As a society, we're in deep dukkha. Roughly translated from Sanskrit, the term means "suffering," but Zen priest Steve Hagen eloquently likens it to "a wheel off kilter. If we think of this wheel as one that performs some important function, such as a potter's wheel, then the out-of-true wheel creates constant hardship for us every time we try to make a clay vessel." It's an apt diagnosis for times when the mis-centered glob of our environment, our economy, our political, religious, and even spiritual lives seems increasingly out of whack: while some of us can choose from a dozen kinds of branded, bottled water, almost a billion others dream of basic plumbing; while the armies of Islam and Christianity duke it out, real godlike compassion is a bloody casualty; with 86 percent of the world's resources being used up by its wealthiest 20 percent, the gulf between the "first" and "third" worlds expands. And while the ultra-rich happily acquire ever more, all the poorest can multiply is their numbers.
But were the clay of humanity not fwapping perilously off balance, what would centeredness look like? A look at the prevailing values of American culture might give us an idea. On one hand, we’d frame it with noble poetry that obscures the grim fact of the global economy: our “peace and prosperity” comes at the expense of people we never see whose human or natural resources are tapped out on our behalf. On the other, the benchmarks of that center might be the keepers of our mainstream ethos (Ann Coulter, 50 Cent, Donald Rumsfeld, Toby "We'll put a boot in your ass, it's the American way" Keith among them) or our outsized obsessions (the Hummer, the Mall of America, the Atkins diet). Even if we take a less cynical viewpoint—that everyone should have a modicum of comfort, a car or two, a home, good education, healthcare, a lush lawn—we confront the unsustainability of the American dream. There simply aren’t enough resources to go around. By now it should be clear: America is centered on off-centered ideas.
So maybe our response to chaos should be counterintuitive. Rather than clinging to the stable and the known, we should embrace uncertainty. After all, how have we fared under leaders who trumpet their surety? With reassuringly straightforward English and boldly stated plans, they leveraged our fears to launch a war on the flimsiest of pretenses. But instead of getting the safety they promised, we've seen small-scale 9/11s in Bali, Baghdad, Madrid, London, Sharm el-Sheikh, and—where next? The war in Iraq has fanned the flames of jihad, turning Iraq, in the CIA's words, into the world's biggest training ground for the next generation of "professionalised" terrorists. Add to that the fact that, as Helen Keller wrote, "Security is mostly a superstition… Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure." If you’re unconvinced, consider the story of Nail Mahmoud, a 22-year old Palestinian man who was shot in the head and killed by unknown assailants at a surburban gas station outside St. Paul, Minnesota this past August. Would we feel more secure had he died in Gaza?
Instead of clinging to the false promise of safety, we should linger awhile in the uncomfortable realm of uncertainty. Because, as artists know, that’s where real innovation is born. In upheaval, often the shorthand of conventional wisdom, experience or tradition fails us and only a radical reassessment of the facts can save us. It’s not so much that precarity is a desirable long-term state where all answers can be found. But it’s what precariousness requires of us and inspires in us—vigilant awareness, heightened perception, a rare openness to risk—that equips us to approach today’s problems with creativity. Thrown for a loop, we become nudged out of complacency. As John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in The Affluent Society a half century ago, "These are days when men of all social disciplines and all political faiths seek the comfortable and the accepted; when the man of controversy is looked upon as a disturbing influence; when originality is taken to be a mark of instability; and when, in minor modification of the scriptural parable, the bland lead the bland." In chaos, that thinking won’t stand. If the upheaval of our times is ever to settle, lingering a bit longer in the discomfort may be preferable to clinging to those who disguise imbalance under a cloak of stability.
[My latest, from Adbusters #62, The Precarity Issue. Image: Leap into the Void (1960), Yves Klein, Harry Shunk, and John Kender]