I had a long conversation with an older close relative of mine over the holidays. He had overheard my sister, brother-in-law, and I talking about herbalism, permaculture, cultural shifts. This conversation was framed in the context of the recent Paris climate talks where it appears that world leaders agreed not to do anything for 15 years and in some future time, stave off too much of a temperature rise. After listening to us for a time, my relative indicated that anything that we would do would make “little to no difference” and that when we were his age (he’s in his late 60’s), we’d look back on our lives and regret not being able to do much; we’d certainly regret not being able to hope we had hoped to accomplish. The fact that we had “little money or resources” made this a certainty. He thought he was doing us a favor by “telling it to us like it was.” While this was certainly a mood killer for an otherwise pleasant holiday, its also a fantastic subject for this week’s post: the idea of making a difference.
We hear about “making a difference” all the time, and most often, it is rather nebulously defined in our culture. In fact, when I asked my relative to define what he meant by making a difference, he refused to do so…and yet, its these unstated assumptions and definitions that are in most need of illumination.
If I try to define it as it is most commonly understood, making a “difference” seems to imply some kind of very large-scale thing, national or international, that makes substantial impacts on many, many people or ecosystems or whatever. Perhaps “making a difference” means stopping climate change, saving a whole ecosystem, fixing the political system–something drastic, big, and far-reaching. You know, saving the world kind of stuff,. Sometimes, you can find “making a difference” applied to large-scale actions in the lives of many people in a community (but I don’t think this is what my relative was referring to). And of course, there are the many non-profits telling you to “make a difference” with your dollars. But it is this first thing, I think, that most firmly is in the hearts and minds of many of us in industrialized society.
I think these concepts stem from a few places–first, here in the USA and in other parts of the Western world, we have an extremely individualistic culture, where individual actions, not collective actions, matter. Individuals, then, are held to high standards with regards to their own lives and individual impacts (for some cool data on this, check out Geert Hosfede’s work). Second, in an increasingly global society, our news streams from all over the world–we hear about the “big things” that are entertaining or abhorrent enough to be covered. Generally, local communities and contexts are minimized in this kind of system and are seen as not important, trite, or irrelevant. A final issue at play, and one that I see firsthand in my research at the university, is a fear of failure. We have become paralyzed with fear that we will fail–and failure is seen as simply not a reasonable option.
Given these assumptions and definitions, the problems with “making a difference” are clear. Most people walk around with this nebulous idea of “making a difference” in their heads, and their realities nearly always fall short of what they hope to accomplish. The problem with this assumption is a matter of scale: we expect to make this enormous difference on a grand scale, all while pretty much ignoring what it outside of our door or immediate to us. Sure, given this definition, its no wonder my relative wanted to give us a “hard dose of reality.” Assuming that we need to make a difference naturally leads us to feeling disempowered. Disempowerment encourages is not to act, to assume that you can’t do anything to change what’s going on, that you are hopeless to change the terrible wave of civilization from crashing down around us. So then, the most logical solution is to do nothing at all–to be paralyzed with inaction for fear of failure. What a catch-22!
However, there are other ways to define and consider these terms. We’ll start with the notion that shifting our understanding of what “making a difference” is about can help us move past this dilemma. Its to this work that we now turn with some help from permaculture design.
Permaculture design uses a concept of a “zone” to help us design effective and ethical living spaces, gardens, communities, and more. I find that the zone is particularly helpful for framing our actions and any “difference” they might make.
A zone is simply a designated area (in this example, a physical area) that sees a certain amount of use.Let’s look at the typical suburban home-turned homestead as an example here. A typical home has five zones, each zone getting a bit further out from your center of activity and each getting less visited or maintained. Zone 0 is usually the house itself—where you spend a majority of your time and what is easiest to access. (Even within your house, you can designate zones of use; think about the kitchen or bathroom’s daily usage compared to the basement or utility closet!) But moving onto our subruban yard: Zone 1 is the area you access most frequently and is the easiest to get to and to tend—for our suburban home, this means the places you spend the most time or walk through every day. The path from the door to the mailbox and the back patio where you commonly enjoy dinner might all be considered zone one. Zone two takes us just a little bit further away—zone two is still visited visit and tended often, but perhaps not in the immediate pathways or energy flows of daily living: for example, kitchen garden just out back, the pathway to the chicken coop (the coop is further from the house, its still considered a lower zone because you are tending the chickens at least two times a day). Zone three might be the inside of the chicken yard itself, your compost pile, your extended perennial garden–you visit these a few times a week, and they still require some care. Zone 4 could be a small back field where you gather herbs or a small orchard where you occasionally prune. Zone 5 is the wild edges, maybe a forest stretching back further. We may really like what’s in zone 5 and we go there to reflect, to learn, and to grow. Zone 5 receives pretty much no regular attention or tending, however, and doesn’t need it. The zone doesn’t just apply to our yards–it can also apply to our own living in a community. Zone 1 is our homes, zone 2, our immediate community and town. Zone 3 is our state or other geographical region, zone 4 is our country, and Zone 5 is the rest of the world.
The principle of the zone is extraordinarily useful in understanding the problematic thinking in our conception of “making a difference.” As this concept illustrates, you have the most power and possibility for changing those things that are closest to you geographically and physically–where you spend the most time and where you are rooted.
