Extricating from the progress trap


It is easier to try
to be better
than you are
than to be
who you are.
~ Marion Woodman

This wisdom reminds me that I’m conditioned to look outward towards improvement, rather than within towards healing. Seeing myself as inherently flawed and in need of betterment, I tend to believe I have to fix those flaws myself, without help. The trouble is, the more I dig, the more imperfections I discover. It becomes an arms race of flaws and fixes.

This is a personal illustration of what author Richard Wright calls the “progress trap.” I’m so caught in it that even the question, “How can I get beyond the story of progress?” carries within it the taint of progress. I want to make progress towards getting beyond the story of progress.

Where do I want to progress to? Is it even possible in a culture so beholden to this story, to refuse to participate in it?

Within my own household, there is potential for trouble. We are living out a promise made to us by our parents, teachers, bosses and clients for decades, of slight yearly increases in our standard of living. Indeed, it’s a holy tenet of life in this country: grow up, get an education, a couple of college degrees, good starting salary, yearly raises. Buy a small house, then a bigger one, and another one after that. Sell each house at a gain. Buy a new car every few years. Have two of them. Summer vacations. Winter ski trips. In our small family unit, and as individuals within that unit, we enact the story of progress year after year.

What is our alternative? There is much shame around mid-level corporate managers who lose their jobs as the economy crumbles. They have little chance to jump back in at the same salary level, and forget about a retirement fund or good healthcare benefits. You’re lucky just to get another job that’s not at Wal-Mart or Starbucks. Yet even as more and more people get squeezed this way, the loyalty to the story of progress never wavers.

If I suggest a deliberate dialing back on our standard of living, I am a heretic, threatening everything we’ve been taught to believe. I can barely imagine it myself. Now our stuff fits well into a house that a family of six could live in comfortably — and we are only three. We have college tuition looming and house payments, energy bills and private school, not to mention deserving causes that we want to support.

I’m not saying we should move to a solar-powered permaculture intentional community. For all my curiosity, bordering on longing, this will never sell in my family. But what would it look like to step off the Progress Train? Is it even possible?

The word in the natural world for unlimited growth of the sort advocated by “free market” economists is “cancer.” In reality, systems have boom and bust cycles, dynamic periods of expansion and contraction. There is no system in the natural world that grows continuously, certainly not exponentially without consequences, and yet we expect our economy — and our standard of living — to do so.

One thing is clear: there is no roadmap for this project of challenging the progress story as an individual or a family unit. I will have to feel my way, using intuition, to ways of giving back, balancing the scales in a personal pattern of receiving and giving. Compost is a way of giving back. Volunteer work, donating gently used goods, giving money to charity. Visiting the elderly or sick children, maybe singing to them, or bringing a pet. Serving meals to the hungry.

There is a whole variety of potential actions out into the community of life, thinking always of cycles and connections, rather than getting and hording. Alternative currency systems like Time Banking or local currency emphasize the importance of circulation, of keeping the energy flowing among and between participants. This is how nature does it: oak trees do not horde their acorns; birds do not save eggs for years on end, refusing to hatch them. Everything in nature is driven by creating and releasing, taking up and sending out.

When I expand my imagination to include the whole community of life, I might be tempted to visit sick or elderly places, not only people. To sing to trees or streams, or offer a blessing. Anything to distract me from this wholly artificial story of progress. Its linearity and one-sidedness are collapsing under the weight of forced forward motion. Under its spell, we have no option but to do more and greater damage to natural systems — and each other — to keep it going.

Extricating from the trap of progress is an inside job. It starts at home, in my own mind and heart, and is creative and ongoing. Unlike the tantalizing goals of the progress story, there is no promised outcome, unless you count tentative reunion and better balance with the wider community of life.

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