Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Revisiting the Endlessly Changing Horizon

Nevada is the Asiatic Steppe of the North American continent. Vast expanses of open space bring different arms of the Sierra Nevada and Rocky mountains together under one enormous sky. It's a barren place, and cows, horses, and crows seem to be more common than people (cars and trucks excepted) on the long ribbon of concrete stretching out across the valley floor: I-93. The land was shaped by meteors and mega-fauna, by volcanic heat and by colliding ocean plates, jutting limestone thousands of feet into the heavens. You could lose yourself in yourself, in a place like this.

As the long day came to a close--beginning at 4:30 in Lake Havasu, Arizona and cruising 487 miles north to Wells, a tiny town in the Silver State--my trainer and I found ourselves racing an ominous, snow-filled anvil cloud to our destination. It was cresting over a mountain, blowing directly across our path.

"Looks like we might be in for some weather," said my trainer.
"It's a race! Actually, I think we might win this one. We're only twenty miles out." We had been cruising at a steady 65 MPH since Los Vegas, and I was in a good mood.
He nodded, and smiled. The former green beret didn't usually smile. He must have been in a good mood too.

Two years ago, I wrote about the spiritual benefits of truck-driving, in the context of the sentiments of the late Christopher McCandles. Since then I have: fallen in love, worked in carpentry, climbed out of heartbreak, worked in marketing with Microsoft, re-immersed myself in socio-political debates, quit my job with Microsoft, and--finally--returned to the road. It's been an eventful and instructive two years, but now here I am, in the snow-crusted mountain-heart of the country. I love it. 

Out of this enjoyment, I want to return to the theme of my previous short essay, not to brag about how awesome my job is (I suspect most people would not enjoy it), nor to self-indulgently reflect for the sake of reflection. My choices were the results of ideas that others had written down as distillations of their own experiences. These ideas, and my subsequent choices, have not so much "enriched" or "improved" my life, so much as they have impelled me into a completely new dimension. By that, I mean living with a standard for prioritizing what comes first, and how low I may be willing to go in order to pursue a life in accordance with this radical re-orientation of where "true north" is. Few people desire such a radical re-arrangement of life, but for those who feel something vague telling them that something is wrong for them in their lives, but cannot put into words exactly what that is, I hope my thoughts may be helpful.

First off, why on earth would such a re-orientation be desirable? The answer is that our values are mostly inherited, as is our standard of what "normal" is. We did not choose them, and a few of us more arrogant types may look back in history, or even have the gall to study philosophy and look for themselves, and declare that the life they have inherited is not the best life they can live. Consider, as an example, the expectations and goals of the middle-class, white suburbanite. For me, this inherited end-state included the following: 
  • suburban house
  • two cars
  • dog and/or cat
  • white-collar, $85,000+/year job
  • wife, maybe kids
  • retirement
  • be liked
Overarching all of this was an aesthetic, one of non-threatening respectability and monetary success (defined among upper-middle-class suburban whites as monetary over-achievement). More than anything else, security and stability. This was the life laid out for me, by my parents, but not only my parents. My schools, my sports teams, my churches, my martial arts instructors, and nearly everyone else I came into contact with all modeled and advocated this culture of stability, suburban sophistication and domestication. Not only that, bu all other ways of living--including those who earned too much as well as earning too little--were criticized, dissociated from, and even mocked.

One of the things you see while driving across the country is the incredible number of people living in small towns, spattered across the landscape. These people, when you talk to them, do not seem any more depressed, anxious, or jaded in their manner than those living the authorized lifestyle. Some seem bored, certainly, but the majority seem more psychologically healthy than your average hipster or basic bitch. The important revelation here is not the virtues of small-town life, but the viability of lifestyles other than the one I was raised with.

What is so bad about the suburban, white-collar culture?

McCandles started the point adequately enough:
"[T]hey are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservation, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future."

Further elaboration is needed here. For starters, "the adventurous spirit" is imprecise, and as a result may sound untrue to the careless reader. But it is close enough to the truth to be worth taking seriously, and that truth is the search for purpose. The white-collar world of security, conformity, and conservation are all designed as efficient means to achieve some purpose (usually family), but have become so universalized for our global, consumer culture that two things have happened. First, it has become wrapped up in an ethic of consumption--TV, clothing fads, sports gear, computer games--that people often begin to feel like they're on a treadmill. There is no purpose in consumption, except as a means of sustenance to some other end. What do we do when consumption is the end? Consume more, to escape from the emptiness of purpose, mostly. Secondly, this suburban culture has become so global, so universal, and ubiquitous that some of us can derive no sense of accomplishment from achieving it, or even of purpose in striving for it. In other words, it can be a recipe for mediocrity, for banality, purposelessness, and lifelessness.

