Friday, July 16, 2010

There...But For Grace...

Yesterday morning a friend and I dropped by a local coffee shop to relax and chat a while. As we approached the entrance together, I happened to notice an elderly man sitting alone at one of the glass topped outdoor tables. A brown paper coffee cup was resting in front of him, but his hands were busy gesturing as he mumbled toward the sky, perhaps in response to a voice only he could hear. Something about his demeanor prompted me to approach him. I placed a gentle hand on his shoulder, smiled and said, "Good morning, my friend."

His entire face lit up as his attention shifted away from the conversation he'd been having with himself and responded to the sound of my voice. "Hello there. Is this a Club Med?" he asked, motioning vaguely toward the bubbling fountain beside the coffee shop. With the temperature hovering in the mid-eighties, the late morning sun blazing in the cloudless blue sky and the merry burbling of the water beside us, I could understand the logic - if not the nature - of his reasoning.

"Not a Club Med, no. It's a coffee shop." I replied, unsure what else to offer.

"Too bad." He shrugged. "I used to live beneath this place, you know. Ask anyone who's lived here a while what it used to be like before this. Although my home wasn't here, on top. It was inside the Earth. Before it exploded and thrust me into the past, the present and the future all at once."

His face grew animated as he began to tell me his story. He spoke to me of the spaceships, and the awful people who were trying to steal his blood for its unique DNA configuration, which resembled the molecular structure of honey. His mission, he informed me, was to stop the Earth from falling into a hole it can never get out of. Those of us who were milling around the coffee shop - he kindly included me in this explanation - were part of the human Exodus, the souls he was here to protect from the invaders.

I noticed how his fingernails were encrusted with the deep layers of dirt that accumulate from too many days without access to clean running water. His clothes, while neat, were worn and threadbare. Off to one side stood a shopping cart neatly packed with whatever precious items he'd managed to collect for himself on his travels. A blue plastic tarp covered the entire basket, preventing me from seeing the treasures within.

As I listened to his story, I found myself shifting between awe at the level of intelligent coherence he projected as he spun his tale, and compassion based on the realization he occupied a world no one else could truly enter. It was a magical realm indeed, filled with demons and heroes and adventures and lots of danger, while at the same time it was tinged with hope and wrapped in a deep sense of purpose. When he finished speaking he gazed up at me expectantly, waiting for something. What though? What could I possibly have to offer a man I couldn't understand?

Suddenly, I realized what he most needed from me wasn't for me to validate (or challenge) his ideas. By some serendipitous miracle a stranger had reached out to him and, at least in this one precious moment, had gifted him the chance to make some - any - slim connection with another person. That was what I had to offer, and it was enough. I smiled and patted his shoulder once again. "Well," I said, "That is some story. Best of luck to you, and I wish you success."

He laughed and pocketed the cash I offered him as if it was more of a distraction than something to be noted and appreciated. "I'm gonna be alright," he said, eyes twinkling. "I know how to take care of myself. Don't you worry 'bout me."

I walked away then, aware I wasn't worried about him in the least. Somehow, despite whatever dark nights of the soul and tragedies of the heart he'd experienced in his charred and broken past, he'd created a new world for himself out of the ashes. It was a world in which other people played minor supporting roles now and again, but where his primary "reality" mainly unfolded through the story inside his own mind.

It's a place I happen to know all too well, because I've been there myself the past. It's called psychosis. The alien landscape where my new friend dwells, perhaps permanently, is a world of his own creation. His mind has gotten so rooted in its own thoughts that his body has grown physically disconnected from external reality. While the body checks into the world now and then to tend to its basic needs - mundane things like shelter, food and sleep - as soon as those needs are satisfied he retreats to the world inside his mind once again. For people in his condition, sensory input is experienced not for what it actually is, but for what the mind has chosen to believe it to be so it "fits" into the story his mind is telling.

