It Is High Time for More Freedom and Love: The Shoemaker and The Financier

Love, by Miko Underwood

This past week, I read Michael Pollan’s new book, How To Change Your Mind, in which he makes the case for the medical and, yes, spiritual uses of psychedelics. Turn on, tune in, drop out, was the most renowned coinage around psychedelics in the 60s. What does the phrase really mean? Turn on our senses. Tune in to love. Drop out of the rat race.

A significant number of the people Pollan interviewed make the point that “the establishment” had good cause to fear the effects of psychedelics, because their use can provoke doubt about the ultimate value of the excesses of wealth, consumption and power we strive for in this society. Instead, such a spiritual journey might just convince a person that love is number one priority.

A shoemaker sang from dawn to dusk. It was marvelous to see and gorgeous to hear. Even when he was doing his vocal exercises, the shoemaker was happier than any of the seven sages of Greece. 

His neighbor, on the other hand, sewn up in gold, sang little and slept even less. He was a man of finance.  

If, as day was breaking, he was sometimes sleeping, then the shoemaker woke him with his singing. And the financier complained that providence, in all its care, had not created a market that sold sleep, the way we can buy what we eat and drink.  

He summoned the singer to his mansion and said: So, Mr. Gregory, what do you make a year? 

A year? Oh my, Sir, the jovial shoemaker said in a merry tone, it’s not my style to count that sort of thing. I don’t save anything. One day plus another, it’s enough that at the end of the year I’m even. Every day brings some bread.

Alright, then tell me, what do you make a day?

Sometimes more, sometimes less, the trouble is that there’s always (and without this problem I really would make more than enough), there are so many days I’m unemployed. I’m ruined by all the holidays. With a new one every other week, they become meaningless. The priests always have some fresh-minted saint to celebrate in their homily.

The financier laughed at the other’s naivety.

He said: I’m going to put you on a throne today. Take this hundred dollars. Keep it safe, for when you need it.

The shoemaker thought he was seeing all the money on earth that had been produced for all people in the last century. He returned home, went down to his cellar, locked the money up tight, and with it his joy too.  

No more song. He lost his voice from the moment he got what we take such trouble to gain. Sleep left. Instead his home was host to worries, to suspicions, to false alarms. All day he kept a watchful eye and at night if a cat made a noise, the creature was taking his money.

In the end the poor shoemaker ran back to the man he no longer woke with his singing.

He said: Give me back my song and my sleep. And take back your hundred dollars.

Since the 60s, instead of the love song of psychedelics, big pharma has tuned out multiple generations on any number of drugs that dull and pacify the senses: From opioids for pain, through the panoply of sleep and anti-anxiety meds, and onto an apparent epidemic of inattentive, high-energy boys. Classic boy behavior since the dawn of civilization is now proscribed with prescriptions.

The drugs we have chosen not only to legalize, but also to promote far and wide, are the same drugs that ensure our acceptance and passivity in the face of the greatest addiction of them all—our addiction to excess. More money than ever flows through our society. Yet the income gap is wider than ever. And the potential to hit escape velocity and transcend the economic circumstances of our upbringing is lower than ever. Where’s the love in that?

We think we can buy ourselves onto the throne of a fulfilled life. That fulfilled means “full of stuff”, in particular stuff that other people don’t have. Yet we know in our hearts, if we are willing to listen to them, that fulfillment is not available in any store, online or offline. Why do we even want to sit on a throne? It’s so restrictive. No one sings love songs on a throne. That would be against protocol.

“Freedom is not something that anybody can be given. Freedom is something people take and people are as free as they want to be.” James Baldwin (at that 1960 Esquire symposium) was talking about the freedom available to us in our minds, the freedom we have to think and express ourselves personally and politically, even as society tries to commodify liberty.

The most powerful thought and expression of freedom is love.

Everywhere I go now I hear people saying, “love you, love you guys.” Tossing the word off like shaking drops off an umbrella. But love is not easy, nor is freedom. To love is hard generous work. To love is sweaty, uncomfortable, communitarian service. The community is not just our family and friends, not just our neighbors, our co-workers, and the people we pass on the street. The community we serve is as expansive as our minds can stretch.

Everything we consume has a price, and that price usually includes suffering—human, animal and/or environmental. When we put love at the center of all our decisions, then we will consume more mindfully. Scan the supply chain from your morning coffee back to each step in its production and forward to each step in the waste disposal. How can we prevent even an ounce more suffering than yesterday? Less love talk and more love action. The shoemaker knew this a few centuries before the hippies. Give the financier his money back. Unhook from big pharma’s portfolio of sense-dulling meds.

I don’t know if LSD or psilocybin are the answer, but I do know that our society has traded its song for money and we need to figure out how to find our tune again. Pollan shies away from proposing psychedelics as a solution, but he nudges and winks in that direction in his square, nice guy way. Isn’t it at least worth investigating the possibility that there might be a way to induce more genuine love and connection in our world?

With or without psychedelics, Pollan’s book and the people he interviews remind us   that the way we live in our society right now is not the only way of being. Not by a long shot.

Let us stop trading the love of our song for money. Can we join together to be more mindful of how we love? How far and wide can we stretch our love?


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