By Bayo Akomolafe
poet | philosopher | psychologist | professor | passionate about the preposterous
One of the most powerful aspects of our modern conditioning is the predisposition to describe, predict and control our experiences. This explains our crazed obsession with to-do lists, results and outcomes. Our entire civilization is instantiated by this primal desire to superintend the course of nature, to capture thunder in a bottle, to harness the wind, to colonize outer space and its daunting mysteries by scribbling mathematical symbols on a blackboard.
We have lost our sense of surprise; we have forgotten the awe of a conquering moon, the yawn of listless clouds, the saintliness of a mantis. The joy of wild play. Our lives have become so painfully formulaic that it is truly wonderful children are still being born to us. One would think they ought to know better than to arrive on such a sterile planet. But of course, to be fair to them, our children do arrive in our hands baked in stardust, wet with the intensity of their travels through space-time, eager to play and breathe and live. Eager to teach us. We, however, tethered as we are to the giant machine that the human condition has seemingly become, do our utmost to suppress this ancient spark of life.
We start by wiping the dimpled giggles off their faces by putting our children in school – where they are taught exactly what they need to know in order to be willing consumers and obedient avatars of the nation-state in the future. We get irritated by the questions they ask, and imprison them to tyrant elves we admirably call ‘homework’, who put them on a leash, and force them to hunt for treasure they call ‘grades’. All the while, their fires burn – they hope that someone might hear them, listen to them, and dance to the music that is slowly but surely dying in their hearts. That will not be us however – we are too busy being good parents.
We will learn to measure them, rank them, categorize them, and assign them to where they ‘fit’. This is all very convenient to the logic of the machine. Eventually, those kicking, dimpled, caramelized hallelujahs will grow into bored, tired, disenchanted teenagers – their only claim to life being the throbbing angst, the deep-seated anger, the wordless suspicion that something vital has been taken from them. Thanks to the psychiatric industry, they will accept that something is wrong with them, and that in order for them to function as healthy, normal people, they would need to take a couple of capsules everyday, and think nice positive thoughts. The media will lend a helping hand in this ongoing purge of bliss, and – with much glitz and mad fanfare – they will invite them to consider the lives of the rich and famous; they will tell tales about the gold-littered streets of Baghdad, the wanton prosperity of the city, the abject backwardness of the indigenous. And then the banks will conspire to complete these intoxicating sentences with the abruptness of a loan offer.
Those teenagers will most likely trudge along the yellow brick road – inspired by tales of an emerald city where everyone has a place. Some of them will find their places in little cubicles, animated by sprightly little things called memos. They will adopt plaint ties and close-cropped hairdos. They will imagine themselves alone and irrelevant, and strive to prove themselves. Thankfully, the machine is gracious and kind, and allows them the luxury of one or two days in a week, to prepare for the rest of the week. In those days, some of these alienated ones will attend religious gatherings or seminars, and purchase glossy books that teach them how to stand out, how to be excellent at the workplace, how to win-win-win, and – most especially – how to get to the ‘top’. Through stuttering acts of self-immolation, they will grind at the stones, bake in the sun – their eyes set on the grand prize of greatness, the elusive golden fleece of significance…the throne room promised to all who by dint of hard-work and ‘bla-bla’ are now emperors of the machine. And when they find a significant other, their programming will be corrupted for a while. A short while. In no time, they will settle into tearful puddles of heteronormativity, and hope to raise children of their own. And when those star-baked ejaculations of distant supernovas arrive in their hands, another cycle of anger shall once again begin: the eradication of enchantment.
This is the story of the machine – the big lie told to us everyday, the fear-based system upon which we contrive mechanisms of control. This is the story that needs changing today – the version of reality that we can renounce. What must change is fundamental to our quest for rationalized control, our quest for progress along regulated lines, our quest for absolute survival. What must change is the idea that the universe is built solely for us, and that we are its lords and masters – central to its workings. I suspect that the most painful lesson for the human race would be to realize that this is not at all the case: the universe that lies in the boundaries of our collective gaze is much smaller than the one that dances out of the corner of our eyes. And no matter what we do to colonize this wild unknown universe, it will always elude us – mocking us beyond our fences, hiding in the chrysalis of an innocent deja-vu, breathing eloquently in our sighs for something else.
This is the wisdom of indigenous peoples around the world; they teach us that the world is not to be controlled and reined in, that we cannot continue to rape her body and yet hope to draw nurturing milk from her breasts, that we are already relevant and beautiful and wonderful because we are not estranged, atomic parts of a stern universe, but the very universe – expressing herself in play for a short while. The wisdom from the corners of our vision teach us that we do not need to educate our children at the expense of listening to them and playing with them, that we do not need to work so hard to earn greatness if we already transcend it, that we need not perpetuate the idea and practice of money as a function of scarcity if we see ourselves as inalienable parts of an always abundant whole, that we need not build expensively unsustainable cities with asphalt and steel if we re-enchanted the beauty of smallness and intimacy once again, and that our civilization need not be designed for the sole purpose of extracting joy from our children if we realized that they are visitors and teachers from realms of magical plenitude…anxious to tell us – by bonfires of night – tales of worlds we never knew, and never thought we’d know