Angry, judgmental people become the alien abductors; the distant sounds of airplanes become invisible hovering spaceships. Kindly passing strangers become members of the Exodus team; the shopping mall becomes a cover for a hidden underground world filled with strange plants and beasts. Luckily for him, the saga he's woven is epic; it's exciting and coherent and open to lots of interesting possibilities as time passes. It is, I suspect, a story with enough of a punch to carry him for years.

It occurred to me then, as I entered the cool shaded realm of the coffee shop, ordered my tall mocha with whipped cream and prepared to settle into a comfortable chair and talk with my friend about our intertwined lives, that the only difference between him and me was that I'd managed - with the help of a loving family, good friends and an excellent doctor - to pull myself back from the precipice of mental illness before I'd fallen in so deep no one could help me. Most days these days I find myself fully connected to reality, surrounded by people who perceive the same things I perceive. Still, every so often a panic attack overwhelms me, reminding me just how fragile is the mind, and how lonely and frightening a place it can be when we're trapped inside it alone.

That's why yesterday morning I gifted a piece of myself to the man from the center of the Earth. There but for the grace of God...go all of us.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Inherent Limitations of Capitalism

After much contemplation, below is a brief list of the inherent problems and fundamental shortcomings I've found in the capitalistic/for-profit paradigm. It's my belief that these problems reflect the adolescent mindset that created the system. Adolescents are fond of win/lose games, because they require external validation to feel good about themselves. Adults, on the other hand, prefer win/win games, because they validate themselves based on how much they are able to self-actualize and contribute to the well-being and success of others. Feel free to explore these issues more deeply, to ask questions and challenge your preexisting beliefs around capitalism for yourself. It's vital for humanity's social evolution and maturation that we let go of all the unexamined beliefs that have been instilled in us since childhood, and discern for ourselves what feels more right and true as we move forward...together.

1) Capitalism is designed to facilitate the flow of human creativity through a direct-exchange process (I'll give something to you if you give something to me) rather than an indirect one (I'll take what I need out of the larger system and when I'm able I'll give back whatever I can produce for everyone else's benefit.) Indirect exchange is nature's blueprint. The flower feeds the bee, which feeds the bear, which dies and feeds the insects, which nourish the earth, which feeds the flower. Because direct exchange is overly simplistic and highly limited - I may desperately need your corn but you have no present need for my masonry skills - we invented money to represent conceptual value and reduce the inherent problems with direct exchange. However, the human population and its concurrent ability to be more creative and productive over time have been expanding exponentially, so our need for money to change hands for an exchange to take place is actually hindering our ability to create and exchange all we're capable of doing and producing. There isn't enough money in the world to effectively match all our efforts and abilities; we now have to wait for it to become available BEFORE we can perform.

2)In a for-profit paradigm, "success" means continually taking out of the system MORE than you put into it. Even if you then reinvest your profits, you're doing so in order to take out even more than you extracted the first time at a later date. Since everyone is continually taking out more than they're putting in (or trying to) the system itself grows consistently more impoverished. One of the first rules of biology is that any whole must be greater than the sum of its many parts. Unless we design human society around that principle, the system is bound to collapse. Why be part of something that forces you to be "less than" you could be on your own? (The seething resentment this fosters explains why so many of us feel alienated and try to game or cheat the system.)

3)Allowing the "free market" (buyers and sellers) to dictate what gets produced and how it gets distributed is fundamentally undemocratic, because it denies a vote to those who don't have enough money to participate in the decision-making process. What gets produced is thus predicated upon who can afford to pay for it; how it gets distributed depends upon how much people are willing to bid for an item as they bid AGAINST each other. It's an amoral system conceptually; when applied to living beings it becomes profoundly immoral. When we fail to feed human beings who can't afford to buy the food they need to survive AND we've destroyed their ability to provide for themselves through ownership laws and other property restrictions, we're valuing monetary profits above life itself.

