What’s Alive in Front of Us

My post yesterday related to the thousands of Central American children who have been crossing the border into the United States lately. Ain’t For City Gals’ comment was appropriate and profound:   “It all feels so overwhelming at times to me…”

Even though the world is, for the most part, filled with beauty and happiness, and getting better all the time, it is natural for our attention to be drawn to those situations of violence and injustice which continue to exist. And unfortunately there are so lots of those.

Because we are naturally compassionate, and because we are wired to desire an end to injustice, a normal reaction to becoming exposed to such situations is to want to do something to help solve them. But there are so many problems in the world and it seems that there is very little we can do about them individually. As a result, it seems to be overwhelming.

When I read about the refugee children at our border, the violence in Gaza, the persecutions in Iraq, and all the other world problems that have the media’s attention, my passions are stirred too. I have strongly-held opinions and a deep desire to be a part of fixing the problems. I suspect most of us feel that way.

Recently a friend on Facebook was trying to draw attention to one of these situations. He changed his profile picture to something representing the cause and was urging his friends to join him in signing a petition protesting it.  This was one of the comments in response: “Wow. You changed your facebook profile picture AND signed a petition. You are world-changer.”

It was a snarky response, but it cut to the quick. These days it seems we can satisfy our desire to do something about a problem by liking a post on facebook. Or posting about it on our blogs. But beyond making ourselves feel better, have we really accomplished anything when we do that?

Being an idealist, I believe “slactivism” actually does some good, and I make no apologies for my part in it. But I also know that slactivism is just a shade better than apathy. It’s a far cry from the kind of work that really matters the most.

But it is important, I think, that we remember that everything we do matters. We may not be discovering the cure to ebola, reversing climate change single-handedly, bringing peace to the Middle East, ending religious persecution, or rescuing those children on the border. But as long as we are tending to the world around us, and doing our best to be good neighbors, we are part of the solution and not part of the problem.

The poet Gary Snyder says: “Find your place on the planet. Dig in and take responsibility from there.”

The philosopher Jacques Ellul wrote:  “Think globally. Act locally.”

In his book The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible Charles Eisenstein puts it this way:

If you’ve ever been a crusader to save the world, you may have noticed how the little things that make life rich get deprioritized and squeezed out. You may wonder, “What kind of revolution am I my fomenting here? What experience of life am I upholding as an example?” These are important questions! They cannot be ignored if it is true, as our intuitions tell us, that the crisis we face today goes all the way to the bottom.

There is a danger that the climate change issue occludes other important environmental issues… If the well-being of say, a coral reef, or even of just one pond, doesn’t implicate the future of civilization via climate change should we not care about it? Focusing on greenhouse gas emissions emphasizes the quantifiable while making the qualitative – might I even say the sacred? – invisible. Environmentalism is reduced to a numbers game. We as a society are comfortable with that, but I think the shift we must make is deeper. We need to come into a direct, caring, sensuous relationship with this forest, this mountain, this river, this tiny plot of land, and protect them for their own sake rather than for ulterior end. That is not to deny the dangers of greenhouse gases, but ultimately our salvation must come from recovering a direct relationship to what’s alive in front of us.

That last bit is worth repeating:  “Ultimately our salvation must come from recovering a direct relationship to what’s alive in front of us.”

I believe that by being good stewards of the world around us, by being kind to the people in our lives, by choosing to accent the good qualities of our neighbors rather than their flaws, and by the countless acts of goodness that ordinary human beings do every single day, we are in some way being a part of making a world that is helping those kids in detention in Texas, and stopping the shelling in Gaza, and protecting the people being persecuted in Iraq, and helping nature heal the wounds caused by our overconsumption.

And I even choose to believe that something as seemingly insignificant as clicking “like” can in some small way make the world a better place.

But let’s not forget that everything we do–every little decision we make–is in some sense a vote on what kind of world we want to live in.

Finally, for any who have made it to the end of this meandering and probably overly-preachy post, please take a minute to read this great post from Laura at Applewood Farm.  It’s a fine reminder of the profound importance of something as simple as pulling weeds in the broccoli garden.

Every day we accomplish things.  We make a difference.

Imagine billions of people weeding their gardens.

May it be so.


