The rambling life ain’t restful, to paraphrase Satchel Paige. The last five weeks have been almost nonstop work for me, including nearly 10,000 miles of air travel. I always think that 30,000 feet above the planet will be a great place for introspection, but instead, I shift in my seat, get work done, eavesdrop on other passengers, read a little, listen to music, check my watch a thousand times, and deplane no wiser than when I boarded. Sometimes, though, the lull after travel brings insight. For that reason and many others, I am glad to be home.
You see, during the last gig in this stretch, I facilitated a multi-day retreat for a group of colleagues. Their work focuses on the transformative story, the one that turns a corner in the life of the teller. In order to align the group with that energy, I asked every person to share a moment of transformation, whether in their own lives or in their work with others. Then I began to think about the moment I might share if I’d been prompted in the same way.
Not one, but five different moments tumbled into awareness. I have been privileged to know many people who’ve influenced me, to be surprised by opportunity and grounded by defeat, to respond to world changes and shifts in my personal weather. I know the angels of transformation can take any form, appearing as objects, forces, or living beings. But my truth is this: that each and every one of the five aha! moments that flapped their wings and stood at attention in my mind took the form of books. I guess this trumps any remaining doubts that I belong to the category “intellectual,” hm? But categories aside, nothing has blown my mind like books, demolishing certainties; driving wild, green questions through the crusts of knowing; making the world new.
I’ve written about all five of the authors mentioned below; if you’re interested in more, go to my blog, scroll down to the search box on the right, and enter a name. All the blog essays referencing that name will come up.
The first book began life as a pamphlet, actually. Paul Goodman’s essay “Drawing The Line” was given to me back in the sixties when I worked as a draft counselor, helping young men apply for conscientious objector status and otherwise pursue alternatives to killing people in Vietnam. (It’s collected in this volume and you can also find used copies of the 1962 original, Drawing The Line: A Pamphlet.) This was my first encounter with Goodman’s work, and with the idea that “Free action is to live in the present society as though it were a natural society.” Enacting that principle could bring one into what Goodman called “the ‘crimes’ which it is beholden a free man to commit” (as, for example, refusing the draft); but it also illuminated the aspects of life that are not coerced, in which the only brake on exercising true freedom is the one we self-install.
For me, this realization shattered the political orthodoxy I’d accepted as a given in my young life as an activist, that we had to wait for freedom until some presumed prerequisite had been achieved. The person who chose to live as if freedom were an ever-present possibility would be asking for trouble—sometimes very serious trouble—but in between the trouble was something else I wanted, and I have kept on wanting it ever since. All of Goodman’s essay collections are good places to start, and you can get used copies for a song.
Lots of people told me to read Paulo Freire, and time after time, I struggled through a few pages of Pedagogy of The Oppressed before giving up. I’m certain the book is dense in the original Portugese, but the English has a flavor of having been first translated into German, perhaps by a computer. I read it aloud to my then-partner on a long car trip up the Pacific coast. We were on our way to work with a group of community artists who needed help, having fallen into internal conflict that threatened their organization. Spoken aloud as the countryside whizzed by, comprehended sentence-by-painstaking-sentence, Freire’s core ideas etched themselves into my brain: how we take in ideas that diminish us (“internalizing the oppressor”); how these ideas prevent us from acting in our own interests (from ceasing to be “objects of history” and becoming its “subjects”); how they make us credulous, easily prey to “magic thinking,” rather than the “critical consciousness” that enables us to break free, to speak our own words with our own voices, and thus to exercise our rightful power in the world.
On the drive, we realized that the best way to help the group we were traveling toward was to construct a story—”a generative theme”—that enabled them to explore the dynamic that had snared them, rather than sinking into it like quicksand. It worked perfectly, and ever since, Freire’s ideas have been a key that unlocks power dynamics for me. Reading him also led me to Fanon, Senghor, Cabral, Boal, and others who helped to articulate the emergent polycultural realities of the post-colonial world.
