Note: I wrote this article on Monday after mulling it over for a few weeks. After completing it, I learned that Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenace had passed away that same day. Here is his obituary. Thank you for the gift of your book, Mr. Pirsig.
World War 2 had a massive impact on America. It’s been called the war to give war a good name. For us, it certainly worked out nicely. On the negative side, there were a lot of deaths. On the positive side, it gave us a model for how to be organized and mobilized. It gave us an economic boost right when we didn’t even know how to have an economy (aka The Depression.)
Don’t get me wrong, I am not a fan of war. This is just me talking about the after-effects.
After the Great Depression, when none of the ideas were working, the war effort gave us a model. The prosperity of the 1950s was a lot about people agreeing to the new way of doing and being.
These new expectations worked! Look how much better off we are!
Until they didn’t. And in the 1960s the fissures became cracks and society started to pull apart. I watched the TV Show Mad Men and marveled at how separate people had become even from themselves.
But in the 1970s the cracks had been mapped. The word “antidisestablishmentarianism” came back into vogue.
As I child walking through the Eureka Library in Humboldt county, I found collected volumes of Doonesbury cartoons and felt how the many well-meaning characters in that comic had their points of view so different from each other, and how they were trying to reach out and make connections.
Real life was not quite as benign as a comic strip.
In the 2000s, I walked into a used bookstore in Pomona. I was exploring my new neighborhood, and had hear how Pomona had once been a brilliant downtown. But industry had moved on, and like the city of Detroit, Pomona was a shell of itself.
I went up to the clerk and asked him for a suggestion. He was delighted to be asked, and after a short conversation, he placed a pink paperback in my hands: “you will like this one.”
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance published in 1974
It was a book of philosophy. A paperback and a blue-collar title, this was not the way things were done. He wrote a narrative style that was perfect for the 1970 decade of recategorization. He was writing about something very basic: taking a motorcycle trip with your son to try to rebuild a relationship.
And the reason the relationship was broken? The narrator had had a nervous breakdown (as they were quaintly called then) because of an existential crisis.
He had taught science, and then realized that the scientific method was not scientific.
Let’s review. The scientific method goes like this: Take a hypothesis, set up an experiment to test the hypothesis, then observe the result.
Then come up with a new hypothesis and do it again.
The problem is, creating a hypothesis is not a scientific, logical process. Coming up with a hypothesis is gloriously human, non-scientific and illogical.
The system did not allow for glorious humanness. And yet it relied upon it, exploiting it really.
Yes. The system after the war was broken. And in the 1970s, it was undeniable.
I was talking with a co-worker. We had some manual labor to do, and so we made small talk. Until it got bigger. What did you study in college? What did you like best?
He has family ties in Thailand, and revealed that he was an ordained Buddhist monk.
“I really liked studying philosophy.”
Oh, I know just the book for you.
And as I was looking for my beloved copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I realized something.
My 20-something coworker is at another cracking of the system. Right here, right now, it’s happening again. We thought we had it figured out AGAIN. Here’s the thing that works. Don’t mess with it!
Until the fissures in the financial system and the social norms turns to cracks and it split.
Whatever we thought was so awesome in the 90s cracked in the 2000s and we are aware in the 2010s the borders of the new map of broken.
Just as the pieces that used to fit in the 50s, the 2010s are begging reinterpretation.
What is our new glorious humanness?