“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.” ~ David Foster Wallace, This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life
When I was a girl, my mother used to be upset that I seemed to care more for animals and plant welfare than for human lives.
I cried at old movies picturing horses falling in battles, but never shed a tear when humans “died” in those same battles…
My response to my mother concerns was: “I know those people are actors, the horses aren’t”. A few years later in my teens, I was convinced people could take care of themselves and speak up; I was also upset that some people seemed to do certain things out of a whim, many times greedy or selfish, while animals and plants followed a certain pattern, never intentionally hurting: there was always a reason for survival or adaptation in their behaviours, even the ones that may have sounded terrible to us…
It took many years of studying and living with all kind of humans: from those with “disabilities” to those whose disabilities were only in their minds or the minds of those around them…years of living, observing and interacting with many types of groups, communities and peoples, to understand that human beings are vulnerable and imperfect: we are trapped within our own stories, stories of power, hierarchies and money; stories of pain, barriers and misunderstandings; stories of defeat, loss and excruciating burdens; stories that carry lies and hidden secrets.
It took even more years to see that humans are also strong, resilient, able to change, gifted and inspiring in their own individual and social ways.
But that same as animals and plants, most are unable to tell their own stories or even understand the stories behind them…
And those are the stories that shape how we behave and respond and impact the “choices” we make…
I rarely talk about my work. I work as a counsellor for newcomers to Canada: most of them skilled immigrants who left behind entire families, connections and livelihoods in the pursue of a dream for a better life. Many came running away from collapsing societies where crime, overpopulation, pollution, resource depletion, corruption and the many impacts of imperialism, globalization and climate change are already being felt by many. A few came as refugees or have sacrificed their families for something they perceive as more stable and safe.
My work consists on listening, questioning, suggesting, coaching and supporting people. I don’t have answers, I don’t have formulas. I listen, I take notes, I suggest ways…and I sometimes weep deeply inside for the world we humans have created…
I hear many stories: some are frustrating because humans say one thing but do another…and I have learned years ago that you can’t change anybody until they want to change. So I ask questions and provide resources and suggestions to see if they see the open door (or the windows) I clearly see…or if they can also see the barriers and armor they have built for themselves. Most of the time, I’m not successful: because as someone once said, we don’t change because we need or want to, but because we were suddenly “hit” by a force: something happens to us (or to someone close to us) and we suddenly see the stories, the barriers, the armors as well as the open doors and windows that allow us to execute the so needed change!
Some of the stories I hear are beyond frustrating: they are painful and draining, they make me deeply sad and sometimes angry: these are stories of deep need, abuse and oppression; stories that show me we are not in control, never were and never will. These stories push my boundaries because they touch my values and belief system: I dive deep down under dark waters and need to run away and hide for a while…and then I come back and understand that only with deep compassion and acting together we would be able to “do something” about…
The traps of Not Caring for people
And here are my reasons for writing this post today: I am a “permaculturist” and also a “transitioner” (meaning I practice Permaculture as much as I can and I consider myself as part of the Transition initiatives)…but I’m also part of the “old story”: I live in the suburbs with my partner and two children, have a “regular” 9-5 job, have mortgage and bills to pay and nowhere close to buy or lease land and engage in weekday projects such as creating food forests and attending far away Permablizes or gatherings…
I am also very aware of the “no caring for people” we all carry when we allow our frames and stories to shape our emotions, behaviours and judgements towards others.
My contribution to the Permaculture world today will be summarized in the next points:
- Everybody carries a story, be ready to listen and ask questions (observe and interact) before you judge
- We are all in some way still part of the old story, and for many of us, breaking free is painful and in many ways, impossible
- Jobs are not evil, the system is
- The same (above) applies to TVs, iphones and…
- Everybody needs guilds and succession, not only landscapes
- Only deep compassion and engagement can “save” us
Everybody carries a story:
We are (all) so ready to jump, make assumptions and judgements about others. We are quicker when others are closer to us!
How many transitioners and permaculturists out there have asked themselves: do I have an answer for why this person is behaving this “rude”, “withdrawn” or “grumpy”? Do I have any idea at all why this person is not as committed as I expect her to be? Do I have any clue of what is going on on this person’s life, family, health or workplace?
The answer to all the above questions is “no”…unless you apply the same Permaculture principles you apply to a landscape when you are assessing soil or water systems: OBSERVE AND INTERACT.
Everybody carries a story, sometimes many. Ask and listen.
We are all in different ways part of the “old story”:
How many permaculturists and transitioners have stopped to think about why “others” are not like “them”?
Most people I know don’t have the means to travel the world, lease land or offer work as exchange for food and shelter. Most people don’t have the skills (or even worse, the health and physical or mental ability) to go off the grid and disconnect from “the system”. Many are attached to mortgages, debt, bills and family obligations inherited or imposed 9self or otherwise) many years ago. Some are truly attached to “the system” because they or a loved one need machines, drugs or continuous care that (at least for now) only “the system” can provide.
Think for a moment: how easy is to ditch an entire life “style” when people depend on you for survival (not luxuries, like many want to think)?
Because we all carry at least a piece of the “old story”, we can’t be judgemental or dismiss others when they seem to be living in “denial”: how many times do we observe and ask deeper to see what is really keeping this person “attached”?
