Uncertainty is anathema to human nature. Evolution programs us to assess our environments as quickly as possible in order to distinguish foe from friend, danger from safety. However, modern life has become far more complicated than just matters of food, shelter, safety and survival of the species. We are offered choice to the point of noise, and this only compounds the uncertainty and the feelings of anxiety it conjures. Any period of transition, such as I’m currently experiencing with the preparations for my next “career” move, is bound to be fraught with conflicting impulses that exacerbate uncertainty. That’s to be expected when shifting one’s context, the point between losing the frame of reference of what came before and when future possibilities appear limitless and, thus, simultaneously enervating and paralyzing. Ultimately, we must all come to grips with the fact that life offers very little solace in the way of certainty and resist the temptation to manufacture certainty where it doesn’t exist. Though we may act out of defiance of uncertainty, it is only the act itself that is certain, for it is not for us to know fully the reasons driving our actions or the unforeseen, unintended consequences that might derive from them.
No doubt we have all, at one time or another, acted out of such defiance when no other alternative seemed available. An early example of this for me occurred when I went hanging out drinking with friends one night at the drive-in. A movie about the Hells Angels played in the background, but we weren’t there to watch the movie. At some point in the proceedings we decided it would be a good idea for some of us to get tattoos. Actually, I think I ended up being the only one to actually go through with it that night, since we had to pool together the cash to pay for it. The decision seemingly came out of the blue, or out of the bravado provided by a few beers, but our friend and de facto leader Chris had already set the example by getting a tattoo some months earlier, lending this night’s impulse the air of ritualistic initiation. I was still in high school – an all-boys Catholic military school at that – and so I had no idea how this rebellious act would be received by the Benedictine priests who taught there, let alone by my own parents, nor did I much care.
All I cared about at that moment was that by making this mark on my skin I was doing something permanent, something that I would not be able to take back, regardless of whether it resulted in me getting kicked out of home or school. This decisiveness, impulsive as it might have been, was all that mattered at a time when life at home seemed to be one frustration and clash after another, school was an involuntary confinement among the “pusillanimous neonates” (the oft-repeated insult of my Chemistry teacher, Sister Johanna) who judged by my good grades that I did nothing else in my free time except study (little did they know), and the prospect of independence and exodus from home and Savannah was still little more than a distant and exotic dream. I can’t begin to articulate how free and untouchable I felt riding home that night with the throb on my shoulder a constant reminder of the irreversible step I had taken. Later on, whenever I felt stuck or powerless, I only had to look at or touch this crudely executed skull and crossbones (you try finding a quality tattoo artist in the early hours of the morning; we managed to find Sailor Russ by waking him up out of his trailer in some backwoods trailer park – don’t ask) to evoke at least one time in my life when I possessed the audacity to act otherwise.
On the campus of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which I had entered with few social contacts and immediately found to be overwhelming, despite my craving for independence, I grasped at similar straws for certainty in terms of personal identity and purpose. It was in this state of isolation, largely self-imposed by an intense shyness, that I developed my literary sensibility. Those writers I admired and who blew my mind again and again – Melville, Conrad, Beckett, Faulkner, and Joyce, to name a few – served in place of the kindred spirits and intellectual travelers I was searching for among my fellow students on campus. These singular artists of the written word would set my imagination on fire, their words touching me in such a profound way that it was as though they were speaking directly to me, unfolding for me and me alone the mysteries and wonders of life and the universe. Rather than leaving their mark on my skin, these revelations of a different, if not better (because it was different), way of conducting and perceiving life made me want to shed it completely by way of transforming into a new being, one who was the polar opposite of the shy and insecure individual shuddering at their works. It was never enough to be able to behold the deep mysteries in these works, or to marvel at the writers’ ability to transpose them into transcendent language. Somehow recognizing and appreciating their greatness, feeling how their distinct voices awakened powers previously dormant in me, could only mean that they must be beckoning me into their company. Well, twelve years of grappling with a novel that never measured up to the standards I set for myself, or that I had adopted by the example of these classic writers, proved that not all undertakings made in pursuit of an ideal culminate in the same exultant, though certainly not immediate, outcome as getting a tattoo. With the benefit of hindsight, I now view this time of living out my dream as a novelist as a classic case of wrong action meeting wrong target, which is a recipe for the deep dissatisfaction and sense of failure that I experienced. Only by stepping back, practically prying myself from the dream to which I had been shackled by blind faith, have I been able to see other ways that writing can be an enjoyable and rewarding endeavor without achieving the daemonic level of Melville.