41 comments on “What’s Alive in Front of Us

  1. Bill, I would not consider myself a slacktivist nor would I consider myself an activist. Each person has a path or calling in life that has been programed into their DNA at birth. It comes out as interests and passions in life. I believe that along with those interests and passions the desire to learn the right talents to support them are also ingrained in us. The most important thing a parent can do for a child is to help him/her find that driving passion force and support the development of the talents for the child to follow the path set before them. For me that was Urban farming. Unfortunately, it took 41 years to discover that’s what it was. Dad did indeed give me the training and experience for it but I took the corporate cubical world path for a career. I’m just glad that I found the right path in life before it was totally too late. Bill, you, on the other hand, bailed out of the corporate world much sooner than me.

    It is true that I can not really help or make much difference with global situations but 30 years ago my wife and I decided to adopt a child that was most likely destined for abortion. It really didn’t even make a ripple in the abortion statics but it make all the difference in the world to my daughter and now grandson. Little insignificant decisions go by un noticed on the global screen of life but it can mean all the difference in the world to one person. That in my opinion is huge. If every person would just care for their realm of influence with kindness, compassion, and help for the needy, then the world would be a much better place.

    Have a great garden weeding day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      You’re an activist in my book Dave. You buy abandoned city lots and plant gardens on them. You grow food to give away. You help your neighbors. And 30 years ago you stepped into the life of an unwanted child and became a parent to her. That makes you an activist of the finest kind as far as I’m concerned.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thought provoking. One point I’d make is that when we choose to have a voice in social media about things that matter to us, we break socially constructed silences– on climate change, or on Israel, or whatever. Really those of us talking about things are so many fewer than those of us caring about things, which is many. But you wouldn’t know that really. And often out of breaking the silence, talking about something, we can create the new discourse that creates the change. Or becomes divisive. But nevertheless I’d always choose the talk.

    One thing about Charles Eisenstein– I feel like that’s a false dichotomy or something. I think it’s really possible to hold the abstract and the very real in the same hand. And in doing that you announce powerful connections– that’s why as a Slow Food person I wanted to write about the death of a Slow Food organiser in Gaza. I feel climate change– emissions, yes, from a plane trip say– connected to the weird weather in my garden. It’s not either/ or, it’s both. That’s how I see it anyway….

    Have a nice day! 🙂


    • Bill says:

      What great comments today’s post generated. Thanks for this one.

      I agree with you and I know that advocacy/activism on social media can change and redirect lives and ways of thinking. I’ve personally seen it happen. It may be a little thing but little things help and they add up.

      The Eisenstein quote is separated from its context which is why it may seem that way. In the larger passage he is addressing the feeling some have that if they’re not making a difference in the big burning issues of the day (climate change is the example he uses) then they’re not making a difference at all.


  3. Jeff says:

    You’ve addressed some points that are really important to think about in this post, Bill. One, I think, is the self-righteousness that seems to go along with taking some kind of action about what Laura calls the “Something Awfuls” in life. There is also the tribalism and identity that is attached to those kinds of actions. Years ago, I read a book by Karl Hess, called Dear America. He was a former speechwriter for Barry Goldwater and a conservative thinker. I gave away the book, but I thought about Hess so much over the years that I recently bought a used copy – it has long been out of print. Somewhere in it (and I’ll have to re-read it), I think the phrase “revolution, like charity, starts at home” appears. Excellent advice.

    The problem with the Something Awfuls in our lives is that what is awful to one person is not at all awful to the next person. Without a deep commitment to a system of morality and a constant examination of how that commitment guides our actions in our daily lives, we are lost. As you know, this is an enormously complicated subject and one that wise people have wrestled with for thousands of years.

    My concern with “clicktivism” stems from the fact that it is a commodified “solution” to complex moral issues. Once you’ve clicked, you’ve achieved your goal and you can move on to the next problem. But what else would we expect since we live in a capitalist world? Capitalism, with its emphasis on individual striving, destroys social fabrics first and then proceeds to destroy the natural world.

    How’s that for a rant?


    • Bill says:

      I think you’re right that “clicktivism” (I hadn’t seen that word before) can be used as a way to satisfy the desire to “do something” and thus maybe prevent the clicker from satisfying the desire by doing something more meaningful. I often think lots of people treat voting that way. They complain about problem x but when asked what they’re doing about it they respond, “I vote ___” filling in the blank with Democrat or Republican. They feel they’ve discharged their responsibility to address the problem merely by choosing a political party.


