I love those who yearn for the impossible.
We are entering unknown territory, in which we have glimpsed a beautiful destination but don’t know how to get there. It is inaccessible according to what we understand of causality. Things have to happen that we don’t know how to make happen. If you don’t “make” it happen, and it happens, then how does it happen? Obviously, it happens as a gift. You may have noticed that very generous people themselves attract more gifts. Therefore, if we are giving our lives in service, we will experience more of these fortuitous events. These are key to a creative potency beyond the old conception of causality.
Anything worth devoting a life to today requires some of these miracles, these things that we do not and cannot make happen, that come as gifts. Therefore, if you follow your heart’s guidance toward any of these worthwhile goals, your choices will seem to many (and sometimes to yourself) a little bit crazy.
Our situation is this: we see the goal but don’t know how to get there. That is true of anything genuinely new. To step into the attempt anyway is always an act of courage, at once arrogant and humble: arrogant because our confidence is unwarranted; humble because we put ourselves at the mercy of the unknown. Limited by what we know how to do, we accomplish only what we’ve been accomplishing. Look at the planet. What we’ve been accomplishing isn’t enough.
In this book, I am calling for a kind of naiveté, which ironically enough is one of the main criticisms of my work. Maybe I should embrace that epithet, and call for even more of it. To be naive is to trust in the goodness of others when there is scant evidence of it, or to trust something might happen when you don’t know how it could. Of course, naiveté is a curse when it obfuscates practical actions, but I’m talking about a situation where the practical is insufficient. That is where the planet is right now. And that is where many individuals are right now too as they discover that the things they know how to get, they no longer want.
Paradoxically, the path to achieve the impossible consists of many practical steps, each of them possible. Many pragmatic steps, each of which we know how to do, add up to something we did not. We know how to walk; we just don’t have a map. So I am not suggesting we forgo the practical, the doable. It is that the practical is not enough unless put in service to the impractical.
In a similar vein, we cannot abandon the tools, material and cognitive, that defined the Age of Separation. We will not abandon reason in favor of feeling, telecommunications in favor of hugging, symbolic language in favor of song, or money in favor of gift. In each case, though, the former has exceeded its proper domain and usurped the latter. The new story contains the old; to seek the extirpation of the old is itself a thought form of the old story.
Let me share a few stories that illustrate the power of naiveté. Polly Higgins is a barrister and the author of Eradicating Ecocide. For the last few years she has been working to establish “rights of nature” and to make ecocide the fifth crime against peace recognized by the United Nations. Early on in this quest, she told me, she realized that the normal channels for trying to amend the U.N. Rome Statute were hopelessly slow and complicated. So, she decided to contact a high-level official directly whom she thought favorably disposed to ideas such as hers. Let’s call him Mr. E. But hundreds of activists and organizations also have ideas that they want to advance through the U.N. How to bypass all the gatekeepers and get into a direct conversation with him?
Polly happened to be in Germany at the time of a major climate summit in Copenhagen that Mr. E. planned to attend. He would be riding a special train along with other officials and specially invited journalists and NGO representatives. “If only I could get on that train,” Polly thought, “I might have a chance to talk to him.” But she could find no way of finagling an invitation. Maybe she could sneak onto the train? Impossible. Lines of police surrounded it to guard against activists seeking to do just that. So, Polly got on another train, hoping maybe to find Mr. E. in Copenhagen.
Her itinerary involved a transfer to another train in Hamburg. Alighting from her train, she asked a conductor where the train to Copenhagen was. He pointed her to the special U.N. train. “No, that’s not my train,” she said, knowing she wouldn’t be allowed on.
The conductor ignored her. “Ya, ya, it is this train,” he said in a thick German accent. She protested a couple more times to no avail (“Ya, ya, you mit me come.”) as he took her suitcase and led her onto the train. Escorted by this railroad official and dressed in her lawyerly attire, no one asked to see her invitation. Soon she was seated on the train. She texted an NGO friend who had been invited to ride the train, “I’m on! Coach number two.” Her friend texted back, inviting her up to her coach, where she was sitting across from a most interesting gentleman. “I’ve been telling him about you. There is an empty seat next to him.”
You know who it was. It was Mr. E.
