Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Danger of Dreams

Desires wither the heart.

—The Tao Te Ching, ch. 12

Last summer I worked my butt off (on an organic vegetable farm) for very little money, and was grateful for the chance to do so. This is in keeping with my life philosophy: "Work for nothing. Take all that you have and be poor." [1] "Take your time, and set about some free labor." [2] "[The Tao] pours itself into its work, yet it makes no claim." [3] I want to live in a world free of "the union of work and debt, work and despair" [4]; and so it is my call to "be the change" I want to see in the world. [5] My job was a lovely example of neighborly economy and abundance, a symbiosis between work and worker. My boss and I each felt we had the winning end of the deal. I was rich - in other words, my needs were more than met. But now I've discovered how the best of intentions can take all that away.

Like most young people, I have a dream for my future. Specifically, I want to build and occupy a tiny eco-friendly home comfortably for almost no money. I know countless examples of others doing likewise - some with kids or other major commitments of which I'm free - so it's certainly feasible. It's certainly worthwhile, as it would save energy and help clear the way for a more harmonious relationship between humans and the planet. Attached to that dream are dreams of deep neighborliness, of a more monastic lifestyle, and of nourishing local rooted-ness. Because my dream is so benign, I expected that holding it in mind would have a benign effect on my life in the present. But the truth can be surprising.

Recently a wave of inspiration came in full force, sending me to the internet to compare house plans and materials. I told people I'm going to build in the spring and summer of 2013. Why not? I set my sights on a particular house design, the Tumbleweed Fencl, which I figured I could build for around $12,000 with mostly used materials. The size and mobility of the Fencl suits my "deliberate bachelorhood" lifestyle. And when I know I want to settle down somewhere, I can sell it and build a more permanent, slightly larger earthen house with the profit.

Anyway, the problem is connecting the dots between now and then. I don't have $12,000. I don't have half, nor even half of that. Had I been paid a standard wage at the farm (instead of a stipend) I'd almost be there. If only I'd made more money! If only farmers didn't get the shaft compared to nearly anyone else in the economy! Grrr.

Of course it's too late to get a fairer income for last year, but perhaps I could get a different job now. Instead of spending my winter days reading, writing, visiting with friends, meeting new people, and doing pro bono compost work (i.e. taking my time and setting about some free labor), I could bite the bullet and get some job I don't want in order to save money, so that sometime in the future I can afford to do what I want and believe in.

Or maybe I could sell my writing. I could post my decent work here on the blog, and submit my best work to Christian magazines (temporarily relaxing my belief in public domain/copyleft licensing). Just until I save up the money I need to live my benevolent dream, of course.

Once I get to that point, when I've built my house and can live cheaply and freely, then I'll work for nothing, take all I have and be poor. Then I'll pour myself into my work, yet make no claim. This is real life, not fantasy. It's the world of grown-ups. I've got to do some things I don't want to do.

And maybe at some point I would have enough to feel I could give some away. Or maybe I'd compromise my ideals today and get hit by a train tomorrow, sending my best-laid plans into oblivion (where they always were, in truth). Most likely I'd spend a long life planning on doing good, just as soon as I reach the horizon of financial freedom or reduced obligations or personal happiness or whatever. But the future is not real. All I really have, all anybody has, is the present. When a desire wells up in me to effect a positive change in the world, I have two possible responses: to plan on making the change I want to see in the world, or to be the change I want to see in the world. If I do not embody Christ now, I never will, because life is a series of nows. "God himself culminates in the present moment, and will never be more divine in the lapse of all the ages." [6]

Even if that means I can never afford to build my house, so be it. One pathetic drop of love now is more valuable than a planned future of oceanic sainthood. The wealth and gratitude freely available now, if I'm willing to forsake my dream, are more than those of a thousand future fortunes and freedoms.

Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.

—The Tao Te Ching, ch. 44

[1]Wendell Berry, "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front"
[2]Henry David Thoreau, Walden, "Economy"
[3]The Tao Te Ching, ch. 34
[4]Wendell Berry, "The Mad Farmer, Flying the Flag of Rough Branch, Secedes from the Union"
[5]From Mahatma Ghandi: "You must be the change you want to see in the world."
[6]Henry David Thoreau, Walden, "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For"