Month: January 2014

The Freedom to Do

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So much of our lives today seem to be about talking and listening, about feeling and being concerned with other’s feelings.  We waste our precious time talking about nothing and listening to others talk about nothing; we watch the minutes tick by as we smile blithely so as to not hurt one another’s feelings.  We cannot offend anyone, and yet when we are offended, we are silent. Most of modern life is spent watching the world through a window or on a screen and talking about how nice it would be to be able to do.  However, we do nothing.

It is not that we are not capable, we are.  It is not that we do not have the desires, we do.  It is that we are told that we cannot do this or that, that it is out of the ordinary to do this or that; we are told that people do not, and so we swallow the urge to be free, to actually do something.  We live in our suburban homes, our apartments, and condos and call fear common sense and comfort our goal.  We define honest work as labor, and laziness progress.  We actually live two virtual lives: one on the computer and one in our head: the two often intermingle and become symbiotic.  But still, this will not do.

But we can do; we do not have to shun freedom and happiness for the illusion of those things that we hold so dear.  We can learn; we can learn as long as we do and as long as we are alive.  All we need to enable action is decision; not emotion or discussion of possibilities, which are endless.  Thinking is doing, and thinking is difficult; it is the price for freedom and happiness, but only as long as it leads to action.  Thinking is practical when put into practice and is directly related to our bodies, which are literally aching to move, to do something.

While it is not true that we create our own realities, it is true that we can mold the reality in which we live.  In order to mold our reality we must make the decision to do so, and in actually doing we become free.  In becoming free we begin to pay for our education through the hardships of physical and mental aches and pains.  These are the signs of change, sometimes of age, sometimes of inactivity and sloth.  But we can even learn from these ubiquitous evils if we do something about them.

There is no shortcut to doing, no easy conduit, no pain-free path.  The cost is the inevitable change that reality is: we must face our fears and quit making excuses.  How we feel is no matter; we must act.  The reality of doing is that others will feel the pain of their inaction, but we cannot take into account how doing makes others feel.  The certainty of action is that others will talk, gossip, natter and blather, but this does not matter.  In his great book of doing, Walden on Wheels, Ken Ilgunas writes, “freedom [is] simply being able to entertain the prospect of changing your circumstances.”  Ilgunas was an indebt college student that decided to do something about it: after paying off his $35,000 debt by doing hard labor in Alaska, he lived in a van while attending Duke in order to stay out of debt.

We all have the dreams of having the freedom to do just that: get out of debt, stay out of debt, and live life in a way that would give us actually happiness.  Yet so few of us do.  We are slaves to our own fear and comfort, but even more so to the fears and expectations of others.  James Joyce writes, “When the soul of a man is born, there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight.  You talk to me of nationality, language, religion.  I shall try to fly by those nets.”  Those nets hold us back, but sadly often we freely entangle ourselves in their snare.  As Ilgunas reminds us, “We need so little to be happy.  Happiness does not come from things.  Happiness comes from a full and exciting life.”  We have the freedom to do just that; if we would only do something about it.

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It is not the Knowing that is Difficult, but the Doing

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There is something about physical labor that is freeing to the mind.  It puts us in contact with the reality, that which does not bend to our will, and forces us to accept it as it is: there is no religion of real work.  Physical labor is a process of learning: about one’s self and the reality in which we live; nothing else.  Nothing else can do the trick.

Physical labor is often thought to be mindless, but only if the laborer does not take the time to think about what his hands are doing and perhaps more importantly: why.  It is then that thinking becomes a physical act.  It is one thing to wake up in the morning tired and sore from a day’s work only to add to your weekly paycheck by doing yet more labor; it is another thing altogether to wake up from a day’s work tired and sore in order to solve a puzzle that your mind has spent the night pondering and your hands have awaited to begin, to finish a task, an objective, or to do a job better because of what you’ve learned the last time you’ve tried.

Having the right tool for the task is of utmost importance and with experience the laborer learns that money spent for good tools is an imperative.  Many days have been spent doing something “the hard way” only to save a dollar or two.  That saw stand or speed square is well worth the money spent!  But so is the time spent understanding why, why we are doing the work, and how it works.  There are old aphorisms having to do with the right tool such as “Measure twice, and cut once.”  My favorite is, “It is not the knowing that is difficult, but the doing.”  Both of these sayings refer to the same tool.

Unfortunately in our society physical labor seems to be almost scorned (contractors will evidently spend eternity together with lawyers in one of Dante’s lower circles of hell), but I believe this scorn is wrongly placed.  As with any quarter, there are good and bad: there are good and bad teachers, housewives, businessmen, and of course contractors: physical laborers.  I believe the frustration felt by many with regard to contractors is not because they are physical laborers, but because they are injudicious with the most important tool that anyone, especially a physical laborer can use: their mind.

