Peter boy

Acting Crazy

You Don’t Have to Act Crazy Anymore –
We all know you were good at that.

Now retire, my dear,
From all that hard work you do

Of bringing pain to your sweet eyes and heart.

Four years ago I copied out this poem, Daniel Ladinsky’s rendering of the great Sufi poet Hafiz, as an offering for my dear friend David’s 70th birthday. And of course, the question begged is, “I might think I copied it for David, but what does it mean for me?”
I wake up some mornings and lie in bed wondering how to spend the day. It is not that I don’t have lots to do; I wonder which projects, which activities are truly worthwhile. What are appropriate actions in response to the environmental tragedy that faces us?

I read my Twitter feed over breakfast. So many of the people I follow tell of the destruction of ecosystems, the gross extravagance of our consumerist culture, the refusal of our leaders to attend to climate change. Others tell me of courageous activists who are occupying in the City, in New York, round the world; Greenpeace volunteers chaining themselves to oil drilling rigs; Native Americans protecting the water at Standing Rock. Some tweets read arrogantly, aggressively, as if they know best. Others are more engaging and inquiring.

I often ask, “Am I crazy enough?” to respond to the challenge of our times? My friend Geoff Mead posted Elder Tales, pointing out that ‘post-heroic’ tales of elders reveal what lies beyond mid-life: the protagonists typically break free from ambition and social constraints. Satish Kumar, when challenged that his goals were unrealistic, retorted, “Look at what realists have done for us”:

They have led us to war and climate change, poverty on an unimaginable scale, and wholesale ecological destruction. Half of humanity goes to bed hungry because of all the realistic leaders in the world. I tell people who call me ‘unrealistic’ to show me what their realism has done. Realism is an outdated, overplayed and wholly exaggerated concept.

In the 1960s I was on the fringes, very much on the fringes, of the counterculture. I never followed Timothy Leary’s injunction to ‘tune in, turn on and drop out,’ but I did feel part of something significant going on. Those were the days of ‘peace, love, freedom, happiness,’ of Woodstock, of radical feminism, of the student protests on the streets of Paris. There was a palpable sense of the dawning of a new humanitarian age. We really did think we were going to change the world, and for a while we did, just a bit (and not always for good!), until the forces of reaction blew much of it away. In a way, I have lived my life in mourning for those times, or maybe better to say just trying to keep a spark alive.

‘You don’t have to act crazy anymore…’ but was I as ‘good at that’, as the poem suggests, as good as I wanted to be? And am I as crazy as the crisis of the world now demands? And what kind of crazy old man do I want to be? I like being a man who digs in his Orchard, reclaiming a neglected patch of land. I like being a man who adventures on the sea. I like being an old man who sings songs in celebration of Earth. And I like being an old man who writes, however painful that writing may be. But I don’t have to carry on working hard to ‘bring pain to my sweet eyes and heart’. Hafiz’ poem invites, indeed demands, celebration of life. We are so good at bringing pain, and it is such hard work. What we need is joy, defiant joy, transgressive joy; for joy is a gutsier, a more subversive emotion that despair.

You don’t have to act crazy anymore, but in an insane world maybe craziness is what is truly needed.


I wrote that four years ago. There seems to be a link with a theme I am currently exploring about ‘birth myths’. This interest started with a discussion with my friend Rob, who was asserting the continued relevance of the Oedipus myth in the face of my skepticism.

“I was born in 1942,” he explained. “Europe was at war and Jewish people were being taken off to extermination camps. I was born into a world where I was not wanted.” When Oedipus born, he too was not wanted; for, as the myth goes, the Oracle had forecast he would kill his father and marry his mother. In their attempt to resist fate, his parents put him out on the hillside to die with his ankles in shackles; in his attempt to resist fate, his actions brought about the prophecy. Not being wanted at birth can carry consequences through life.

