Rewriting Your Story: Why Would You Want To Do That?

These days it seems increasingly mystifying how polarized humans have become, and not just in these United States. “I don’t understand how you can believe that!” comes out of the mouths of the most conservative to the most liberal of us. And the damage is to virtually every challenge we face, from the health of the citizens to the health of the planet. Solutions are deadlocked in bickering over what’s true and what’s not. Social media isn’t helping. It can be quite caustic and anything but “social,” in large part because we like to be told our opinion is the right one. Call it confirmation bias or whatever, I just want my story, my narrative, to be validated because it defines me. Turns out the geniuses in the social media world have figured out ways to fine tune information to do just that – validate our beliefs, regardless of where it is on the Crazy Scale. Of course, manipulation through media is nothing new. It’s just evolved, perhaps to our peril.

Let me say at the outset that this post is not based on any particular knowledge of psychiatry or psychology. This is purely OOG – Observations of an Old Guy. To some extent, my avoidance of psychology was deliberate. Back in the late Sixties I chose joining the Air Force instead of going the psych/liberal arts route in school that seemed the preferred track for those who had no clue what they path they wanted to pursue; they were just fairly certain, I presume, that it wasn’t backpacking in Viet Nam. I may have at one point thought of a career in the Air Force, but over time it became clear that this was not the environment that fit my ever-evolving world view. Fast-forward to post-military life, I ended up in the solar energy field that morphed into the pursuit of all things “green.” This is a long-winded and circuitous path to say that, while it could be argued that just living requires ample applications of psychology, I’m not a psychologist, and spending the night in a Holiday Inn Express didn’t change that.

At a point that seems a lifetime ago, I participated in one of the “self-improvement” seminars that grew out of EST and Life Spring, human potential seminars ostensibly meant to get one in touch with oneself at a deep level and, in their own unique way, save the world. But it more often felt like civilian boot camp, an effort to shred one’s ego and put the pieces back in a more life-enhancing structure. It was admittedly painful, although not as physically painful as getting up at 5 A.M. in military boot camp to jog in combat boots. Still, there were concepts in that seminar that have stuck with me to this day. One of those is stubborn adherence to my personal narrative – “that’s the story I’m telling myself.” I suppose it could be argued that this “training” was one effective way to change that story. Other longer-term methods like, say, military basic training or private school are similarly effective.

Who I am – the self-concept part of ego – is a complex, intricately woven patchwork of experiences, external inputs to “the story I’m telling myself”: how I was raised in the Heartland of America; influences of other humans through relationships or the written word; moments of clarity surrounded by Nature. Here are five of the macro points of view that form part of my narrative, my story:

  1. “Everything is connected,” the subtext of this blog. Sometimes it becomes a head-exploding exercise to consider the consequences of any particular human action – “if this, then…” In green building, or sustainability, it’s been an illusive goal. There are consequences to burning fossil fuels, but also from producing solar electric panels. The question is, which path best sustains us indefinitely, and in a way that is worth spending time on the planet? It seems that the answer lies in emulating Nature, which worked for millennia without our help (see “Biomimicry”).
  2. Science is a tool for understanding, and better understanding begets a better world. The Dalai Lama once posited, “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” Refreshing. Put another way, scientific conclusions that upend my narrative don’t qualify as “fake news.” I have a friend in the building science world who teaches the finer points of physics as it relates to how buildings work, or don’t work. He makes a point during his trainings that physics doesn’t care if you believe in it or not. Denying it is a bit like saying that gravity pisses you off.
  3. Technology can be great, or not, but it’s not the ultimate answer to our survival.
  4. Organizations take on the characteristics of their leaders. That is, it seems more likely that an organization could be transformed by its leadership than the other way around. In any case, I’ve witnessed this phenomenon from the board of directors of churches and professional organizations to corporations and
  5. Nature always wins. If you spend any time in the garden, you know this to be true.

Back to the title question: why would you want to change your story? I can think of a few reasons, survival being one. But it’s not easy. More likely than not, it would take an experience, not a FaceBook post. Or it could be just a desire to get to the truth of an issue. Regarding that, many of our leaders have a remarkable lack of curiosity. That seems to be counterproductive, but I’m sure they’re very busy.

One place I’ve discovered a challenge to my “story” is in the practice of recycling (please refer to Grand Concept #1 above) and its general benefits. When it comes to recycling, as I’m ripping the plastic spout out of the milk carton before tossing the container in the recycling basket, know that I’m not so deluded as to believe that this single action is going to save the world, even if I did it every day for the rest of my life. Obsessive, perhaps, but not deluded. My recycling does reduce the piles of trash in the landfill, admittedly by an infinitesimally small amount. But there is also that feeling of contributing – or, in this case, not negatively contributing – to the health of the planet, a feeling that far outweighs the actual impact.

In our house we toss, on average, one kitchen trash bag a week in the landfill, and recycle a full 100-gallon receptacle every two weeks. I’m not boasting. We’re only two adults – allegedly – so we don’t generate the same amount of trash as a family of four with babies/kids/teenagers; we’re particularly grateful about the no-teenagers thing, as well as the dirty diaper thing. For us, dirty diapers evolved from the cloth version (the details of which will be bypassed) to the “toss the crap in the trash” version. But, as I am wont to do, I digress.

Recycling costs more than dumping in the landfill. Specifically, it costs around $50 per ton to throw trash in the landfill. The cost to recycle can be as much as $150 a ton. This is often used in the argument against recycling programs. But, as you might imagine, it’s not that simple. That $28-per-ton only applies to dumping in a landfill. But let’s face it. Throwing stuff “away” is a problem, because there is no such thing as “away.” If the stuff we discarded reverted back to a natural resource to be used again and again, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Nature has a very efficient method for survival, left to her own devices. It’s called, simply, “waste equals food.” Input equals output (OK, there’s that entropy thing, but let’s not split hairs). If that formula was honored, the only thing we would have to worry about is that stray asteroid with our name on it. The point is, all trash ends up somewhere, and often in places other than the “neatly contained” landfills. As for landfills, we have plenty of room for them, which is a convenient fact until a landfill is proposed down the road from your home, or close to your fresh water source. But we know trash ends up in places other than the designated repositories, and the consequences of that random dispersal affect our water and air quality, our food supply, wildlife and aquatic eco-systems.

Chipping away at my particular point of view, recycling is, at best, a partial solution and not a panacea for environmental recovery. It’s expensive, complicated and has its own set of environmental impacts. A better solution is reuse of materials, and the best one is avoiding the waste problem at the source through improvements in packaging material and bulk. Reduce, reuse and recycle. If I got stuck on the feel-good “story” that recycling is an end game, I’d miss the real problem. Like so many of the global problems, solutions, if they come at all, will come at the end of a continuous quest for improvement.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes to mind when discussing the consequences of random dispersal of trash.

Perhaps it’s worth noting that, even if the act of recycling is only marginally impactful, it does fit an attitude of seeking a better way to ensure that our kids and grandkids – and beyond – get to enjoy the gifts that we have enjoyed. Is this “rewriting my story?” Not really. At best, it’s adjusting my point of view with added information. As another snippet from that seminar in the Eighties reminds me, “this is just my insane way of looking at things.” You can take that to the bank.