Stuart Hertzog

 H E R T Z O G

On Patience and Detachment

Taking the long view is the cure for activist anger

Victoria, BC July 6, 2006

The thing about patience is that it takes so long to learn, and contemporary Western society is all about instant gratification.

We want something and expect to get it immediately or we become annoyed. Our frustration and its accompanying anger comes from a desire to see a certain outcome, which we assume will be delivered immediately. In that sense, we are all the spoiled children of affluence, and this trait appears to be accelerating in today's society.

“ Patience is based on detachment, not the hedonic indifference of selfish non-involvement, but the loving intelligence of compassionate understanding.

Patience is based on detachment, not the hedonic indifference of selfish non-involvement, but the loving intelligence of compassionate understanding. This may sound pompous and preachy, but over the years I've come to realise that life works that way. When involved as an activist in the heat of a struggle, it's easy to label one's opponents as uncaring, insensitive, greedy or just wrong. Stepping back from the fray, or better, having a wider view of the struggle, allows a cooling of the emotions and a clearer seeing of both the players and the context.

For me, the experience that started the move towards detachment came during a visit to the Tyrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller, Alberta, and then to Dinosaur Provincial Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the south-eastern corner of the province .

Seeing laid out the whole history of our small planet, from the original condensation of the gas cloud after the formation of the Universe, through the agonisingly slow and patient development of life on Earth, gave me for the first time an insight into the enormous magnitude of geological time, and how recent and fragile is our human life form and its fleeting civilisations.

Just inside the entrance to the Tyrell museum is a tall display board, facing back towards the entrance. You have to turn around to see it. When you do you face a similarly-shaped window with a view of the side of the ravine the Milk River has cut into the prairie, in which the town of Drumheller sits. On the display board, mirroring the view through the window, is a photograph neatly labelled with the geological epochs in which each layer of sand and rock was laid down.

The ravine is, I don't know, maybe a couple of hundred feet deep, and just a few feet below the top is a black band, the Irridium Layer, after which no dinosaur fossils are found. Our human civilisation occupies the top few inches. The hundreds of feet of sandstone deposits below this, hit me like a hammer. What a vast amount of time! What enormous changes and leaps of life forms! My mind was boggled.

“ In the history of Earth there have been many great discontinuities, cataclysmic events that wiped out billions of species, whole phyla of evolution that took million of years to develop, disappeared in a geological instant.

This universe is by modern calculations about 15 billion years old; this Solar System and Earth around 4.5 billion years. And human history? .... maybe a few tens of thousands of years? In the history of Earth there have been many great discontinuities, cataclysmic events that wiped out billions of species, whole phyla of evolution that took million of years to develop, disappeared in a geological instant.

Inside the museum, real dinosaur skeletons are arranged in life-sized dioramas, razor-toothed Tricerotops gnawing at the flanks of a giant Edmontosaurus. Here is the battle for survival, writ large. Around them is arranged on displays and dioramas the story of life on Earth... the cooling of the planet... the arrival of the single-celled bacteria... the lichens and mosses... the Age of the Fish... the Insects... the emergence of animals from the sea... it's almost too much to grasp.

Afterwards, visiting Dinosaur Park and walking on the bones of our Ancestors -- my life has not been the same since then. This Universe is vast, and we humans live on one small planet in a remote arm of an average-size galaxy. So what if another piddling species proliferates and dies out? Life proliferates, creating countless billions of evolving life forms on countless billions of planets, I believe. Before this vast panorama, I am nothing, a replaceable unit, a brief flash of consciousness. But as a living creature, I am connected to all that lives.

Of course, it's important to fight the Good Fight. What concerned people are doing all over the world is meaningful and brave. Yet without an overview of the vastness of life and the patience of time, we can get caught up in the heat of the moment and become angry, point fingers, say hurtful things, and commit cruel acts. It's so easy to be short-sighted and wrong -- I'm guilty of that almost all the time.

“ For the true patience of detachment, we must go beyond our own primitive beliefs. How to do that, is the struggle we face as both activists, and as human beings.

But as I go through life, I realise that so many of our fears are based on the fear of death, of absolute darkness and annihilation. Perhaps the Christian church's historic suppression of the concept of reincarnation and the ensuing scientific materiality that denies anything beyond the material and measurable, have cut us off conceptually from the flow of life, trapping us as individuals into the desperation of isolation, which means that we must solve all our problems and get our gratifications instantly, in this moment, right here-and-now.

For the true patience of detachment, we must go beyond our own primitive beliefs. How to do that, is the struggle we face as both activists, and as human beings.


Last updated: October 29, 2006