62 / Comedy Is Survival


Hi and welcome to For Future’s Sake! A half-assed attempt to live sanely on planet Earth.

Reading time: 2 minutes

"The man who worries morning and night about the dandelions in the lawn will find great relief in loving the dandelions. Each blossom is worth more than a gold coin as it shimmers in the exuberant sunlight of the growing spring and attracts the bees to its bosom. Little children love the dandelions; why may not we?” - Liberty Hyde Bailey

When Francis Bacon urged "nature be bound into service, hounded in her wanderings and put on the rack and tortured for her secrets;” he described a human tale of hubris; of overweening ambition and destruction.

Weeds, those downtrodden wild plants who’ve mastered every survival skill except how to grow in rows, are a tiny example of this. Our attempts to control everything has consequences.

Every weed counts. A patch of nettles can be swamped with caterpillars. A bird’s-foot-trefoil, nourishes hundreds of other invertebrates. The dandelion is a lifeline to beleaguered bees in spring.

Beneath the ground, the roots of weeds create tiny microhabitats, supporting woodlice, worms, spiders, and others — many of which, in turn, become bird food, and so on…

Of course, this isn't just about weeds. It’s about a mindset that ecologist Joseph Meeker calls the “tragic mode” — our default mode, arguably.

It's like the story arc of some of our greatest tragic heroes: Oedipus, Macbeth, Walter White even — “a larger-than-life character attempts to bend the world to his (and it’s always his) image,” but their success is also their undoing.

This is the “tragic mode.”

Everyone knows the profit to be reaped from the useful, but nobody knows the benefit to be gained from the useless. - Olga Tokarczuk

But there is an opposite to the “tragic mode.”Meeker calls it the “comedy mode.”

Where the tragic mode is rigid, the comic mode is loose. Comedy is carefree, even careless. There’s no need to mould the outcome. Comedy, is doing things for the sheer joy of it — having fun, whatever the result. 

It’s victories are small, but that’s fine — comedy is content muddling along, caring "little for such weighty matters as progress and perfection.” 

But how do we get there? 

Through play! Meeker argues, this is the quickest way in. Be it music, art, gardening, etc; creativity counters society's dour productivity and work fetish. It sees seriousness, but takes nothing seriously.

He says, our survival “depends upon our ability to change ourselves rather than our environment, and upon our ability to accept limitations rather than to curse fate for limiting us.”

If plants grow and thrive, he will be happy; and if the plants which thrive chance not to be the ones which he planted, they are plants nevertheless, and nature is satisfied with them. We are apt to covet the things which we cannot have; but we are happier when we love the things which grow because they must. - Liberty Hyde Bailey

Of course, given the current context, it may not be possible to fully embrace the comic mode in our lives. But it’s worth imagining nonetheless.

Comedy is not a philosophy of despair or pessimism, but one which permits people to respond with health and clear vision despite the miseries the world has to offer...It permits people to accept themselves and the world as they are, and it helps us make the best of the messes around us and within us. - Joseph Meeker

Thanks to Austin Kleon for the inspiration. Check out his fantastic essay on Meeker’s tragic and comedy modes.

Stay safe - Scott