I began writing this in flight last week, as the new post-South Africa phase of my life officially began. I had just surrendered the keys to my apartment of the previous 10 months the day before, and I was in route back to Finland, where I had arranged to stay with friends until I am “back on my feet.”
It was a strange feeling to be officially homeless just then; not so much frightening as just strange.
Since then I have agreed with my friends to stay on in their guest quarters here behind the garage for the next couple of months, doing yard work and pool repairs and the like to earn my keep, but I still have a limited idea of where life will be leading me from here.
In some ways I feel as though I am living out other people’s fantasy self-image: no long-term commitments to living up to anyone’s day-to-day expectations; and consequently no solid ground under my feet in terms of home, job, family, etc. In some respects I’m in the personal identity equivalent of the freefall stage of a bungee jump. I know that there are mechanisms in place to keep me from smashing onto the rocks below, but that doesn’t keep the feeling of helpless uncertainty from being very real.
As this situation has been taking shape some of my peers and acquaintances –– pretty much all of whom have more stable and anchored life situations than myself –– have been trying to encourage me with optimistic statements of faith that God and/or fate having something wonderful in store for me. Suffice to say, fate and I have a rather uneasy relationship. Yes, on the big scale of things I’ve been luckier than most, but that doesn’t mean that in cases of uncertainty I automatically assume that I’m about to experience some fabulous lucky break. Life hasn’t dependably offered me wonderful things right when I’ve needed them at any particular point along the way. Rather I seem to have batches of unusual, bizarre and painful experiences at times like this. As one fellow recently put it, I often seem to be more “at odds with the universe” than anyone else he knows. So not knowing what is likely to happen next is not a particularly positive experience for me.
I am still what many would call a rather religious person in some regards –– I believe that there is a God out there who fundamentally cares about life on our planet and who even takes a personal interest in funky individuals like myself. I believe that this God has some sort of a plan for my life, and that a lot of what we call “fate” can be more fruitfully considered in these terms. Overall I believe that looking at the world with this sort of optimism makes me a far healthier person, though it also has its risks. I acknowledge that if someone chooses to believe differently than I do in this matter there is little I can do to prove to them that I’m right and they’re wrong. And even if I’m not making a colossal mistake in entertaining such beliefs –– in other words, assuming that I’m essentially right about the idea that there is a God out there who personally cares about us –– that doesn’t necessarily imply that he would have a plan that involves giving me personal importance and/or a sense of bliss in the immediate future. In fact I must admit that trusting my limited understanding of what God might want to do with my life rather than putting a serious effort into practical strategic planning has, in retrospect, led to some of my biggest mistakes in life. In the balance I still think my faith has been a good thing in terms of enriching my day to day life –– believing that there is some sort of divine plan involved in my life has given me the courage to set off on adventures that would have otherwise been too intimidating to even consider –– it just doesn’t give me any immediate assurance that things currently beyond my control are about to work out wonderfully.
And that leads to the tricky question of balance, where I have to decide how tight a grip I must try to keep on things I associate with comfort and familiarity. How much control do I really need? How “in charge” does a person have to be? When is it time to make up our minds about what we want and pursue those goals with tireless determination, and when is it time to just unfurl our sails and see where the wind takes us?
I don’t believe there are general answers to such questions that apply in all circumstances. I must admit that my own process of relating to such things has been largely one of trial and error. Sometimes I’ve been accused of clinging to old ideas and certainties far too tenaciously, and sometimes I’ve been accused of being far too laissez-faire about my own life; oft times by the same people! So what does this tell us? Besides demonstrating once again that one should never take all of the ignorant and incoherent personal critiques that come at you too seriously, perhaps it shows that I have a long way to go before I have my lifestyle experimentation down to a science.
When it comes to taking such risks it’s hard to say which side is better to err on even. On the one hand people who have had long and respectable lives very often reach their end with serious regrets about what they didn’t do than with what they took risks on. On the other hand, the things that get people killed before their time, and which destroy valuable relationships with other people, are when they step out of the role that people expect them to play and set off on particularly crazy adventures without weighing the consequences carefully enough. We all face numerous forks in our lives’ paths; we all puzzle about the roads not taken, and none of us can escape that angst by always going to the left or always going to the right.
