Commusings: We Are Not Required to Fix It by Mark Charlton

Apr 24, 2021

Hello Commune Community,

This week’s missive elicits a different kind of joy because I don’t know Mark, the author. He is a member of the community – a “communicant” – and submitted his essay in response to last week’s newsletter. The creation of a dynamic, spiritual co-op contributing to a marketplace of ideas is part of this experiment-dream called Commune.

Mark is clearly a gifted writer. But I am particularly fond of his essay because it’s discomfiting. It doesn’t fit snugly into the bookshelves of my preconceptions. As wisdom ages me, I am increasingly drawn to notions that challenge my biases — that introduce new ideas and fortify prior ones.

The world desperately needs social cohesion, but it doesn’t always require agreement. We should be seeking the best ideas and those rarely arise in an echo chamber. I am grateful for Mark’s insightful essay and this burgeoning community. If you are interested in writing a Commusings and thus participating in our ongoing conversation, email [email protected].

And as always, feel free to reach out to me directly at [email protected] or follow me on IG @jeffkrasno.

In love, include me,

• • •

We Are Not Required to Fix It

by Mark Charlton

"It's OK to destroy the planet and exploit resources."

How do you feel when you read that? Angry? Sad? Relieved?

There's an elephant in the room – choose any color, including green – when it comes to our heroic efforts to save the planet. Simply put, it's impossible to live in modern society without exploitation. Our lives in 2021 are based on commodifying our environment. If you think that's false, I congratulate your ability to have so effectively outsourced in order to maintain a monastic gloss on your life. But it's a veneer, I'm here to advise, though I promise we'll still be friends when you’ve finished this essay.

Like many regular, working-class children, my ordinary dysfunctional upbringing drove me to dream my way out of the beige backdrop. Hip hop music and glossy magazines fed my ever-wild imagination, taking me beyond the snoozing safety of the suburbs and into the glamorous lyrics I mimicked. 

In the reality of big city life, though, that mirage dissipated, and I found myself in a psychic forest fire clutching at embers. What did I value now? 

To make a long story short, a few months became a few years of traveling across the country working at organic farms. It was a small and beautiful adventure. I was frequently moved to tears when in fields of herbs and flowers as the sun set over a mythical England, a colored symphony that outshone the pop culture contrivances of my youth. This beauty was dynamic and tangible, although strange, challenging, and unpolished. Days in the field left my body aching and rested. Dirt accumulated beneath my fingernails. Sunshine blushed my skin and, other times, chasing the farm dogs in drenching rain forced me to do nothing other than feel a cellular rejoicing. 

And yet, beyond my personal journey that excited and terrified me in equal measure, the amateur anthropologist inside was making a thorough log of these lives in which I’d been invited to participate. What brought these people to be farmers? What idealisms were shared, and questioned, around the table? What ideologies were still permitted? In these rural laborious idylls, where was their happiness found? What still brought them passion after these years, or was there now drudgery where, as a novice, I found delight? How did they negotiate their world with the bleak contrast when they switched on the television in the evening?

Disproportionately, I had met, seen, and heard crestfallen farmers in which a dream, no matter how robust or precarious, had failed to be realized. Most set out boldly to find a fairer, wholesome and good world that valued community and earth stewardship. Diabolically, their reward seemed to have been relentless, thankless, underpaid work which, over years, had taken from them a desire or ability to shift career and worse — a remembrance of why they farmed.

I met a grower who had fed over 70 families a week for nearly 30 years. Committed to the land, she had burned her passport years earlier, eschewed The System, and seethed when there was mention of government policies. Another incredibly talented grower, in his fifties, would frequently and passionately yell at the dinner table on topics of environmental stewardship, as the other volunteers and I lowered our heads to eat in silence, listening under duress and bewilderment. The overarching message impressed on me was this: The world is a mess and, as a species, we are doomed.

My honeymoon period would well and truly end when, shortly after I attended my 1,000th workshop on Gaia, peak oil, and the crescendoing climate crisis, an audience member approached me with some stunning advice. He simply said, “You need to see a therapist.” I fell silent. He continued. “You’re so angry!” I don’t recollect what happened next besides a quick exit from the hall, and a dawning realization.

Was the world already revealing itself to me, too, as unjust, gloomy, and headed for disaster? Whose thoughts were these?

