Yesterday, I read a transcript of a Daniel Quinn speech. He lamented the sense of hopelessness that we, society, feed ourselves and our children. In a sense we are preparing ourselves for extinction. Instead of empowering us, we put ourselves down, through the messages we see on the TV, advertising, movies, pop culture, schools. We are told to wait for the firefighters to come if our neighbour’s house is on fire, and if they don’t show up, then we just gotta watch it burn to the ground. The message that Daniel Quinn sees being taught to us, is that we’re all helpless to save the world. That we need real power, like a US president or a large corporation, to effect change. We’ve been taught to wait for other people to save the world.
When Quinn wrote his book Ishmael in 1992 (I still haven’t read it), he got a lot of letters. He was dismayed to see that no one ever asked, “Why do I feel so powerless? Why am I so individually helpless?”. Instead, they would write: “I’m looking for a career that will make a difference. I’m thinking of going into environmental engineering or something. Can you suggest something?”.
Read between the lines.
Environmental engineers can make a difference. But not electrical engineers.
Environmental engineers can make a difference. But not optometrists.
Environmental engineers can make a difference. But not English teachers.
Environmental engineers can make a difference. But not bus drivers.
Environmental engineers can make a difference. But not artists.
Environmental engineers can make a difference. But not mail carriers.
Environmental engineers can make a difference. But not grocery store clerks.
The list could go on. The people who wrote to Quinn thought that what they really wanted to do & would be good at didn’t matter. They just thought that they needed to be someone else in order to make a difference.
The very shocking conclusion (at least to me!) was that we ALL have to make a difference. It doesn’t matter what job we do. “Oh I just flip burgers, so I can’t make a difference.” “Oh, I just sell insurance, I can’t make a difference.” “Oh I just test video games, I can’t make a difference.”
I remember when I used to be like those letter-writing adolescents, feeling powerless and unsure what to do. I had become disillusioned with business and capitalism after learning about all the ways that people swindled other people just to make more money. So I didn’t want to contribute to that system, and I ended stumbling into other things. But I see now that I got it a bit wrong. What business needs, is more people like me, who care about things other than money. It needs people who want to figure out how to do business without swindling other people. To discourage swindlers. “We musn’t leave polluting and wasteful industries entirely in the hands of people who don’t give a damn about the world.” To do what we do best, is where we will ultimately make the biggest difference.
A waste disposal engineer once told Quinn that “we’d have to remove everybody from the face of the earth, because humans generate toxic waste.” Contrast that attitude with a Navajo student who called Quinn to thank him for giving him back his religion. He clarified for Quinn, “when I was growing up among my own people, I was taught to think of humans as a blessing on the world. Living among your people, I’ve been taught to think of humans as a curse on the world. I didn’t notice it happening until I read your book, and that is how you’ve given me back my religion.” It’s a myth that we are naturally wasteful and polluting. We’ve existed just fine for 3 million years. There happened to be one culture (out of thousands) that started developing agriculture and building a civilization that then overran all the other cultures to become the dominant culture. Humans are not at fault. Our current culture is.
Reading the transcript was empowering, and I’ve been rethinking and re-appreciating the impact that I have on the world. I’ve had this sentiment before, that everyone just needs to care a bit more about others, but it just felt so overwhelmingly hopeless. In action movies, it’s always a superhero (usually a guy) who saves the world, not the collective tiny actions of everyone else. Unfortunately in this plane of existence, there is no Justice League, there are no Avengers, Spiderman don’t exist, and Superman hasn’t crash landed here yet. We all need to be our own superheros in our (international) communities.
I think back to the article I read about the Turkish artist fighting her government. I think back to the two young women who turned themselves in for destroying oil pipelines in the US. They decided that they could make a difference using what they had. None of them were incredibly powerful. None of them were environmental engineers. They were just humans that cared. Even if I’m not brave enough to take action like they did, I can still donate money to organizations that help (although I do realize there’s a lot of politics around charities….), while earning a living from what I’m good at.
It’s all too easy to lose myself in a YouTube binge, or a TV show, or even music, and just shut out the world and its suffering. It’s all too easy to just shut out our own desires and avoid the pain of not obtaining them. In reacquainting myself with pain, I hope to see joy again. The only place I truly felt childlike, consistently, is while I’m dancing. But even that journey took a long time. In the rest of my life, I’m starting, now, to reconnect with my emotions and inner child, so that I may fill the world with my joy. A long road it is, but that’s why our eyes are in front, so that we keep on moving forward.