By Donella Meadows
–July 13, 1989–
I suppose everyone who writes a regular newspaper column gets an amazing stream of letters from readers — I do, anyway. They scold me and praise me. They contain jokes, stories, clippings, leaflets, occasional obscenities, and all sorts of questions. Often a letter will go straight to my heart — because it comes straight from someone else’s heart.
“Just thinking of the world my six-year-old son may inherit brings tears to my eyes,” writes Matt Kayhoe of Keene, New Hampshire. “Yet tears are progress.”
“I have become adept at finding ways to avoid the anguish that comes from facing environmental, economic, political, and social problems. I have tried being angry at other people and classes of people. I have tried to discard my concerns through spirituality. I have pretended that the political powers will respond, giving me permission to have a normal, materialistic American lifestyle.
“As I suspect you know, these approaches don’t work. They represent most of the ways that humankind has avoided facing its problems.
“It is clear that I must not avoid this pain if I am to be part of the solution, for it is the avoidance of pain that freezes us and disables us from acting on our shared problems. So I am making a conscious effort, and at times it is overwhelming.
“I can’t help but believe that you have learned ways to work through this anguish, both from your own experience and that of others. So I ask a favor: would you share some of your thoughts and experiences?”
How could there be a more sincere, crucial, humbling question than that? How can one possibly answer it, especially when the questioner has come so far toward finding his own answer?
Matt (I presume I can call you that — we’ve never met, but your letter is that of a friend to a friend), thanks for showing me how to deal with the pain I share with you. First, and most important, you’ve admitted to yourself and to someone else that you feel it. (Think how many of us go around grimly denying that.) You’ve recognized the uselessness of your (and everyone’s) favorite self-serving escape mechanisms. You’ve been honest, you’ve searched yourself, you’ve asked a real, a central, a tough question. Asking it is already a large part of the answer.
When I feel overwhelmed by the agony of being a caring person on this beleaguered planet, I like to remember a demonstration I once saw at a workshop. Imagine for a minute that you’re holding on to the ends of a thick rubber band, one end in each hand. Now picture pulling, one hand up, one down, so the band is stretched tight. Pull hard.
Hold that tension there for a minute and let your lower hand represent reality, the state of the world right now, the whole human and planetary condition — not good in many ways for many people, not good for the other creatures of earth. Your upper hand represents utopia, the way the world would be if everything worked right, if all creatures and the earth as a whole were healthy and cared for.
If your imaginary rubber band is thick enough and your hands far enough apart, the tension is probably getting to you by now. What you most want to do is let go.
So let go, with your upper hand. (Snap! Ouch!) Forget about utopia, dreams, and visions. You’re a realist, a fashionable cynic. The rubber band flops around, directionless, in your lower hand. You’re well grounded, fully aware of the trouble and toil of today, but you have no clear direction to go and no hope of getting anywhere.
If you let go with your lower hand instead, the rubber band will flop again, hanging from above, totally out of touch with the facts. You’re a flake. You live in fantasy, in the happy supposition that everything is all right, or will soon be so — and that you need apply no effective power to change anything. You’re a Pollyanna, unconvincing to others, because in truth you haven’t convinced yourself. You know you’ve let go of reality.
In either of those tensionless states you are quite comfortable — and quite powerless.
The only alternative is to BEAR THE TENSION. Hold on tight, firmly in touch with reality, unshakably committed to your highest dreams. Feel the pain. Summon your strength over and over to endure it. Stop to rest, if you have to, but pick up both ends again. Only out of an acceptance of the world’s terrible pain and its wonderful possibilities can you anchor your upper hand to vision, while you discover ways to bring your lower hand, the reality closest to you, up toward that vision, slowly, slowly. Your anguish, sometimes so unbearable, is in fact the force through which you can help the world come a little closer to being all that it can be.
Thanks, Matt Kayhoe, for asking and for answering.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1989