The Importance Of “Useless” Acts

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.

Breaking The Cycle Of Violence And Hate

As the Boston Marathon tragedy heads toward a bloody and violent conclusion, I find myself agreeing with this thoughtful and provocative response by Charles Eisenstein:

In the wake of terror attacks, politicians are fond of proclaiming, “We will not be intimidated.” By this they seem to mean that we won’t cower in fear, but will boldly root out the terrorists, visit upon them the hand of justice, and hold them to account. “Make no mistake,” about that, they say. We will be tough, and by tough they mean heightening security at home, intensifying counter-terrorism measures abroad, and punishing the perpetrators and all who give them aid and comfort.

Tough and strong though they seem, all of these responses are based on fear. They are the actions of people who are afraid of terrorism. Looking at them, one might say that the terrorists have succeeded after all. Even if their ostensible political cause is crushed, their terror has succeeded in increasing the level of fear in the world.

From fear comes hate, and from hate comes violence. Acting from that fear, we sow the seeds of future terrorism in the world, thereby confirming the image of our terror. It is as Martin Luther King said (quoted in a marvelously brave and insightful piece by Falguni Sheth in Salon, Where does the hate come from? ): “Men must see that force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody.”

He neglects to explicitly say that the past decade of terror has inspired us to torture, to hack away at the Constitution and Bill Of Rights, and to kill many more innocent civilians than we ourselves have lost to terror. But the basic point is right: we are locked into a mindless and perpetual cycle of action and reaction that is morally dubious, seemingly endless, and a spectacular, stupendous, waste of resources. How many millions more lives could we save, educate and enrich if we devoted our energies and resources away from weapons and strategies of destruction and conflict, and toward strategies of compassion and

I know that sounds incredibly naive. But to that criticism I have one response: how is the alternative working out for us?

Here’s more from Eisenstein:

To build a society of safety and trust rather than security and fear, we are going to have to act from the former rather than the latter. I therefore offer a few modest proposals for how to respond to the Boston bombing. First, let us reverse the cycle of terror by responding, not with heightened security, but with relaxed security, demonstrating that we will not be frightened into retreating behind cameras, fences, and metal detectors. We will bravely uphold an open society.

Secondly, let us reverse the cycle of hatred abroad by ceasing all preemptive and punitive drone strikes and other attacks. Those are the actions of a frightened people. It takes courage to trust that if one holds back from violence, whomever one has seen as an enemy will do the same. But in a situation of mutual distrust, someone has to take the first step. Otherwise, each act merely confirms the distrust of the other, and the violence never ends.

Thirdly, instead of vowing to take vengeance on the perpetrator of the Boston attack, let us proclaim that rather than punish him, he will have the opportunity to face the families of the people he killed and the people whose limbs he destroyed. He will hear their stories and share his own. Then together, the victims, perpetrators and communittee will agree on how best to heal the damage done and serve justice. While remorse and forgiveness may not result, it is more likely to than in punitive justice. (For more on this approach to justice, explore the Restorative Justice website or read this article.)

This response will reduce the amount of hate and fear in the world The perpetrator will not become a martyr in the eyes of his sympathizers. Any response that heightens the already-endemic fear in our society will be a victory for fear. To truly resist terrorism, we must not act from terror. Can we receive the hate of this act and transform it into love?

Eisenstein goes on to rebut all the objections he anticipates to these ideas, and they are worth reading. But here is his conclusion:

[M]aybe it is time to act from a different paradigm of human nature: a belief in our fundamental goodness, our common humanity, our desire to connect, to love, to help, and to serve. Certainly the immediate responses to the tragedy in Boston offer ample evidence for such a belief: people generously coming to the aid of total strangers. It was as if the explosions tore apart the veil of mutual suspicion that keeps us separate and allowed a latent aspect of human nature its full expression. What if we take those acts of selflessness as the true lesson of Boston? Could we create a world in their image? If MLK was right, surely it is also true that peace begets peace, forgiveness begets forgiveness, and love begets love. No less a revolution will create a society where we feel safe and at home amongst each other.

A very brave and provocative response to terror. No matter your personal response, it is well worth pondering, because moving humanity off the destructive and failing path it is on requires a very different way of thinking about our world and how we act.