James A. Pearson

Good writing is good thinking.

Best Of

The best, of course, is yet to come (I have some great stories pending publication and in process), but here are some of my favorite pieces from recent years.

From Here You Can See Everything is an essay I published in The Morning News about consumer media’s evolution as an attentional parasite.

On Medium I’ve written about a factory collapse in Bangladesh, the consumerization of American myth, and the genius of Elon Musk.

After seven years in Uganda and a very long Sunday I wrote A Marathon in Uganda as a meditation on running, death, and life.

To Take Flight Every Day!

All progress towards a better world begins with internal work, spiritual work, even if you’re like me and not so sure you believe in spirits.

“To take flight every day! At least for a moment, which may be brief, as long as it is intense. A “spiritual exercise” every day—either alone, or in the company of someone who also wishes to better himself. Spiritual exercises. Step out of duration… Try to get rid of your passions, vanities, and the itch for talk about your own name, which sometimes burns you like a chronic disease. Avoid backbiting. Get rid of pity and hatred. Love all free human beings. Become eternal by transcending yourself.

“This work on yourself is necessary; this ambition justified. Lots of people let themselves be wholly absorbed by militant politics and the preparation for social revolution. Rare, much more rare, are they who, in order to prepare for the revolution, are willing to make themselves worthy of it.”

- Georges Friedmann

Modern Tribes and Battles

With the Super Bowl coming up, this description of modern tribalism from EO Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth seems timely:

Modern groups are psychologically equivalent to the tribes of ancient history and prehistory…

People around the world today, growing cautious of war and fearful of its consequences, have turned increasingly to its moral equivalent in team sports. Their thirst for group membership an superiority of their group can be satisfied with victories by their warriors in clashes on ritualized battlefields… The fans are lifted seeing the uniforms and symbols and battle gear of their team, the championship cups and banners on display, the dancing semi nude maidens appropriately called cheerleaders. Some of the fans wear bizarre costumes with face makeup in homage to their team. They attend triumphant galas after victories. Many, especially of warrior and maiden age, shed all restraint to join in the spirit of the battle and the joyous mayhem afterward.

A Marathon in Uganda

1896_Olympic_marathon

On a hot Ugandan morning last fall, face slack with exhaustion, I crossed the finish line of my first marathon, the Kampala International Marathon in the country’s hilly capital. Some smiling friends walked over to congratulate me. I promptly excused myself and found a shady, lonely spot and broke down: tears, sobs, my face hidden in my sweaty, bloody, disgusting shirt.

I moved to Uganda from the United States in early 2006 to work with Invisible Children, the non-profit group that last year got the whole world talking about Uganda with their ‘Kony 2012′ viral video. Much of my work was in the internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in the devastated north of the country. For me, a suburban kid from southern California, the camps were a baptism into the opposite of eternity.

IDP camps are for people who flee their homes but don’t cross an international border, and like refugee camps they are usually terrible places to try to live. Northern Uganda’s IDP camps were especially appalling, with population densities rivaling Manhattan but without all the plumbing, sanitation, water and food systems that make such densities viable. People were confined to this squalor by strict curfews and men with guns. Estimates vary, but it’s a good bet that over two decades of civil war more people died from the poverty, malnutrition, and disease of the camps than at the hands of Kony’s rebels.

The first time I ever bought a coffin was for someone in the camps, and the first time I ever dug a grave was just outside Awer IDP camp, with rough shovels and hoes under a banshee blue sky.

That the 26.2-mile race would happen at all was officially announced only three weeks before race day (which if you’ve ever trained for a marathon you know is at least three months too late). And the race itself started 20 minutes earlier than announced, as competitors still jogged up to the start line—the first event I’ve attended in my seven years in Uganda that started early.

