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naming normal

02 October 2001

Has it gone back to normal? I, for one, hope that it does not. In the last few years I've been increasingly distressed with our culture's hyper-consumerism, the dumbing of our cultural discourse, our self-centeredness, and our general lack of balance.

Jeffrey Zeldman:

Somehow in my pursuit of happiness I failed to notice that children were dying in Iraq. Somehow when car bombs exploded in London, or gunfire ripped the West Bank, I felt a moment of sorrow and disbelief, then went about my business - never realizing that love was my business, the world was my business.
We use love to sell mouthwash.

In 1998 Peggy Noonan published a piece that I think is quite good. You can make what you like of her weird premonition of disaster, and her thoughts about 'staying God's hand'. As regards the latter, I will tell you that I think we need never feel guilty for our good fortune -- so much of it is out of our control, anyway. I do think we ought to feel guilty when we do not notice it, and are not grateful, or somehow think we deserve it. And I think that we owe it to ourselves as much as to the rest of the planet to make thoughtful choices about our habits of consumption and the ways in which we choose to spend our time.

Which brings me to the part of her essay (and I hope you will read the whole thing) which is most interesting to me: her description of the very out-of-balance lives most of us seem to live, and that we gleefully export around the world.

Peggy Noonan:

So we work. The more you have, the more you need, the more you work and plan. This is odd in part because of all the spare time we should have. We don't, after all, have to haul water from the crick. We don't have to kill an antelope for dinner. I can microwave a Lean Cuisine in four minutes and eat it in five. I should have a lot of extra time--more, say, than a cavewoman. And yet I feel I do not. And I think: That cavewoman watching the antelope turn on the spit, she was probably happily daydreaming about how shadows played on the walls of her cave. She had time.

In the essays of both Zeldman and Noonan I hear echoes of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Zeldman is easy:

'Business!' cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. 'Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!'

Noonan's connection is, perhaps, obvious only to me. In the final section of her essay, she warns that we will soon have more time, but that how we get it will not be pleasant. She seems to see this as the logical outcome of our engorged affluence in a world of enforced austerity and outright destitution. Is our wealth a factor? I would be more likely to put the blame on our obstinate ignorance, our satisfied self-centeredness, and our blindness to the effects of our own unbalanced way of life.

Now, I see in 'A Christmas Carol' a meditation on the interplay between destiny and free will. Recall that in his visitation by the third spirit, Scrooge observes his cleaning lady selling the very bed-curtains stolen from his bed as he lay there dead. She and two others have stolen his belongings as he lay in state in order to sell them later on. Of course, we all remember that after his vision Scrooge awakens a new man, a good, generous man who delights in sharing his wealth with the poor.

Do you see the lesson in that? Part of Scrooge's wealth will go to the poor; it's a mere detail whether it will be taken after he's dead by people who despise him, or whether it will be given during his lifetime by him, with joy.

But do you see the more important lesson? Free Will wins. Scrooge gets to decide.

I hope we are at such a crux. That, once past the anger and sadness and fear, as a people we begin to look outside our borders to discover who we share the planet with, and to ask ourselves how we can help. That, informed about both our government's decisions and the world those decisions will affect, we hold our policymakers to the highest standard, so that we can look at the United States' actions -- all of them -- with the same pride with which we regard our own individual efforts.

I hope that we look at ourselves with a new eye and begin to notice how far from our path we have strayed. When did the wants of corporations become more important than the needs of the people? Why do we always have enough money for a military action, but never enough for universal health care? Why do we complain so about our leaders, but never demand more from either our candidates or the media that cover the issues?

And in our personal lives, when did schedules become more important than people? Why is there no longer time for a leisurely dinner, or to snuggle, or to read or be read to? Why do Americans no longer save? Do we need as much stuff as we have? Why? How much of it can we really use, how much of it really brings us joy?

We have been taught by our advertising industry that possessions will buy us happiness, but each of us knows from experience that it isn't true. From what I can tell, here is what makes a person happy: someone to love, someone to like, someone or something to serve, and somewhere to belong. I would say that with two or three of those you can be content. I believe that with two or three of those, you can get the others.

I hope that, as soon as we are ready, each of us begins to craft a normal that is intentional. A normal made of deliberate rhythms that genuinely reflect our individual values and unique pleasures and true needs.

Remember, if we choose so, Free Will wins. Even Scrooge gets to decide.

Ben Brown:

In ten years, or twenty years, I imagine sitting down with Kyra, maybe over a cup of tea, and talking to her about the day before she was born, about the almost-the-same-but-not-quite world that existed before she breathed her first breath. What I hope I can say is, the world before that thing in New York, it was good, but it wasn't as good as the world we live in now.

rebecca blood
october 2001


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