The sleek apparatus we call progress has failed us. The signs are all around, if we but dare heed them. I’m very clear, for instance, that the curdling of country lanes into frost-heaved mogul courses should be a bygone phenomenon. You shouldn’t be forced to drink the day’s first cup of coffee while your kidneys are undergoing paratrooper training. Similarly, had progress been successful, tests of the Emergency Broadcast System would have been moot by now, lawyers would be blowing our minds with ever more efficient and transparent mechanisms of cooperation, and food would be both everywhere abundant and perishable.
These shortcomings are trivial, however, compared to the full-blown letdown.
We know progress hasn’t delivered on its promises, first and foremost, because messiness endures. Not group text messages or awkward high school photos that surreptitiously find their way to the Internet, but Grade A messiness– moments in which we are up to our knees in the raw yolks of our pain, when our most practiced visages come flying apart and a whole lot of we-don’t-even-know-what stumbles out into the open. The jail that once housed our worst fears is blown apart, and our polished presentation of selfhood is preempted by a gritty parade– pouring straight from us– of shame-faced beggars, pompous actuaries, neglected children, and hyped-up prima donnas. The whole sordid collection.
Progress was meant to save us from that unmasking. Part of the deal was that, if we applied ourselves, we’d be able to maintain a sense of reasonableness and decorum throughout. That gnawing black hole following us all around– full of horrible, no-good, very bad nothings– would fade from memory. Our merit badges would shine it into oblivion. We know something has gone wonky, though, because to get anywhere worth being you still have to go out back a few times in your life and hold yourself while you tremble, sink to the ground, and weep into the arms of a willow tree– your vision reduced to a blurry heat. To truly live, you still have to take the risk of your scariest, deepest and most confusing feelings coming to light in the presence of your lover. And some day, some where, a decision will find you that involves urgently choosing between bad and worse– a decision that will feel exactly like finally accepting your place in that strange ensemble of dilapidated demons that trot out every time your vigilance wanes.
Progress has failed to keep our worlds neat and tidy. But how could it have? That would have been like taking the world’s greatest gymnasts, at the peak of their powers, and telling them they could experience all the same things by becoming bookkeepers. We need a few brushes with muddy intensity along the way, just like a high-performance engine needs the soot blown off it once in a while.
But take away progress, and what are we left with?
Don’t we need a guiding vector or something? A compass needle? Don’t we need something to push off of so we can grow and expand?
This is my favorite part about ditching progress. When you’re left with nothing but what you’ve already been given, and you finally call that good enough, it starts to grow all on its own. It’s as if you unsuspectingly whispered the magic words. Acceptance is the moment when rainwater settles down into the soil and nestles around the seed, and that first tonal latching of molecule to molecule deep in the seed unfolds. Just by saying to yourself, I love you… I trust you… I know you… it all starts to open up. You welcome the return of that line-up of little horrors to the stage, and they become a ballet troupe right before your eyes. It’s not progress when veins of copper and tin become shiny trombones… it’s revelation.
In the absence of progress, what we’re left with is revelation. And that’s much better.
Beyond progress lies every good thing we are. Every good thing imaginable. The whirling of the present thickens us up into something delicious, like whipping cream. We recognize vastness without anonymity. Beauty and compassion become tangible in movement and form, and ubiquitous in our silence. Freed of the mandates of progress, we respond as we truly are, and it results in more of everything. We can be broken, vulnerable, happy and whole all at once– stumble into a puddle of mud, and then stand back up and laugh about it.
We can start living as beings who will never get to the bottom of ourselves. Ever.
And eventually, it’s quite possible, our roads will improve, but by then it’ll probably be too late. We’ll be bouncing along, splattering coffee all over the dash, our speakers long since blown, our voices crooning into the distance, loving everything just exactly the zany way it is.