About three miles into the race the elite half-marathoners rushed by like a wind of disembodied athleticism. Even my own rookie legs felt less beholden to the usual entropic laws. They lapped up miles happily. I hit the six-mile mark before I thought I had run three. When the half-marathon route broke off, leaving us scattered few marathoners behind, I settled into a smooth, quick pace. Faster, I knew, than I had ever run such distance before, but in the moment I felt inexhaustible. A Ugandan man in a black knit cap and knock-off Converse settled into the same stride next to me. He wore no racing bib or number.

After living two years in northern Uganda I started a humanitarian business in the country’s capital, sourcing crafts from women who had fled the civil war up north and selling them to store owners in America. For the last five years I’ve split my life almost evenly between the two worlds: a Ugandan slum where the claustrophobia of poverty is always circling, and a middle-class America where everything is increasingly on offer all the time, where ideas are possible until proven otherwise, where thoughts scale virally, immediately, infinitely across the network. For over seven years I have held these two distantly polar worlds inside of me, their irreconcilability a deep, thrumming tension in my chest.

At mile 15 I started to bleed. A little bump on the skin of my left pectoral opened up to the constant rubbing of my shirt and made a growing red dot on my shirt’s chest. I pulled off the shirt and watched my blood mix with sweat in rivulets down my torso before it finally stopped flowing. By mile 16 my legs were going soft, like someone was holding open a valve and letting the pressure slowly out. On a long, hot straightaway of unusually well-paved road my mysterious running partner huffed, ‘Let me walk,’ and disappeared. I was alone with the sun and the road and my body.

Biola, ageless between 50 and 70, was one of the Uganda women I partnered with. She could outdance all comers and whenever I approached she would break into a laugh that held all the joy and absurdity of our cross-cultural, cross-generational, cross-lingual friendship. Her buoyancy was my optimism in working in Uganda. Then one day she was almost dead. She was unresponsive in her small house high up a steep dirt hill. Boils had broken out all over her skin. Her adult son, squatting with me in the darkness of her room, seemed resigned to whatever fate she was approaching.

Why didn’t he take her to the hospital? I asked. No money, was the response. In my mind this could not be true, not with the same finality that threatened his mother, not when we have so much of the world at our wired fingertips. We carried Biola, almost weightless, down the steep, rocky trail from her house and took her to the hospital. There she laid for hours on the very teetering edge of death, threatening every moment to fall forward into darkness. Instead she fell back into life and today still laughs and dances in her ageless way.

At mile 20 my legs went flat. I was driving on rims. My elastic system of muscle and tendon had withered to a barely animate skeleton, all bone and joint and shockwaves to the hips. After three hours of running I had found the hard boundaries of my physiology.

In normal American middle-class life we almost never meet our actual physical limits. We get tired, of course, and hungry, and sometimes we breathe hard. But even when we push ourselves it’s almost always to a point far short of our biology’s final edge. The sort of poverty you find in IDP camps or Uganda’s slums, on the other hand, is precisely a confrontation with real biological limits, of getting enough food and shelter and clean water to keep a family’s bodies alive.

For the final hour-and-a-half of the race I treadmilled into my own hard physical limits. I warred with them. I threw myself against them over and over again, sometimes with primal yells and attempted bursts of speed, and every time I was quickly, unflinchingly rebuffed.

Wordlessly the facts of those limits seeped into me, like the spreading of a deep bruise: the fact of having and being contingent upon a body—that I am local and temporal and, ultimately, mortal.

The strangest part of having a body is that we boot up into this clunky hardware minds that feel limitless. They can crawl into the past, can cast themselves into the future, can fly to the furthest edges of our universe and invent new universes of their own. They can even pull and cajole our bodies to new heights. Training for marathons and climbing out of poverty are both, firstly, victories of the mind. Both are battles against entropy, battles against encroaching physical limits, battles for life.

But even our expansive minds are contingent on the mushy physicality of our brains. Victories of the mind are inevitably short victories, battles won in the long defeat. Our minds might contemplate eternity, but they will follow our bodies to rest.