  4. jubilare says:

    “and getting better all the time” I respectfully disagree. I don’t think the world has gotten, or is getting, better. Evil and badness move about and morph, and headway may be made in certain areas and certain issues, but at the same time, other ground is lost and new battlefields arise. The fight is well-worth fighting, but if we are smug enough to think we have somehow triumphed more over evil than our ancestors, then we are deluded, and if we are so deluded, then we will most likely fail to learn from the wisdom of anyone who has come before us. We have gained in some forms of joy just as we have lost others, we improved the condition of some people while others have lost and continue to lose what ground they had.

    Beyond that, though, I agree.


    • Bill says:

      It certainly doesn’t feel like things are getting better, but on all the objective categories I can think of, we’re better off today than we’ve ever been. There is less starvation, less disease, less war, less violence, greater longevity, more education, more freedom, less religious persecution, etc. As badly as we’re treating the environment, we’re treating it better than we did 40-50 years ago. I can’t think of any objective factor that would suggest that humanity is worse off today than we were in the past.

      That is not to minimize the problems in the world, or to discount our ability to undo all the progress that has been made, but it does seem to me that things are better than ever and getting better all the time. But I’m an optimist, so my bias may affect my conclusion.


      • jubilare says:

        I guess I come from the opposite perspective. Most people I meet seem to feel like things are better now than in the past. I, and others, do not think that, objectively, they are.

        Objectively, the question is extremely complicated. What times in human history, and what aspects of life, are we comparing? How do we define “better?”

        I’m certainly happy to be a female in this era and this country. There is improvement there. However, there are, according to some estimations, more slaves in the U.S. now than when slavery was legal, and most of them are women. Worldwide, slavery is not only massive, but has changed in character for the worse since ancient times. Being a slave has never been nice, but ancient slaves were usually considered people, and even had rights. Modern slavery of Africans changed that in a horrible way, and our current slave-trade has followed in that abusive, horrific footprint.

        War has become more constant and more devastating, not only to humans, but to the environment. There are times, in the ancient world, where they were far better than us in terms of war, depending on the place. Pax Romana?

        Starvation has increased in some areas. While, overall, less of our population might be starving now, the causes for starvation are often economic… how evil is that? Not to mention the monoculture and poisoning practices you and those like you are fighting. I fear we are headed towards mass starvation unless we change course.

        Diseases increase in virulence and become harder to fight even as we find new methods to fight them. Many countries, with huge populations, have little or no access to heathcare of any kind. I have friends who have gone to other places in the world and found people dying from untreated cuts or burns, easy things to treat if only there were access. Research is profit-driven, as is access to treatment and, at least in the U.S., the medical industrial complex is extremely exploitative.

        Violence may be less in some places, but it has increased in others. People I know tell horror stories from Mexico, Central and South America where they have run from, or have had family members exploited and murdered by drug cartels. The stories are horrifying. Sexual violence has reached epidemic proportions in the U.S., and it is unlikely that that is entirely due to more people who are willing to report it.

        There is more freedom for some of us, but less for much of humanity. We may have better ecological practices now (though I am skeptical even of that… damn coal companies are blowing the tops off my mountains!) than 40 or 50 years ago, but go back farther and our ancestors would think us completely insane.

        Education is going backwards in a lot of places with education inflation. To get through college I had to know less than my grandfather needed to graduate high-school, and I have talked to people in my own community who do not know who George Washington was, and who think Native Americans are from another country… Communities are breaking down (though we may start to recover them more, soon) causing people to feel isolated and to suffer from depression.

        I could go on, but this is essay length… sorry.

        I’m not saying things are worse. I don’t think they are. Like I said, some things get better as others get worse. We gain some ground, we lose other ground.

        As you yourself said recently, we’ve become disconnected with the land and, in doing so, have lost knowledge that was common for our ancestors. We gain, we lose.

        I guess what bothers me about the assumption that things have improved is that we will think that we are better than what came before us, and that will stop us from learning from our ancestors. We’ve improved some things. They did other things better than we do. If we are humble enough to be willing to listen to them, we might learn something. C. S. Lewis speculated that every era, maybe every generation, is subject to some great error, and in studying other times and places, we can increase the chances of discovering what our prevailing error is.

        It is great that I am free to work and vote, that I had access to education, that there was treatment for my cancer (every member of my family would be dead or dying without modern medicine) that I have food and shelter. I’m grateful for all of it. I look at the world, though, both on my doorstep and in places far away, and when I compare it to history, it is a different picture, but the same shade, if that makes sense.