Putting our Feet on the Path
As the principle of the zone illustrates, and as I’ve often discussed on this blog, its our own lives where the changes are best to start. Its our own lives where the first “difference” can be made. Of course, this is completely the opposite of our cultural conception of making a difference. And so, when we think about “meaningful change,” it’s not about waiting for someone else to change Wall Street or Congress to do something—its about making changes in your own life, first and foremost, and its about going outside of your door and changing that which you are closest to and which you have the most power to change. This is the kind of change that we can do quite successfully–and its this kind of change that can lead to many others!
So as a permaculture designer, druid, herbalist, artist, and professor residing in Western PA, I have the most ability to change my own actions, first and foremost. I have some measurable influence on my immediate surroundings and that of my immediate community using my skills (so, there is a group of us trying to start a food co-op, for example, which could really benefit our community and provide food security, resilience, etc). I’d certainly have less control at the county level or state level, and I’d have very little power over Wall Street Executives or Congress, because they are so far away. This isn’t to say that I couldn’t work to change these things, especially with the help of a great many other people, its just that that kind of change is much less likely than me doing something positive in my immediate surroundings. So, principle one then is that “making a difference” can be focused on our local level, first and foremost, and that we can make a really powerful difference there.
Another issue here is the difference between individual and collective differences. As one person, I can only do so much. I am reminded of this when I want to stack stones or set standing stones in wild places. The stones I would like to lift and move are usually much bigger than I am–and I could strain and hurt myself to lift them, which would not be good. Or, I can take one of two approaches–ask a friend for help, or set my sights on smaller stones. This is an important point, and one that is often lost on us–we can’t, and shouldn’t, do this work all ourselves. Its about many people, each doing what they can, and working together, that the work is done.
Another factor is in the word “difference” and in defining this in a way that allows us to succeed and sets reasonable goals instead of setting us up for failure. Again, its worth interrogating the term and asking: for who? in what way? Personally, making a difference means leaving my community, my land, any other spaces better than I found them–improved in some way. For example, when I think about the healing work I accomplished for five years on my homestead in Michigan, it exceeded my exceptions–its a 3 acre piece of land, not that “big” in some standards–but now, it is cleaned up of garbage, energetically and physically healed, and literally bursting at the seams with biodiversity, healing plants, food for all, and–just as importantly–left in extremely good hands. That’s an accomplishment I can be proud of.
Time is another factor that we simply can’t ignore–and time doesn’t play by anyone’s rules. I don’t really know what the long-term impact of working on that homestead site for five years is–and I might never know. In the same way, my father might never know if the thousands of trees he plants each year will sprout or grow into giant oaks. I also point to my dear friend Linda, and what she was able to do in her front yard farm–she didn’t know what it would lead to, but the important thing was that she did something. Could any of us predict what will happen with our actions in the word? Likely not, and a lot of things take a while to “take hold.”
I’d argue that the outcome of the actions don’t matter nearly as much as the act of doing. This is all to say that we do not have power or control over the outcomes, what may happen to the work we put out there into the world. All we can do is do it.
Doing the Work
I actually think that things like “making a difference” or “having impact” are great, they make you feel good, but they also are problematic red herrings. I don’t have power or control over the outcomes or other people’s reactions to what I do–I only have control over my actions.
An example from my own life might best illustrate my point about simply doing the work, and seeing what comes of it. Many of you might be aware that about 6 years ago, I finished painting a Tarot Deck called the Tarot of Trees. I painted this deck over a three-year period for myself for three reasons: I wanted to use the Tarot but didn’t want to use people-based symbolism, I wanted to deeply learn the tarot and work with its archetypes, and I wanted an artistic challenge. After starting to share my work online as I was finishing the major arcana, a number of people wanted me to publish it, which I eventually did. Its been quite successful, much moreso than I could have thought possible–it allowed me to help get a down payment for my homestead in Michigan, it allowed me to donate considerably to some great organizations, and when my family members were financially challenged, I passed it off to them and it allowed them to bring in a bit of extra income to make ends meet–and continues to do this. It also was turned into a cool app by a really great company. In other words, this project has been a blessing on my whole family and beyond, and continues to be so. Never could I have possibly imagined that when I started painting this project in 2006 that this would have been the result. And you know what? The results are like icing on the cake–what was important was that I did the work! Most recently, its led to a really exciting collaboration on another oracle deck with a good friend (details of which will be forthcoming in 2016!) The truth is, I would have been happy just to have finished the deck and used it for myself–I kept my goals modest, and then, they radically exceeded my expectations.
Another side of this has to do with working with nature. Nature can provide her own healing–sometimes, she just needs the tools to do so. Another way to think about doing the work is that we are planting seeds–and with the right conditions, the wind, light, rain, and soil, the seeds will grow.
Moving Forward and Visioning
So in conclusion, I think we should pay less attention to the outcomes or what “might happen.” This stifles us, it makes us feel that we are not accomplishing our goals, especially when we set goals that are impossible or unreasonable for us to achieve. As important as the outcomes are, especially for the kinds of work I often discuss on this blog, they are largely out of our hands.
If we focus only on outcomes, we are losing out on the most important pieces–the immediate journey and insights it brings. In this case, for all of us, its the journey that matters at this moment in time. Don’t get discouraged by feeling that nothing is being accomplished, that nothing big is happening. As we are coming to the close of another year and looking to what 2016 will bring, I would encourage each of us to set some reasonable goals for the work ahead–what do we want to accomplish? What work do we want to do? Just set your feet upon the path you wish to take, and walk forward. Just as we sow seeds into abandoned lots to help them grow–the seeds that we sow will sprout in their own time, and good will come of them.