The marathon course was routed a bit too long, and when there should have been only a mile left there were actually three, uphill and in the sun. It was a cruel twist and the final confrontation of mind and flesh. I kept moving forward but, in a sort of treaty of the self, only at the creeping pace dictated by my spent body. Finally, in the last 30 yards, with cheers coming from the stands, I found the strength to kick my legs back and close with a runner’s stride. And then I broke down.

And maybe that’s the meaning of the marathon, the unification in a single morning of boundary and transcendence, victory and defeat, life and death. A reminder that, like Biola, we might as well dance on the hard slope of mortality.

Consider the legend of the first marathon. A courier named Pheidippides ran 25 miles from Marathon to Athens, seat of reason and democracy, to bring news of an impossible Greek victory over the invading Persians. “Rejoice, we conquer!” he shouted when he entered the heart of the city. And then he died.

Conscience Laundering: The Nonprofit-Industrial Complex

Warren Buffet’s son Peter has a brave and cutting op-ed in the New York Times today, about how the industry of charity is more a way to relieve the consciences of the top 1% than the woes of the bottom 10%. Here’s an excerpt, and make sure to read the whole thing.

As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” It’s what I would call “conscience laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.

Pair this with Slavoj Zizek’s RSA video on the same topic. Pretty compelling stuff.

Love in the Time of Atheism

[Originally published on Medium]

A good friend just sent around this post about love from Marianne Williamson, (she who, rather than Nelson Mandela, said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” etc.) in which she waxes that the bright connectedness of romantic encounter is, spiritually speaking, far more real than the typical separation between individuals.

To call either the high of romantic encounter or the separation between egos unreal is, I think, to miss reality. Both, insomuch as they are really experienced by real minds and hearts, are utterly and unassailably real.

That romantic love is, from a scientific point of view, a neurochemical process is also just plain true. It’s a mutual addiction between two people, a dopmanie- and oxytocin-fueled persistent mutual desire. The question is, Is love also more than this?

At this point in my, like, cosmology, I don’t reserve a place outside of nature for heaven or hell or God or karma. None of us can be certain about such things, of course, but as far as I’ve been able to see, this old and enormous universe and our tiny, short place in it are all we get. If I’m proven wrong with streets of gold, so much the better.

So natural things, then, are all there are, from my point of view. And love, then, is a natural thing, a biological and neurological happening in a person. Let’s widen the perspective from romantic love to all natural loves—romantic love, mother-child love, brotherly or familial love, tribal or community allegiance, etc. All of these have roughly the same origins, naturally speaking.

A funny thing about our biological systems is that they don’t only hit the targets they evolved to hit. There’s usually a distinct evolutionary purpose to a system that is strong enough to sort of pull it into existence across generations, but once it’s in place it often also fires in other ways, too. Take, for instance, the immune system. Obviously it’s extremely biologically important. It keeps us alive. But it also causes me allergies and tries to close my airways with asthma. It misfires.

Love, too, I think, misfires. I think that part of our extreme susceptibility, as a species, to chemical addictions is because evolution has kept a path open for the sort of chemical addictions that are foundational to the natural loves. Other chemicals just travel that path and, bang, we can’t get enough.

But love also has a positive misfiring. To my mind, the most positive misfiring. The sort of connection that we find with a lover in the first waves of romantic encounter makes another person, often for the first time in our lives, as real and salient and important in our little worlds as ourselves. And then again at childbirth, suddenly the very centers our worlds crack open and allow another person residence.

And what we’ve learned as a human culture is that when we bring another person into that molten core of our lives, all sorts of things happen, both challenging and wonderful, and the consensus is, more wonderful than challenging.

Biologically, one thing that happens is that our brains, flooded with love’s chemicals, enter a sort of second childhood during which they are flexible to change dramatically, to help us align our lives with each other. (Protip: If you want to learn a new language, meet a lover who speaks it. It’ll never be easier.) And on a more interpersonal level, love drives us to create the bonds of mutual care that preserve us when we are sick or weak or tired, and that magnify our joys.

