By Donella Meadows
–January 26, 1995–
“Last month I got upset enough to ski 2.5 miles out of this remote cabin to send a letter to my Congressional delegates,” writes a reader in Palmer, Alaska. “But my letters here and there (particularly compared to the fax armies of the organized special interests) seem woefully inadequate. It helps to keep doing good work, to keep tuned to what’s real and important, to keep away from TV and newspaper hype, to stay close to the land and friends. But still, there is this dark cloud. So please, tell me, what keeps you going?”
Letters like that keep me going. The thought of someone caring enough to ski five miles in Alaska in December to send a letter to Congress will keep me going for days. I am constantly buoyed up by letters from concerned, compassionate folks, who are refusing to fall into the current mean, me-first national mood. You wouldn’t believe how many of you there are out there!
But that isn’t a full enough answer to the questioner from Alaska and the other disheartened people who write to me. The only honest answer I can give is a personal one — one that doesn’t presume to tell anyone what to do, but that shares, for whatever help it might be, what I do.
I get discouraged too, of course. It’s impossible to pay attention to the world and not get discouraged. And angry. And (this is my most frequent reaction) profoundly sad.
I try not to carry these “downer” emotions into the public in this column or any other work I do. I don’t always succeed, you may have noticed. When I fail, it’s because I’ve tried to stuff discouragement down instead of facing it. Stuffed-down emotions seep back out sooner or later, often at inappropriate times. It’s better, I’ve learned, to let them out, preferably in private. Sometimes I even indulge them. OK, for the next hour, go ahead and be discouraged. Pull out all the black thoughts you can. Wallow in them. Feel very small against huge evil powers. Weep for the tragedies of the planet. Rage. Kick big rocks, throw small ones. Give up completely.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t keep a tantrum like that going for more than an hour. The farther I let myself slide into despair, the sooner a small voice whispers in my ear. “You know, giving up is the only sure way to let the forces of evil win. Even writing to your blockhead Congressman would be more constructive than kicking rocks. You could try this, join that, speak to him, form a partnership with her.”
And I turn around and head back into the fray.
I don’t get discouraged as much as I used to, since I decided to seek out good news and hang out with good folks. That doesn’t mean denying the dark side, it just means not dwelling there. It means, as my Alaska friend said, avoiding media that deliver nothing but blood, bias, and conflict. (I get news from public radio and from the few newspapers that admit a range of opinion — which means, of course, any paper that prints this column!)
When I actively look for good news and good folks, I find them everywhere. They take up all my time now, they constitute my world, no matter where I go in the world. I spent last weekend with 30 top executives who are wrestling with the question of how to make their multinational corporation an active force for the sustainable end of hunger. The weekend before I was talking with the energy minister of a developing country about radical electricity efficiency. Mostly I work close to home, with people who do organic farming, or consumer coops, or local land trusts. Wherever I look, at whatever level, I find plenty of discouraging stuff, and I also find great people to work with and good projects worth joining. Then it’s easy to keep going!
I have a motto: Don’t waste your time with reactionaries. I learned that lesson the hard way. I used to lock horns with the most negative heckler in my vicinity and never notice the many folks who just wanted to talk, listen, and move ahead. There are so many people whose minds are open, why bother, except occasionally for your own education, with minds that are closed?
But then I have another motto that sounds contradictory: Don’t assume that anyone’s mind is closed. No matter what political button or official hat a person is wearing, I try to be straight and open with him or her. I assume a reasonable human being is hidden in there somewhere. I don’t weaken my own position, I don’t play games, I speak with respect. If I don’t get respect back, I walk away. (Don’t waste your time with reactionaries). Later I try again. There’s a book I love called Emmanuel’s Book that says, “underneath anger is always fear and underneath fear is always longing.” The longing in everyone is to reach out and connect with others and make a wonderful world.
Just to be thoroughly contradictory, I have a third motto, when I can’t get myself to be saintly enough to follow the previous two: Every now and then, when someone is acting like a real jerk, blow up. Over the long term that’s probably a counterproductive thing to do. But in the short term, when it’s done for good cause and in a controlled way, it feels so very good. Sometimes it’s just what I need to keep going.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to send another letter to my Congressman, who has the ever-restored opportunity, as every new moment is born, not to be a blockhead.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1995