But then again it can be argued that the key to putting my situation in perspective might lie in looking beyond my own interests and circumstances, and focusing instead on how I can influence other people’s lives. What I should do to reach out and help those in greater need than myself? As a basic perspective this too has some merit. Rather than looking at how I can improve my own situation I can far better improve my level of satisfaction by putting more of my energy into helping others. Social science research also supports such a theory: the more a person spends time and money on others, the greater their overall satisfaction in life tends to be.
But here too there are some balance factors to be taken into consideration. To start with, just because you are doing unto others as you would ideally have them do unto you doesn’t mean that they, or anyone else, will actually do the sort of things for you that you would like. Being a kind and decent person to others is an entirely separate matter from being part of a kind and decent community. If it isn’t set in law in one way or another you can’t really expect other people to help you out in any way that they can’t see as being in their personal self-interest, and it is to be taken for granted that most people can’t see things as being in their self-interest unless it provides them with short-term physical pleasures or competitive advantages over those around them. In other words when you do things freely for others for that to work in terms of making you happy you really can’t expect anything from them in return. Those who feel cheated because they “freely” helped others but no one helped them in return really don’t have anyone but themselves to blame. If you’re expecting something in return you’re really not giving freely –– naively trustingly, but not freely. To get joy out of giving and helping you can’t really be expecting anything back but the joy of being able to give to and help out others.
And with that in mind it is important not only to be ready to give freely to some, but to give in honest exchange to others. One must have some sort of agreed upon role within the community, or a series of temporary roles, in order to accrue something to be able to give to others and to take responsibility for oneself. Lose track of that and slip below what is necessary for you to safely live on, and you’re in trouble every time.
But before my libertarian individualist friends and relations start jumping on this and thinking that I’ve finally come over to their way of thinking in terms of self-reliance, let me point out that I still consider the healthiest societies to be those which have laws enforcing a basic agreement of solidarity between people. In any traditional society based on self-reliance there still needs to be protections for widows and orphans and other severely disadvantaged folk. There also need to be laws which prevent people from freely and hatefully abusing others who they see as somehow discomforting or intimidating. And ideally there should be some basic understanding in place that assures us that when things get nasty for us there will always be someone there to help. Any society which actively destroys protections for the poor and encourages hate and suspicion towards “outsiders”–– whoever those may be –– is a fundamentally unhealthy society, and in this regard I wish to avoid living in “red” parts of the US in particular until the cultural implosions there have further run their course.
There are other interest groups besides American Libertarians who would like to take this opportunity to point out to me that my approach to life isn’t working so well just now, with hopes that they might convert me to their own religions or ideologies. Is my reluctance to take such invitations seriously a sign of my hanging on too tightly to my old dysfunctional way of thinking? Of course I don’t think so; but I wouldn’t, would I?
Seriously though, I’ve spent a great deal of my life around highly motivated, extremely idealistic and often profoundly intelligent and deeply admirable religious people. I’ve tried to absorb the most functional and admirable elements of each, while not taking for granted the truth of what any of them claimed for themselves. I hope to continue functioning in such a way, receiving from as many admirable influences as I can, but randomly submitting myself to none of those who would hope for such. It would take a far greater argument than I’ve encountered thus far to convert me to some radically new religion or approach to life. If those representing such interests get bitter about my refusal to join them in that sort of way, so be it.
All that being said, my personal drifting process appears to be on-going for the summer. As my dear friends here in Espoo have made this little apartment available to me for the time being, I will be staying here until I wear out my welcome here, or run out of ways to make myself useful, or important new opportunities present themselves. Though I’ve given freely to others whenever it’s been in my power, I don’t feel that I am naturally “entitled” to the hospitality I’m currently receiving, and I am truly grateful for it. Meanwhile I also have to acknowledge that the ugly old low-budget car I just acquired this week may or may not turn out to be dependable in the long run; that’s just part of how these things work. And as far as employment goes, if nothing else becomes available I can still return to a reduced role with my former employer, which could provide me with basic means of keeping body and soul together as they say, but it is no secret that I would prefer to move on. So in all these ways life goes on for me, following its own meandering path.
Or in terms of the previous metaphor, I’ve reached the point where the stretchy rope fastened to my legs starts to take some of my weight –– slowing my fall towards certain death and getting ready to jerk me around for a while. A strange feeling indeed. I’m not sure I’d recommend it to others, but I’ll try to keep you up to date on how things pan out.