Identity Crisis

SUBHEAD: What to do? Too old to die young, too poor to start anew and the industrial era is nearing its end.

By Guy McPherson on 23 December 2011 for Nature Bats Last - 

Image above: The woodcut shows a pilgrim who, after a long and fruitless spiritual quest for a terrestrial and heavenly paradise, is on his knees. Finally he realizes his helplessness; he now understands Gurdjieff′s dictum, ‟Do all that you can, and then ask God for mercy.″ It is then, at his wits′ end, that the pilgrim may be allowed to see through the shell of appearances, to arrive at an understanding of the fundamental mechanism that lies behind them. He may finally find what he′s been looking for at a place where heaven and earth meet: a power behind and beyond all duality. From (

Self-indulgence is only one of many advantages associated with having a blog of my own. In a rare attempt to avoid drawing further attention to myself, I’ll not list the others.

At least, not now.
As regular readers know by now, I’m a lifelong educator. In fact, the most common insult hurled my way by anonymous online commentators is “lifelong academic.”
Ouch. That hurts.

In the hallowed halls, ego is everything. Indeed, it’s difficult for me to imagine a profession that selects, to a greater extent than academia, for a huge ego. Shepherding a single refereed journal article through the process of publication builds more callus tissue than swinging a pick and shovel for two years.

Multiply by dozens of articles, hundreds of public presentations, and a handful of books, and you can begin to understand why the average academic has an ego slightly larger than hell and half of Asia.

Thirty months into a new life devoid of regular interaction with inmates and honors students, I’m having the sort of identity crisis described by Dmitry Orlov in his excellent book, Reinventing Collapse. According to Orlov, middle-aged men — specifically those aged 45 to 55, nicely bracketing the age I departed the ivory tower (49) and my current age (51) — experienced the highest rate of mortality as the Soviet Union collapsed.

The two most common causes: suicide and suicide by alcohol. I doubt I’ll go either route, but it’s easy to understand why Family Providers would experience suicidal depression when their ability to provide for their families slips away like a cat-burglar in the dead of night.

The issue of identity (i.e., ego) is far worse in the United States than the situation described by Orlov in the Soviet Union.

As becomes apparent this time of year, when casual conversation is on the menu during every seasonal festivity, our identities are completely bundled with how we earn money. What do you think people mean when they ask, “What do you do?” In every case with which I’m familiar, they are inquiring how I earn money.

Knowing where the entire enterprise of generating cash is headed, I tell people I’m a sharecropper and organic gardener. Oh, and by the way, that right hand of mine, the one you just shook, milked two goats this morning. Then I ask people what they love.

I can suck the air out of room — any room, regardless of size or number of people present — in a matter of seconds.

I’m a sharecropper, organic gardener, and milker of goats, as well as a democrat, a republican, a liberal, a conservative, a radical, an idealist, a pragmatist, a teacher, a mentor, a scientist, a writer, a skeptic, a scholar, a cheese-maker, a son, a brother, a husband, a lover, and a human animal. I’m comfortable with my beliefs and personal philosophy.

I’ve thought deeply about my tiny place in this enormous universe, and I’ve come to value humility over hubris. And still I’m having an identity crisis. A crisis of confidence.

An ego-crushing moment. The longer the industrial economy lasts, the more my identify is pummeled, along with my hope for the living planet. Every day under the rule of Athena drives me further into despair. It’s as if my ego were a proxy for the planetary rate of extinction.

Considering the effort I’ve put into defining myself and my place in the universe, I can only imagine the difficulty ahead for the typical American drone. He values his imperial role and fails to recognize the empire for what it is.

He gets his news from the television and affiliated media outlets and fails to recognize that form of propaganda for what it is. His sense of entitlement is exceeded only by his ignorance of the role nature plays in his survival. And yet, he’s ahead of me.

After all, unlike the American drone, I’m clueless about what to do. I’ve invested heavily in a reasonably sane set of living arrangements, only to have nature call me further down her path. I’m attempting to serve as a witness, and occasionally a warrior, as the living planet tries to survive the insults of industry.

I’m trying to show another — hence, contrarian — way, for a world gone mad. And in return, I’m unappreciated as never before in memory (including even my final decade at the university as viewed through the lens of my dean and department head).

I recognize the necessity of total revolution, but I don’t yet see it. The wisdom of activist spiritual teacher Vimala Thakar surfaces in my mind: “In a time when the survival of the human race is in question, to continue with the status quo is to cooperate with insanity, to contribute to chaos. When darkness engulfs the spirit of the people, it is urgent for concerned people to awaken, to rise to revolution.”

Obviously, Thakar was an optimist. I love her inclusive approach. And although darkness has engulfed the spirit of the people, I fail to see the awakening at a scale relevant to the task at hand. Impatience grows within me.

With the exception of plunging into the wild or continuing to serve as an unappreciated model immersed in agrarian anarchy, my options are limited. I’m too old to die young, and it’s very late to start anew.

Returning to the civilized life of an educator has limited appeal and prospects that are even more limited, considering the general perspective on my sanity (or lack thereof). And then there’s the moral imperative I feel, well expressed by social reformer and statesman Frederick Douglass: “I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and to incur my own abhorrence.”

Where does this lead? In my case, to utter confusion. As was recently pointed out to me by somebody a little older than me, and a lot a wiser, “in the end it doesn’t matter who you’re with if you can’t unlock the contents of your own skull.”
Which takes us right back to me and my sel
f-indulgence. What to do, in the limited time left at my disposal? The temporal limitations come in two forms: (1) I’m too old to die young (and also too poor to start anew) and (2) the industrial era is nearing its end. Without fuel at the filling stations and water coming out the taps, paid positions at small, selective, liberal-arts colleges will be hard to come by (and meaningless).

The day is coming far sooner than most people think. With luck, the forthcoming Lehman-on-steroids moment will make the decision on my behalf, and soon. If this latter statement reveals my cowardice, then it also indicates the extreme nature of my indecision.


leftygoleftier said...

To wish for the collapse to come just to be right about it is very egotistical FYI, there will be immense suffering by many whether you think they are mindless drones or compassionate humans. There is still a myriad of possibilities for the future of humans and their interaction with this planet, and the reality of what happens is of our own making individually and collectively and if you are projecting a negative reality you are part of the problem more than the solution. It's not being positive to ignore the signs of whats happening and spending your days living in denial, but its not being positive hoping for the worst just to be proven right either.

Juan Wilson said...

Noah's job was tough.

Gelfling said...


I have a great respect for educators, especially those willing to encourage students to venture beyond the norms of society. Also i value introspective and thoughtful living.

During a time of identity crisis, whether teenage or otherwise, my advice is counterintuitive. Instead of looking deeply into yourself for the answers, work with something outside yourself. For instance, if you can volunteer some time with children helping them read, or sharing tea and stories with folks at the senior home. Or volunteer to help out folks like me (young 30s) teaching us how to do organic gardening! I have found that your subconscious will figure out your identity if you give it some time alone.

Or if rather than (or in addition to) a search for self you are in a search for additional providing for your family, there is an hour-for-hour program my mom really likes: (i cannot personally vouch for it, i just like the idea.) You have probably already heard of it!

If it does nothing more than make connections with your community, it's still a win. Although there may be dark days ahead, the small campfires will seem brighter, and your friends and family huddled around them all the more precious. =)

Anonymous said...

I was made redundant age 48. Did volunteer work for a charity. Now age 57 & 4 years into a new career. Stop the self pity & start anew.

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