We all carry dreams inside us that have been tempered by reality. It is an appropriate and reasonable response to adjust our expectations according to the way the world and its people receive and reflect our talents back to us. But not everyone is so reasonable, and it was in reading about the subject of a recent article in The Intercept written by Peter Maass that I was reminded of how unreasonable, and prone to rash action in defiance of uncertainty, that I was then and can still be. Maass’s article features a young man identified only as Socrates, who took a job with the NSA to spy on Americans out of desperation after failing in his own attempt to make a living as a writer. I was caught off-guard by the sting of shameful recognition in the characterization of Socrates and his early idealism. In his 20s, Socrates deemed writing as a “higher calling than raising a child, proclaiming it nobler to live as a penniless writer than as a parent.” Socrates imagined himself producing “great works that would persuade people to love and care about the world as much as he did.”
Even 10 years after becoming a spy with the NSA, he refused to give up on this dream and resumed his fiction writing by working on a collection of short stories. However, the same indifference and rejection that received him the first time around repeated itself, and this seemed to create even more bitterness and resentment in him than before. Finally, he fell back on the last resort of unpublished writers (including yours truly) in this age of the internet: creating a blog. Given the NSA’s relentless monitoring of information, particularly that of its employees, this blog and the way it led Peter Maass to his real identify will likely have the ironic effect of getting him fired by the NSA and killing his blog, and possibly his writing along with it. Yet another casualty of wrong action meeting wrong target. With the internet and social media releasing a flood of words devoid of substance, you can’t throw a rock these days without hitting a writer toiling away in frustration and obscurity. I’m not immune to those feelings of frustration myself, but I recognized long ago how dangerous it was to my sanity to feel, as Socrates did, that my time on earth is wasted if I don’t make a “lasting and worthwhile mark” with my writing. To begin with, the judgment that deems any work lasting and worthwhile is not in our control, and really, when you think about it, there can only be one Melville in the literary canon.
In the midst of my current career transition, this drive to act represents a way for me to stake out an oasis of certainty in not only my mental but also cultural state of doubt and confusion. At least I’m old enough now to know, however, that an impulse to act rashly can’t be trusted. To begin with, the only possibility such an urge presents to me is a kind of sense memory of what has come before. We can’t envision a future without basing it somehow on what we already know, without minimizing the potential risks by couching them in comforts and guideposts from the past. Plus, there’s so much more at stake than before when it was merely a matter of defining myself against the authority of my parents and teachers. Now that I see myself as part of a much broader and interconnected community (and a small, tight-knit one at that), acting out of my id or baser, more animal urges threatens not only the social capital I have already accumulated for myself but that I will also need to accumulate for my future business venture. Besides, my family and friends are used to me getting tattoos, so that no longer holds any shock value. What I really want is something that doesn’t exist, a clean slate, a vista of the soul with the shock of the new, one completely free of the baggage and preconceptions of the past. The only remedy, therefore, seems to be to catch oneself before acting, to pause as long as possible on the fermata of potential between impulse and action until a new image of the future begins to take shape. This is not an easy thing, as monks and shamans who’ve devoted their lives to this task can attest. We want to believe that our actions are prompted and guided by thought and reason, which puts us in control of our wills and destinies, but Nietzsche and neuroscience both tell us that we are instead beholden to impulses of which we are neither aware nor understand. The physiological reality is that action comes first and reason after, thus providing us the mechanism to justify, and even excuse, the crazy, inexplicable shit we sometimes find ourselves doing.
