When I first moved to the Amazon in 2007, I would sit out on my balcony at the end of the day and watch the birds divebomb the exotic fruit trees or dance in the sky, doing their usual noisy evening rituals that I, not being even an amateur birder, didn’t understand. But I could appreciate them, and their cacophony and theatre against the backdrop of twilight made me glad to be alive and grateful to be in a place where the life of other species takes center stage.
Bit by bit, though, my hope started to vanish. Although I consider myself a generally optimistic person who believes in the goodness of people, for several years I struggled with pessimism, bordering on despair. There were many reasons for this, some of which I’ve touched on in this blog. My basic, bleak question grew out of my sense of self as a writer. If, as scientists predict, we are really irrevocably depleting the resources upon which we’ve built not just life but civilization, what is the point of making art?
Art, after all, is one of the hallmarks of civilization as anthropologists and archeologists define it. When societies advance to the point where they have specialization, division of labor, and a certain degree of wealth and leisure, art is possible. Is it possible if a society is moving in the other direction?
I mulled this question. I saw a lot of disturbing signs that the answer was somewhere between no, art is not possible to yes, art is possible but ultimately ineffectual if we are on a slow descent into survival mode.
I found it harder to talk myself out of my funk and easier to give in to the fear and resignation swirling all around me. The evidence was compelling and difficult to argue. People who talked about a gradual awakening in human consciousness seemed delusionally idealistic to me, even though I’d built my life around those views and had sometimes been dismissed by the very pessimists that I now resembled.
Then, rather suddenly, something changed, and I started to believe in possibility again. I don’t know why exactly.
Was it evidence? The International Energy Agency’s report calling for a limit on fossil fuel consumption? Sold out venues on Bill McKibben’s cross-country tour to promote divestment from the oil industry? The soul-searching that followed the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School from such unexpected sources as Joe Scarborough? The fact that we survived that pesky Mayan calendar?
Maybe in part, though clearly there’s still plenty of evidence to indicate that our downward spiral continues. I think a bigger part is that I just got sick of living in fear. Hope started to seem like less work.
Hope can sometimes be just a mask for fear, an optimistic desperation that what we want to happen had better come to pass, or else. Hope can also be the pretext for a congenial apathy, a way to insulate ourselves from what we don’t like about the world and justify our inaction to change those things.
Maybe my original sense of hope was built on one or both of those rationales and was therefore doomed to disintegrate. The hope that is emerging now seems almost indifferent to me, like the birds that flew around my balcony. It’s just there, doing what it does, and I can choose to take part in it or not. My fear doesn’t factor into the equation.
My excuses for avoiding the blank page are now starting to fray–ever so slightly–at the edges. While I am still pondering the question of producing art in a society in decline, at least I am now discovering more moments where I can set it aside. Is that a by-product of hope, or is it hope that gives me that capacity?
Another question I can’t answer. In any case, on a frigid, birdless day in Portland, Oregon where I’m writing this post, I feel wonder and possibility along with a recognition of the serious challenges that lie ahead in 2013. And still I feel like writing. That’s reason enough to celebrate the new year.