And here’s the positive misfiring. What we have learned over time is that, if we can expand the circle of our love, by our own force of will and teaching and cultural passing-down, if we can invite more and more people to take up residence closer and closer to that molten center of our lives, then we can expand the sort of understanding and care that love naturally builds. And so, over the past centuries, the circles of our love have slowly grown, from families to communities to countries to all of humanity and the whole living world.

Of course we haven’t yet perfected the love of the whole world. Far, far, far from it. But we’re moving in that direction, creating the first fragile strands of a web of love that could support the planet. So, even though I believe that love is wholly natural thing, in expanding it ever further from its evolutionary purpose we have made it the world’s closest thing to supernatural.

Excerpt from an interview I did with Scribes United (read the whole thing here):

I’m a middle-class white American guy who grew up in 1980s Southern California. So I have this social wiring that goes way back, and it’s really classically 80s American, with the power-suit capitalist Wall Street aspirational imagery, with Tony the Tiger and Thundercats thrown in for commercial entertainment, and with a near celebration of addictive and consumerist behavior. It’s all in there. And then there’s this whole other world that I’ve been learning since traveling to Nepal halfway through college, and in this world life and death often hang on like a $10 balance, and also on that balance are just as much love and joy and suffering and hope and longing as are in an American life, and the balance is three Starbucks drinks from tipping into oblivion.

And despite living in that second world now for a good chunk of time, I’m still media-addicted with consumerist impulses and these images of what a successful American male life looks like that have just no bearing whatsoever on the whole life/death balance thing.

And the big secret that’s out in most of the world but that we’re still keeping in America is that those two worlds, the 80s American fever dream and the subsistence farmers of Nepal and Uganda, are really, really connected.

If a Factory Falls in Bangladesh, Does it Make a Sound?

bangladesh_2image from Solidarity Center on flickr

This piece was originally published on Medium.

I remember hearing the story of a man who survived 9/11. He raced down the stairs of one of the towers and was in a mall in the basement when things started to collapse—he described the sound of a million tons of steel and concrete roaring down on top of him. Thousands died in that sound. He survived.

His story was a tiny, inexplicable point of light in a black day, an asterisk in a book we’d rather give back, a footnote miracle. The larger story is one we all know—a region made turbulent by fundamentalists and oil money, a global network of extremists, a plan that worked horrifically well. It’s a story of terrorism.

There were footnote miracles in Bangladesh last week after a garment factory collapsed and killed hundreds of the people who make clothes to stock our shelves. Photos show volunteers evacuating survivors on makeshift fabric slides. But the larger story is a building on the brink of crumbling, a country where standards and enforcement are loose, a factory owner competing for the low-margin business of multinational companies, over 1,000 dead, injured, and trapped. This is a story of the global consumer economy. It’s a story, in part, about us.

There’s a happy ignorance we bring to our shopping. Walking through a Walmart or a Target or an H&M we know that all these clothes must have been made somewhere, by someone. We know that ours are not the first hands to touch them. But we don’t ask, and the stores don’t tell, and we’re all fine with that arrangement.

But without knowing the true stories behind products, we’re more likely to shop on price. And when we opt consistently for lower-cost goods we put pressure on companies to source goods at lower prices, and they put pressure on their suppliers, like the factory owner in Bangladesh, who in turn forgoes building repairs and forces his employees to work even when the walls start to crack.

His decisions, of course, are his responsibility. But we have a role in this story. We—each of us agents of the global consumer economy—are the historical force that sets the stage for the play. We are like the New World or King Cotton or Manifest Destiny. We’re a force comprised of a billion little decisions a day. And we each have one big decision to make. We can cover our eyes and let blind market forces trade falling factories for dropping prices. Or we can, slowly through a thousand little, personal steps, figure out a better, more just way of living on this crowded planet.

