Contemplating Purpose

A comment overheard at a BBQ we attended this weekend, has been rolling around inside my head. The comment was innocent. Made under the influence of a pitcher of lemonade and gin. But it was something fairly profound and it has given me reason to sit and contemplate it. It issued forth from the lips of a man who spent a good part of his career on Wall Street.

“I have to say,” he bellowed, “that my entire life was spent, not in the service of good, but in the efforts to screw people over. To take away their money so that my employers could profit. So that I could profit. I have to say, that my life was spent in the pursuit of doing bad for the world. I basically helped to fuck over this country, and I deeply regret that now. I wish now that it was otherwise.”

Now in all honesty, this is not a word for word recap of what was said. But it is the main gist. And while I was sitting in the dark, listening to him say this, I wanted to respond. I did not, so I will respond now. My first thought was that I felt the same way. Until recently, I feel, most of my work, including the self indulgence of making art, has also been somewhat misguided. And then I began to ponder why.

Most of my career has been spent as a graphic designer and art director. It developed as a compromise to live as an artist, but still be able to generate an income. And it is here that the core of the problem lies. I had to divert from something potentially useful, benign, spiritual and possibly healing, to engage in the pursuit of money. And it is this same quest, that everything in our society is made to serve.

Make no mistake. The greatest destroyer of ecology. The greatest source of waste, depletion and pollution. The greatest purveyor of violence, war, crime, poverty, animal abuse and inhumanity. The greatest generator of personal and social neurosis, mental disorders, depression, anxiety. Not to mention the greatest source of social paralysis, stopping us from moving into new methodologies for personal health, global sustainability and progress on this planet, is not some corrupt government or legislation. Not some rogue corporation or banking cartel. Not some flaw of human nature and not some secret cabal that controls the world. It is the socioeconomic system itself at its very foundation. —Peter Joseph, from Zeitgeist: Moving Forward

The above quote comes from a controversial documentary which puts forth a theory that we could develop into a “resource based” economy as opposed to a “monetary market system.” One can agree or disagree with these theories. But the quote would still hold true. Everything around us has come to be self perpetuating and self involved.

For the past 20 years, much of my work has been focused on health care. Mainly hospitals and medical groups. I am not saying that these are bad. In fact, under certain conditions, they are considered extremely good. But there are two sides to every coin.

We live in an environment where everything exists to serve the dollar. EVERYTHING. And what has emerged in our century, more than any other is that we generate so many self perpetuating systems, that we have become myopic in seeing anything clearly. I mention health care because that is one self perpetuating system. If humans continue to ignore the importance of what they put in their bodies, or how their environment is impacted by profiteers, then we will continue to show the symptoms of disease that our current health care systems exist to serve. This can be said of many other industries and events including the drug wars, prisons, military manufacturers and so on.

Recently, I made a comment on this blog, which I believe offended a segment of people I grew up with in my bucolic neighborhood of Bayside, Queens. District 26 was one of the top (and still is) school districts in New York City. In sixth grade, we were subjected to an evaluation system, that separated me from my peers. In truth, I never got over it. My reading level was deemed average, my behavior was considered wild and undisciplined. Some of my friends, who were better students, more obedient in class, were put into what was then called the SP program. SP was an acronym which came to mean “special pupil.” A large portion of my school mates were transfered into this program while I was tracked into “special arts.” One of the traits was that I was prevented from the early study of a foreign language. I was put in a classroom with social delinquents and “slower learners.” I was labeled a discipline problem, although my reading level was 2 grades above my own. I was given modest to low expectations. Another fact is that very FEW black students were promoted into the SP program.

The offending comment was based on what I observed 40 years later. Many of the SP students moved onto better colleges, better paying jobs, and upper middle class lifestyles, whereas, many of the other students attended local or trade colleges, lesser paying jobs, and struggled to maintain a middle class existence. But in truth we ALL suffered for this. What I have observed in the SP group, was that even though they did “better” in life, were directed toward better opportunity, for the most part, they were deprived of a greater understanding of the world simply because they were shielded from it. This group tended to travel less, many never leaving the country with the exception of a tour guided visit to Paris. The group interest still revolved around sports. Golf and poker are the core social activites among this group and curiosity about how our world works is compromised. I guess if someone summed up my life in this way, I would be offended too. But to be fair, this is a gross generalization of a specific group. It may not hold true in every instance.

But here is the catch. A few benefit, while others do not. Does this serve the greater good? If we are cut off from other segments of society, then we come to understand them in a jaded manner. The United States is an individualistic culture. Every man for himself. I do not blame those that benefitted from this form of tracking. But I am saying that it is inherently harmful to the greater community. If a large segment of our population is excluded from participation in how the world functions, WE ALL SUFFER. And if not now, certainly my son will be paying for the outcome as he matures.

Education is one of those systems that has become incredibly self perpetuating, having lost its’ intention to encourage anything useful. It has been pointed out on this blog that testing has become an industry in itself. Corporations have sprung up to supply, grade, distribute and oversee the epidemic of testing. This exists so that schools can get a better score, therefore putting them in the front running for funds, thus depriving other institutions of the same. So what has evolved is a system where teachers teach to the test, having forsaken any understanding of what learning is. Having given up any care as to what students want. Failing to recognize who they are, creating a system that perpetuates anxiety, and revulsion of knowledge. And this is an outgrowth of what I described about the tracking practices I was subjected to in the late 1960’s.

So the sense of feeling that one has of not being useful, is a truth that needs serious consideration. Over the past year, my wife and I have given the greater portion of our efforts into helping Brooklyn Free School raise money, as well as improve its’ positioning to attract more funds. We have been involved with every aspect of the school including organizing parent committees, creating an after-school program, reviewing the diet of the school, sustainability issues, and promoting events through press releases. My wife has also interned for Sustainable Flatbush, a non-profit, focused on energy awareness, transportation alternatives and community gardens. And all these efforts have produced an income of Net Zero.

Those of us without trust funds have to make choices. And the world is not yet ready to embrace a vision that would exclude the exchange of money for effort. But the idea is gaining interest. If we all served our communities, we would begin to feel differently about each other. Racism would diminish because we would begin to understand one another. Eventually, there would be no difference. Is it possible for a society to resemble the deck of the Starship Enterprise?

There is no casting aspersions at anyone. We just need to reevaluate what it is we exist for. Money has created a great diversion. It has a long history. Hopefully, we can evolve beyond it one day. I doubt I will live to see it. But in the meantime, I have the possibility to work for things that I believe to be good for the world. We all have a past that needs repairing. And it is only in the present that we can do so. Then the future has new, and unforeseen possibilities.

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