A simply complicated world


“I have to pee,” my youngest son Marshall lisped, matter-of-factly through his missing front tooth. I looked up and down the deserted forest trail. “Go ahead,” I said. He moved over to the edge of the trail, pulled down his pants and started…poo-ing. “Jeez. Crouch down,” I urged, making sure he didn’t poop into his shorts.

It took several trips up the trail and as many huge handfuls of fern fronds to get his bottom cleaned. By that time the rest of our crew was well ahead of us. Try as I might, I couldn’t get him to move quickly enough to catch up to the others. I gave up trying. Using one hand to hold his, I used the other to point and shoot the borrowed camera, taking beauty shots of the shoreline as we hiked up the moss-covered laneways of Ministers Island.

At every fork in the trail I began to feel a little more desperate about not being able to catch up to the others. “Did I take the right turn?” I wondered. Finally, half way up the coast we came to a clearing. A stately older gentleman, his face looking flushed in the heat under his canary-yellow ball hat, was crossing the field, and as he looked up I recognized him, a friend and neighbour of the island. He introduced himself to Marshall, and as we talked I glanced at the shore. “The tide must be coming in,” I thought. So when my friend suggested that we jump in his boat for a quick ride back, I agreed.

The tide had indeed started racing in. As we rounded the point, I could see the island gatehouse in the distance, and as I squinted my eyes into the sun, I thought I could also see a police car. As we got closer, I could see that it was. “Damn,” I thought. “Our walking crew must have thought we were lost.”

The police car wasn’t there for us. Some tourists had managed to get their car stuck in the soft gravel of the ocean-bed bar road. I could see the tow-truck hiding behind the RCMP car as we tied up at the dock. Half of our walking crew was also there, waiting for us, wondering what had happened. The Marshall poo-story was excuse enough.

I usually love getting out on a hiking trail. It’s a time to chill, a chance to get away from a week full of busy-work and noisy thoughts. It hasn’t been that kind of summer. With too many projects on the go it seems like the noisy mental chatter won’t quit. That’s the thing about work, it can quickly become all-consuming, and by the time you notice, you’re already racing for the finish line. And there’s only one finish line in life—the end. Hurry up and stop. Dead.

Contradictions like those tend to catch my attention. For example, mid-week I was Skyping an old friend in the UK about technology and communications. He’s a big fan of Buckminster Fuller, and he knows I’m a big fan of McLuhan (the communications guru who coined the phrase “global village.”) Fuller was a proponent of using high tech materials to redesign human habitat and transportation. I told my friend about some research my nephew had just done on one of these miracle materials—stainless steel. My nephew had been influenced by the negative buzz on plastic water bottles and bought himself a new stainless steel one. Then it occurred to him. Just how much energy went into making that stainless steel bottle? After a little math, it turned out that the stainless steel was a huge energy hog, a 10 to the 5th power greater energy hog.

I told my English friend that maybe Fuller was wrong. Maybe he’d been right in his notion of applying smarter design, but wrong in his approach to actually doing it. Perhaps, I joked, McLuhan was at least Fuller’s equal. This brought us around to communications. It occurred to me that—while we have more media than ever before in the history of the planet all working so very hard to get our attention—never before have we paid so little attention to the media. There’s so much competing for our attention, we’re bored to tears.

This tension between attention and inattention, if you’ll excuse me, caught my attention. What else could have this front-back duality? It occurred to me that politicians use it often. Somehow they’ve learned to occupy that ‘no-man’s-land’ of tension between action and inaction, often promising action while practicing long periods of inaction. It must be a workable technique. While it frustrates those voters who want action, it probably soothes those voters who oppose the action, or are merely undecided.

Writers like John Ralston Saul, I remembered, are very much aware of duality. Saul views our rational, scientific society as completely irrational, and suggests that we should begin to embrace the irrational side of life as a tonic for our modern ailments (such as our addition to work, for one).

There are other contradictions. We’ve all seen people who overcompensate—acting with boundless confidence—to mask hidden inadequacies. But it comes up in societal behaviour, too. In the aftermath of the financial meltdown we question modern business practices. In the midst of the random chaos, where’s the soul, the spiritual rudder, we wonder.

In many ways modern life appears to be almost random. I mean how does one explain weird news stories like a woman killing a pregnant woman to steal her unborn baby? For millennia societies used the power of religion and ritual to maintain a cohesive social direction. Without religion, where do we find the guidelines? Without religion, everything was random. And maybe still is.

That tension between the randomness of organic life and the security and order of ritual is the foundation of all religions. Stopping ourselves from giving in to random urges, acts that might disrupt social harmony—has been an enduring problem.
Ritual is also something more, something more elementary. Ritual has always been a tool, like poetry, to help our ancestors deal with the vastness and randomness of the world, to help transfer this knowledge to the next generation.

And it’s still a complicated world. “Or it’s that simple,” I thought as I rubbed aloe gel on the sunburned shoulders of my two boys. “It’s just nice to get out and enjoy the summer sun for a change.” Especially when I can stop thinking for a few minutes.


Popular Posts