That God had a plan, I do not doubt.
But what if God’s plan was, that we would do better?
– Mary Oliver
Whatever you do will be insignificant,
but it is very important that you do it.
I returned home after my time in India on Friday, December 17th, after a long continuous journey in airports and airplanes from Cochin to Delhi and then on to Chicago. I became aware as I arrived that the trip for me was a personal journey from an experience of rural, agricultural living back to urban living, from being surrounded in the southwest of India with coconut and rubber trees bathed in tropical sunshine and humidity to our pines and bare maple and oaks dusted with newly fallen snow. It was a journey from East to West; a journey from the extraordinary back to the ordinary; a journey from global concerns back to local ones; a journey from a group effort at considering the political back to the singular, intensely personal question of “what next?”
How has the trip changed me? Perhaps as yet only in small ways, but they do feel important, as Gandhi suggests.
For one thing, I arrived home with a new awareness that all of the paradoxes contained in my journey are interconnected, and we must learn in the years ahead to negotiate them with more wisdom than we hold at the moment.
During the nearly 30 hours I spent in transit on planes or waiting in airports, I read another of Vandana Shiva’s books, Earth Democracy (Natraj, 2010), and more of Sunderlal Bahuguna’s book, The Road to Survival (Mathrubhumi, 2009). I have to admit I was quite moved by the dismal picture they both present of where our planet is headed as it suffers the damage resulting from human activities tied to industrialization that have begun to adversely affect Earth’s own delicate balance of the resources, cycles and processes required to sustain Life. The new awareness of the many connections between our planet’s distress and many aspects of the lifestyle to which we in America have become accustomed weighs much more heavily on my heart.
I returned to Chicago just in time to join friends and family members in celebrating the Christmas holiday. I was more acutely aware that American news media sees this time of year primarily as a time to gauge our national economic health by the measure of shopping dollars spent.
Yet, I was touched and pleased to see that I am not alone with my questions about the future. Following our family gift exchange and Christmas morning brunch, my 20-something niece spoke to me of having just read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, The Last American Man, and I told her about having read Colin Beavan’s book, No Impact Man, while in India. We agreed to exchange books after the holidays and continue our conversation.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am reading Mary Oliver’s poetry as part of my morning meditation practice. In the midst of my trying to sort out where to go with my learnings of the past month, I came across this reflection in Oliver’s book, Red Bird:
Of the Empire
We will be known as a culture that feared death and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity for the few and cared little for the penury of the many. We will be known as a culture that taught and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke little if at all about the quality of life for people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a commodity. And they will say that this structure was held together politically, which it was, and they will say also that our politics was no more than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of the heart, and that the heart, in those days, was small, and hard, and full of meanness” (p. 46.)
“All the world in our eyes, they will say, was a commodity.” For me, the “they” who were expressing that sentiment included Vandana. She said it many times while I was with her in India and I read about it in her book. She is quite clear in assessing our current situation:
Devaluing the role of natural resources – in ecological processes and in people’s sustenance economy – and the diverting and destroying of these resources for commodity production and capital accumulation are the main reasons for the ecological crisis and the crisis of survival in the Third World (64).
Vandana also knows that her own country is on the same path, and recognizes that the transition to our present American lifestyle has been a gradual one taking place over recent decades. It is being touted here as well as in India as “progress,” measured through only one thing: increased productivity. Vandana and Sunderlal are persistent and persuasive in their arguments about the hidden costs to nature and to ourselves of our steps toward progress.
Offering a historical perspective on how we got here, Vandana traces the origins of our present way of thinking about progress to 17th century England and its emergence as an economic and political empire through colonization. Along with empire-building came a re-defining of productivity. Writes Vandana:
Productivity was defined from the perspective of the rich and the powerful, not from that of the commoner, and valued only profits and the benefit of the market, not nature’s sustainability or people’s sustenance….And the more the poor were dispossessed of their means to provide their own sustenance, the more they had to turn to the market to buy what they had formerly produced themselves.(20-21)
There is much to explore in the implications of the stories that I heard and read about in India. They are stories of dauntingly complex social, economic and political issues. Yet, I also heard stories of hope, stories of individual people whom I met who are making a difference through their small acts of change and transformation.
I have been struggling to write this blog post amid a wash of emotions, ideas, and the exhaustion of jetlag upon my return from India. As I complete it, we are coming now to the marking of the end of 2010, and the start of a new year. It is my hope that in 2011 I can continue to do at least this “insignificant thing”: to keep trying in these weekly musings to capture my own struggles to grow in a consciousness that sees the interconnections, the sacredness, and my own unique role in the great unfolding of Life on Earth, our true home.
Oliver, M. (2008) “Watching a Documentary about Polar Bears Trying to Survive on the Melting Ice Floes,” In Red bird, Boston, MA: Beacon. [Opening quote, p. 45, adapted.]
Gandhi. M. Quoted in “Listening for Your New Year’s Resolutions,” by Stephen Kiesling, Spirituality and Health Magazine, January/February 2011. p. 48.