I realize I've lived a pretty selfish life so far. I don't want to do that anymore.
Ideas have been swimming around in the back of my mind for a while now; ideas that the world might not be the way I've always pictured it to be. One of my best friends planted and watered these seeds of doubt, and I'm eternally grateful because it has led to one of the biggest transformations of my life over the past few months.
I've benefited enormously throughout my life from the wealth of my nation and my position within it. Attending these benefits has been a perspective blind to the costs and externalities associated with this wealth.
Our political and economic systems are becoming increasingly unsustainable and unstable. Reliance on top-down centralized structures and increased interdependence among global systems has led to an explosion of seemingly isolated events triggering far and wide cascading failures. Worse, governments and corporations are seizing major catastrophes as opportunities for implementing authoritarian agendas of privatization and deregulation. The results bring massive profits for few and destruction for most.(1)
In our poor and minority communities, our justice system is rounding up youths by the thousands for minor drug offenses, criminalizing them, stripping them of their rights, and permanently barring them from mainstream society by prohibiting jobs, housing, and all forms of aid. Meanwhile, people like me can smoke and snort the same drugs with impunity (in our protected communities) while rising in the ranks of our investment banks and consulting firms.(2)
In my city, people are joining the ranks of the homeless at an alarming rate as we continue allowing developers to gentrify and foreclose on homeless shelters because returns on investment are more important than returns on human life.
Against a backdrop of injustice and instability, our inexorable environmental noose tightens...
Many of the things I have learned recently have made me ashamed and embarrassed. Ashamed to have been (and continue to be) part of systems that thrive through exploitation. Embarrassed to be ignorant. Most of all, I regret my apathy. When I consider the major anxieties that have plagued my life over the past few years, I shake my head. My decision to travel the world was sparked by angst over a career decision and my "future." People not far from me, struggling for survival, would consider such a decision a luxury in and of itself. And while I can skip across borders on a universal passport, my friend struggles to get permission to visit her mother two countries away.
Some would say that I have simply enjoyed the fruits of living in a free country. A year or two ago I might have agreed, but I'm starting to understand some of the things that are carried out in the name of freedom, and I am skeptical, to say the least.
These criticisms are not meant to be directed at anyone other than myself. No two lives are the same; perspectives come from many angles and we each must decide for ourselves how to relate to the world.
Presently, my goal is to start from scratch to rebuild my values and my understanding of the world around me. This must involve a combination of increased self-education, participation with groups that serve to aid victims of oppression, and taking part in community building efforts. At every point along the way, my emerging values must be compared alongside old habits. Where there is a discrepancy, change must take place.
In the past, I used to collect books just for the sake of it, following some notion that the more I read about business, personal development, history, philosophy, or whatever, I would become smarter and better. But this was just a selfish desire to hoard information for personal gain. Now I view such a goal with distaste. I see the value of knowledge through a focused lens going forward; as merely a tool for action and dissemination. If learning about the world does not change the way I act, then I am either wasting my time or lying to myself.
I don't want to do that either.
Nassim Taleb's Antifragile is a good introduction to the idea of systems being fragile (breaks from disorder) or antifragile (strengthens from disorder), and Naomi Klein sheds light in The Shock Doctrine on the practice of raiding catastrophes to implement permanent profitable (and harmful) structures. ↩
For an introduction into the system of mass incarceration in the United States, and the existence of a startling racial caste system, see Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow. Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me is the poetic perspective of a black man living in America. For a broad look at some of the individuals within the drug war, and evidence for the ways prohibition increases drug crime and death, see Johann Hari's Chasing the Scream. Consider Gabor Maté's In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts to gain insight into the realities of drug addiction (it's not what you think). ↩