Reflection 195: Inaction

April 5, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

If the outcome of consciousness is, as I claim, to make things happen (to build a future, to act in relation to a current situation), what are the implications of those times when we are conscious in a given situation—but are unable to follow-through with appropriate action? Think of the young mother who dreams of a career but can’t take time away from childcare to act on her dream. The young man in solitary confinement, with active mind but inactive body. The child who watches TV Saturday mornings and shuttles between  refrigerator, bathroom, and his station on the couch. Think how it feels to wait for a stoplight to turn green, a ticket line to advance, an expected letter to arrive. 

Impatience is a sure sign that consciousness has gotten ahead of our ability to put plans into action. Biding time, waiting our turn, twiddling thumbs to release nervous energy—everyone knows what it’s like to be all wound up with no place to go. C’m-on, let’s move it! Get the lead out. The problem is that when our loop of engagement in a particular situation is delayed or interrupted for some reason beyond our control, we feel frustrated and out of sorts. Our rhythm is broken. If the delay turns into a long one, we become disengaged. Leading to a state of annoyance, despair, or depression.

It is surprising to consider how often we adopt surrogate outlets for activities which may be suppressed for even a short time. Smoking, for instance, chewing gum, grabbing a bite, drinking, or humming can be the result of a conscious urge to “do something” when we are inclined to act but cannot. The tension we feel is the result of an inability to act in an appropriate manner, so we divert that urge into an alternative activity both accessible and acceptable. We move our mouth parts instead of arms or legs. Watching TV, our options for making an appropriate response to what we’re seeing are often severely limited because we can’t enlist the screen in a conversation, argument, fight, or engagement of any sort. Roused to action by the program we’re watching, yet not able to make an appropriate response, we resort to surrogates such as tapping our fingers, picking a scab, scratching our necks—whatever diverts our urge to action to something we can actually do short of throwing a book at the screen or clicking it into oblivion.

Reduced to spectators, as we have been by the one-way, broadcast media since radio was invented, we find ourselves leading double lives having little to do with each other, following the program with our ears or eyes, perhaps, but tapping our fingers or toes to let off some steam. Such a waste of consciousness leads to hard feelings, because we know we’re being manipulated by someone else’s agenda. We get their message, but they can’t get ours. Domination of significant parts of our lives by such one-sided interactions with the media leads to frustration and irritation because we can’t “do anything” to let producers and sponsors know how we feel. Abuse by the media is one of the most common ailments of recent years, a global pandemic of enforced helplessness largely unrecognized for what it is.

The problem is that long-term inaction leads to an incapacity to act at all. If appropriate action is always sidetracked, that is what consciousness learns to do—sidetrack itself. Dissipate its capacities and energies. That is, to chew gum instead of speak truth to power. The freedom to act in light of personal consciousness is the fundamental freedom by which lives are led and civilizations built from the ground up. Freedom of will means nothing if it does not lead to action. Or worse than nothing—to waste and despair. Which is the state of modern America under the heel of corporate personhood with its industrial base shipped abroad, leaving formerly skilled workers stocking shelves at WalMart or smiling behind counters at MacDonalds for paychecks that Thoreau or Mohandas Gandhi couldn’t live on.

Now our schools emphasize concept formation in the earliest grades, neglecting personal sensory experience as if it were not the true foundation of learning to live in the world. Children are now supposed to be objective, not subjective, to live on familiar terms with descriptive and statistical generalizations as replacements for personal experience because schools can deal only with tidy (because largely empty) concepts instead of messy personal stories. Experience, the base of personal judgment and behavior, is earned through engagement with our senses and emotions, not solely our rational minds. It is subjective by nature because consciousness itself is subjective. Unique in each case, there is no such thing as statistical consciousness. Any school system that believes in students collectively rather than individually is teaching to an ideological fiction that cannot exist, a fiction spread across a bell curve so that a young person’s position relative to the mean is more important than who she is or what she can do. Which reduces human characteristics and abilities and histories and experiences to abstract generalizations instead of singling them out as the very qualities which make us who we are.

Schools, that is, train workers, customers, and consumers worthy to become a mass audience of zooids who will do what they are told by their supervisors. Try sitting still in a chair for hours at a time without talking or fidgeting and see if you are capable of original thought at the end of the day. The few outlets allowed include sports, music, theater, dance, and gymnastics—activities based on personal skill and discipline, which should be the center of the curriculum instead of out on the extracurricular fringe. What we learn in school is to stifle our basic urge to action, or to postpone it until classes are over. No wonder we’ve become a nation of media consumers, cubicle sitters, and counter attendants—those are precisely the sorts of non-activities we’re trained to do. As McLuhan said, the medium itself is the message. In schools, the medium is sitting quietly as if something were happening when it’s not. That’s what passes for good behavior and earns you a gold star for citizenship—doing as little as possible without bothering anyone else.