Physical labor is not a blind allegiance to a paycheck or to a client or to one’s body.  Physical labor is not an act of mindlessness, but of “doing” with the mind.  If there is scorn to be had, it is for any act done mindlessly.  Physical labor in its highest form is craftsmanship and craftsmanship demands intellect.  In The Republic, Plato writes that of the philosopher king that physical and mental agility is equally important.  This is something that our societies have seemingly forgotten.

Waxing philosophically… To work physically, frees the body from the confines of physical ineptness and to work mindfully, the mind from mental conformity.  To envision an object and watch it as it becomes reality honed from the mind is truly a human endeavor; to be free and capable of doing such an act is to be truly human: the transfiguration from thought to truth.

There is no metaphysic in physical labor, and therefore no excuses: no fideistic approaches. Even if you cannot understand the underlying aspects of a quality house, a goodly built barn or a well-tended garden, you have the capacity to understand that these things are important.   There is something wrong about accepting less, about expecting less from our fellow human beings and ourselves.  Even when we do not understand what it took to build a thing, we know a quality when we see it; we almost feel it in our bones.

Even in an age when a thing such as the so-called “McMansion” (which is not a product of physical labor, but of profit and employment: a product) is accepted as a quality by the many, the craftsmanship of physical labor will live on in that itching feeling of discontent that fills our hearts as we watch our land fill with the consequences: suburban sprawl and when we surround ourselves with McThings; it is the lack of craftsmanship that reminds us that the physical labor that we see and live in is mindless and lacking any quality.  But, it is the physical labor of craftsmanship that reminds us that we are human, able to think and choose to be better rather than simply more.

Techno-idiocy

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The irony of writing a blog entitled “Techno-idiocy” using a computer is not lost upon me; technology has certainly made our lives better in many ways.  However, technology has not only made our lives better, but easier as well.  The term technology comes from the Greek: techne, “art, skill, cunning of hand”; and logia; typically the term refers to an improvement to solutions concerning preexisting problems such as transportation, health and information sharing.  There is no doubt that cars, healthcare and computers have been an improvement to solutions concerning preexisting problems; namely transportation has become extraordinarily more efficient, people live longer, and we have enormous amounts of information readily available at speeds that we cannot even fathom.  These technologies have also led to consequences that we, perhaps, did not foresee such as techno-idiocy. Techno-idiocy is the result of relying upon technology to make our lives easier, but not necessarily better.

Let it be understood that without a doubt technology has made our lives better. Borrowing from the above examples, cars have allowed people to travel distances hitherto either impossible or extremely dangerous relatively easily and fairly inexpensively.  Healthcare technologies have lengthened lifespans and provided a quality of life to those who would have otherwise lived in misery or died in pain.  Computers, a relatively recent addition to our technological advances, has allowed for those who have access to them information and the ability to communicate at light-speed as well as calculate solutions to problems often in a matter of seconds.  These examples of technology have no doubt improved upon the solutions concerning preexisting problems, but these solution have not been easily gotten; they have come at a cost.

Cars produce emissions that have proven dangerous to the environment and have helped produce societies that are much less human-friendly: more highways and roads and less natural areas, helped to fracture societies and have been accessory to health problems the world over.  Furthermore, the auto industry has produced other industries, primarily the oil industry, that is equal to or worse dangers for the environment and as a result for us all.  Healthcare technologies have produced serious overpopulation issues, created a disconnect between human beings, and their inevitable mortality creating a “life at any cost” attitude in many societies and the elongation of pain and misery for those who are terminally ill.  Computers have been an accessory to obesity, compulsive behaviors, privacy issues, and a number of social and psychological problems.

The result of techno-idiocy is that we begin to define anything easier as being better, and while technology has bettered our lives, “easier” comes at costs that more often than not are overlooked, ignored or accepted.  Today technology pervades almost every aspect of our lives, and often we accept technological advances as necessary and almost always as progressive.  This is not necessarily true.  Why do cars need to be huge gas-guzzlers that we come to worship and even define ourselves by?  Why is life important even when it is nothing more than existence? Why do people need to “stay connected” at all times?  In essence, why is easy always better?  The lack of discussions regarding such questions is the lack of understanding what we mean by progress. If progress is to be considered a positive movement towards the betterment of humanity, then the consequences of technology must be positive in order to be better.  Easy is not always positive.  Often “new and improved” does not mean better which seems to beg the question: why isn’t easy always better?

I’ve found part of the answer in David Thoreau’s, Walden.  It is easy to blame modern society for the problems that we encounter in our everyday lives, but techno-idiocy is nothing new.  Thoreau noticed these attitudes in 1845.  He writes, “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are only not indispensible, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”  Technology becomes idiotic when it hinders progress.  What Thoreau was referring to is virtue.  It is not easy to decide to be a virtuous person, but in striving to do so we will elevate ourselves as well as our societies.  It is easier to be a techno-idiot (to define progress as easy), but much more virtuous to rise above the ease (and luxury) of technology for the sake of real progress (defined as the betterment of humanity).

