Reflection 192: Projects

March 25, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

Projects are ways to wrap a future around ourselves. I put it that way because the future isn’t a world we are moving toward or into, but a world we make happen for ourselves. It isn’t already prefigured, just waiting for us to come along. It’s something we all have to create for ourselves on foundations we’ve already laid. The craft of consciousness is building a future, of extending a bridge from where we are now to where we want to be. Building a future is a lot like riding a bucking bronco—you’re not sure who’s in charge, but you’re having the ride of a lifetime.

Future-building is often discussed in terms of goals, strategies, tactics, personnel, training, supplies, and equipment, making it sound like war games at West Point. Actually, it’s messier than that because your plans have to fit with those around you, and with events no one can anticipate (such as terrorist attacks, earthquakes, hurricanes, pandemics, droughts). As a result, we tend to work on our futures one small project at a time, thinking more on the scale of cooking dinner or making the bed than winning major battles. Most of us, like alcoholics, are concerned with just getting through the day. We’ll deal with tomorrow when we get to it.

Building a future one small project at a time makes sense because that’s the scale consciousness is best suited for. If the goal is too fuzzy or abstract, it’s more like a dream than anything we can attain by taking a sequence of actual steps. If we can’t visualize it in concrete terms, we probably won’t live long enough to realize our plan. Small is beautiful because it’s attainable. Start by preparing the ground for the first seed. If we can’t plan our garden while walking the dog, it might prove a bigger project than we can handle.

Putting a picture puzzle together is a good example of a doable project. We select which puzzle we want to work on—it has to be an image that appeals to us, with the right number of pieces, or we’ll lose interest. We start by spreading the pieces on a flat surface we can spare for the duration, then turn them face up where we can get at them. We sort them by color, texture, or flat edges; then, beginning with the obvious groupings (such as connecting edge pieces to form a frame), work on fitting them together. As we get into it, we start looking for pieces with individual characteristics—with personalities to match their surroundings. We concentrate on one area at a time, then try linking different areas by building bridges between them. There are always a few notorious pieces we can’t find, but eventually we combine subtle clues of shape, color, texture, size—and everything fits. Mission accomplished.

Except it isn’t that much of a mission because the secret of picture puzzles is that they come with everything we need to do the job—including a picture on the box to show what we’re working toward. Some projects come in kit form like picture puzzles, but the ones we are likely to take on in building a future for ourselves don’t come prepackaged, so are more of a challenge to consciousness. It’s up to us to decide what tools and materials we’ll need, how to gather them, how to use them, in what order, and how to get help when we need it because we’re in over our head. There are a lot of adult education courses that will help us develop the skills we’ll need, and self-help books on just about every kind of project we’ll want to try our hand at.

For me, the interesting side of projects is the mental skills we’ve already acquired in the process of living our particular lives. These provide the underlayment of every job we’re likely to undertake. That is, the projects that make sense to us are apt to be extensions of ones we’ve worked on before. Our trajectories through the universe start in earliest childhood, and by the time we’re in high school their general direction is pretty much set. After that, we may refine our course settings by a few degrees, but largely keep on by exploring territories that feel familiar to us, and offer challenges and opportunities that have meaning because they extend sensitivities and abilities we already possess in latent or rudimentary form.

Projects make sense to us if they arise from life situations we’ve already experienced or are currently engaged in. They don’t gel as projects just out of the blue; our whole life points to them as sensible next steps. Our job is to recognize them as further opportunities for refining or expanding who we are. Single mothers with young children still want to get ahead in life, so they can either seek Mr. Right, or set off to develop their personal skills and earning power because they are not likely to trust another man to shelter them from having to care for themselves and their children. Working, developing job skills, having a social life, and childcare become aspects of whatever projects suggest themselves from their earlier experiences. Perhaps further schooling is a possibility if grandparents, social services, friends, a part-time job, and personal determination combine to create a situation where that makes practical sense.

