towards the person. Sometimes I feel compassion. Sometimes I feel forgiveness. Sometimes I feel acceptance. Sometimes again I feel pissed off. Sometimes I just want to love them, despite it all. Sometimes I just want to be able to hate them and forget them, like so many other people seem to be able to do.

What’s the right response? Looking at the situation from a raw human perspective, or from a Buddhist perspective, each way of responding has its own justification. Each path can find sympathy, praise, and understanding with different people. Each path seems like the right way to go at different times. I feel like I have no “fixed self.”

Each choice seems attractive in its own way. I have this sense that nothing really matters. Each option seems more or less equal. So you can be whoever you want to be. You could be compassionate and they wouldn’t notice. People aren’t used to compassion. People are often selfish. They could just take advantage of your kindness and not learn anything – go on doing their thing, hurting others.

Getting angry and putting them in their place might be the most appropriate and beneficial way to handle the situation. Some people don’t respond to the language of love and mindfulness. They only respond to what they’re used to. Angry, or frank words, may be the only language they can hear.

I often thought when I was seventeen that if someone was being a total jerk or an asshole to me, I should not hesitate to punch them in the face. This, of course, coming from someone who is studying Zen Buddhism may be surprising. After all, if we are truly all one, then the person who is being an asshole is also myself. I am not separate from him. We share the same basic desires, hopes, fears, sufferings and dreams – the same basic humanity.

But even though I can see myself in the asshole, and the whole universe can be considered “the self,” sometimes we all need a good punch in the face! Yes, I am punching myself in the face. But hopefully, if I was ever being an asshole, or was incredibly hurtful, someone else would do the same in kind to me, and I would have the good sense to thank him for it.

Truly, it’s the fake friends that smile and nod and then gossip to others. Your true friends won’t hesitate to set you straight, if the need arises.

Of course, I’m only really kidding about physically punching someone. What they need is an emotional punch, a spiritual punch – something to wake them up and get them to pay attention to their actions. If people hurt others and do not realize they are doing this (or admit that they know but don’t care), does it benefit them or others to leave them alone? Until they learn the lessons they need to learn, they will continue to make the same careless mistake, burning a long path of tears and heartache for others, and eventually, themselves.

It is the reason why I do not simply want to accept others. I do not want to have the same attitude as a good German. I do not want to sit quietly and let an injustice stand unchecked. Whether it be a friend, a relationship, a stranger, a politician, or a corporate CEO, life is too short to not say something, to not school a person when they need to be schooled.

Again, I feel like if there is any commonality among humans to want to learn and grow, we could only hope others would care enough to do the same for us, when our own blind-spots mislead us.

At the same time, try as we might, it is very difficult to change people if they have no inward desire to change and improve themselves. Some people may need to suffer greatly and cause others to suffer greatly before they finally learn the lesson they had originally been offered. There is some old wisdom from the book Siddhartha, which is that people will always learn the lessons they need to earn in their own time. While you may try, while you may earnestly want to spare your friend, ex partner, spouse, or child the same lessons you yourself learned with much strife and difficulty, ultimately, you cannot change their path. They are the only ones who can do that, and we cannot know if it will take five months or five decades.

This is why the ancient masters talk abut letting events take their course, and not trying to force things. It is why Thich Nhat Hanh says, “If you do not understand, you will think not getting angry to be the act of a fool.”

When Siddhartha ran to find his son, his friend looked at him and smiled with sincere consideration, but he did not hinder Siddhartha’s path. Vasudeva knew that Siddhartha’s search to find his son would be futile (because his son did not want to be found), but that Siddhartha had to come to accept this himself. He had to seek and find despair before he could finally accept, ultimately, what he already knew. It is a moment that speaks truth and wisdom to me. Vasudeva knew how to yield, how to love without interfering.

Of course, this choice is satisfying to us because we, the reader, can share in his wisdom. In real life, the other we have in mind has no idea we have decided to love them from afar, to let them find their way in their own time. They move past their experience with you in very traditional terms, thinking they were right and totally justified, whatever it is they’re thinking. This may be an example of my own struggles with this path, but I find it hard to let a situation go in this way when I know their ego has probably thought of all kinds of justifications to put themselves above the other. In their minds they have created a “version of events” that somehow always puts them definitively in the right.

So from another perspective, Vasudeva’s choice could be seen as overly passive. Not doing something is the same as doing something. What is the right action to take in each moment?

Be true to yourself and express yourself, but learn to let things go.
Be definitive, but know how to yield.
Reflect on all this, but be spontaneous!

Hopefully by now you can get a sense of the predicament I’m in. Let events take their course and be mindful of the wisdom of Vasudeva’s non-action, or take a more direct stance and say fully what you feel and believe? That’s the predicament. Which self, which way of being am I too choose?

February 2010