It was really warm out, two days ago. Unseasonably so.
At a time of year when daily temperatures in Winnipeg typically top out just above freezing (2° Celsius or so), the thermometer checked in at almost 17°C on this ice-cream Sunday. Still, it took me until the next day to make the connection between that balmy weather and the documentary I watched that evening: Before the Flood is a National Geographic production about climate change, available for free viewing online, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as his concerned self. It’s impactful and you should check it out, but that’s not why I bring it up.
What stood out to me immediately – even more than the symbolic link between the documentary’s subject matter and the (coincidentally?) warm weather du jour – was something very familiar in the protagonist’s behavior and disposition. I will spare you the full comparison between him and me (pretty much identical, except you’ll never catch me sporting a man bun), skipping instead to the salient part.
[Before I comment on dear Leo’s actions, feelings or motives, let me first be clear that there is a whole lot about him that is not observable to me (like absolutely everything, minus what’s in the documentary, to be exact). His concern for the issue at hand seems genuine but, for all I know, he could be the biggest fraud in the world. No matter. I bring him up, at all, only because his actions and apparent mindfulness on display in the film got me thinking. For the purposes of what follows, I’m going to assume that he’s not a total phony.]
It would be very easy for a guy like Leonardo DiCaprio to live in voluntary blindness to the ills of the world. His level of fame and fortune would enable him to craft whatever reality he might wish to surround himself with – a privilege of which many of his global-icon peers take full advantage, I assume. (Admittedly, I deliberately pay little attention to ‘celebrity’ culture so I’m kinda in over my head here.) So why would ol’ Leo not do the same? Well, if his words and actions are to be trusted, it would seem that he is too aware to be fully content in that manufactured reality. And that’s what’s so familiar.
Celebrity endorsements aside, the awareness of various unpleasant truths is necessarily something that we’re all forced to deal with from time to time (if not constantly). Because for all of us who don’t live in blissful ignorance (to climate change, corporate greed, humanitarian atrocities, etc.), what is the alternative? To be forever lost in a Debbie-Downeresque tailspin of horror over the state of the world? The answer is observably “no”: the average person doesn’t spend every minute of his life being miserable over all that he wishes could be better. So how is this accomplished, if not through unwitting obliviousness?
Well, even if we don’t all have the means – as Leo probably does – to retire to a private island as the star of our own willful Truman Show, the everyday ordinary choice of what to pay attention to is kinda the same thing. Whereas the uber-millionaire might put up physical walls to shut out that which is unpleasant, Joe Average may be just as able to put up mental walls for the same purpose. So he does. All the time. Because if he didn’t, he’d never get anything done.
This reality is at the heart of something I’ve spent a fair bit of time thinking about. In my travels – and especially in the period of accelerated reflection that led to my departure from the life of corporate servitude – I’ve often wondered if I was somehow the only one who saw the things that bother me. I mean, is it really possible that nobody else in the employ of a faceless corporation notices the activities of such profit-hungry behemoths to be primarily benefiting a very privileged few?? Could I really be the only one to think that a world in which these companies were chiefly concerned with benefiting their communities would be – simply –better??
[I know there’s a lot to unpack in even those couple of simplistic rhetorical questions I just posed, but that’s an exercise for another day. For now, know that I do recognize the value that even the most ruthless corporation may offer to its customers and staff, and that I’m well aware that plenty of companies – whatever their motivation – give a portion of profits to good causes. But to see my point, imagine that these companies could operate exactly as they do but that instead of making a certain number of people – “the 1%” – the kind of money that absolutely nobody needs (but many want and pursue), that wealth was instead redistributed to others in much greater need. This totally far-fetched scenario is where the spirit of my rhetoric lies.]
The truth is that no, I’m absolutely not the only one who’s ever toiled within the corporation’s walls and thought those things. (I’ve verified this, even since my departure, by way of some candid conversations with people I know from that environment.) Perhaps not surprisingly, plenty of folks have similar sensibilities to the ones I’m expressing here. They just happen to deal with them differently.
Right off the bat, probably the biggest factor that keeps people coming back to white-collar purgatory is that they simply don’t have – or don’t see – any alternative. I’ve written many times about how people do things to pay the bills – you get that part. But what’s perhaps less obvious is the percentage of people who would immediately resign if they found an opportunity to earn exactly the same financial remuneration for work that was more beneficial to people or causes in need. Hell, I’ll go one step further and consider the percentage of people who would even be willing to accept a modest limiting of their earning potential in pursuit of such an alternative… Here’s my guess: that percentage is super high. Like, not only closer to 100 than to zero, but maybe even closer to 100 than to 80. (Or 90?) Of course, we’ll never know the answer.
After that basic reality is established – that people are here because they feel they need to be – the things people feel about it, or the ways in which they cope with it, vary. Some may find genuine enjoyment in their work (which is great), some may see it as the least of the available evils (better this than back-breaking labor, for instance), and some may assuage any nagging dissatisfaction by devoting their after-work hours to helping others in a more meaningful way. These are all views or approaches that I respect. (No, really.)
But here’s what you won’t find in the environment that I’m talking about (at least among those not suffering from unwitting obliviousness): people who perceive their livelihood to be of the utmost meaning or helpfulness to the world. Everyone knows, to some extent, that the work they do results in outcomes that are not optimal for the greatest of ‘greater good’. (Some will be quick to point out that the “optimal” reality to which I’m implicitly referring is perhaps not a reality at all, but that actually doesn’t negate my point.)
Sorry – I know this all sounds bitterly cynical, but I really don’t mean for it to. In my view, it’s plain fact – devoid of any emotional connotation.
But what to do about it all? Well, like I said – I think that if people saw an alternative that didn’t adversely affect them to material degree, they would take it. And guess what? That’s all I’ve done, or am trying to do. (Granted, my leap was enabled by the perhaps unusual observation that I don’t need as much material wealth as I was previously pursuing, but still.) Beyond that, I’m not sure I have any great answers for the people whose fate I may seem to be trying to seal. Sure, if I can be successful enough in my business venture to offer an alternative to others (work with me, we’ll help people and you can still earn a reasonable living), I’ll do it. No guarantees yet, though.
For now, my point is – sorry to say – nothing more than an observation. The observation that many of us are not able to be truly blind to the uncomfortable truths present in our immediate surroundings. The observation that, for many of us, the best available response may simply be to do or think things that mitigate our inner discomfort. And the observation that, if presented with a way to confront that discomfort more directly, most of us would take it. In this way, we’re all not so different from our friend Leo.
(Note: I tried in a number of ways to write the following paragraph without it coming across like the most dismissible, hippy-dippy morsel of slam-poetry fluff that’s ever appeared on this blog, and I failed. So I decided to go the other way instead, and word it in as grandiose a way as I possibly could. But even though your eyes may roll out of your head as you read it, I’d invite you to consider the actual point I’m making. Up to you.)
It would seem that the only path to true inner peace lies not in constructing walls to shut out the bad, but in breaking down those walls and doing whatever is within our means to be the good.