I met three beautiful souls on my walk today in the Harrisburg Greenbelt, a charming, albeit poison ivy and tick-infested, oasis of greenery near my semi-urban neighborhood.
The three were retirees who do maintenance on the greenbelt, in this case removing a fallen tree. They are volunteers who get paid nothing in money and little in thanks, since, it seems, most people just assume that the greenbelt is maintained by the government. (It isn’t and hasn’t been since the city went into decline after World War Two.) Joggers and dog-walkers passed by the three as if they weren’t there, treating them the same way most people treat a cashier. That is to be expected in a society that surrounds us with strangers.
In my neighborhood I can see the skeleton of the community that once was. The old people who have lived here for decades know who lived in every house thirty years ago, but as the children moved away never to return, as life moved indoors with the growth of television, the Internet, and air conditioning, as one by one the porches were covered turned into sunrooms, and as people moved in from far away without existing ties here, social cohesion atrophied. Neighbors kept to themselves, children stayed inside, and the web of stories that binds together a community withered. Local government became less a nexus of civic participation, and more a provider of services. Today few in our neighborhood know many of their neighbors’ stories. No wonder these three gentlemen were treated as one treats an employee of an institution.
One of the men, Charlie, explained to me that this is just his way of doing his part, and spoke of how much people enjoy using the greenbelt. “I just like to help out,” he said.
I thought, this man is one of the invisible people holding the fabric of society together. While people like me are off doing “important” things hoping to have a big impact on the world, men and women like Charlie are serving the world in humble, tangible ways without worrying about how big their impact will be. In former times, his contribution would have been at least visible to his neighborhood friends and his friends’ friends; the local children would have known him by name; if anything happened to him, the community would have taken care of him. He carries the civic attitudes and habits of a disappearing world. Today, though, he doesn’t receive as much as an acknowledgment from the people passing by, who are unconscious that their recreation depends on his generosity.
I feel a pang of regret as I write this, because I am on the brink of leaving this “disappearing world.” Our family is moving to Asheville, North Carolina. Here I have been these eight years, and not once did I volunteer to do maintenance on the Harrisburg Greenbelt. I was always too busy – for a few years, simply surviving divorce, single parenting, and bankruptcy, and afterward traveling the world on a mission I imagined to be much more important than clearing fallen trees from the local greenbelt.
By any rational measure, volunteering my time to move logs in the greenbelt will have less impact on the world than my public writing and speaking, which reaches hundreds of thousands of people. But I have learned to distrust such “rational measures.” Living according to the measurable leads to inhuman results, because it often means ignoring the simple human needs right in front of our faces. Taken to its extreme, it is the economic mindset of money, which tells us to make decisions based on the maximum expected return. Unfortunately, that invariably entails the sacrifice of the qualitative for the sake of more quantity. It leads to a life in which we don’t have time for the children, for the aging, for a slow cup of tea, for a visit to a neighbor, for a day of service to the community.
I am well aware of a cynical leftist critique of civic activities like Charlie’s, which goes something like this: “What will it matter, a more usable greenbelt, when the sea level rises 30 feet? What will it matter when fracking makes our water undrinkable? What will it matter when radioactive fallout poisons us all? How important is it, compared to the systemically maintained racism, poverty, and injustice of our society? Trivial tasks like beautifying the parks not only divert energy from the important political work that needs to be done; they might even be counterproductive, because they make an unjust, ecocidal system that much more tolerable.”
I am not, however, advocating that humble local acts of service be a *substitute* for engagement on a broader sociopolitical level. On the contrary, those who act from kindness and generosity on the personal, local level are probably more likely to act from the same place when a political moment arises. They have been practicing selflessness. In fact, I am sure a healthy, whole human being needs to engage on multiple levels. My twinge of regret was at having abdicated one of them, the level of local involvement in between the personal and the macro. In my new home I intend not to repeat that mistake. I intend to do something local that isn’t scalable, that won’t go viral, and that may not make much sense to the calculating mind.
For each person, the ebb and flow of life directs the impulse to act from compassion in different ways at different times. There might be a time where one is called to do Big Things out in the world, and there may be a time of coming inward to the local and personal. This happens on a short time scale when a child falls ill – we drop everything to be with him, not hesitating to cancel the most “important” engagements. And sometimes the journey through the humble realm might last for decades.
Our society, though, is set up to discourage the little things and encourage the big ones. It does not valorize the single moms or the nurse’s aids or the homeless shelter volunteers like we do the political activists or self-help gurus or business leaders. Nor, moreover, do we give them much economic support. The remedy for that would be a universal basic income, which would give economic concreteness to the understanding that the most important contributions to well-being cannot always be measured. On the psychological level, though, one needn’t wait for economic transformation. For me, simply accepting the heart’s knowledge is already liberating: the knowledge that, though my mind may not understand it, acting in the small realms is just as valuable as acting in the large ones. Then I am free to respond to whatever calls forth my caring, free of that shadow that says, “There are more important things you could be doing.”
That is a toxic voice. Not only does it impoverish my life by discouraging me from relationships of mutual aid and creativity, but it seduces me into self-importance. It implies, “I am more important than Charlie. I am more important than those with a smaller platform and a quieter voice.” Both these poisonous effects are variations on a theme, the theme of separation. Ever since I wrote The Ascent of Humanity, which declared the imminent end of the Age of Separation, I’ve had one after another realization about just how many of the habits and thoughtforms of Separation I carry with me.
I pray that I will encounter many more Charlies whose humility will coax me our of these habits, and deeper into mutual care with the people and places around me.
Originally published here.