May 21, 2010
In all my seventy years, my mind never did get properly buttoned down. I like to live on the edge, as the young folks say. (They do still say that, don’t they?)
I’ve used my thumbnail as a screwdriver when I couldn’t find one. Once, I painted almost the entire upper half of a room standing on a chair, because I didn’t have a ladder. A couple of months ago, when I started this year’s garden, I turned down my neighbor’s kindly offer to till my garden plot in favor of using my long handled hoe. And I dig around in the soil bare handed, with no regard for the billions of germs lurking there, to chase down weeds and the long grass runners that threaten to overwhelm my new seedlings. I even eat a little dirt, now and then. I read voraciously and daydream with abandon, cultivating the bright idea for a new story with the same determination I have in cultivating my garden.
“There are rules, young lady,” my stepmother used to say in that voice parents use for rule-breaking children.
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied, always with studied contriteness.
She would shout after me, “There are good reasons for those rules, too,” as I dashed out the door – usually on my way to breaking yet another rule.
And she was right. There are rules and good reasons for not breaking them. Our brains evolved to make rules – to take in data, study it, organize and categorize it and make rules from it that increase our chances of surviving in an unruly and dangerous world. We break the rules at our own risk. When I broke the rule about not climbing on a chair to paint the upper wall, I fell off the chair and broke four ribs. For the cost of the emergency room and the days I had to miss work, I could have bought a dozen ladders.
Life, however, is chaotic. Things change – sometimes rapidly and often in ways quite non-linear. Rules don’t work anymore; we break the rules, we adapt, or we don’t survive. Our brains evolved to do that, too. By the time I was six, I was legally blind; I just didn’t know it. I felt things, smelled things, tasted things, listened to things. I adapted so well, it wasn’t until I was nine and the teacher had moved me progressively forward in class to a table right in front of the blackboard, someone realized I might need to have my vision checked. Even with glasses (and, a few years ago, cataract surgery), I still “know” my dishes are clean only after I’ve felt the washed plate or glass with my fingertips. I still hear a car coming toward me, even amidst the noise of a city, long before I see it. It’s probably why I still smell, feel and taste the soil in my garden to decide if it’s healthy soil or not, instead of relying on those little soil-testing gizmos. The visual rules of the world and the gizmos that augment them didn’t give my brain the information I needed in a form I could easily use, so I adapted; I learned to break the rules in order to survive.
We have two brains … well, sort of. The human brain is divided in half, from front to back, by a deep fold that separates the two halves. Each half processes information differently. The left brain processes sequentially and tends to be logical, detail and fact oriented, forms strategies, patterns and rules, is practical and risk averse. The right brain processes in parallel, is more emotional, possibilities and big picture oriented, is more impetuous and risk taking. You might say the left brain is the rule maker and the right, the rule breaker; the homes, respectively, of the buttoned down mind and the Aha! moment.
These two brains are connected by a thick tract of nerves called the Corpus Callosum, made up of both excitatory and inhibitory neurons that allow the two halves to both share and inhibit information to and from each other. We’re not sure, from what I’ve read, exactly how the balance between the two brains is struck over a lifetime. It may be partly genetic, most certainly is partly situational – both in the environments we live in and the way we are taught, by parents and teachers, to respond to those environments.
It’s a good thing the two brains are connected like that. Working together, they form our minds, our consciences, the cores of who we are. As it is, we’ve all know people so rule bound, so nervously risk averse, so buttoned down, they are unable to think “outside the box” even when their life depends on it. Likewise, the person who breaks all the rules, leaps from one risk – one flight of fantasy – to another, so unbuttoned it takes a concrete box to contain them, even momentarily.
We need balance. We especially need that balance now. The economy, the environment and perhaps civilization as we know it have all been brought to the brink by the excessive risk-taking and rule breaking of giant banks and corporations, the illogical fantasies of constant growth, higher profits of our leaders and rampant, emotion-based consumerism by all of us in a finite system with finite resources. And both the leaders and the followers seem too bound up with top-down rules or too scattered mentally by unrealistic faith in experts and technologies to challenge this status quo in any meaningful way.
Doomers, how ever much they like to think they are different from the “sheeple” they so like to disdain, are not. Our worldview may be different, but we can be just as buttoned down in our expectations of how and when collapse will occur and what we must do about it or so unrealistic in our insights as to “what’s really going on” that we need that tinfoil hat to keep our brains from exploding.
We need balance, too. Civilization as we know it can’t go on without oil, but this civilization that exists as I write this is not the civilization that existed even three years ago, before the worldwide economic meltdown. Things change. Whether our civilization can adapt to those changes may be very much in doubt, yet billions of people around the world are adapting to the new economic realities – slowly, painfully, one lost job or home, one hungry day at a time and, so far, without the massive murder and mayhem we’ve primed ourselves to expect.
It’s always wise to prepare for catastrophes as much as is possible, but in a complex world of almost seven billion people, it’s impossible to know what any given catastrophe will look like or whether it will occur at all.
You might build an isolated homestead stocked with a five year supply of dried food, augment it with ten acres of farmland and arm yourself to the teeth. Or, you could work with neighbors in your local community to grow food, share chores, trade with people in other neighborhoods or communities. Both have the potential for survival or disaster.
Civilization might limp along, slowly devolving into something less oil dependent and, perhaps, less complex. Or, a Craig Venter might create a synthetic life form that eats garbage and poops out fuel by the millions of gallons per day and civilization will get increasingly complex in new ways. Again, both have the potential for survival or disaster.
Civilization is changing again, today, in ways we couldn’t imagine even yesterday. It will change again tomorrow. That’s the nature of living systems. If we survive with some kind of viable civilization intact, if a new center is to form and hold, we need to quit being so terrified of that change – whether we see it as good or bad. The buttoned down mind and the Aha! moment; the rule makers and the rule breakers. That’s who we are, what we evolved to be, how we survive. As things change, we will each need to cultivate them all – in ourselves, our children and the wider society we will always be embedded in.