This was just one of a long trail of synchronistic events that has brought Polly before the EU Parliament, the Hague, and numerous other high-level bodies and given high visibility to the Law of Ecocide. It is a perfect example of putting the practical in service to the impractical.
Anybody could have told Polly it was naive to think she could get her idea onto the U.N. agenda when so many other organizations, with far more resources and connections, cannot. Anyone could have told her it was naive to expect to have a personal conversation with Mr. E. when so many other activists are kept a hundred meters away behind lines of police. The kinds of coincidences she experiences are not something one can plan out in advance. Often they come as interruptions in whatever plan was in place to begin with. That is not to say we shouldn’t plan as best we can, and use whatever practical means are at our disposal, but we should not be limited by what we can plan. We should not limit our ambitions by what we know how to achieve.
Diane Wilson was a shrimp boat operator on the Gulf Coast of Texas. In 1989 she found out that Formosa Plastics, a multibillion-dollar company, was planning to build a huge polyvinyl chloride complex nearby. Determined to stop this project, which she believed would pollute the Gulf, Wilson quite naively launched a campaign against it. Arrayed against this uneducated mother of five was the chamber of commerce, the local government, the legislature, the governor, the State Department of Environmental Protection, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. How could she possibly prevail? What was it about her that enabled her to win against such powerful interests, when most of us seem unable to change the most trivial policy?
Certainly, part of the explanation is that Diane Wilson is an uncommonly brave and stubborn woman who was willing to do anything to accomplish her goal: go on a hunger strike, for example, or chain herself to the company fence. Over time, she also inspired numerous other people, some of them knowledgeable in the workings of the system, to join her cause. And perhaps her personal humility encouraged whistle-blowers to seek her out. She had no plan—“I never planned anything: I just had intent, and was willing to put myself at risk”—and she did not through any kind of financial or emotional manipulation “make” these people come to her support. She did not pay them to support her, matching financial force with financial force. These people, like her, had nothing to gain, not even the social benefits of being perceived as heroic, since anyone allied with her was subject to ridicule.
Beyond these gifts, which are not unexpected in our conventional understanding of the world, Diane Wilson also was aided by at least one fortuitous coincidence, when an EPA official called her up, mistaking her for another Diane, and divulged key information that led to a breakthrough. Of course, we can easily dismiss this as mere coincidence, but could we also see it as an outcropping of a different kind of cause and effect from the force-based causality we are used to?
Years ago, when I lived in Taiwan, I formed a friendship with some other young American guys, who declared to me one day that they intended to create a three-day outdoor alternative music festival on the southern tip of the island. We guys in our mid-twenties were often declaring big plans over beers that we would forget the next day; the difference was that this event actually came to pass, despite the fact that the band members had no money, spoke only rudimentary Chinese, indeed had been in the country only a few months. “We’ll hire buses to transport everyone down. We’ll rent tents. We’ll work out something with the local police, who knows.” And then the hard work—and the gifts—began. For some reason, everyone believed that what these guys said would come to pass, so we all willingly contributed.
No one made any money off this venture; from top to bottom it was done in the spirit of the gift. But aside from the gifts from other people that the organizers’ generosity attracted, as with Diane Wilson there were several unusual coincidences that landed as gifts upon the venture. The organizers needed a truck to haul equipment; one day one of their business English students asked, without knowing their need and seemingly out of the blue, “You wouldn’t happen to need a truck, would you?” and gave them a truck. This kind of thing happened repeatedly. A kind of magic seemed to surround the event. The local police were no problem—I remember seeing one among the dancers—because for some reason they saw the event outside their usual categories (threat to law and order, opportunity to extort bribes, etc.).
Reader, have you ever been part of something like that, where everything seems to flow, where you find yourself again and again at the right place at the right time to encounter exactly the right person? Where everything needed shows up, sometimes at the last minute, in completely unanticipated ways? Where an invisible outside power seems to be coordinating everything and everyone?
How and why does this happen? If we could somehow master the technology of being in the right place at the right time, if we could learn to ride the flow of synchronicity, then we would have accessed a power greater than anything the world of force is capable of.
10. She tells her story in the book An Unreasonable Woman.