The Cynic and the Boatbuilder



Charles Eisenstein will be joined by David Abram for the upcoming Evolver Learning Lab webinar, "What's the Matter with Matter (and Does it Matter)?" This live, interactive video dialogue will take place on Wednesday, May 22 at 8pm EST/5pm PCT.


A few days ago in Stockholm I was walking by the water and was accosted by a youngish man from Ireland who shouted out my name. This is not something that happens to me often – apparently he is among that small subset of humanity that has read my book – so I took this coincidence as a sign to stop and have a conversation.

It turned out he was in Sweden on a two-year program for boat-building, learning traditional techniques to build small boats by hand. His story inspired me in several ways. First, here was an intelligent young person is committed to work that offers no possibility of high social status or wealth. Second, he was deeply in service not only to his craft, but to a vision of bringing it to more young people in Ireland as well through an organization he co-founded: The Association for Traditional Nordic-Irish Boats. Third, when he introduced me to the rest of the crew and showed me the boats they were building, I was struck by the careful craftsmanship and the quality of aliveness in the boats, exemplifying the “new materialism” that is part of our resacralization of the material world.

I walked away fifteen minutes later feeling really positive and optimistic about the state of humanity.

What reason had I to feel positive?

What good is a renaissance in traditional boat-building in the context of climate change, fracking, nuclear waste, forest death, neoliberalism, the security state, child hunger, human trafficking, sweatshop labor, juvenile incarceration, and all the other horrors sweeping our planet?

Why did I feel this optimism? Here is one theory: sentiment clouded my reason. In a moment of forgetfulness, I let myself be bamboozled by a small flower springing up in the vast toxic waste dump of our society. A glimpse of beauty distracted me from the ugliness, providing an emotionally gratifying escape from the irrefutable logic of despair. As with any bit of good news, this encounter gave me false hope in that it suggested that things aren't so bad after all. And that, the theory goes, is dangerous, because only with sober awareness of the awfulness of our predicament will we be able to respond appropriately instead of blithely pretending everything is fine.

Consider now an alternative theory: The boatbuilder gave me hope because he is part of a mass shift in values that is happening underneath the surface of the normal. He is not an exception; he is among the avant garde of a vast movement. While his vocation doesn't directly challenge established power, his redirection of his life energy helps establish a kind of field or template for others to do the same. His example encourages other kinds of non-participation. When any of us meet someone who rejects dominant norms and values, we feel a little less crazy for doing the same. Any act of rebellion or non-participation, even on a very small scale, is therefore a political act. Building boats by hand is a political act. That is not to say that the banking industry, Monsanto, the military-industrial complex, and so forth would magically change their ways if only more of us built boats. It is that boat-building and other kinds of change-making come from the same place.

It wasn't because he thought it would change the world that the boatbuilder chose his path. If we condition our choices on what could practically change the world, we are often paralyzed, because the changes that must happen today are so enormous that we have no idea how to practically accomplish them. Every plan is impractical and every hope is naïve.

The cynic thinks that he is being practical and that the hopeful person is not. It is actually the other way around. Cynicism is paralyzing, while the naïve person tries what the cynic says is impossible and sometimes succeeds.

Paradoxically, it is through the totality of billions of useless acts that the world will change. We need to obey another kind of logic besides the one that asks, “In the grand scheme of things, will this make a difference?” In the grand scheme of, say, climate change, even actions taken to reduce carbon emissions won't make a difference. If you ride a bike and reduce your waste, what difference does it make when the billions who “don't get it” make no changes? In that case, some say, rather than riding a bike oneself, it is only worthwhile to attempt to convince millions to do so, or to lobby to change government policies. But by this logic, no one will start riding a bike! We have to have another, non-instrumentalist reason to do things like this. By that I mean, we need a reason that doesn't depend on the end results according to our normal understanding of cause and effect.

By this I am not saying we shouldn't attempt to change minds and systems. It is that that isn't enough, and that that isn't for everybody. We need to empower small, even invisble, choices as well.

Walking away from the boatbuilder, I thought, “I cannot countenance living in a world where what he is doing doesn't matter.” We live in a worldview in which most of our personal choices have no significance. Yet they feel significant at the moment. Are we to ignore that feeling of what feels significant here and now, in favor of some other means of making decisions based on our rational calcuation of their ultimate effects?

Maybe that mentality is at the root of our predicament to begin with. For one thing, it is the mentality of money: for the sake of a number representing some end, we direct our time and resources away from the things we care most passionately about. Students do this all the time when they choose a “practical” major instead of studying what they really care about (or leaving school to follow a passion). It is also the mentality in which we harden our hearts and sacrifice this tree, this forest, this animal, this human being because they are in the way of progress.

When we stop doing that and focus instead on what is right in front of us, it does sometimes seem irrational. How can we reconcile that with the feeling of signficance?

The seeming irrationality of our small acts of beauty and service comes from our immersion in a worldview that defines what is rational, practical, and logical. Basically, it says we are separate selves in an external, objective universe that operates by varous forces. With your own relatively puny force, in this external universe, nothing you do matters much. But that world-story is becoming obsolete. When we instead see ourselves as connected beings inseparable from all that is, when we see self and world as inseparable mirrors of each other, then the feeling that our personal acts have cosmic significance is no longer so irrational. It gives a kind of logic to the belief that when any thing changes, all things change. Herein lies validation for the idea that the boatbuilder is creaing a field or template for others to change.

While I could offer many examples that suggest that our individual actions affect the world in ways that defy our normal understanding of causality, and while I could cite some scientific paradigm shifts that seem to invalidate the rigid self-other distinction we operate under, none of these offers any certainty or proof. The cynic can still argue that it doesn't matter and it isn't going to work. You have probably had arguments with such cynics, the realists who explain why any idea isn't likely to succeed. Maybe you argue with your inner cynic, who says the same about any change in your life. Well, all those cynics are right. From within the boundaries of their world-story, it is unlikely to work. A kind of miracle has to happen: for example,  the right person selflessly stepping in to help at the right time, or someone having a change of heart and acting against their rational self-interest.

If we are to have a liveable planet in fifty years, such things have to happen on a massive scale.

In the absence of certainty or proof, how can we overcome cynicism (either inner or outer)? We cannot overcome it. We can, however, address the wound that generates it. Cynicism guards a wound of idealism dashed and hope betrayed. Anything that reawakens our childlike (naïve) knowledge that a more beautiful world is possible generates, alongside the uplifting feeling of hope, an upwelling of fear, grief, and pain. We are afraid we will be disappointed once more. It is much safer not to believe, safer to dismiss it as idealistic, impractical, impossible. From that pain also comes the derisiveness that often accompanies skepticism. That may be why unorthodox scientific theories or phenomena that suggest there is order, intelligence, and purpose in the universe outside ourselves draw such virulent criticism.

Let's do a little experiment. Run the phrase, “Eisenstein is just really naive” through your head a few times, and let yourself enter that state of judgement. What is the feeling mix that comes along with it? You might notice a sense of gratification. You are nobody's fool. You are practical, rational, intelligent. You aren't going to be hoodwinked by naïve emotion into believing in something. What pain are these feelings and judgements a cover for? What hurts?

Only when we face and heal that underlying wound can we stand in our full power as change-makers. Only then can we truly believe in what we seek to create, and bow fully into service to the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible. The cynicism, the gloom, the despair are not obstacles to be overcome.


Image by carlos.a.martinez, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.