The chief benefit of life situations is how wonderfully they focus attention on practical details in the here and now. Projects are built from just such details because that is the reality they are meant to address. Projects by nature are more concrete than abstract. They may start as conceptual solutions to one of life’s challenges, but they very quickly get down to the nitty-gritty of how they are to be implemented in the real world. That is, personal motivation is essential to the success of any project we are likely to stick with to the end.

The heart of any project is the loop of engagement by which we act in the world to make ourselves happen in a particular way, then learn from the results how we must refine our skills to act more effectively the next time. That ongoing loop is what we need to attend to in both its active and receptive aspects as the project develops in order to assure personal advancement toward the goal we are bent on achieving in the future we are crafting for ourselves. This is where our fingers meet the rawhide in pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. This is doable precisely because it is what consciousness is given each of us to exercise in meeting the unpredictable challenges life can throw at us. Insects are preprogrammed to survive a limited range of life situations; primates are less set in their ways in order to adapt to the variety of situations they are apt to encounter. Humans are the most adaptable of all species because they can take on special projects in meeting challenges unprecedented throughout their evolution.

The essence of any project is its categorization of the situation from which it emerges, its categorization of the goal to be reached, and its categorization of the means for bridging from the situation to that particular goal. Everything depends on how we see the problem, the solution, and the means linking the two. This is where judgment enters the picture to scan both episodic and conceptual memories in relation to sensory patterns defining the situation in an attempt to map an appropriate understanding onto the situation so that a specific project is suggested as a personal way to meet the demands imposed by the situation. In other words, human judgment interprets the current situation as guided by prior experience, which leads to how the project is structured as an answer to the question raised by the nature of the situation itself. This is the true miracle of the human mind—that it can do this through a series of successively approximate matches between memories and existential situations so that a sensible course of action emerges from the life history of the individuals involved.

If no such course of action readily suggests itself to judgment, cultural input can be sought to see what others would do under like circumstances, what conventional wisdom would recommend, how various experts would proceed. This is where education enters into a project to meet a need an individual can’t meet on his own. Perhaps further training is indicated—formal, informal, or on-the-job. Perhaps, in hopes the situation will go away, a course of therapy might be pursued as an alternative, particularly if the seeker places trust in figures of reputed authority.

Too, a change in perspective might be in order if the seeker feels she may have mischaracterized the situation, or is not looking at it on an appropriate level of discernment. “What would you do in my situation?” she might ask; “Am I overlooking something, or making a mountain of a molehill?”

And, to wrap this up, projects require a certain amount of arousal and personal investment to get and stay underway. Think of the arousal of spectators at football, basketball, or hockey games where the situation changes in the moment: the call is three balls and two strikes with bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, or the score is tied with 10 seconds remaining on the clock. Fans hoot and howl, wave their arms, jump up and down because they see so much riding on the play: they are fully aroused, vigilant, and invested, as if life itself hung in the balance. If the seeker feels not a stab of excitement, fright, or anxiety, then perhaps the project doesn’t really answer her professed need to right the situation at issue. Without passion and arousal, nothing in the world would ever get done because nothing, apparently, needs fixing.

I haven’t mentioned personal, biological values (such as sex, food, drink, shelter, rest, health, strength, knowhow, worthy challenge, order, safety, community, etc.) as essential to projects, but of course they are. Everything we do expresses a variety of biological needs. Even collecting stamps or building ships in bottles provide physical and mental challenges based on detailed engagement with the sensory world, if for no other reason than to stave off boredom in an underutilized mind.

As it is, dinners get cooked and put on the table, term papers get written, gardens planted, vacations taken, degrees granted, cars repaired, babies born, cavities filled, candidates elected (or not), and the future arrives as a new beginning for the world. Opening up opportunities for another round of situations going wrong, wheels requiring reinvention, and new projects getting started because no matter what the future brings, no one will be entirely satisfied with how things have developed, and consciousness can always be counted on to suggest new ways personal situations can be improved.

Things can always be improved.

