I’m what you might call a cynic–not shocking news if you’ve read this blog long enough–which is why I was surprised that I liked William Powers’ Twelve by Twelve so much. I’ve long admired his writing (Blue Clay People on Liberia and Whispering in the Giant’s Ear on Bolivia). His new book, about to be published by New World Library, the folks behind Ekhart Tolle, sounded quite different.
While visiting his mother in North Carolina, she mentions knowing a doctor who only makes eleven thousand dollars a year and lives in a twelve foot by twelve foot house with no electricity. Intrigued, Powers tries to get in contact with this doctor, named Jackie Benton. Months later, she responds to his messages and invites him for a visit. Powers finds himself mesmerized by her permaculture lifestyle. He was back from a decade spent doing international work in Africa and South America and finding it difficult getting back into the swing of things now back in the US. He accepts an offer from Benton to stay at the cabin for a stay, while she travels out West. This isn’t a gimmicky plot though, which is what I initially thought. This book chronicles Powers’ struggle to find a meaningful life again.
Well, what does that mean? He spends a lot of time outdoors, walking in the woods, befriending his neighbors, generally observing the world around him. HisÂ description of his life, and his dislike of contemporary American consumer culture however felt increasingly like a criticism of my own lifestyle. It was hard not to be resentful. Why do I feel that way when reading these books about people making radical changes in their lives?
Then I came to the chapter titled “Humility”. In it, Powers describes how his ego got bigger as he reduced his carbon footprint and became “more enlightened”. He finally realized the trap:”the fiction of the ego is replaced by an even heavier fiction; that of being a Jedi, a spiritual warrior, an enlightened being–and therefore better than those miserable people who are not.” People can build egos while conquering them. It was this chapter that made me realize why I felt so resentful. Yet, he recognized that he was falling into the trap and this saved the book for me.
Powers was able to reach even someone as cynical as me. It’s a thought-provoking book for sure, one I hope many will read and find themselves wondering about their own motives on a daily basis.