We’ll probably never completely rid the world of factories like that. But I imagine the sound of the Bangladeshi factory collapsing was a lot like the sound of the World Trade Center coming down—the terrible roar of injustice. And for my part, I want no role in making a sound like that.

From Here You Can See Everything

This piece I wrote about my battles with American consumer media was published in The Morning News. Click here to read the whole thing.

It’s probably clear to anyone over the age of 18 or so that content has undergone a sort of Incredible Hulk de-evolution that makes it both dumber and somehow also much more powerful. A good example of this (brought to my attention by a random post on Facebook) is TLC, founded as The Learning Channel by the former Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare, together with NASA, to enrich American minds, but which now grips American eyeballs with Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. Ratings, no doubt, are up.

The media of my childhood, mostly weekly television shows and overused VHS tapes, was like a good pet. Sure, it was a little costly to keep around, but it was lovable, and I could always shut it out in the yard for a while. Now, though, media is always with me, always trying to snag my attention and siphon away as much as possible to sell to advertisers. It feels like it’s evolved from a cute little pet into a frighteningly efficient parasite.

Media has all the basic necessaries of an evolutionary form. Take television. It reproduces episode by episode and season by season, with variation, under the weight of the selective pressure of ratings. And unlike genes, which can only reproduce vertically from generation to generation, the elements of television can propagate laterally, as networks copy each other, spreading beneficial traits more rapidly across the medium. Shows that succeed in the ratings game survive and reproduce for another season and are copied, while shows that fail are killed. It seems newish series like Honey Boo Boo and Hoarders and Storage Wars have evolved some sort of primordial cocktail of novelty and faux voyeurism that, when delivered with quick edits and dramatic Muzak, is nearly irresistible to a large subset of American eyeballs.

In Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace imagines a film (also called Infinite Jest) so entertaining that anyone who starts watching it will die watching it, smiling vacantly at the screen in a pool of their own soiling. It’s the ultimate gripper of eyeballs.

Read the rest in The Morning News.

A Marathon, A Bomb, and A Long Race

Boston Marathon Bombing
photo from flickr

By the 22nd mile of the Kampala Marathon last fall I realized I had reached the final limits of my body. Each further step was a bitter negotiation with my skeleton, my muscles, my neural pathways—they tried to shut the whole system down; I pleaded and commanded and tantrumed to keep it moving, at least one more step, over and over and over.

Yesterday in Boston, before the explosions, athletes far better than me made their own negotiations. At the excruciating frontiers to which marathons push us we struggle not only with our bodies, but with embodiment, our vast souls stuck with these little legs, little lungs, these short little lives. The stride of a runner near the end of a marathon is a practice in transcending the body, a skate along the edge of mortality.

Then some scared and desperate soul set off two bombs, killing three people and injuring almost 200. He (it was almost certainly a he, wasn’t it) wanted to inject death into a day of life, to bring a city and perhaps a country face to face with our own final fragility. To what ends, we don’t yet know.

Tragically he took a few lives, and forever changed some. But death did not win the day. When 78-year-old Bill Iffrig was knocked down by the explosion only yards from the finish line, then got back up and finished the Boston Marathon, it was clear that death did not win the day. And when bystanders rushed into the smoke, dismantling guard rails on their way, to start aiding those who were injured, it was clear that death did not win the day. And when runners finished the marathon and kept running to the nearest hospital to donate blood for the victims, it was clear that death did not win the day.

There is a longer race we all run. And we, too, court our own mortality, a mortality of the human spirit. In this race we are confronted with the boundary between the love and courage that define us at our best, and the waste of fear and violence that lies beyond. Acts like the Boston bombing aim to knock us into our own darkness. It is up to us whether we stop, give up, let death take the story. Or whether we get up, rush into the smoke, and keep running towards love.

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