Despite my brave, opinionated words on the importance of personal change and symbolic action (see On Symbolic Action on my sidebar) I am very well aware that nothing is quite as simple as saving the world by quitting plastic. While I feel strongly about the necessity of personal action–especially serious, life-changing action–that doesn’t mean I can always articulate to myself, let alone you, dear reader, exactly why this is so necessary and powerful, why it might change the world after all. But I’m always on the lookout for people who can. My quest for meaning hit the jackpot this week. I’m reading A Handmade Life: In Search of Simplicity by William Coperthwaite. This guy has been reflecting on these questions, and living his answer to them, for decades longer than I’ve been around. Furthermore, he is a link to earlier generations of people who also asked these questions in their own time, and whose lives also became the answer.
This quote is from the introduction, which was written about Bill by somebody else. I love it because it gave me chills. Deep stuff, I tell you. And it brings in Wendell Berry, to boot. It’s long but really good.
In a false democracy, individuals become only spectators to their own experience and to the wider intellectual, civic and social life around them. “The work of creating a new society” can only be accomplished, according to Bill, through citizen action; not “by specialists, but the people themselves to fit their needs.”
Bill sees democratic action as that in which private behavior is recognized to have civic consequences. Here is a way of life that continuously asks the question, “How can I live according to what I believe?” Wendell Berry has described this kind of politics as “more complex and permanent, public in effect but private in its implementation.” According to Berry:
To make public protests against an evil, and yet live dependent on and in support of a way of life that is the source of the evil, is an obvious contradiction and a dangerous one. If one disagrees with the nomadism and violence of our society, then one is under an obligation to take up some permanent dwelling place and cultivate the possibility of peace and harmlessness in it. If one deplores the destructiveness and wastefulness of the economy, then one is under an obligation to live as far out on the margin of the economy as one is able: to be as economically independent of exploitative industries, to learn to need less, to give up meaningless luxuries, to understand and resist the language of salesmen and public relations experts, to see through attractive packages, to refuse to purchase fashion or glamour or prestige. If one feels endangered by meaningless, then one is under an obligation to refuse meaningless pleasures and to resist meaningless work, and to give up the moral comfort and the excuses of the mentality of specialization.