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The Importance Of “Useless” Acts

June 13, 2013

Charles Eisenstein encounters a traditional boatbuilder, walks away with a sense of optimism, and ponders its meaning:

What reason had I to feel positive?

What good is a renaissance in traditional boat-building in the context of climate change, fracking, nuclear waste, forest death, neoliberalism, the security state, child hunger, human trafficking, sweatshop labor, juvenile incarceration, and all the other horrors sweeping our planet?…

…When any of us meet someone who rejects dominant norms and values, we feel a little less crazy for doing the same. Any act of rebellion or non-participation, even on a very small scale, is therefore a political act. Building boats by hand is a political act. That is not to say that the banking industry, Monsanto, the military-industrial complex, and so forth would magically change their ways if only more of us built boats. It is that boat-building and other kinds of change-making come from the same place.

It wasn’t because he thought it would change the world that the boatbuilder chose his path. If we condition our choices on what could practically change the world, we are often paralyzed, because the changes that must happen today are so enormous that we have no idea how to practically accomplish them. Every plan is impractical and every hope is naïve.

The cynic thinks that he is being practical and that the hopeful person is not. It is actually the other way around. Cynicism is paralyzing, while the naïve person tries what the cynic says is impossible and sometimes succeeds.

Paradoxically, it is through the totality of billions of useless acts that the world will change.

This is essentially where I come down. To find meaning and beauty in boatbuilding is to live according to values that have little to do with the the predominant values–of success, achievement, material gain–that are at the root of most global problems. Measuring personal action against the seemingly impossible goal of changing the world, and changing the predominant culture, leads you into a black hole. But making ethical choices and taking action according to your beliefs and values (even if, or especially if, those choices and actions are a radical rejection of the status quo), can inspire happiness and a sense of purpose and meaning.

Those qualities are infectious. No one can really calculate their impact over time.

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 13, 2013 3:43 pm

    That’s pretty much where I come down also. I also think it’s helpful to maintain an awareness of the prevailing power dynamics, basically driven by the insatiable greed of the ultra-rich throughout history. It’s at least personally satisfying to call out the current machinations and culprits, and hope to be part of the needed changes. A helpful catch-all phrase that is profoundly revolutionary is “Too many people, too much consumption.”

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