I began reflecting on some of my angriest moments during my farming journey. On arrival at a biodynamic farm, I had fumed (unironically) that the breakfast we were provided was not organically produced. I realized I struggled to phone friends who weren’t on my eco-warrior path. I noticed I gradually withdrew into a narrower world that, while beautiful, was also dilapidated by its own ideals. I swapped TV for drumming circles where potheads mumbled of a government bent on villainous intent. Beach dance parties, our sun-kissed bodies – these odd, impoverished, and privileged lives – would take a sour turn in the early hours to voices whose whisper was deafeningly, this life isn’t enough. Somewhere along the way, my reasonably noble quest for a more wholesome existence had found itself amongst those who were escaping life, dissatisfied, ashamed, and judgmental of the modernity we’d inherited.

Our eager optimism is causing misery!

We rely on an epic amount of ‘essential’ resources to sustain our lives and luxuries: eternal wifi, ice baths or hot baths, hybrid cars, Instagram-glossy plant-based eating.... We'll continue to rely on resources while we live on this planet. And that's OK. Pretending a new tech or new form of pseudo-monasticism will be the omni-fix-panacea prevents us having the more important conversation about forgiving ourselves for the impact we do have.

It's OK. We are here. We didn't make the rules. We inherited these lives.

Before bed tonight, why not commune with the earth and ask her what she thinks of us taking all we currently rely on? 

Earth is merciful. The dialogue will open a reverence for the planet, and disrupt the nonsense that exists around future saviors.

We're a lot of people. We're doing our best. And that's OK.

Clinical narcissism stems from the wounded inner belief that oneself is never enough. When unacknowledged, the narcissist acts out by taking and never feeling sated. I see that dynamic playing out with consumerism – green or otherwise – originating in that same psychic state, that we're not enough. 

We are enough. We have enough. That's the path to healing. Only from there can we address the terror of change. 

I saw a cartoon strip, with these two images: “Who wants change?” asked the speaker, to which the entire audience raised their hands. “Who wants TO change?” was the second question, to which all hands laid low. It neatly summarized why our evolution toward transformation, and our eco-green-peaceful-idyll, is agonizingly slow, and most of the time, the pace is undetectable.

Does this consideration make me a full-blown pessimist? Quite the contrary. My optimism is rooted more simply in that life is pretty perfect as it is, despite of and because of all its flaws. 

Am I anti-progress, and advocate living in sheds and abandoning modern life? Not at all. But the greatest progress we can work on is radical acceptance that, for now, our lives are whatever they present to us in this moment. And what’s more, the person that’s facing that life – you – will be the same person facing your life as every moment arises. 

“But the planet must be OK for our daughters and sons, and their daughters and sons...until the dawn of time!” you might shriek. Really? I offer my condolences to the epic level of shame you’ll attain by straining to reach those heady goals. We have no idea what three or four generations down the line look like. We know what now looks like. How can we shape now, easefully and gracefully?

I challenge this idea of racing to the future because not only is it exhausting, but more importantly, it chokes the natural joy of any given moment. It suffocates it with shame, and encourages a meanness and fearfulness that reside in all of us.

Who can smile, or dance, or watch a great film, or get dressed up, or be naked on the beach, or do absolutely nothing for a few hours when sooo much Important Stuff has to be done first? “First” will never come. Let’s not put our lives second. 

Faith in new tech, or regurgitating ancient tech, is all very well, but as we aspire to desire it we develop amnesia to the great things we already do or can do that don't require extra inputs.

We are sustained far more by relationality than simply switching the materials that surround us. What relation do you have with your postman, or the baker in town, or your neighbor, or the food you eat? As relationship expert Esther Perel says, the quality of those relations determines the quality of our lives. 

Most of us live in better conditions now than we did 100 years ago. And, 100 years from now – when we're dead and gone – those people will likely think they live in better conditions than we do now, in the same way we laugh and shake our heads at certain ways of life in 1921. 

If you do nothing but truly practice enjoying your life – on rubbish days and on great days – I promise you’ll find a way more easeful and playful passage of life. Practice makes permanent. We inherited this world from our ancestors, nobody created it, and we certainly aren't required to fix it. No single person can do that. 

When we are simply being easefully present, that is the place from which we can effect beautiful change. 

Spend your energy practicing ease, and the pressure on the earth will ease, too.

• • •

Mark, 40, lives in Penzance, Cornwall, where he’s training as a no-dig grower for the National Trust and organizes a community group, the Penzance Pebble Pushers. In 2019, he completed a postgrad in Ethnobotany where his long essay examined repurposing decommissioned military land for the commons. He loves learning, and spends time cooking, singing, skateboarding, and contemplating kinder ways to steward the earth. Connect with him @thejoyfulheron.

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