At a certain point in my life of activism, I lost heart, and Isaiah Berlin helped me find it again. I found myself mouthing political platitudes that rang false, but not knowing what I did believe in their place. I saw that there was a certain dynamic among progressive activists, that you had to be hip and cool in a way that required allegiance to an orthodoxy that was somehow supposed to smash orthodoxy. Who was in, who was out? I noticed how much my own words reflected the desire to answer those questions in a way my friends perceived as correct. I remember when Susan Sontag made a hugely controversial Town Hall speech in 1982 in which she denounced communism as actually practiced on Planet Earth (rather than the Platonic ideal cherished by leftists as a necessary antidote to the damage done by capitalism): “Not only is Fascism (and overt military rule) the probable destiny of all Communist societies—especially when their populations are moved to revolt—but Communism is in itself a variant, the most successful variant, of Fascism. Fascism with a human face.” She was vilified, but she persisted, and I respected that.
I moped and talked and read and finally, someone gave me Isaiah Berlin’s essays collected in The Sense of Reality. Although liberal in spirit and a lifelong advocate of liberty, Berlin was anything but a darling of the left, because he refused to toe an ideological line. Berlin brought to his writing a profound awareness of the dangers of trying to conform the human subject to some ideal (i.e., if you want to produce a “New Man,” you will almost certainly wind up killing a great many of the old ones who seem to stand in the way); and a profound appreciation for the emotional, irrational elements of seemingly rational domains. Reading him granted me a huge rush of liberation: instantly, I was entirely freed from any sense of obligation to toe an ideological line; to pretend that any theory about human beings could be superior to close, nuanced observation of our species in action; to prove loyalty to a party-line of any kind. I’ve never felt an instant of regret, just profound gratitude.
I came up in the world as culturally Jewish, but without any particular spiritual practice—until I read Adin Steinsaltz. (There’s a Jewish joke that describes all the holidays as expressions of a single assertion: they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat. Imagine it as an uninflected description of my family’s spiritual life.) This led me to an existential despair in which the trials of my life seemed like punishment for crimes unnamed. Mired in suffering, rained out on vacation, I visited a bookstore, where a particular book called to me like a beacon in the darkness. Every time I picked it up, I thought, “Why do I want to read this?” But I literally couldn’t leave the store without buying it. I read Adin Steinsaltz’s The Thirteen-Petalled Rose it in a single sitting, and for me, it was exactly the right medicine. In an instant, I understood that the way I had been seeing my life was only one of many choices; an equally plausible idea was that what I had seen as punishment was instead preparation for whatever unique task life was calling me to perform. Making that switch, despite its reliance on a mystery that can never be fully comprehended, changed the texture and scope of my life in more ways than I can count.
Reading the book launched me into a decade or so of spiritual seeking in which I learned a great deal about mystical Judaism and its multiplicity of contemporary expressions. For a time, I was completely immersed in a Jewish world, but that desire has receded, partly out of a deeply democratic and ecumenical wish to connect with people of many faiths and none; and partly out of disillusionment. I began to question why some spiritual leaders, whose lives were permeated by the teachings and practices that were supposed to align us with the Golden Rule, continued to behave so badly toward others. I’m still very involved in Jewish social action; I still gain a great deal from the celebrations and practices I choose to observe; and my way of being is still shaped in many ways by my heritage culture, which still rhymes with the beating of my heart. But mostly, I try to live an honest life without labels: the universal is embedded in the specific, shining through the cracks in any spiritual container we humans construct.
A friend introduced me to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the “epistomologist of randomness” who wrote The Black Swan, an endlessly interesting book that repays multiple readings. Taleb is arrogant, elitist, not a wonderful writer, and yet such a brilliant thinker and piercing observer, you don’t want to stop reading. He showed me the extent to which our society has fallen prey to a specious scientism that maintains faith in our ability to predict the future, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary; and the price we have paid for our hubris. He introduced me to the cognitive biases built into the structures of our own minds, and led me to develop awareness and the capacity to discriminate what is predictable and measurable from what is not. I’ve since read a great deal more on the subject, most recently Daniel Kahnemann’s wonderful book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. The impact on my work and life has been profound, in that I now see understanding our biases and reactivity as a vital key to sustainable social change, and almost all my talks and writings urge others to investigate these factors too.
These five aha! moments have shaped my perspective and world-view. If I had to sum them up in a single sentence, this would be it: avoid ideologies, interrogate your assumptions, cultivate awareness, and whatever stands up, that is the truth you live.
What is the truth you live, and how did you learn it?
I’m feeling like a little Mighty Mo Rodgers today: “There But for The Grace of God,” the Golden Rule writ large in Haiti.