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What If?

As I walked up the hill this morning to work a few hours in my family’s half-acre urban farm, my head was sore from a stampede of news: Syria in the crosshairs of the White House; economies swaying precariously like ten-foot stacks of Jenga blocks ready to fall; the open wound at Fukushima; the deepening trauma of unemployment around the country, and so on.

When I arrived, I tried to discuss the latest with the green beans and winter squashes. They just politely changed the subject.

“Here, have some food,” they said. “It will make you feel better.”

And you know, it did. By the time I came down to take up writing this post I was ready to focus on the really important parts of the conversation. No doubt, we have pressing matters on our collective agenda, but it is nice to know the eggplants can show us how to keep a level head.

The Jailbreak Journals is dedicated to discussing three very big ideas:

--We are not free people (sorry);

--We are our own jailers (via stubborn attachment to mistaken thoughts and beliefs about the “way things are and must be”);

--There is a way out, and it’s past time to get serious about finding it.

We are in desperate, urgent need of a jailbreak. The economic, environmental, social, geopolitical, psychological and emotional consequences of remaining behind bars—consequences that in more prosperous times were easier to compartmentalize and contain—have now converged to create one giant tipping point we can no longer ignore, as much as we’d like to.

Bottom line: Our brand of civilization is on very, very thin ice.

There is a palpable sense of this reality in our society now. Everywhere you look you’ll find people in a state of strained fatigue and volatility, even as they cling to the illusion that everything is fine. In the opening chapters of Fellowship of the Ring Bilbo Baggins has lived an unnaturally long life, supported by dark magic in the form of a “ring of power” he found in Gollum’s cave. When the cost of that unwitting alliance begins to catch up with him, he describes it to Gandalf as the feeling of being “butter scraped over too much bread.” Go into any Wal-Mart in the land and you will recognize that metaphor in almost everyone you meet.

That’s because we are under a spell too—a ring of assumptions about ourselves and the world that have appeared to grant us magical power over the limitations our ancestors lived under for millennia. As Daniel Quinn wrote in Ishmael, we’ve assumed that falling in a homemade cardboard airplane is the same thing as flying (just because it happens to take a long time to hit the ground). The airplane itself is made of assumptions—and we’ve believed them for so long that we’ve lost the ability to even see them, much less question them meaningfully.

If we are honest, we know perfectly well that we are long overdue for a radical change in our living arrangements, even at the cost of letting go of some things we presently think we can’t live without. The truth is, history is likely to demand that we hand them over anyway, so we might as well cooperate voluntarily.

Which begs the questions: How? What now? These are the threads I propose that we pull on together in The Jailbreak Journals.

To begin, we must acknowledge that, just because we catch on that we are all in this self-imposed jail together doesn’t mean we agree about how to plan an escape. Even among people who have started waking up to the awareness that something is deeply wrong with the world as we’ve made it, there are strong magnetic poles pulling us in one direction or another.

At one end are those who think it is time to lock and load and do what oppressed people have always done: find somebody to blame and make them pay. At the opposite extreme are people who are devoted to fixing what is broken from within, using the traditional tools of civil discourse and participatory politics. Both camps have reason on their side and offer compelling arguments—and both are equally doomed to miss the true opportunity now before us.

That’s because both approaches leave the walls and the guard towers and the barbed wire of habitual thinking and belief untouched. It’s as if the inmates down at the penitentiary have chosen teams on the basketball court in the sad belief that the winners get to go home and everything will go back to the way it was before their incarceration. 

Let’s be clear: There is a time for direct action, though I will always prefer the way of non-violent non-cooperation to throwing rocks and breaking things. And there is a time to influence history in committee meetings and well-crafted legislation. The jailbreak I advocate will empower both, and everything in between.

But the conversation we’ve begun in The Jailbreak Journals is not another argument over who gets to sit behind the steering wheel of our “flying machine” society—and how best to get it away from the people presently driving like drunken lunatics. Our purpose is to question the very concepts that led us to build the contraption in the first place.

For instance, what if our ideas about the nature of reality are in need of an upgrade? What if the mess we have made is not just a matter of mismanagement, but is a reflection of deeply held misguided beliefs about the world that will always give us the same misshapen results until we learn to think something new? What if we still don’t understand the power that resides in a single human being who has decided to be free?

What if Martin Luther King, Jr. had believed that black people were hopelessly broken and powerless, victims of unassailable racism in America? Would we know his name today? Yes, he actively and courageously marched and he organized—but it was his belief in a better way, in a better human, black and white, that led him to stand up and say, “I have a dream…”

What dreams are still unspoken because we have not yet dared to believe they are possible and within reach? What quantum leaps might we take if we do?

Let’s find out! Let’s break out of the prison we’ve built of thoughts and beliefs that can no longer hold us.

I invite you to add your voice to the conversation.

Bended prison bars image via shutterstock. Reproduced at Resilience.org with permission.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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