By Donella Meadows
–December 27, 1990–
“All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten,” says Robert Fulghum in an essay that is posted on bulletin boards all across America. “Share everything. Play fair. Clean up your own mess. Put things back where you found them.”
Those are obvious rules — and good resolutions — for holding together a civilization. Yet in my experience not one person in ten has been raised to follow them.
I base that claim on 18 years of living on a communal farm. Over that time more than 80 people have lived here, aged zero to 60, none related to me. Some have stayed for months; some for years. I am happy in this shared home; I wouldn’t think of living any other way. But if the folks who come here are a fair sample of the citizenry as a whole, more of us, including me, should have attended Robert Fulghum’s kindergarten.
Clean up your own mess. Put things away. No one should have to work around someone else’s dirty dishes or search for tools someone else has misplaced. Imposing messes on other people is one of the most primitive violations of human rights. Yet I can count on one hand, with fingers to spare, the people I’ve lived with who have been practiced or patient at cleaning-up-and-putting-away.
At our place he/she who cooks the meal cleans the kitchen, and we rotate the cooking, so we all do our share of dishes. But snackers who leave crumbs and cups around are a problem. For awhile we deposited dirty dishes in the middle of the offender’s bed. Lately we’ve been getting by with a RULE: Wash your own dishes plus one. Enough of us follow it to keep the kitchen somewhat functional.
You’d think grown-ups wouldn’t need rules and dishes in the bed to follow a hygienic practice as basic as toothbrushing and toilet training. But believe me, in this society otherwise intelligent and functional adults still have to be dish-trained.
We’re even worse about putting things away. I’d estimate the tool-return rate of our household at no better than 50 percent. The cost is enormous, not only in lost tools, but in lost time looking for the hammer my housemate left out on the back porch, or the digging fork I left in the raspberry patch when I was getting the burdock out and was half done and thought I would come right back and finish up. RULE: The job isn’t done until the tools are put away. A half-done job does not justify leaving tools out.
We have found other rules necessary, rules that should be kindergarten-simple, but we have to work at them.
RULE: When you have a complaint, make it to the person who can do something about it. Don’t complain to anyone else. And don’t suppress it. If I do something that annoys you, the worst thing you can do to me is grit your teeth, never tell me, and build up a monumental resentment. No, I take it back — the worst is to tell everyone but me.
Sounds simple, but I think this is our toughest rule. Notice how much misdirected complaining you hear, and do, about families, co-workers, bosses, the government. We live in a culture that revels in complaining to the wrong people. We’d rather complain about a problem than solve it.
RULE: When you make a promise, make it real. That means with specifications of performance and deadline. If you can’t do that, don’t promise. NEVER make a dirty promise that you don’t intend to keep. If you find you can’t fulfill a promise, inform whoever is counting on you as soon as you know you can’t deliver.
In our little household when folks don’t do what they say they’ll do, practical arrangements fall apart. Mutual trust vanishes. We have to check up on each other and get mad for having to do it and get mad at not being trusted. On the other hand, when we do learn to take our word seriously, we make fewer promises, we follow through more often, and we experience a small taste of heaven.
RULE: Acknowledge successes and failures fully and quickly. Acknowledgement is a lubricant that makes the wheels of community turn smoothly. Yet it’s amazing how seldom we say, “thanks for mowing the lawn; it looks great,” or “I screwed that up royally. I’m sorry.” We THINK these things. I don’t know why we’re so reluctant to say them.
RULE: Everyone’s time is worth exactly as much as everyone else’s time. Some people bring to us from the larger society the terrible idea that their time is too valuable to spend in humble household tasks. A college professor, say, can’t be bothered to take out the garbage. Since the garbage must be taken out, that leaves the job to less august members of the group.
That’s not only a violation of Fulghum’s lessons (play fair, share, clean up your own mess), it also destroys any possibility that the household will become more than a mere economic arrangement — and that possibility is the payoff from following these simple-to-state hard-to-follow rules.
In a communal household, unlike a family, no law or custom binds us, so we have to think hard about what does bind us. The ability to support each other, to enhance each other, to do things together with more energy, more ideas, more fun, and less cost than we’d have by doing them separately. The possibility of escaping insecurity and loneliness. The chance to practice human skills at and even beyond the level of kindergarten. Fulghum says, and I agree, that if these skills could become part of our culture on all levels from individuals to corporations and governments, it would be a different and better world.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1990