Rob’s words sparked reflections on own birth. I was born two years later, in 1944. The world was still at war, but in Europe at least the end was in sight and promised victory for our side. I was born at the beginning of a time of hope. My uncle, much beloved by my mother, had been killed over Berlin a few months earlier. It would be offensive to suggest I was a ‘replacement’ for him, but I was given my mother’s family name to carry forward now that he no longer could; and experienced a half-unspoken pressure to emulate him. In contrast to Rob, I was very much wanted: after such family tragedy, I was the newborn who carried the hopes for the future.

It took me a while to find my sense of purpose in life—I was a pretty happy-go-lucky child; although I seem to remember asking questions about the ‘meaning of life’ quite a lot and getting very poor answers from adults. I think a wider purpose was first kindled by the promise of the counterculture. My part of this was to get involved in organization development and the human potential movement; we really believed we were going to change the world! I now see the resonance between the emergence of the 1960s counterculture and the myth that accompanied my birth. It brought together the ideals of Christian Socialism of my paternal grandfather with the example of the kind and loving uncle that in some sense I ‘replaced’, and so fueled a young man’s rebellious idealism that rejected the post-war cautious conformity in the believe that I would be part of creating a new world.

Here we are 50, 60 years on. The ideals of the counterculture are buried under the toxic wasteland of the neoliberal global economy—toxic both materially and ideologically. As an old man I see much of what I have stood for undermined. Liberal and progressive ideals are not only on the back foot, they are being questioned on both sides: the ‘right’ derides them in their own selfish interests; the ‘left’ asks cogent questions about the possibility of continual human improvement. The idea of progress has turned into a nightmare; one might even ask if the extremes of the counterculture brought about this reaction. Some commentators foresee the end of ‘western civilization’; others have detected similarities to the 1930s, when growing reactionary nationalism set Europe on a path to war.

My professional life is one I am proud of. I can claim to have made some contribution to bringing forth a more just and sustainable world, even though so much of what I worked for has been swept away. But now I wake each morning wondering how, as an ageing man in retirement, I can make a difference. If my birth myth was that I was to be part of bringing for a more hopeful future, after all these years of trying to do my bit, the world is getting worse. So much of my day-to-day life is extraordinarily privileged: am I now part of the problem rather than part of the solution?

I think these times are particularly difficult. Collectively, we know so much about the state of the world and the mess our political leaders are making of the present situation (as writer Amitav Ghosh puts it, ‘what we have come to think about as politics is actually a great distraction from all that is really important in the world.’) At a personal level, I think many experience a desperate sense of urgency yet no sense of agency. This reminds me of another story of my birth. After having given birth to me by C-section my mother was immediately sent home as the hospital had been hit by a ‘doodlebug’ flying bomb. I retain a vivid memory of her holding her hands about nine inches apart as she demonstrated the crack in the wall of her ward. Since it was not possible to get her down the steep stairs to the bomb shelter in the cellar of her mother’s Victorian house, she lay in bed on the ground floor, futilely shielding her baby with a pillow.

When the Arctic is forecast to be some 40° above its winter normal in February 2017—no new ice is forming; when, if, humans stop pouring CO2 into the atmosphere, the climate will continue to warm dangerously; when other species are going extinct at maybe 1,000 times the background rate; when it is forecast that there will be no other primates left in the wild within foreseeable future; when the ocean is full of plastic that is invading the whole food chain; if and when we contemplate this astonishing loss, I find myself wondering if investing hope in future in a kind of irrational wish fulfillment. It is impossible to know what is sensible, what hysterical, what is denial. We simply cannot grasp the reality that we have in part created.

Somehow this clarity about my birth myth helps to see some things more clearly. Through my adult life I was, in a modest sense, a man in search of a mission, on occasion touching on a contribution I found truly worthwhile. Now I can say with Mary Oliver that ‘My work is loving the world’. More than that, I can say the world and the universe loves in return—not in any particular or humanist sense, not in the sense that we are in any more special than other beings—but simply and beautifully in the sense that we evolved with and are part of the community of life that evolved on Earth.
The task of my later years is to articulate that insight and clearly and as beautifully as I am able.

Peter 74