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Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

Wu-Wei (p. 133)

From chapter "Breaking Out"

I majored in economics at graduate school. The main lesson I learned was about the primacy of process, that when I act from indirect intentions, roadblocks arise, requiring farce of will to maintain my course in direct proportion to that course’s distance from my heart.

Here’s what I mean: I went to graduate school not because I particularly cared about economics, but so I could continue high jumping. When I’d graduated from college, I’d felt as though a part of me had died too soon. I’d only jumped for two and a half years, and with just another year I thought I could qualify for, and maybe even win, the Division II national championship.

But even that possibility didn’t motivate me as much as the unfettered joy of the sport. I loved the utter loss of self-consciousness as I stood up, the glide of the approach, the softness of takeoff—more an inevitability, a falling upward, than a thrust—the eerie, erotic smoothness of clearing the bar. The sport was a perfect fit for me. This doesn’t mean I didn’t work at it, for I did, but there is a difference between work for the sake of love, which provides its own motivation, and work for the sake of another end.

There’s a Chinese term that encapsulates my high-jumping experience: wu-wei, which means not doing, not in the sense of doing nothing, but of not forcing. Not only were my best jumps unforced, but the flow of high jumping-from accidental discovery by the handball teacher, to his patient nurturance, to winning our conference championship contrasted painfully with the larger, and largely forced, process of schooling.

The Roman philosopher Seneca wrote of a similar process of assistance or resistance: “The fates guide those who will; those who won’t they drag.” If earlier the fates had guided me into jumping, they now began to drag me away. Soon after signing up for classes, I discovered that the School of Mines had switched athletic associations, and the new association did not allow graduate students to compete. On hearing this I considered dropping out, but because I’d already jumped high enough to qualify for many regional and national meets, I kept attending school with the thought of jumping independently.

The fates didn’t allow this, either. A few weeks later I injured my jump foot. Neither the trainers or school doctors could find anything wrong, so I dealt with the injury the way I dealt with all pain, by walling it off. The positive form of the self’s disappearance in jumping returned to its shadow as I forcefully separated myself from my body signals. I hopped to my mark on one foot, turned off the pain, ran the approach, jumped, allowed the pain back in, and hopped out of the pit. I kept hoping that if only I could deafen myself sufficiently to the pain, I could will myself over the bar, and was surprised at how poorly this worked. I kept jumping, and, as I later found out, kept re-breaking my foot—for X rays later revealed it to be broken—with every jump I forced myself to do.

Nor did classes work out. I majored in economics because it was the easiest thing offered at the School of Mines, and because I’d enjoyed the half-dozen or so classes I’d already taken. I could only enjoy them, though, because I didn’t take them seriously. While the goal of economics—as is also true of physics—consists of equations ostensibly created to describe real-life events, it does so poorly. In order to make equations manageable (thus allowing the pretension that life is manageable) economists must disregard or fudge variables that may be difficult or impossible to quantify. Thus today I can look in an economics textbook and see that “Wh = B + M”, which means that wealth by definition equals bonds plus money, because, as the authors state, “bonds and money are the only stores of wealth.” This example is not unfair: corporate accountants do not factor human happiness into their bottom lines, or the suffering of enslaved children. The voices of wild wolf and caged hen do not enter these equations. Like our science and our religion, corporate economics deafens us to corporeal life.

What’s more ludicrous is that the equations fail to describe even our economic system. The equations I learned were based almost exclusively on the model of something called “the free market.” It was hard for me to waste time learning equations based on something that doesn’t exist: even Dwayne Andreas, former chief executive officer of the agribusiness transnational Archer Daniels Midland admits, “There is not one grain of anything in the world that is sold in the free market. Not one. The only place you see a free market is in the speeches of politicians.” You see the same thing in economics classes.

For our economics textbooks to have been accurate, they would need to be printed in blood. The blood of indigenous peoples destroyed so their land could be taken, bought, and sold. The blood of salmon, beaver, and buffalo commodified and killed for the money they have come to represent. The blood of all of us whose lives are diminished in the act of commodifying others. The blood of slaves and wage slaves who spend their lives toiling so their owners may have the leisure that is the birthright of every living being. The blood of the land itself, poisoned by “externalities,” those cumbersome details too dark or difficult or inconvenient to take their place in the economic equations that guide so much of our lives. The blood of everyone who is silenced by economic theory. In the same vein as our science and religion, the most obvious function of our economics is the erection of a sociopolitical framework on which to base a system of exploitation.

I hung on through fall semester, and bailed in early spring. High jumping was a bust. The classes were meaningless, and were no longer fun. I remember a class in managerial economics, the textbook for which was Machiavelli’s The Prince. The instructor told us our grade would be based on presentations, and because the business world is, as he put it, “a world of cutthroat competition,” students were encouraged to sabotage other students’ work. He gave the example of someone stealing the bulb from a slide projector when the presenter had left the room. Because the presenter had another bulb in his pocket, he received an A. I did not last the day; after hearing that story I packed away my notebook, slipped out the door, and went to the registrar’s office to drop the class.