Cardboard Castles and Other Amenities...

I am really interested in using different forms of cultural action to help build better communities. Communities are a vital social model, allowing us to tackle problems beyond the ability of individuals with the focus of a defined (usually relatively small) group of people. How do the arts and cultural work in general help communities grow more sustainable futures? If you have a cool website or project or your own ideas on these subjects please let me know.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Success is Failure

I’ve been thinking a lot about success lately. How should I define it for myself? What is material success in the context of a life of service? Is there security in this context, and if so, what? These are some of the questions I’ve been thinking about.

Recently I read a 1983 commencement address Ursula K Le Guin gave at Mills College, in which she says that success is a macho term in relation to someone else’s failures. That instead of success, she hopes that people begin to make their homes in the (feminine) spaces of failure.

I do not entirely get what she is proposing, however, here are my thoughts. It is not so much that “failure” is the goal, that it is something so wonderful. Instead, it is understanding that if some people are going to live in “success” others must live in
“failure” and that, given those options, that which will be called “failure” is closer to how we should seek to live our lives. Let us take an example to better understand this. A “successful” housewife use to be (and maybe still is) a woman who kept her house, family, and life in such a way that promoted her husbands (material) “success.” Conversely, a “successful” husband* used the work of his wife to promote his ability to gain material wealth. All this “success” takes place ONLY because other people fail, living in poverty and despair. We must orient our lives away from “success”; away from dependence on other’s suffering; away from the subjugation of some people to others.

Instead we must find comfort and fulfillment in the “…helplessness, weakness, and illness, (in) the irrational and the irreparable, (in) all that is obscure, passive, uncontrolled, animal, unclean - the valley of the shadow, the deep, the depths of life (Le Guin, 1983).” Le Guin is right in that we do not really even know what this looks like. We only have vague “pioneers' tales” about this space (one I might recommend is The Fifth Sacred Thing). However, I think one big part of the puzzle is learning a kind of communalism. Doing away with our desperate grasps on our individualism, what we Sufis would call our nefs.

For me, a large part of this is reorienting my life towards being of service and away from being the problem solver, the Important One With Answers. It means viewing my life, and the work I spend it on, as a part of a whole that is larger, smarter, and more capable than “I” (the great individual) will ever be. In other words, whether I become a mechanic or a community artist I am still one person performing one function of a community made up of many individuals performing many different functions. Whether I keep my communities cars running or keep its eyes open to the world, it is all part of what keeps the community healthy. Thus, it is not about being important, but about being connected to a community I can be of service to and from which I can draw upon.

I do not think this is exactly what Le Guin was going for, but I think it is a good start. What do you all think?

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At 12:26 PM, Blogger Alex Steffen said...

I suspect that this in one of those places where a dynamic balance is called for.

Certainly, more of us could spend more energy than we do trying to understand the communities of which we are a part, and responding to the organic needs of others rather than defining their problems for them and then solving those problems.

On the other hand, many times a good leader or organizer can see things from a distance that those enmeshed in a community cannot, and can serve as a lightning rod for people's energy and channel it into change.

Best of all, I suspect would be able to be a person who can have the confidence and insight to lead when there's a genuine need/opportunity to do so, and then humbly step back into being a community member when that opportunity has been met.

In other words, while I take LeGuin's point, sometimes success is success for everyone; and sometimes failure is actually just powerlessness, defeat and loss. Leadership is trying to make sure the actions we take together land us on the happy side of that divide.


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