Monday 29 May 2023

Life in the Slow Lane

Illustration by Clifford Harper/
By Andrew Porter

Three common plagues were cited in the early New England settlements: wolves, rattlesnakes, and mosquitoes. Our current-day ‘settlements’ – cities and towns – now have their own plagues: a crush of too many people, crummy attitudes, pollution, and retrogressive political actions. How do freedom and power play out amongst individuals and communities?

One lens that can help us gain perspective on our life in relation to necessities and obligations beyond us, is to think about our agency and our values. If we get it right about what freedom and power are, we might clarify what values we want to exercise and embody.

People pushed back against the wolves and did what they could against other ‘scourges’, most regularly by killing them. This seemed like freedom – power asserted. Over the centuries, peoples around the world – coursing through trials like wars and epidemics and bouts of oppression, as well as various forms of enlightenment and progress on human rights – have struggled to articulate freedom and power to make existence shine. To fulfill purposes is the human juggernaut; but what purposes? It is pretty vital that we figure out what freedom and power are in this time of converging crises, so that actual life might flourish. The trouble is, so many people are commonly thrown off by false and unjustifiable versions of freedom and power.

In our fast-paced life, we so-called civilised humans have to decide how to achieve balance. This means some kind of genuine honouring of life in its physical and spiritual aspects. The old work-life balance is only part of it. What does vitality itself suggest is optimal or possible, and how do we make sense of what's at stake as we prioritise between competing goods?

If a parent decides that it is a priority to take care of a newborn child rather than sacrifice that time and importance to time at work, they may well be making a fine decision. Freedom here is in the service of vital things. We might say that in general freedom is that which makes you whole and that power is the exercise of your wholeness. Or, freedom is the latitude to live optimally and power is potency for good.

Since freedom is eschewing the lesser and opting for and living what has more value, we had better do some good defining. All situations confirm that freedom only accrues with what is healthful and attends flourishing. If one says, “Top functioning for me is having a broad range of options, the whole moral range,” you can see how this is problematic. We as humans have the range, but our freedom is in limiting ourselves to the good portion.

Power is commonly considered that which lords the most force over others and exerts the biggest influence broadly. Isn’t this what a hurricane does, or a viral infection, or an invasion? If you look around, though, all the people with so-called power actually dominate using borrowed power: that is, power borrowed from others or obtained on the backs of others, whether human or otherwise. This kind of power – often manifesting in greed and exploitation – is mere thievery. And what about power over one’s own liabilities to succumb or other temptations?

For many people, life in the slow lane is much more satisfying than that in the fast one. However, the big deal may be about getting off the highway altogether. What I am suggesting is that satisfaction and contentment are in the proper measure of freedom and power. And the best definition for organisms is probably that long-established by the planet. Earth has in place various forms of ‘nature’ with common value-elements.

For us, to be natural probably means being both like and unlike the rest of nature. It is some kind of unique salubrity. An ever-greater bulk of the world lives in a busy, highly industrialized society, and the idea of living naturally seems like something that goes against our human mission to separate ourselves from the natural world. But the question remains: is the freedom and power that comes with ‘natural living’ an antiquated thing, or can you run the world on it; can it work for a life?

Kant spoke of our animality in his Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason (1794) part of the Critique of Pure Reason and part of his investigation of the ethical life. In this, he argues that animality is an ineliminable and irreducible component of human nature and that the human being, taken as a natural being, is an animal being. Kant says that animality is an “original predisposition [anlage] to the good in human nature”. We increasingly see that being human means selecting the wisdom of nature, often summed up in ecological equipoise, so that we can survive, thrive, and have reason to call ourselves legitimate. Freedom in this consists of developing greater consciousness about our long-term place on Earth (if such is possible) and legitimate power in in exact proportion to the degree we limit ourselves to human ecology.

Life on its own grass-centered lane has figured out what true freedom and power are. The Vietnamese Buddhist monk and global spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hạnh once wrote:
“Around us, life bursts with miracles – a glass of water, a ray of sunshine, a leaf, a caterpillar, a flower, laughter, raindrops....When we are tired and feel discouraged by life’s daily struggles, we may not notice these miracles, but they are always there.”
Figuring out the most efficacious forms of freedom and power promises to make us treat ourselves and others more justly.

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