In praise of weeds

When I look at current events I want to curl up into a fetal position and cry myself to sleep. It’s not that I don’t see stories of beautiful and uplifting things–“Earth’s crammed with Heaven”–but the good and the beautiful all seems to be fighting a losing battle against vanity and greed. The forces of what I deem to be Evil–those who would exploit anything and everything and would sell tomorrow for a few more pennies today–are huge and powerful. And even though it feels like bad news gets worse by the minute, people have been lamenting this for millennia. People of conscience are left wondering, “What can I do? What should I do?”

And those of us asking this are really on our own. Who do you talk to? Is this a safe topic of conversation over the holiday dinner table? Or maybe you look to the internet? It connects us to billions of people around the world, and yet inevitably we tend to gravitate to those who agree with what we already believe. If you do try to expose yourself to some alternative values and views, there’s a good chance you’ll be verbally attacked for sharing yours. The level of vitriol, superficiality, and paranoia is depressing. The internet is a veritable paradise if you’re looking for the cast of some obscure ’80s film or another YouTube makeup tutorial (seriously, how hard is it to put on makeup?), but it’s a blasted hellscape if you want a civilized philosophical conversation.

There are no easy answers for thinking people (and indeed, one could argue that would defeat the whole purpose of this incarnation) and perhaps no two people find the same ones. But here are some of the messages that have made their way to me, which seem especially relevant. First this from Runesoup:

“This is going to sound like cold comfort until you experience it. It is going to sound like running away from your problems until you try it. But there is a part of you -your innermost part- that cannot be hurt, damaged or stopped by the unrelenting horrors of the world. It is a diamond; bright and impervious. Just a few minutes in meditation and you begin to discern its presence, its location. Once found it can be grown, it can be lit up like a thousand christmases: so bright you cannot look upon it.

“This core sits at the centre of a universe that -if it isn’t actually a dream- behaves according to the same rules. …there is no getting around the realisation that the world seems particularly flimsy when compared to that experience of your inner core. … This whole thing is a construct. Do not give in to fear, do not give in to disgust.”

This is not mere New Age “only the light exists, think positive and nothing bad will ever happen and you’ll be thin and rich” pablum. That is an attempt to commodify and dumb down the ineffability of your personal relationship to the cosmos. Dear readers, I really urge you to think beyond the straitjacket of reductionist materialism. This isn’t about being religious (unless it is for you), it’s certainly not about being “anti-science,” it’s about prioritizing your lived experience over received wisdom. Yes, even–no, especially–subjective experience. Objectivity is a good goal if you are measuring something, but nothing in human experience is really objective. More importantly, nothing meaningful is ever objective.

Rather than asking, “Is _______ real?” I urge you to think in terms of “What does ________ mean?” Partly that’s because when we’re lying on our deathbeds, I’m willing to bet that the things we think about won’t be objective data measurements. And data certainly won’t give you a sense of purpose. I’m also concerned–given pretty much everything that has happened in history–that focusing on the terms that allow something to be granted the status of “reality” or “truth” too often puts us at the mercy of authority (be that political, academic, scientific, medical, or whatever) and its preferred ideology du jour. You don’t need to imagine vast conspiracies to observe that the people in a position to write metanarratives are never writing them for our benefit. Don’t give up without at least trying to write your own. Always seek the weird and the challenging.

Science is a wonderful way of investigating the universe, but it was never meant to be the only one. Before you ask, “Is ________ real?”, you need to ask what real even means. If you think you know the answer without a doubt, you’ve been drinking somebody’s Kool-Aid. The next question should be whether that Kool-Aid is doing you any good. In my opinion, if you’re not asking this most fundamental question you are wasting the opportunity (and shirking the responsibility) that comes with having a human brain, and if that’s not a sin I really don’t know what is.

weed mural by Mona Caron

weed mural by Mona Caron

Then I stumbled across these murals of weeds by artist Mona Caron. Why weeds? She writes:

“They may be tiny but they break through concrete. They are everywhere and yet unseen. And the more they get stepped on, the stronger they grow back. …
“I look for weeds in the city streets near a wall I’m about to paint. When I find a particularly heroic one growing through the pavement, I paint it big, at a scale inversely proportional to the attention and regard it gets. …
“Breaking through seemingly invincible layers, they reconnect earth to sky, like life to its dreams. It’s happening everywhere at the margins of things, we’re just not paying attention. …
“…in the context of suffocated environments, these undesirables are the first to carve a path for the rest of nature to follow, in due time.”

Be a weed. You can accomplish so much more as a weed than as a garden ornamental. It’s a principle of both permaculture and magic that creation happens in the in-between places. Perhaps it’s the compensation for not being a meta-author of the exploitative sham that passes for “reality” nowadays–that by virtue of our very smallness we continually slip through the holes in their bullshit tapestry. Zhuangzi understood this. So did Tolkien.

If you’re useful, you get used up. Your littleness, your weirdness, your imperfections, your invisibility can be your strength–but only if you can embrace being a weed. There’s no guarantee that you will make it to Mount Doom with the Ring, but the alternative–to sit home and let history write you–is unthinkable.


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