        …Now I feel bad for ranting. I can’t leave it alone, though. I am sorry.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Jeff says:

        I enjoyed your “rant” very much – don’t feel bad for sharing! I found the quote that I remembered from Karl Hess’ book, Dear America, but it was slightly different: “Revolutionary social change, like charity, begins at home.” It’s on page 169.


    • bobraxton says:

      I, too, enjoyed your well thought out essay.


      • jubilare says:

        *To Jeff* Sharing, or over-sharing? I’m glad it struck a good note, though.

        *To bobraxton* I’m glad. It’s funny, I’ve argued this with folks who idealize the past too much, too. The more I learn about the past and the present, the more it makes sense as one continuous story instead of clearly defined stages. Humanity is humanity throughout, with all that entails.


  5. This is an excellent post. When I returned to Minnesota and bought this little parcel of land, just under six acres, this was my thought: “to come into a direct, caring, sensuous relationship with this forest, this mountain, this river, this tiny plot of land, and protect them for their own sake rather than for ulterior end.” Thank you for the reminder of the value of individual activism.


    • Bill says:

      Thanks Teresa. It seems to me our first priority should always be to take care of what’s alive in front of us. Imagine a world in which we all did that.


  6. ain't for city gals says:

    Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me…..love wins. (I miss you ending your posts with love wins!)


    • Bill says:

      This makes me smile. I ended my posts with Love Wins for years. One day I forgot to do it and no one commented about it. The next day I just left it off too and it never returned. It’s been gone a long time now. Your comment is the first time anyone has ever mentioned it.

      I really do believe love wins. I used to say those two words were the most important part of every post I did.


      • Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

        Hi Bill, I feel compelled to say how very much I’ve been enjoying your thoughtful, insightful, MINDful posts and equally thought-provoking commentary here.
        And, you are SO right… Love counts. Love helps. Love will always make a difference (even if it is only the size of a grain of sand; )


  7. Jeff says:

    Here is an essay that just landed in my inbox – it addresses some of the same themes that you are wrestling with in this post. Here are some excerpts:

    “When greed, gain and self-aggrandizement are the inputs, then waste, rapacity and rage are the outputs, ravaging the environmental, communal and personal spheres.”

    “First, whenever you use a tool – whether a shovel, a pencil, or a supercomputer – do so in a composed frame of mind. That isn’t possible most of the time, especially in work situations, but it is something to be aware of and to strive for.

    “Then, to the extent possible, consider the outcomes at the other end of the leveraging process. When you apply energy to any tool, the results are usually much greater than the inputs. That is the whole purpose of leverage and of tools. Strive therefore so that the outcomes manifest kindness, or at a minimum cause no pain and do no evil.”

    What is capitalism if it isn’t “greed, gain and self-aggrandizement”? Don’t bring up Adam Smith – the phrase “the invisible hand” appears exactly twice in The Wealth of Nations. What many people don’t know is that before The Wealth of Nations, Smith wrote “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. avwalters says:

    I am not a religious person. I am an ethical person. I see the overwhelmingness of our daily challenges and think that every intentional move to make things better, counts. Though I think every little bit helps, I am wary of the power of the “click.” If it’s a substitute for action, it’s not a good thing. If, however, it registers at the subconscious level and is the source of a behavior shift, turning off an unneeded light, sharing a truth, writing a letter, speaking up in the face of bigotry, then it is a good thing. I believe, as apparently do you, that there is an inherent power in language, and those of us facile with language can bring change with our words. It’s not enough, we still need to walk our talk, plant our organic gardens and engage with our communities, but making a difference happens on a number of levels. While there is beauty in the sound of a soloist, there is power in a symphony.


    • Bill says:

      Very well said. Those are my beliefs too. You said it much better than I did.

      I can think of a good example of what you’re saying. We have friends in the nearby city who live in intentional Christian community with one another in the inner city. They choose to enter into the lives of people who are homeless or near-homeless, addicted, impoverished, etc. The outcasts of society.