Our jobs are broken down into component parts that require little to no skill, and it is impossible for us to take them particularly seriously. Our friendships consist of a broad network of shallow connections, full of superficial smiles without the mutual trust necessary to really speak our minds about things that matter to us. How many friends do you have who you could, without external prompting, have a conversation with about the difficult parts of your childhood, parts that seem to still impact your thinking and behavior today? Our houses are gaudy, far larger than necessary, especially given the little time we spend there, and yet we buy them anyways, going into debt for decades... because it's respectable. We crave the respect of friends who don't care about us, sell our lives and our souls to buy that respect by showing how successful, how good, how not-a-fuck-up we are, and go to school to work a high-paying job to make that happen, both of which requires us to reshape our values and our morals to better fit in to this factory-warranty life.

Many people feel this but carry on. They know that other people live in all kinds of fantastic, exotic ways, but they never really contemplate themselves setting out for a new horizon, one with a brighter sunset and starry skies than their own. They've been conditioned all their lives to view their family's way, their school's way, their society's way, as the way. Nothing short of a nagging compulsion will pull them out, and compulsions, as we all know, are "dangerous," "irrational" things.

If the emptiness of suburbia, as I have portrayed it, speaks to you, and you feel the need for adventure in your life, but the compulsive, "irrational" nature of the thought makes you hesitate, I want to remind you that conservative patience is no inherent virtue. The whole of white suburbia, more or less, is waiting for Godot right now, waiting for that sense of purpose to waltz in and provide for them the accomplishment, the deep relationships, the purpose, that their current life has yet to provide. They aren't coming. Such things are bought with risk, with pain, with boredom, loneliness, and fear, and the culture we inherited is purpose-built to shield us from these things. It denies us the dangers, and by extension, denies us the character, the competence, confidence, and stories of adventure that come only from risk.

This is the danger of stagnation, and the reward of pursuing the endlessly changing horizon. If you feel the desire, buy a bus-ticket to a faraway place, pack your bags and go. Don't leave yourself an out. Don't explain yourself to friends and relatives, who will try every delaying and discouraging tactic they know to protect you from yourself. The day will come where you wake up in your mid-40's and you will be in one of two places. You will either be confident, possessed of your accomplishments and sense of who you are, surrounded by a small number of deeply trustworthy friends who you love. Or you will realize that you've "made it," and have a BMW in your garage, but live under the gnawing tyranny of insecurity, self-doubt, dangerous questions about what your life is about (which you've pushed to the side out of fear, and by extension, barred yourself from all interesting conversation about things that truly matter), and surrounded by an enormous circle of Christmas-card acquaintances. There, you may look back and realize that the opportunity to test yourself, to find out what you're truly made of, is mostly diminished, and that sports cars, cigarettes, and extramarital affairs are a poor way to make up for lost time.

Of course it is never too late to answer the call, at least until you die. But the sooner you do it, the longer you will live with the benefits of having gone out on your own. The longer you wait, the greater the chances are that you will never get these, or worse, construct a delusional facade, precariously covering over a well of regret and uncertainty.

Or perhaps adventure isn't even your thing, but something else is missing in your life. The true point is that those who have laid the path of life before you may well not know what they are doing, or else might know what they're doing and do it for their interests and not yours. It is better, and more beautiful, and more purposeful to live your life of your own accord, even if it is all a mistake, because then it will at least be truly your mistake. Nothing is worse than living on the advice and urgings of others, only to find out that your life has been nothing but someone else's mistake. The converse is true if you succeed (and you are more likely to, with the virtues and confidence of someone who has failed enough to make it on their own). Success built solely on the backs of others, with no thought, no risk, no great leap of your own, will always carry nagging self-doubt and latent uncertainty. Success from great risk is not accomplished alone either; on the contrary, it builds--demands--the deepest of relationships. It does give true confidence, a true sense of purpose, and is the road to improvement, ever nearer to (though never quite reaching) perfection.

So as you learn, and think about what is good, what is beautiful, what is noble, what is pure, and what is true. If, in your thoughtful inquiries, you hear the call of the wild, go off on a vision quest. If you feel compelled to start a business, or become sculptor, or take up truck-driving, go do it. Let the impulse of great emotional purpose drive you. It's all that ever drove great people anyways.

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