I dropped off my son at camp yesterday, a beautiful nature-oriented camp in the Blue Ridge Mountains. When we got there a familiar feeling welled up inside me, the feeling of Return. I might articulate it as, “This is how human beings are supposed to live.”
I’m not talking about it as an economic or social model — what gave me that feeling of homecoming was something more subtle. It was the easy smiles on peoples’ faces, the default friendliness, and the light in their eyes. I noticed my son come alive as we stepped into the camp and saw the same light kindle in his eyes as well. Here, it seemed, the default state of the human being is two or three notches happier than what we consider normal.
Needless to say, this elevated state of ease and joy doesn’t depend on luxury or consumption. The lifestyle there is simple, the cabins austere. Electronics and cell phones are prohibited. The food is organic and prepared from scratch. There are few modern conveniences and no imported entertainment. In short, there are few of the “goods and services” by which economics measures our standard of living.
One cannot help but think, “The whole world could live like this. Everybody is supposed to have this light in their eyes.” Can you not feel that truth inside you? Having seen it (and I am sure many of you have), can there be any doubt that our dead, dispirited, zombified world is an aberration, a departure from our native state?
I do feel that truth, and yet I still doubt. A cynical voice inside me says that the camp is the exception, an artificial bubble subsidized from the outside and insulated from the drudgery and degradation of the “real world.” The cynic says, it is like getting drunk. All seems rosy, until one returns, as one must, to the problems that await.
That inner cynic is articulating a wound. I have noticed that when I catch a glimpse of a more beautiful world, a feeling of pain quickly follows the initial upliftment. Maybe it is because the contrast between what is and what could be is painful to see. The cynical voices saying, “It is a bubble,” “It can’t be that good,” “Those people aren’t really that happy here,” “You are imagining the light in their eyes,” “It’s just an escape from a doomed world,” and so on are giving form to a wound. That wound is none other than the wound of Separation: from nature, from community, from intimacy, from our bodies, from play, joy, dance, laughter, all the things that have been squeezed out of modern life. We clothe that wound, invisible to us, with our cynical stories, and deride our own tender naivete, that accepts the heart-knowledge of our native radiance.
One of the criticisms I often encounter of my writing is that I am naive. People who haven’t read deeply into my work ascribe my optimistic view of humanity’s future to an ignorance of the magnitude of the present crisis. Maybe I just don’t understand how bad things are. When they learn that I believe the situation is even worse than they think it is, they say I am naive to think people will ever really change, that the power elite will ever change, or that human nature is anything but greedy and selfish. They want me to be more practical, more realistic.
Oddly enough, naivete is both more practical, and more realistic, than cynicism. It is more practical because it is more motivating. The possibility I glimpsed at my son’s camp, and that I have glimpsed again and again in special moments in life, impels me to create a better world. I think, “A world without this light in the eyes is intolerable.” If change is hopeless, or if human life can be no better, then why bother? If the best possible outcome of all my efforts is a marginal slowdown in our miserable spiral towards extinction, then why bother? I might as well protect me and mine, maximizing my own self-interest just as I cynically believe everyone else will do. Apprehending the projection of his own psychology, the cynic rarely takes action. Thankfully — thanks to my naivete and to my comrades who nourish it — I believe the world can and should be more beautiful, and endeavor to make it so.
Naivete is more realistic than cynicism simply because it reflects the truth — a more beautiful world IS possible. I cannot prove that this is true. Truth isn’t something we can prove. It is something we feel. We shy away from feeling it, sometimes, because it is so painful. Its light exposes our wounds. It hurts for me to see the radiance in those children’s eyes, contrasting so starkly with the social environment my own children inhabit most of the time, and illuminating the cracks and callouses in my own psyche, the long years wandering in a grey world. To receive the truth of what is possible, and to live from it as a creator, we must be willing to feel the pain of what has been lost. For me, it has been alarming and painful to realize how much of my life was spent half-awake, living as a zombie among zombies as the years slipped by.
To create significant change, one must be a least a little bit naive. It was naive in 1935 to imagine, as Gandhi did, that the British would leave India without a fight. It was naive for Diane Wilson to think she could stop a petrochemical plant on the Gulf of Mexico. It would have been naive to suppose in 1985 that the Berlin Wall would fall and Apartheid end without civil war in a few years. Today the challenges we face, social and ecological, dwarf even these. Pretty much anything worth doing today is impractical, at least from the logic of the cynic. So let us no longer shield ourselves behind cynicism, and let us no longer clothe our hurting in the vocabulary of despair. Please, let us help each other to believe in the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.