Duty to Society, or to Yourself?

Sleeping Bee


Homesteading, Seasteading, Vagabonding, “becoming an off-grid hermit”. In short, rejecting the established ecosystem of society in favor of personal achievement or development. Sometimes in the short-term, sometimes intentionally for the rest of a person’s life. It troubles me deeply.

There’s plenty of internet buzz around the ideas these days, it seems everyone intellectual wants to build a tiny-house and follow a second wave back to the land movement. Homestead off the grid and save the planet! Be ethical and green! Escape the drudgery of societies rat race and forge your own path! It’s an appealing sentiment, especially for smart twenty-somethings who are increasingly facing a lifetime of debt and sky-high living costs in urban centers.

Don’t mistake me, I’ve been following the sirens song for years and trying to get there as soon as I can. I dislike living in a city, especially Vancouver, and I dislike much of our modern social construct. That’s the thrust of what troubles me, though: Is it the duty of the intellectual to try to improve societies failings through interaction? Is it an inherently selfish act to retreat from a broken society instead of working to fix it?

Do we owe society a debt for the time spent in it? Is it our duty to work to keep it running smoothly? Can we just walk away from it with a clean conscience, knowing that there are few cognizant of deeper issues, and even fewer willing to try to change things? Or do we need to put ourselves first, for our own sanity and health. A life has precious little time on this earth, after all, should living that life to its fullest take priority over a ponderous fight against all of the worlds woes?

Is it possible that a “selfish” action in such a daunting context, (such as trading a conventional consumerist role in society, and activism for change, for personal development and the pursuit of personal interests first and foremost), can in fact be interpreted in a positive context and not the traditionally negative one associated with the word?

No matter how “off-grid” a person goes, no matter how far afield they sail or backpack, the vast majority will still be reliant on society, after all. Gear, food, etc, it’s still coming out of the system despite how much you plead to a noble lifestyle.

It’s a hard question to answer, and despite pondering and discussing this theme for years now I still have no conclusions to offer. Perhaps there is no answer.

Musings on Rites of Passage

Several years ago I began a process of introspection to try to understand why I felt so dissatisfied with my life, so hollow, and why it felt as if I could not just “move on” and progress both personally and professionally. After some time and much hand-wringing I concluded that the problem is partly because the way we pass through life is lacking something, that the loss of a cultural “rite of passage” ritual to delineate between childhood and adulthood has for many people resulted in a stunting of their psychological growth.

Think about it: we spend twelve years in schooling, get handed a slip of paper and told we are an “adult”, and then head right back to another four to six years of the same. New responsibilities might arise, such as holding down a job or paying rent, but what real impact do those have? Certainly, I know many people who have been “independent” for several decades, yet are just as irresponsible and immature as they were when they left senior high and still living like their first day in college. Simply having to take care of your most basic daily needs and the legal right to get hammered are not, I believe, a sufficient gateway to truly being an “adult“.

Thus, I decided that I needed to seek out my Rubicon to cross. I decided that without a trial by fire which put all of my skills and knowledge to the test, I would be unable to move on from childhood to adulthood, I would continue to stagnate in this in-between as I saw in so many of my peers. I shifted goals often, moving from the grandiose (and almost certainly deadly) to the simple and achievable.

Eventually, after a long period of acquiring gear and the necessary skills, I decided to attempt a ten-day solo hike of the Stein Traverse. A trek through over one hundred kilometers of pristine alpine and untouched valley bottom, almost unheard of in BC. Even better, I thought to myself as I began the greyhound trip up to Pemberton, that for thousands of years this place had been used by the Nlaka’pamux for exactly what I wanted: a rite of passage. Young men and women would enter the Stein at the end of childhood, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for up to a year,  and when they emerged they were welcomed back into society as adults.

Going into my trip, I’d somewhat pushed my ideas about all this to the back of my mind, mostly out of embarrassment and the fear of being ridiculed. Having experienced what I did, I no longer feel the need for such self-censorship. In the end I cut my trip from ten days to six, pushing my body to (and far beyond) its physical limits in order to survive. I was tested, I was found wanting in many respects, and I was forced to confront my own mortality with no recourse and the very tangible possibility of death.

On my final day in the Stein I was greeted by the dawn as I walked past panel after panel of pictographs, many pre-dating even the Norse expeditions to North America, and the experience was something for which I lack any words which might do justice to it. This last day brought me full circle to my earlier musings however, and cemented my belief that a visceral challenge with clear failure and success states is absolutely necessary for personal development. It need not be anything remotely similar to what I did, in fact I would argue that the process of seeking out a challenge which spoke to me deeply was in itself a critical part of the ordeal.

Four days after I returned from this trip, while still recovering and processing everything I’d been through, I was struck by a car while I was riding my bicycle and sent cartwheeling through the air. Miraculously I walked away from the accident with a handful of scratches and bruises despite witnesses claiming that I visibly bounced off my head. This second near-death experience, in the span of a week, on the same day of the week, powerfully underscored and emphasized the personal lessons I learned during my trip.

Life is short, and shirking responsibility and challenge for idle amusement and bacchanalia is all together too easy in modern society. There is a lack of purpose, a lack of perspective, and a lack of understanding flowing as an undercurrent in everything we do. People are all too willing to take the easy road, especially when dealing with each other, and avoid confrontation of any sort at any cost. I would argue that a struggle, one that that forces you to face death and seriously think about the reality of it and then to survive it without any outside assistance or influence, is a necessity for vanquishing these childish tendencies.