      As a result of their forming friendships and relationships with some of these people they were able to discover that many of them (suffering from mental disabilities) were being exploited by a slumlord who also had a fiduciary relationship to them. They were living in horrendous conditions. As a result of their having gained the trust of the people, they were able to bring the injustice to light, the building was condemned and the people were able to move into decent housing. Meanwhile there are no doubt thousands of people in our town contributing money to organizations that fight poverty, who didn’t know what was happening in their own backyard and never would have known because what they were doing (however good it was) was acting as a substitute for actually getting to know their poor neighbors. This injustice would never have ended but for the kind of hands-on activism our friends did.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. bobraxton says:

    wisdom and warrior – I view myself (and my behavior) in the former category. Even by “doing nothing” one can make things worse — recently I contemplated (in writing poetry) my greatest contribution in life – seventy years of defecation — not composted. That in itself is a significant negative impact on the planet — from the perspective of a human speck such as myself.


    • Bill says:

      Just being aware of what we’re doing, not doing, are capable of doing and care about doing are very good starts it seems to me. Anything is better than apathy or resignation.


  10. Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

    “Here, here!!” Thanks for a wonderful post, Bill! Remember, many miles of beach are composed of minuscule grains of sand…
    (Followed you back from FarmGal’s blog…)


  11. This was a great post, I understand where you are coming from, my mother raised us with this mantra, love and look after your family and yourself, then the extended family, then your friends, then those that live around you, then the larger community, then your country and then the world. and she always finished with, if everyone did that, things will be ok

    I was raised learning what that meant in real terms, and while I had moments in my teens and twenties, where I had to learn a few hard lessions, the morals and values that come with living life in that way, really do lead to a good path.. I might have to do a post on this subject and link back to this one..

    this hen pecking with my broken finger makes writing a very long process these days,, and thanks for the kindness on your and debs comments


    • Bill says:

      Hoping you’re all healed and back to full speed soon. 🙂

      Thanks for the great comment. What your mother taught you is what I believe too.


  12. sf says:

    What an interesting post on some hot topics! But yowzers, some of the comments you’ve got here are a bit toooooooo deep thinkin’ for me! (such as, uh, the one about The Wealth of Nations book).
    I’m so glad I stopped by your blog today, cuz it sure is a treat to read from a fellow weed-puller! Oy, I’m tired of pullin’ weeds. Anyhow, totally diggin’ your posts and will continue to check out more of ’em.
    Oh, and will share this post too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      This post generated some excellent thoughtful comments. I always enjoy it when a post stirs up good conversation, and I’m sometimes surprised by which ones do and which ones don’t.

      Most of the time there isn’t a lot of deep thinking in my posts–just stuff about daily life on the farm. But I try to mix it up with other things too. It’s good for me. 🙂

      Glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for commenting and I’m looking forward to having you around in the future.

      Liked by 2 people

  13. sf says:

    Reblogged this on untitled press and commented:
    Such an interesting post. I agree that such hot topics and dire situations in the world, such as the children’s crossing over the border and the battle zone in Gaza has sure struck my own heart and I’m sure so many of us, that we yearn to learn more and give our support in some way. And one medium for some may be through social media and liking those topics. But does that even help anything or anyone? A very good question to ask and I think Bill and his commenters here, give some good thoughts. (But uh, some of ’em are a bit too deep for my simple mind, though). :oD


  14. Rosh says:

    Everything we do has a result no matter how small, it’s true. 🙂
    Here’s a little poem that captures some of this same idea.


  15. Seeking Joyful Simplicity says:

    Great post and wonderful comments. I appreciated the depth of all of it. Working my way through the additional links.


  16. Rosh says:

    The Butterfly Effect. I like that name. I agree with AVWalters’ comments, in that we should be following up on the ‘click’ behavior we have. In any case, it’s been a very thought provoking post for many people. Thanks Bill.


  17. Hurray for spreading Charles Eisenstein’s brilliance. Hurray for this important post because everything we did is indeed a vote on what kind of world we want to live in. So much richness in your posts, fertile as the ground you tend so mindfully. Here are my thoughts on changing the world one choice at a time http://lauragraceweldon.com/2013/03/13/changing-the-world-one-choice-at-a-time/


    • Bill says:

      That’s a great post Laura! It resonates with me, saying well a lot of the things I was trying to say. I’m so pleased to see your reference to the butterfly effect and chaos theory. Thinking through the implications of those changed my perspectives on lots of things. I’m convinced that everything we do matters in deeply profound ways.

      I heard David LaMott speak recently and he talked about how culture feeds us a “hero narrative”–a belief that positive change happens when extraordinary people doing something dramatic in a time of crisis–when in fact it is a “movement narrative” that explains most positive change–ordinary people doing small things working together.

      So glad you shared this.


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