The smallest of the issues you care about is related to, and inseparable from, the largest.
Raising happy, healthy kids and teaching them to care for themselves and others, living a fulfilling and ethical life, animal welfare, forests, communities, species extinctions, re-building soils, cleaning up the oceans, social justice… the list goes on. And on. It is overwhelmingly long.
This final article in this Series explores how you can be sure that even (perhaps especially) the “littlest” things you do are important to the whole, if they’re done with wholesome intent.
Fumbling in the dark, doing unseen work
There’s no road map for the most important work you do. It feels like you’re stumbling around in the dark, without a torch, often without a support team, and definitely without a cheer squad.
The most important work of your life is the internal searching, questioning and renewing, the visioning and holding space, the focusing on what you know is right, is healing, is whole, even when the rest of the world seems to be going in the opposite direction… and the unlearning that it takes to try your best to do all this without judgement and without resistance.
This is the invisible work of adults in a world that desperately needs such adults.
None of this is measurable, none of it can be scaled up[i], and often no-one knows you’re doing it, let alone cheers you on.
Being present with someone who needs your presence, caring for your little corner of our planet, tending the threads in the fabric of our ecosystems, supporting each other – these are some of the important job descriptions that arise out of and are supported by your invisible personal work of parenting yourself.
There are no salaries, bonuses, gold watches, plaques or commemorations attached to any of it.
These powerful intentions, manifesting in these small, apparently insignificant actions – these all connect in unseen ways, to make a difference in the wolrd.
When you’re tempted to think there’s nothing you can do
Sometimes when you ask, “What can I do, to improve this situation?” the answer is, “Not much.”
But the answer to “What can I do?” is never, “Nothing.” Even if there is no direct action you can take, you still get to choose your internal response.
You get to choose to gnash your teeth and bemoan your constraints and point your finger at someone or something outside yourself – and if you make this choice then you uphold the story of struggle and conflict.
Or you get to choose to live peacefully within your constraints for now while you remain open to the possibility of change.
How does it help, to simply do your best to be peaceful within a situation in which you cannot make a difference to anything more than your own internal response?
I’d like to suggest that this simple-but-not easy, invisible choice wields power out of all proportion to its humble appearance.
There are many real-life examples of this principle; one of them is contained in the story of Nelson Mandela[ii].
“Mandela said often that the gift of prison was the ability to go within and to think, to create within himself the things he most wanted for South Africa: peace, reconciliation, harmony.”
Boyd Varty, “What I Learned From Nelson Mandela”
When you parent yourself by doing the deep personal work necessary to enable you to progressively give up conflict (internal and external) and be at peace with difficult circumstances, you’re widening the path so that others can do in a shorter time what may have taken you decades of effort and learning[iii].
Immeasurable acts of love
Please don’t think that you have to be Nelson Mandela in order to apply this principle.
If you’re a parent whose deep commitment to peaceful parenting enables you to stay patient and connected during a frustrating afternoon with a young child, you are doing the same work.
If you’re an employer or manager whose personal values call you to strive to ensure dignity and meaning for people who work under you, you are doing the same work.
When you’re in conflict in a difficult relationship and you take a deep breath and discover within yourself one more ounce of compassion, generosity, or non-judgement, you are doing the same work.
When you’re so mad and hurt and scared that all you want to do is smash something, but instead you go outside and scribble your fury onto paper until the pain can well up from underneath the rage and wash you clean… you’re doing the same work.
The scale of your efforts is not relevant. Whether you are working to support and help yourself, your child, your spouse, a co-worker, a forest, or a nation, these are acts of love, and love is not measurable.
This kind of pioneering work, this labouring to bring a new story into being in our world, is not measurable on any bottom line.
But without it we’re lost, because this is fundamental to any worthwhile external, visible change.
Developing a sense of meaning
If the most important work of your life is invisible, then your own sense of satisfaction, meaning and purpose may be the most reliable indicator you have that you are not wasting this lifetime on earth.
I’d like to mention three ways of validating your sense of meaning and purpose; they all involve connection.
The first is to develop or deepen a practice of journaling or some other form of personal reflection that lets you come to know yourself better, to be a better friend to yourself, irrespective of any social mirror.
If this is new for you, it will be jagged and sticky and difficult at first. Persist. Show yourself the same unconditional acceptance and support you wish you had received as a child.
The second is to make it a priority to connect with others who share your values. We know ourselves partly through our relationships; like good parents try to do for their children while they are still young, we must choose peers for ourselves whose concepts of “the right thing to do” align with and support our own.
Such friends will know—and reflect back to you with or without words—that your work, your presence, your unique, un-quantifiable contribution, matters deeply to those whose lives you touch and to the extended web of life that surrounds and supports us all.
My third suggestion if you’re in need of more of a sense of grounding, acceptance, or belonging, is to go outside, alone, to some small or large place where you can feel your connection to the Earth, to Nature.
Let the Earth Mother help you feel and be through the deepest, oldest, and most unconditionally accepting connection of all.
(Perhaps you have a spiritual practice already in place, and for you the oldest connection is with God or your equivalent. All I’m suggesting is that you find a way to reconnect with Source, whatever that means for you.)
A choice between two stories
We’re at a point in human history where we get to choose between two stories, two worldviews[iv].
The first is the worldview that has shaped the dominant culture on earth since human beings first began to label, count, and keep time – the one that says that everything is measurable, that everything is separate, and that change happens only when a force is exerted upon a mass.
This force-based causality, in which bigger is always better, is a recipe for despair, paralysis, and burnout if you’re working or longing for social and ecological justice in the world.
The second worldview is the one held by those minorities who did not pursue labelling, counting, and keeping time, or who, having learned to do so, still retained an awareness that not everything can be named and measured.
In this worldview, causality isn’t limited to what we were taught in school, and self and universe are so intimately connected that they mirror each other. In this world, whatever happens “out there” is also happening in some way “in here” – in some aspect of ourselves.
In this story, every act and intention ripples out to affect the whole world, and eventually comes back to affect ourselves as well.
Both stories are true. Both stories are in existence today. Each thought and action is a declaration of which story you’re choosing to align yourself with.
In the story that holds us all as separate and change as only able to occur as a result of force, you are just one small individual. How can what you do or think make any difference?
In the world in which each any change to any part corresponds to a change in the whole[v], how can what you do or think not make a difference?
Kate writes at ARealGreenLife.com and is working on producing a free downloadable PDF of this Series and a Cheat Sheet to help you remember the main points and apply them in your day to day life.
[i] Please put aside time to read Charles Eisenstein’s article, “Scaling Down” – or read it right now. Although it’s a long and quite complex read (about 20 minutes), I highly recommend it as an antidote to the despair that comes with feeling that nothing you can do makes a difference.
[ii] Nelson Mandela is perhaps best known for successfully leading the resistance to South Africa’s policy of apartheid in the 20th century, during which he was infamously incarcerated at Robben Island Prison (1964–82). He won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1993, along with South Africa’s president at the time, F.W. de Klerk, for having led the transition from apartheid to a multiracial democracy. Mandela is also known for being the first black president of South Africa, serving from 1994 to 1999.
[iii] I’m paraphrasing Charles Eisenstein’s words from his article “The Impact of Morphic Resonance.” In it he shares that the principle of morphic resonance explains how once something happens somewhere, it creates a field of change that allows the same thing to happen more easily somewhere else.