I’d like to start this journal off on the right foot, so I’d like to be honest about one of the fundamental biases I’ll be writing from.
That bias is: “Life is good.”
I know, I know, I read that on a baseball cap the other day…stereotypical pop-culture b.s.. How simplistic. How unimaginative. How dull. And I’ll respond with: “Yeah, that’s true.” It is simplistic and dull, for sure. But trust me, the baseball cap isn’t where I got the idea. And, as Daniel Quinn once said: “The real secrets in life are the ones you can publish on billboards and they still remain secret.”
You see, I got the idea — that is, started to really get the idea — after four days in the mountains of Utah with no food. And later, during a summer of semi-primitive living in the Northwoods of Wisconsin with hordes of mosquitoes and no DEET.
Although to give credit where credit is due, Thoreau helped me frame the question:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what is not life, living is so dear. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that is not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it prove to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish it’s meanness to the world; or if it be sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it…for most men, it appears are in a strange uncertainty about it…” –Thoreau
So yeah, I think “Life is good” is actually one of those secrets Daniel Quinn was talking about. And like Thoreau, I think most men (and women) these days are of a “strange uncertainty about it”. Life being good is maybe one of those deep dark profound and scary secrets that virtually nobody in America really believes anymore, no matter how cheerful and bubbly their personality might appear on the surface. How so, you say? Well, imagine the most cheerful, positive-thinking, proactive, feel-good American you know…
…and while they’re away at work one day, pull a serious Tyler Durden on their ass: Cancel all their insurance policies and burn down their house. Make sure all their clothes are in the closet and both cars are in the garage when you do. Empty all their bank accounts and throw the cash at homeless folks. Cancel all their credit cards. Call their boss and get them fired. Smash their TV & stereo. Burn all their books. Break the camping equipment they got from REI. Heck, as they’re staring aghast at the burning remains of all that psuedo-reality they once “owned”, you can even knock the half-full Starbucks Latte out of their hand.
Now throw them out into the woods. Let the mosquitoes swarm them for a few days and let a grizzly bear surprise them with a bluff charge. Let them go a week with no food. Then when they hike back toward town and finally bust out of the forest, let them see that their precious industrial civilization has collapsed in their absence. Forever gone. No more. No more progress. No more media. No more consumer products. No more American Dream. No more Obama-certified Hope(TM).
Only nature. And people. (Btw, did you notice I didn’t say anything about taking away their friends or family?)
Now ask them: “How’s life?”
Is life still good?
I think most good-old American folks would be hard pressed to avoid suicide…right after they punched you in the face for asking such a “dumb question”.
Ok, maybe I’m over-stating things a bit here. In fact, I know I am. Sometimes I get a little overly dramatic. But hopefully the overstatement doesn’t detract from the basic point: For most Americans “life is good” is a conditional statement. Life is good on a beach with a pina-colada. Or maybe on the top of some mountain with a great view. Or on the weekend with beer, and football on TV. Or during their yearly two week vacation to Hawaii. Or maybe for the few moments after their morning coffee. In other words, it takes a lot of external stuff and circumstances to make “life good” for most of us Americans. In between those peak times, we tend to suffer.
I know I have. The forty hour work-week and downtown apartment or suburban house never worked for me. Not physically, not emotionally, and not spiritually. I’ve done a reasonably fair share of suffering, for sure. Still do sometimes.
However, over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that much, if not all of that suffering is culturally constructed — it is mostly a product of our “civilized” mindset and way of life. And the lesson I keep being presented with as I journey into more primitive ways of being is that “life is good” is not really a conditional statement. It’s true even when (as Thoreau said) life is “driven into a corner” and “reduced to it’s lowest terms”.
For instance, up in the interior of Alaska (where I was born and raised) the native people — the Tanana river Athabascans — once prided themselves on being able to go a minimum of seven days without food and yet still run down a moose and kill him with an arrow.
And I bet they felt good about it.
Because living authentically close to nature seems to help unlock this secret. For myself, I went to the woods, and I’m still going to the woods — because, so far at least, my experiments with wildness have confirmed the basic thesis: Life is good. Life includes a good bit of pain, yes. Dirt is dirty and bears are scary and mosquitoes suck and hunger aches…especially until you really get to know them.
And at the same time, life is pretty alright.
At least, that’s my working theory.
More experiments to follow.
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