Am I tilting at windmills here, or have I become a professional cynic? Through my lifetime I’ve watched freedom of personal action decay into freedom of inaction to avoid upsetting the neighbors. That’s our modern version of the golden rule—instead of doing unto others we’ve learned the safest guide is to do as little as possible. That way we don’t make waves to get people upset. When we should be marching on the state or national capital, we sit quietly at home watching game shows on TV. Instead of embracing life itself, we’ve raised pretending to live to a high art.

As I see it, we’ve surrendered our personal sovereignty for the sake of comfort and convenience. That is, given up being unique persons to adopt the myth of being like everyone else. Persons act as consciousness leads them; members of the crowd look to their leaders. Think of the expectations we lay on Barack Obama to do our work for us when we could be part of the solution to the nation’s problems by putting our bodies on the line—as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King put their bodies and their lives on the line (both being assassinated for offending those they opposed). The theory we follow is we’ll live better and longer by not taking personal action—as if simply enduring under present conditions were more important than altering those conditions to make a better world for all.

We talk a lot about freedom, but the most basic freedom is the freedom to act, not the freedom to sulk or to hide. What if Martin Luther had never nailed his 95 theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg to be seen by parishioners on All Saints Day in 1517? Where would we be but for his taking that stand against the sale of indulgences by which sinners could buy forgiveness for cash instead of confronting themselves? It is possible Christianity in the West would be synonymous with the Roman Catholic Church, and the church hierarchy would center our lives on its origins in the priesthood of the Roman Empire of Constantine’s day. Inaction leaves behind it a heritage of what if? what if? what if?

These days we live in an era when chartered corporations have the status of living, breathing persons, and the rights granted to persons by the U.S. Constitution, including the right of free speech, and the spending of money as a variant thereof. That is, corporations can behave as if they were persons and we won’t make too fine a point of the self-evident fact that confounding corporations with persons is a sure sign of mental illness. Why persons? Why not corporations as servants of the people? Protectors of the Earth? Humanitarian institutions? The result of corporate personhood is the mockery of human personhood in that every one of us is diminished by that false categorization. If a distinction is not made between for-profit corporations and individual persons, something very important goes missing from our culture—the realization that persons are fundamentally conscious and can learn through experience while corporations are built structures without minds, and require persons to run them. Persons are persons, corporations are corporations; it makes no sense to extend the rights and abilities of one to the other as if there were no difference between them.

People can act in the world, corporations can’t. It is the people hiding behind corporations who have taken over our country and the rest of the world, acting by charter exclusively in their limited self-interest at the expense of us mortal beings who can’t afford the legal apparatus and deep pockets that corporations use to teach us our place, and keep us there. Tobacco companies, drug companies, agribusiness, the military industry, the power generators, big transportation—these are the corporations who presume to act on behalf of the world’s little people when they do not rise up and act boldly for themselves. Education renders us docile so we do not stand against this takeover of our most basic prerogative—to defend ourselves against hostile aggression.

With wealth concentrated in corporate accounts, and power safe in the hands of highly paid attorneys, corporations are free to manipulate public opinion by foisting whatever image they choose on a gullible public, so we come to accept them as what they pretend to be. Always the good guys, no matter what havoc they wreak in Nigeria, India, Chile, Mexico, or here at home. The playing field is not level. We engage by different rules. Freedom and equality are forgotten values. We can still vote, but it makes little difference because corporate money votes closer to where laws are written and decisions made. Our great ethical systems are stood on their heads—the golden rule, do no harm, equal opportunity, act from love, respect your opponent, democracy, fair play, we’re all equal under the sun. Corporate personhood renders every one of them obsolete because ethical systems are for people, not corporations. Corporations act as they wish as long as they pay their bills and keep the truth to themselves.

Yes, I fling paint with a broad brush in this portrait because I’ve learned that corporations can be counted on to sink to the lowest possible level. One financial crisis after another, one war after another, one takeover after another, one environmental catastrophe after another—we still end up with the same system that victimizes persons but treats corporations as if they were sacred. Even if they go bankrupt, even if they fail utterly, even if the people bail them out.

Action is indeed the upshot of consciousness, appropriate and effective action in the world we live in, even if we can’t make it out very clearly. When our options for action are severely restricted, our basic freedoms to think and act for ourselves become nonexistent. If that goes on long enough, we forget how to express our personal values in what we think and what we do. The game is over. The faceless “they” have won. The ones who pull the levers behind corporate curtains. The ones who make billions of dollars a year while the rest of us scrounge for coins beneath cushions.

All this is no dream. It comes to me through conscious reflection. Engaging the world with my mortal body and mind, this is what I discover. Here is the reality I live in. I have been schooled not to think for myself by sticking to the great thoughts of others, passed off in slogans and party lines. But I can’t help myself. I keep going back to the source of my own experience and digging around to see what I can learn from it. I see now that consciousness, critical judgment, and the ability to act free from interference in my current situation (as best I can make it out)—these are the greatest treasures I possess. If I do not exercise these gifts, I give up being myself. If we do not act for ourselves, that is where we end up—enslaved to others, devoting our actions to serving them.

Is this what we look like?

 

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