4)Capitalism requires constant growth and continual consumption to satisfy the ever-present profit motive and thus sustain itself. Our primary motivation is to acquire ever MORE. No living organism can consume and grow forever without destroying its host in the process, so capitalism is an inherently unsustainable model that must be released, or it will inevitably collapse.

5)Capitalism functions like a Ponzi scheme. All global lands have long been sold off and parceled out to the wealthy privileged few who got here first, so all new humans born into this world arrive with a huge disadvantage as the population rapidly expands. Like any Ponzi scheme, capitalism will thus always produce more winners than losers. Since the value of money is relative - I must have more money than you to outbid you for what we both want - no amount of cash infused into the system can correct that fundamental flaw. Prices will simply rise to siphon off the newly infused cash, enriching the wealthy even more.

6)Capitalism promotes unhealthy competition by fostering a 'destroy the enemy' siege mentality. A destroy the enemy approach promotes more, cheaply made products at lower prices, which cheapens society and creates more waste in the long run. Healthy competition asks the question, "how can I improve upon what has already been done by others?" Its aim is to elevate society by making it more beautiful, functional and long lasting.

7) Capitalism discourages cooperation. Anti-trust laws were invented because we can't trust our companies not to collude against the best interests of humanity in their quest to earn a profit. If companies were motivated and rewarded NOT by monetary profits, but because they performed a valuable service for the social good, they could get together and share ideas that could facilitate far more rapid advancement in how we produce things, as well as in what we're producing.

8)Because capitalism requires constant consumption to generate continuous profits, it must manufacture needs to induce spending by the wealthy once basic needs have been mainly satisfied. (An example of a manufactured need is a product like health insurance. Another would be cable TV.) Capitalism also creates artificial lack by deliberately keeping supplies of goods tightly controlled and limited, forcing people to bid up for them so adequate profits can be made. This keeps people trapped in the economic system by forcing them to continually labor to earn enough money to pay for the things they believe they need to ensure their own survival. It also destroys human trust and core competency by turning us all into children, entirely dependent upon an economic system that doesn't genuinely care about our well-being, to provide us with what we need.

9) Capitalism, through its use of money to represent conceptual value, has promoted the worship of an abstraction over a genuine appreciation of tangibles. As a result, our reverence for the importance of each thing based on its own inherent worth has been greatly diminished. For example, we intuitively consider a $10 hammer more valuable than a 20 cent orange - ask any schoolchild and they'll regurgitate the "correct" conceptual answer. Ask an indigenous person in the Brazilian rain forest which is more valuable however, and he'll tell you that if he's hungry, he appreciates the orange. If he needs to build something, he appreciates the hammer. One is NOT more valuable than the other - they're both priceless when they are necessary!

10)Capitalism fails to value the uniqueness of each individual. The social imperative to make money as a goal unto itself enslaves people to the labor force in exchange for their daily bread. People in need of a job to survive are not free to explore their skills, talents, passions and abilities and discern what they can best contribute to the whole over the long run. Capitalism therefore creates obstacles to genuine self-actualization.

11)Capitalism is a dangerous practice, in that it consistently undermines and exploits the one thing that can truly sustain us long-term - our planet - so a few people can gain short-term strategic advantage over the rest of humanity. It removes the sanctity of life - the undefinable aspect of nature that MOST defines us - from the social equation, by placing personal material success ABOVE the survival of the very fabric of life that supports us all.

12)Capitalism reinforces human frailty by blaming the "losers" for their failure to succeed in a system that - by definition - MUST always have more losers than winners for it to work. Since money is relative, I can't be successful unless I possess more of it relative to nearly everybody else. Clearly then, the more money I'm able to hoard, the more losers there will be in relationship to me. Blaming the so-called losers for not being able to lift themselves out of such a system destroys our trust in our abilities as a species, and discourages us from confidently and courageously exploring our own capacities. We "surrender" our dreams to the need to work for a living, rather than reach for the stars to discover and bring forth the best in ourselves.