 

(Copyright © 2010)

Memory dwells in the past; perception dotes on the here and now; what do we call that portion of consciousness devoted to the future? Expectancy? Anticipation? Planning? Hope? Dread? Worry? Anxiety? Fear? Confidence? Waiting? Probability? Prediction? Prophecy? Fate? Whatever we call it, this cursory list suggests the human mind’s preoccupation with unknowable yet inevitable times ahead.

When you play a video on YouTube, a little slider on the bottom shows where you are on the timescale of that particular microworld. Think what it would be like to have a similar slider showing your position relative to your lifespan. Birth is well behind you; death is approaching. Whoee! Now’s the time to get moving—or drunk.

Fortunately, with life expectancies now seen as a matter of statistical probability, no such little slider exists for any one individual. Which doesn’t get us off the hook. Rather, it puts us in the murky realm of probabilities, where we could be here today, gone tomorrow—or the day after, or ten years from now. The uncertainty of it all is why consciousness spends so much of the brain’s resources trying to get a grasp on the future in so many different ways.

Matthew Arnold paints life as one’s journey on the river of Time, which rises in a snowy mountainous pass as a clear-flowing stream, and draws to the Ocean, ending with:

As the pale waste widens around him,

As the banks fade dimmer away,

As the stars come out, and the night-wind

Brings up the stream

Murmurs and scents of the infinite sea.

Here’s how Emily Dickinson puts it in less flowing, more telegraphic terms:

The Future – never spoke –

Nor will He – like the Dumb –

Reveal by sign – a syllable –

Of His Profound To Come –

But when the News be ripe –

Presents it – in the Act –

Forestalling Preparation –

Escape – or Substitute –

Indifferent to Him –

The Dower – as the Doom –

His Office – but to execute

Fate’s – Telegram – to Him –

Peter Mark Roget was no poet. He remained stodgily prosaic to the end. His goal was reasoned and literal clarity, not some ineffable tone or mood. Under heading 124 Futurity: prospective time, he included these adjectives and adjectival phrases:

Adj. future, not in the present, to be, to come; about to be, coming, nearing  289n. approaching; nigh, near in time, close at hand  200adj. near; due, destined, fated, threatening, imminent, overhanging 155adj. impending; in the future, ahead, yet to come, waiting, millennial  154adj. eventual; prospective, designate, earmarked  605adj. chosen; promised, looked for  507adj. expected,  471adj. probable; predicted, predictable, foreseeable, sure  473adj. certain; ready to, rising, getting on for; potential, on, maturing, ripening  469adj. possible; later, ulterior, posterior  120adj. subsequent.

My point being that conscious largely looks ahead to how the current situation might develop in order to figure out what to do next, and then next after that—that is, how to make the self happen in the world in a manner appropriate to the situation as it might evolve or lead to a different situation altogether. All informed by what we’ve done in the past, our current state of being, and the goals we’ve set for the future. Think of the long-term projects we commit ourselves to. Going to school. Getting a job. Getting married. Having a baby. Developing a career. Building a house. Taking a trip or vacation. Writing a book. Going on a diet. Giving up smoking, drugs, or alcohol. Going to prison. Cutting credit-card debt. Learning tai chi, Spanish, to play tennis or the guitar. The mission of consciousness is to enable us to do these things—to learn to be ourselves as we imagine ourselves being in the future on the basis of what we know now. And then to revise the plan as we move through uncharted regions ahead.

What part of consciousness is devoted to the future? I’d say the whole thing, including memory, including perception. As everyone knows, the future is in our heads, always has been, always will be. Right up there with gods, demons, fears, desires, Mr. Right, Dream Girl, the Na’vi, and Jaba the Hutt.

I write this post to my blog because for three years now I’ve been waiting for a mature spruce tree on the shore of Thompson Island Picnic Area in Acadia National Park to blow down and die. That’s where the idea of a death watch comes from. I knew in 2006 it was going to happen; I didn’t know when. So I’ve been watching that tree, looking to see if it’s still standing every time I drive across Thompson Island in leaving Mount Desert Island where I live. I’ve taken pictures of it from time to time to see if I can catch it listing to port more than it did the last time I looked. After every big storm I’d make a point of checking that tree, which I’m using as a crude gauge to sea-level rise in Hancock County, Maine. When that tree falls, it’s another milestone passed as the sea encroaches on my personal turf.