First, easy alone is not progressive as David Thoreau points out when he asked, “Shall we forever resign the pleasure [italics mine] of construction to the carpenter?”  It is not always better to be able and choose to pay someone to do something for us because in doing so we miss an opportunity, the pleasure of learning, of being self-sufficient, and even failing.  Secondly, easy is often an excuse for laziness.  Technology has made our lives easier, but has also made us much lazier.  We no longer have to have to think before we write (hit the ‘delete’ key); we no longer have to be cordial or even considerate to those around us (text someone else); no longer have to think for ourselves (google it).  These are the consequences of techno-idiocy.

Making our lives easier is not in prima fascia immoral, but easy at all costs (just like business at all cost) often is.  To accept technology simply because it makes our lives easier, and for no other reason, is wrong-headed.  We can all most likely agree that technology has expanded the boundaries of our capacities, but it is less likely that we can agree on the areas that technology has limited our progress.  However, as obesity rates soar, education becomes made-for-profit technological experiments, and social norms continue to adhere to easy access information, techno-idiocy will cease to be viewed as a hindrance to the elevation of mankind and become an indispensable attitude to survive in an ever growing techno-idiotic society.

The Freedom of Food

Recently I have embarked upon path towards freedom.  This word, freedom, so often misused and thrown around as to have lost its meaning, is such an important concept to so many people but to be free means to limit one’s freedoms.  In my case, I have begun to limit myself to that which I can do myself: self-sufficiency.  One of the areas, and the most important in many ways, is the ability to feed your self.  To eat is to cook; cooking is a simple and yet necessary activity that has, in the past one hundred years or so, become defined not by us as individuals, but by faceless corporations and conglomerates that do two things: tell us what to eat and provide us what they think we ought to eat.  In one sense, these corporations and conglomerates have given us freedoms: we no longer have to cook; but, in another sense, these corporations and conglomerates have taken away our freedoms: we no longer can cook.

It is not only cooking that counts, it is the ingredients as well.  These companies have not only begun to cook for us, but they have also provided and created the ingredients that they cook with.  This may sound as simple and innocent but alas, it is not.  I was in Denmark over Christmas with my Danish family and had the pleasure of “cooking” with my nephew.  We made lasagna (a classic dish).  My nephew took out a jar of pre-made sauce (with meat), a box of pre-made béchamel sauce, and boxed platter pasta.  He poured each of the packaged ingredients over the pasta platters and set it in the oven.  Oua’ la!  I do not mean to downplay my nephew’s willingness to make a family meal, but what he did was not cooking.  However….

According to Michael Pollan in his book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, the definition of cooking has been dumbed down.  My nephew’s activity is considered “cooking” by many.  Of course language is a social phenomena and we as a society are free to define terms as we see fit.  Historically, words of all kinds come and go, get redefined and defined again.  But to redefine a word that encompasses a quality of freedom that is only found in the transformation of ingredients to food is to devolve linguistically.  To dumb down concepts is to lose freedoms.  The consumerism society created by corporations is not concerned with our freedoms, but with profit and profit alone.  And so, to redefine words (such as cooking) to fit their ultimate goal of profit at the cost of a higher form of freedom is in fact taking away the freedoms of us as individuals.

Today, most are aware that agriculture, the production of food products, is by in large defined by the production of corn, typically GMO (Genetically modified Organism).  The three ingredients that my nephew used were all corn-based (probably not GMO; we were in Europe) in the form of high fructose corn syrup and corn starch.  And so once again, what we perceive as freedom is not freedom at all, just like what many perceive is cooking is not cooking at all.  Cooking food from scratch, with basic, non-processed ingredients is not the illusion of freedom, but a higher form of freedom.  Choosing to buy basic non-processed ingredients also allows others (farmers in particular) to have true freedom and not the illusion of freedom that corporate farming offers.

It is just recently that I have learned the correlation between what I cook, what I eat and my freedom, but as I continue to learn I find that my expectations of what freedom is continues to rise as does what I am willing to eat.  For starters, I am not willing to support farm and corporate practices that include CAFO’s (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), GMO’s, non-organic pesticides.  The list of what I will not support continues to grow as does the necessity of my taking responsibility for where I spend my money, what I do with my time, and what I put in my mouth.  In other words, as I limit myself, my freedom grows.

Often these issues are perceived as political, and in a way they are, but so is the concept of freedom.  By limiting what I will accept I have found that the freedom that I have (through the continued path towards self-sufficiency) grows ever deeper and wider. Michael Pollan puts it appropriately.

“Of all the roles the economist ascribes to us, “consumer” is surely the least ennobling.  It suggests a taking rather than a giving.  It assumes dependence and, in a global economy, a measure of ignorance about the origins of everything that we consume…” (Cooked, 407)

If we truly are what we eat, then food is freedom in the end.