Half the battle, as they say, is recognizing this impulse to act. Once we recognize this impulse in us, we are then able to acknowledge it with a friendly “Hello, habit energy” as it comes and goes out of our consciousness. This impulse shouldn’t be difficult to identify since we experience it all the time, to the extent that our culture treats half-cocked, do-or-die action (and discourse, and shopping, and so forth and so on) as a virtue, and a distinctly masculine one at that. The challenge, as I see it, is to act authentically, that is, to act from one’s true self rather than being at the mercy or whim of external forces and emotions. Also, an essential element in acting authentically is being able to deploy the commensurate amount of force that our target requires, as opposed to the usual habit of engaging in an unwinnable game of tit-for-tat one-upmanship that seems to be playing out in our society today. Why else would it seem okay to deploy military tanks in response to civil protests in some of our communities?
Goodness knows we are not wanting for action these days, as we find ourselves in a chaos of wrong actions addressing wrong targets all over the world. Extremism in faith presumes to know and understand the will and wishes of a Creator, and such hubris is used to justify the overthrow of governments and the persecution and murder of those who do not share the same beliefs. Ignorance of human psychology and lack of compassion drives law enforcement away from its “protect and serve” mandate toward the perpetuation of institutional racism by imprisoning vast numbers of non-violent drug users and thus ruining any chance of rehabilitation for them. Political ideology devoid of any basis in reality is used to preserve and protect positions of power that have become outdated and out of step with the majority of the citizens they have been elected to serve. It’s easy to see by this measure how the majority leadership in our General Assembly, for example, are acting without authenticity by enacting draconian policies to settle a political score (being in the minority for over a century will do that), or perpetuate a lie (the state’s economic and education systems are broken), that overwhelms and worsens the problem they’re trying to address. Meanwhile, parents who succumb to our political leaders’ “schools are broken” mantra work themselves into a panic by believing that if their child doesn’t get into a prestigious school like Harvard or Yale, then his or her future prospects are doomed. How to make sense of this madness? How to know the right way to act in the face of it?
If it is a major part of our nature to act, an even more important, and often neglected, part of our nature is to reflect. Only through reflection are we able to discern an authentic self that holds true no matter what political, economic or cultural winds are blowing around us. For these, too, shall pass. And yet I still have a hard time convincing myself that not every action requires a response or some kind of retaliation. My time of reflection – or pausing – has shown me, for instance, how my authentic self was not always reflected in or empowered by my recent work in the education and public sectors. As an educated man myself who appreciates the value of a quality education for all citizens, I was more than happy to lend my efforts to the cause, because I recognized the great need in our area (one with the lowest educational attainment in the state) for engaging in this kind of work. What I was too naïve to anticipate was the way leaders speak out of both sides of their mouths. They’ll say in one breath that education is the most important element in rejuvenating our economy and in the next that under no circumstances are we to burden our captains of industry (these mythical “job creators”) with additional taxes to replace those resources taken away by the state. Sure, everyone gives lip service to the need to support our educational system, especially when the vast majority of us are products of it, but few are willing to do the heavy lifting required to change or improve it, especially when it calls for a sacrifice of their time and hard-earned dollars (made on the backs of the cheap and uneducated labor they employ, let’s not forget).
As but one individual bearing the meaningless title of “Executive Director” (read: help hired to carry out the marching orders of the Powers That Be), I could do nothing to call bullshit on this duplicity even among my own board members without soon putting myself out of a job. Nor could I do anything to “transform” an educational system (fiery language used in our vision and mission statements) whose first order of business is protecting the status quo, which invariably means putting the needs of adults over students. It took a while – longer than it should have, perhaps, given my gullibility – to understand that those who continued to work under such demoralizing conditions within these increasingly incapacitated institutions were those who either had a true calling for the work or who were stuck as a result of having no other employment prospects. Since neither of these circumstances applied to me, and I had begun to feel an acute dulling of my spirit as a result of not being able to express my true self, I had no choice but to leave.