Over the years, I’ve devoted a fair portion of my mental concentration to that particular tree. I’ve made a project of watching it head into its death. We had a strong wind on the night of February 25, the wind gusting from the northeast at 45 or 50 miles an hour. On the morning of February 26, I looked through my usual gap in the trees for that spruce on the shore—and it wasn’t there. The gate to the picnic area was locked, so I pulled over, took my camera, and walked in. I came back in another storm during daylight on March 1 at high tide—which is when I figured the great tree had fallen at either dusk on February 25th or dawn on the 26th. Here are a few of the photos my consciousness directed me to take showing the final days of that spruce.

(Note: The most dramatic way to illustrate sea-level rise is to take photos of crashing waves at high tide during a storm at full or new moon. The rusty metal rings along the shore are fire rings for barbecuing hot dogs and hamburgers.)

Death Watch 1-3-2007

Death Watch 5-12-2008

Death Watch 1-12-2009

Death Watch 2-26-2010_A

Death Watch 3-1-2010_B

Death Watch 3-1-2010_C

 

 

 

 

 

Death Watch 3-1-2010_D

Death Watch 3-1-2010_A

Death Watch 3-1-2010_E

 

 

 

 

 

Death Watch 3-1-2010_B

Death Watch 3-12-2010

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

In my view, we are conscious within situations and act within situations, so to change the world, we must create new situations inviting us to further the changes we want to achieve. Situations are domains in which consciousness and action are joined in an ongoing loop of feedforward and feedback. All action is tentative because we aren’t sure of the results until we experience them. We operate through successive approximations guided by feedback, approaching our goal through jumps and starts, then evaluating the results, modifying our aim, and trying again. In the end, we may achieve our goal—or not. But if we don’t make the effort, and pay close attention, we are sure to stay stuck where we are.

 

When nineteen Islamic terrorists brought down the Twin Towers with a death toll of almost three thousand, they created a situation in which the U.S. government felt the need to make a fast, bold, decisive response. The people responded variously, some wanting to learn more about Islam and the Middle East, others turning their hurt and anger into a rage for revenge. The military sent high altitude bombers against targets in Afghanistan, then set about invading Iraq. Eight years later, both wars are still going on, the missions of the two campaigns—after many revisions—still unachieved.

 

When Jews sought a homeland in Palestine in 1947-1949, they sought to gather themselves from around the world after being dispossessed for almost two thousand years, into a state of their own where they could recover their spirit and identity after the horrors of World War II—the most recent insult to their personhood. The situation of the Diaspora led to situations of ghettoization led to a situation of scapegoating and the Holocaust led to a feeling of “never again” led to a situation of banding together for protection led to invasion and reoccupation of the former homeland, and resulting war and Palestinian exodus. The hope for peaceful coexistence, prosperity, and security is yet unachieved, creating a situation in which the energies of the Palestinian and Israeli peoples are being drained day-by-day through mutual antagonism.

 

The Germans created a situation of global instability and insecurity by invading Poland in 1939. The Japanese compounded the situation by attacking Pearl Harbor in 1941. First the French, then the Americans failed to recognize the failure of Western colonialism in Southeast Asia, misreading the disintegrating situation in Vietnam in terms of the perceived spread of Communism, distorting the situation by creating yet another tragic, unwinnable war.

 

As I have written (Reflection 88: To-Do Lists, posted April 10, 2009), consolidating a variety of tasks into a single list creates a situation within which tasks can be prioritized and dealt with more easily than when treated separately. Credit card companies use a similar strategy in inviting you to consolidate your various debts with them so you’ll have only one payment to make, even if it goes on forever at a high rate of interest.

 

Getting married creates a wholly new situation by legally joining two separate lives—and bank accounts, the true complexity of the situation often underappreciated until the parties decide to separate and go their own ways.