Jobs are not evil, the system is
Oh, I have heard this one so much and for so long now…”leave that enslaving job!” you hear everywhere…”jobs keep you from doing what you really are meant to do”…”you were born free” and other nonsense like that…REALLY?
We are not “free”: we live in a finite planet with limited resources. We live in communities and families and we are not independent but inter-dependent.
People have worked all the time and most likely, will need to work in the future (even harder) to obtain the minimal things 9and more) of what they and their loved ones need and want.
Those who glorify the past or tribal societies tend to cherry pick and forget about what they don’t want to see: building safe shelters, hunting or growing food, staying warm, protected and safe, all require a lot of work (physically demanding) and usually for long hours. Yes, there was (sometimes) more time for community sharing, play and rest, but those were other times and other locations…there were also fewer human beings and different technologies and political, social and economic systems back then!
Reality today (for at least 80% of people) is that no job means some type of homelessness, deprivation and even starvation…it makes them even more dependent (not “interdependent”) of others and the system…
For people with a safety net, families to support them, skills, physical abilities, youth and no dependants, leaving “the system” may be a good choice. But this is not true for the majority, making them to feel miserable for having a job doesn’t help the cause. Supporting them and changing the system does.
The same (above) applies to TVs, iphones and…
I recently read a rant by one of my favourite authors…and it didn’t feel OK! The rant was about how the majority lives in denial, hiding behind screens and all kind of toys to avoid facing the true about the predicaments we face…
While this (above) may be true for some middle class people, it doesn’t apply the same to everyone: the rant is very similar to that of some “financial advisors” that want to make us believe we are in debt because we had an addition to the “signature coffee” of $5 we drink everyday…I’m not sure who they are referring to, but this does not apply to any of the clients I work with and certainly doesn’t apply to me either!
They also try to make people feel miserable because they are supposedly working to pay for “stuff they don’t need”.
In most cases, people are working to pay for rent, heating, food and transportation. Many are also working to pay debt they incurred to buy medicines, receive treatment or pay for studies…
Recently I read an article about a social worker waking up to the reality that the woman he had in front of him, pleading for money to pay the bills (which include cable TV) was not a stupid who does not know better: she was a single mom, working two survival jobs and living in a dangerous neighbourhood. “Ditching the TV” would be the perfect solution for a middle class person who have many other options for herself and her children…is having a TV perfect? Is that a “solution”? What about a family with an untreated (and probably untreatable) teenager who calms down only when in front of a computer? Is this perfect? What about working parents with no family or neighbours support who need to provide a cell phone to their child who needs to walk to and from the school everyday?
Yes, it would be much better to not to use TV or computers as babysitters or cell phones as safety devices. It would also be great to not to have single moms isolated in dangerous neighbourhoods or working two abusive jobs! It would be even greater to have a supportive community with lots of people taking turns to care for these children, including the one who needs to use a computer to calm down his anxiety and social challenges nobody wants to see or treat. Or having neighbours and family members who take care of that child walking alone, even better having parents at home so they can take care of their child’s education.
But that is not the world where we live…and we are all in transition: caring for people implies that we don’t judge and instead of making people feel miserable for their “choices”, we may lend a hand…
Everybody needs guilds and succession, not only landscapes
We permaculturists talk a lot about “guilds”; designed structures where every element supports the others, where everything is interconnected and no element or function is isolated or left behind.
Why don’t we do that more often with people?
If there is something we humans are currently lacking is GUILDS: we need enough support from those around us; knowing our needs and functions are being supplied by more than one “element” and that what we do is also appreciated an important for others.
We have a surge of depression, anxiety and other mental health issues as well as increase in divorce and crime rates, all because we have lost our community guilds…
In the past, we would have multigenerational homes where “dementia” was not a bad word and grandma was not sent to a hospice or care home. In that world, we had family members who were weaker or sick and we (at least in most cases) supported them so homelessness and isolation were not so common as they are today.
The reasons we have what we have both individuals and society are complex and root to even the food we eat and the water we drink…but they also root to how we connect (or disconnect) from those around us and those who should be there for us.
Only deep compassion and engagement can “save” us
That’s the only answer: we can’t call ourselves permaculturists or transitioners when we don’t answer others peoples emails, when we don’t offer a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on, when we make assumptions about why or how people behave or not behave.
Compassion means “suffer with”. In Spanish it may also mean “share the passion” or “adding the heart to it”…
It is time for us to step outside our small brain and heart boxes and start observing and interacting with the real people around us…so People Care becomes a real ethic that every permaculturist and transitioner holds…
This post was “inspired” by a client of mine who first came, some months ago, with his head up and all kind of great dreams. Only six months later, he came back completely drugged by the many over the counter medicines he had to take in order to stay awake: his new job demanded him to work 12 and even 14 hours graveyard shifts (overnight) almost non-stop and doing physical work for which he was not trained or fit.
Still, he put all his effort to study and come to see me because he wanted a better life for himself and his family…if you see this noble man in the street you may run away from him: he has developed a slurred speech, his hands are swollen and shaking and his eyes lost contact.
I cannot help but hugging this brave human being, whose story resembles so much that of the other 80% out there. And yes, he has a TV and a cell phone.
“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” ― Leo Buscaglia
“If you shift your focus from yourself to others, extend your concern to others, and cultivate the thought of caring for the well being of others, then this will have the immediate effect of opening up your life and helping you to reach out.” ― Dalai Lama XIV