Colin Beavan, How To Be Alive (2016)
When I was in high school I took an English class called “Utopia.” After exploring the utopian and dystopian visions of writers from Thomas More to Aldous Huxley to Charlotte Perkins Gilman, our assignment was to create a plan of our own for the “perfect society.” Having heard all our grandiose ideas, our teacher asked if we’d like to hear about her own notion of utopia.
She said that rather than moving to a distant island or making sweeping societal changes, she’d start with her own Seattle neighborhood, by strengthening the ties of community, sharing more and consuming less. Not every house on a street needs its own lawnmower, for example. While not advocating that we throw away the benefits of individualism — not everyone needs to move into the same house — she argued that we can’t create a better world without working together. And who better to work with than the people we already know?
Her idea has stuck with me for all these many years since, as an example of how to create change in the only way we truly can: starting from where we are. And when I read Colin Beavan’s new book How To Be Alive, I recognized exactly the same impulse. Beavan believes that ideas like my English teacher’s are not just nice ideas, but the way to realize our true selves while making the world a better place.
Having taken some rather dramatic action himself — he’s the author of the bestselling book No Impact Man, which chronicles his year of trying to live as lightly on the planet as possible, and founder of the No Impact Project — Beavan has some impressive practical experience in which to ground his ideas. But it’s not necessary to go so far in order to follow in his footsteps. Indeed, the point of this book is to help people take that first step toward change, no matter how small.
Beavan incorporates research, real-life examples, and step-by-step exercises in chapters that touch on all the basic needs of our lives, which include meaning, purpose, and community as well as food, shelter, and transportation. He asks us to rethink the conventional wisdom that’s gotten us into our current mess — that selfishness and competition are the driving forces of human nature — and consider that cooperation and sharing are not only truer ways to realize our highest potential, but also make us happier.
You don’t have to be “alternative.” All that makes you a lifequester is that you actively choose what is authentic to you.
Are you alive to who you really are? Are you awake to the world around you and its needs? Do you do things because they are what everyone else does? Or do you do things because you are awake and conscious and want to do the best by yourself and everyone else?
Most of the information Beavan presents is not new. Some of it is thousands of years old, as all religious and meditative traditions exhort us to remember that we are part of one another and that our truest selves are found through that awareness. It’s his way of combining ancient philosophies, humanist psychology, scientific discoveries, and true stories of people changing their lives and the world that made for a fresh and compelling presentation. Although I wasn’t always enamored of his word choices or casual writing style (I couldn’t call myself a “lifequester” with a straight face), his points were clearly made, well organized, and thought-provoking.
Not all of his suggestions are applicable to my particular situation — it would be pretty difficult for me to go car-free, for example, as I live in a rural area with no public transportation — but this book is not a blueprint to be mindlessly followed. It’s meant as inspiration for each of us to get more creative with our individual lives, to realize how precious and incredible are the opportunities we have just through being here on this planet, and to stop being paralyzed by loneliness and fear. What will happen if a significant number of people take up this challenge? I don’t know, but I do hope we’re going to find out.
Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to join in their tour for How To Be Alive. Click on the link for more tour stops and information.