 

Humor flows from situations that generate expectations fulfilled in unsuspected ways. Take Fred and Myrtle, for example. Married for some 65 years, they’d become fixtures on the Maine coast. Fred was a fisherman, first going out for cod and haddock in the groundfishery, then when that failed in 1993, going out for lobster. Fred knew everybody, and everybody felt they’d known Fred forever. Myrtle, meantime, picked crabmeat from crabs Fred brought home, baked her famous strawberry-rhubarb and raspberry-blueberry pies, donuts, whoopie-pies, and hung clothes on the line to dry in the breeze from offshore. But one day in his late eighties, Fred went to his reward. The editor of the local newspaper got wind of it and called Myrtle to ask her to provide an obituary. “No need for that,” said Myrtle, “everybody knows Fred. I couldn’t add a thing they don’t know.” The editor pressed her, saying he couldn’t let Fred’s passing go unnoticed. Myrtle said she’d give it a try. She sat in the kitchen and thought about it, but nothing came. Fred was a fixture, there was nothing more to be said. She sent the editor what she came up with. He called her and told her Fred deserved more than the two words she’d sent in: “Fred died,” was just too short for a man of his years. Couldn’t she stretch it out with more personal details? Myrtle said she’d try. She sat some more over two cups of coffee, then sent in her expanded obituary: “Fred died; boat for sale.”

 

Situations play our expectations against our experience in an enduring exchange that builds over time. We are gripped by the process, contributing our bit, waiting to find out what happens. The playoffs and World Series create situations of national sporting interest. Think Orange Bowl, Rose Bowl, and all the other contests we give ourselves to so we can get through the year. We devote our lives to supporting our favored teams, doing all we can to make sure that they win. The spring madness of statewide high school basketball playoffs creates situations tapping into the same energy stream.

 

I remember when clove gum was introduced in the 1940s. I was walking across the street in Hamilton, New York, and met a young blonde in a flouncy, clove-colored skirt who handed me a stick of gum as she smiled and passed by. Free gum! Such a thing had never happened to me. Manufacturers know the personal touch is a good way to get word of a new product spread around, so they hold focus groups to test the waters. I have often thought of what that woman’s day was like, spreading the word about clove gum through small towns in upstate New York, creating a firestorm in the hearts of young boys.

 

If consciousness embedded in old situations has gotten us into the mess we are in today, then what kind of situations might set us on a new course? What sort of situation would alter my personal consciousness so that I would act in my own small sphere to heal the many things we’ve been doing wrong all this time?

 

Survey the situation as it is, list pros and cons, prioritize, visualize an improved situation, then act accordingly. Groups are going through this process all over the world. Women in Nigeria protest oil exploitation by banging pots and pans in the streets. Women in Liberia go on strike and sit by the roadside for the sake of peace. Groups are urging the development of and switch to alternative sources of energy. I went to a four-hour Pachamama Alliance symposium—Awakening The Dreamer, Changing The Dream—this past Sunday, and signed the pledge: “I am committed to bringing forth an environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling and socially just human presence on this planet as the guiding principle of our times.” Videos presented concrete images of the status quo, activists told of their strategies and accomplishments, we locals discussed how we could direct our energies toward shaping our culture by finding better ways of eating, consuming, traveling, and generally being on the Earth.

 

Traveling alone, the burden seems huge. Traveling together, we can all share the load. Combining our separate experience, consciousness, and effort, we begin to picture a new world. There is no substitute for becoming the change we seek. Others will follow our example. If nobody goes first, everybody is stuck in last place—where we don’t want to be.

 

The main thing is to join others in working together toward similar goals. Think of the new situation as a nest with new life streaming out in every direction from that energy source in our local territory. Taking in radiant energy from the sun, we can put it to more effective use in everyday life than our forebears have been able to do. The new situation is called “the future.” That’s where we’re headed. With pot bangers linked to street sitters linked to seminar goers linked to activists of every stripe in every locale linked to me linked to you, all creating a new situation that is really a new world.

 

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