Still, old habits die hard, and I sometimes still feel my passions getting the best of me, prodding me to act even when I know that doing so would be futile and a waste of energy. Even though it’s been over half a year since my resignation, I find myself no more capable of precluding all subsequent desire to enact positive change than I am of tuning out the ideological insanity of our state legislature’s desire to snuff it. I can get caught up and swept away by the idea of the way I think things should be, and I reflexively find myself conjuring up plans of action that might be able to bring about this outcome. For all the good this does, I might as well be playing a game of Risk or Battleship. The media preys on this push to action by pitching matters to the height of urgency, going straight for the crescendo and inciting in us a desire to do something – anything – as a remedy for our anxiety, guilt and impotence. Meanwhile, well-intended community advocates who refuse to do nothing (forgetting that doing nothing is still doing something) cajole us by trotting out the lone starfish meme, along with the self-damning “If not me, who? If not now, when?” indictments.
Between the undeniably great need for action and the teeth-gnashing over the correct course of action given the severity of our problems, I must go another way in order to stake out a course of action that’s right for me. By detaching myself from the context, coalition and resources provided me for my prior work, I find myself able to enjoy the delightful and surprising benefits of other perspectives, which in turn suggest different, if still unknown, courses of action. In this pause, I know there’s an appropriate course of action that will provide sufficient meaning and purpose to satisfy me, because I only have to choose one any time I want from the endless possibilities. Though there is no right or wrong answer here, timing is everything. In the meantime, we all have our different ways of dealing with those things that get under our skin and rile our sense of common decency and good. Writing, or the articulation of a problem as the first step toward creating a solution, is invariably my first response. From there it gets a bit murkier as the reality soon sets in that my desire for change outstrips my actual ability to do anything about it. Eventually, a nagging feeling creeps in that my desire for change says more about me than the situations or circumstances I want to change. And the cycle repeats itself all over again.
Even though I know all this, at least intellectually, I still often find myself setting my sights higher than the matter requires. More often than not I fail to act authentically and therefore miss my target and set myself up for frustration. In my seemingly incurable impulsiveness I fail to see how premature action subsumes desired outcomes. This becomes clear in retrospect, after I’ve already suffered the miserable consequences of my actions. Only then am I able to feel how quickly the tension released by doing evaporates and leaves in its wake a host of worse problems and a nagging feeling of unfinished business, like the addict who, convincing himself that his addiction will be contained by acquiring one more hit, is shocked to discover his addiction come roaring back even more intensely than before.
It is incumbent on us in these tumultuous times to create the proper conditions inside ourselves for right action to reveal itself, and one of those is to pause and reflect before taking action. We talk about pauses being pregnant for a reason, because they contain within them all that is possible. After all, once we decide on a particular course of action, we close the door on all other possibilities. As practitioners of Zen and Buddhism also remind us, we must detach ourselves from the outcomes of our actions we expect or feel entitled to. By detaching myself from the desire to write the next Moby-Dick, in other words, not only have I spared myself the bitterness and resentment that result from inevitable failure, but I have also freed myself to write in the only way, and with the only voice, I know how. By detaching myself, too, from the notion of creating positive community change within the context of intransigent institutions and imperious leaders, I avoid pitting myself against an imbalance of power and free myself to bring about change in a more immediate, intimate and one-on-one setting where I am better able to feel that I am truly making a difference. Call it a contraction of focus or whatever you like, but this is in no way a retreat or form of weakness, despite what those who champion brute force and anti-intellectualism might say. I am still vehemently opposed to these forces and always will be for the way they divert our attention from higher order thinking and coming together to create better futures for all, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that I must engage them. If I do engage them at all, it will be under the terms, borne out of pause and detachment, that I use to define them rather than the other way around. As counter-intuitive as it seems, pausing might be the best antidote for, or inoculation against, this quick-draw, every man for himself mentality running rampant in society today, as well as the path to the most creative and effective solutions that will forever elude those so quick to act.