Threats of war, hurricanes and earthquakes and famine, discord in so many regions – it can be hard to get out of bed in the morning. For a while, I had been waking up with an increasing sense of dread, the actual weight of the world. I felt helpless. I wrote a check and sent it directly to an agency rescuing stranded elders in Houston, but this act only provided a momentary reprieve.
A few months ago, I suggested remedies to a neighbor for his lawn’s bald spot and gave him a pail of peat moss for retaining moisture. While I was taking at look at his grass, I noticed concrete pieces along his fence that he was only too happy to have me cart away for a rubble wall I was building. Our experience together was full of good will and hearty usefulness, the rewards of proximity, common interest, and cooperation. On the scale of world events, this was an inconsequential speck – but on the scale of my life and his, this exchange gave us a layer of confidence that we would now be looking out for each other. When he was on vacation, I checked on his grass. Soon after, there were some choice concrete pieces piled alongside my wall-in-progress.
There are little things we can do while the larger world deteriorates. Making a difference within our personal spheres of influence is a lot more than nothing and can shift the spirit or at least the mood of those with whom we have one-to-one contact. Run an errand for a neighbor who is shut in, hold doors open for strangers, let people into your lane on the road, and maybe challenge yourself to try listening to the viewpoint of someone from the other side.
Last week, I asked someone with whom I vehemently disagree to tell me more about his political views. I didn’t interrupt him, even as he cited data in support of his stance I knew to be distorted. I tried to find merit in a few corners of his position on contentious matters, and indeed he made what seemed like valid points here and there. Several times, I had to do deep breathing to hold back my objections and keep my focus, but I made it through until I sensed a certain readiness to hear my views in return. I offered my counter-arguments as respectfully as I could, each time saying, “I think you’re right about X, but I see things from a different angle on Y.” At the end of our conversation, he admitted that I had given him some ideas to consider, and I told him my thinking had been enlarged by stepping into his shoes for a while.
Henry David Thoreau didn’t isolate himself at Walden Pond; he used his days there to get away from the fray of Boston and live “deliberately.” He would return to his urban doings from time to time, re-engaging the tumult of city life with the perspective gained in repose and in sync with nature. I am suggesting a parallel pattern of withdrawing into the small world where our individual actions matter, where the best of ourselves can make a difference in the lives of others, and then returning our attention to the events on the world stage with this renewed faith in what can happen between people.
We are not helpless. There is power in the collective will to survive and make life good for those who come after us. Children, especially, summon us to take care of the air, water, and soil. We are not divided when it comes to the need to breathe clean air, drink safe water, and grow food in healthy soil. These imperatives are human, not political. We can take refuge in the local, in face-to-face reality that we are all in this together.
When I wake up in the morning, I have been asking myself what I can do for someone else in the day ahead of me. Is there a phone call I can make to someone grieving? Is there a young person in need of some mentoring? Can I write a note of thanks to someone who went the extra mile on my behalf? There is recognition to be granted, kindness to be given and acknowledged, help to be rendered, even as the greater world around us seems to be in shambles.