A place for everything and everything in its place. Just the thing to get my little Germanic/Scandinavian Capricorn heart to go pitter-pat. I love order. I love having everything fit into its assigned place perfectly.
Here's what I don't love.
Messiness, chaos, uncertainty, missed buses, people who are habitually late, people who insist on shouting on their cell phones once I manage to get on a bus, enormous societal inequality,people unable to afford shelter and asking me for money, wasting time, wasting food, going in the wrong direction, losing patience, waking up worried at 3 am, heartburn, not being able to sleep, an inept and corrupt power structure that puts the needs of investors, shareholders, and the wealth ahead of everyone else. There’s more but you get my drift.
And in case you haven’t updated yourself lately our world abounds in all that and more.
I can’t even pretend that I keep my own house in perfect order but I sure wish humanity would get its act together and clean up its house, aka Our Whole World. The amount of unnecessary suffering we’re surrounded by on all sides is staggering. From rising inflation levels throughout the country to skies hazed out by bigger and bigger wildfires every year to our aging leadership freezing in place when asked simple questions it's hard to fathom a saner, more sensibly organized world.
Here’s a radical thought experiment: what if nothing was wrong? What would that even look like?
I'm guessing it would just another rainbow in Reykjavik.
When we visited Iceland several years ago I found myself walking through the cleanest, most well-ordered city I’ve ever experienced. Reykjavik has no litter. No homeless people asking for help. No little packets being handed off for crumpled ten-dollar bills on any corner. No broken down cars wheezing and emitting noxious fumes. No jaywalkers! Nobody blowing their car horn the moment a traffic light changed. It was sublime…and I have to admit a little creepy. On each of our first three days in the city, we saw rainbows. We’d stop and gaze in awe while the good people of Reykjavik walked past oblivious. Rainbows are nearly an everyday occurrence there and we stood out as the dumb tourists who thought they were special.
What the Icelanders took for granted we found miraculous.
What if we all could take the miraculous for granted?
Pause with me here and visualize a world without suffering or want or outrage or wars or hungry kids or stupid, greedy people in charge or television. Yeah, I know, it’s nearly impossible, isn’t it?
But the self-helpers have it that if we can visualize it, if we can intend it, we can make it our reality.
What would that even look like? Maybe you don’t do this — right; tell me another one— but I go through my day devising solutions for what needs to be changed. I have lots of great ideas to improve the lives around me, the city, and even the whole world. I bet you do, too.
What if no one had to live without shelter? Can you even imagine what a shift that would be if adequate, decent housing was simply the way things are and not some pie in the sky socialist scheme?
When the virus hit this city, it blasted through the homeless shelters especially hard and the city went into high gear to move these vulnerable people into the hundreds of suddenly empty hotel rooms. But they basically dumped people, men mostly, who were often mentally unstable and/or alcoholics and drug addicts into these deluxe accommodations without much if any other supports in place. Suddenly, the well-meaning white liberals of the Upper West Side had messy, chaotic people peeing on their shrubbery and slumping against their immaculately kept buildings. NIMBY went into the stratosphere.
But what if people cared for each other, even those they don’t know? What an amazingly different world we would inhabit if we took care of each other and didn’t expect some social service agency to handle it. Can you picture those concerned Upper West Siders organizing and providing social structure for their new neighbors? Ok, I can’t either, but humor me here.
Here’s a biggie: I’d immediately eliminate cars from city streets and pull that weird human need for speed right out of our busy little brains while I’m at it. Clean, efficient public transportation would be in place in every city, town, and rural area with a wave of my imaginary wand. Voila! There would be plentiful bike lanes everywhere and wide, easily navigated sidewalks with everyone staying on their side of the walk.
Moving from the specific to the universal I’d reach into our flawed, frightened animal brains and neatly excise the greed instinct. Instantly, the entire human species would understand the difference between want and need. Multi-billionaires would immediately phone their accountants and make arrangements to pay their fair share of taxes. When anyone had an excess of anything, their reaction would be to share the extra stuff.
Let’s aim higher now. What if we governed ourselves with fairness and generosity? Meaning that we didn’t just reflexively vote the way the loudest yahoos in our respective tribes told us to but educated ourselves. Worked to support candidates who actually represented our interests. Got off our lazy asses and phone banked and canvassed and let ourselves look like total loonies standing next to card tables filled with literature about the actual issues on street corners. Hell, what if we ran for office?!
In short, what would life be like in a world where everyone's basic needs are met and no one tries to grab more than their fair share of cookies?
It’s difficult for an order-freak like me to admit that a world where everything is done right wouldn't necessarily be the Utopia I'm aiming for here. Such a world would be a dead world. Much as I desire a world where nothing is wasted, where everyone pitches in and does their fair share, where there are no floating armadas of discarded plastic choking the ocean, where the air is clean, where we join hands and sing Kumbaya in perfect four-part harmony after a macrobiotic dinner every evening and everything moves smoothly every single day, even I know that such a world would be hell. Without some uncertainty, we’re doomed to stasis which is death.
To be clear, I’m not advocating for leaving our current state of insanity in place. There is vast room for improvement and we all need to pick up the nearest tools and get to work.
But let’s remember that mistakes open doors where we only saw walls. Doing things wrong and screwing up gives us compassion for the other dummies we pass on the street every day. Life is messy. It’s inevitable and can occasionally be beautiful. Think of a bunch of kids jumping into a perfectly raked pile of leaves and wildly flinging the leaves all over the yard again.
But let’s remember that it’s vital to have the image of that perfect world as our pole star. Rake those leaves diligently and then do it again after the kids finish playing and go indoors. By all means, let’s work our hearts out to make that perfect world a reality. Let’s teach those kids to do that, too.
And here’s the good news, my fellow strivers, that perfect world is impossible.
That means we can throw our hearts, souls, backs, and brains into achieving it without ever having to worry that we might actually find ourselves in a cosmic version of Reykjavik where rainbows are just another thing that the sky does.