So many of us can see we are facing challenges that feel overwhelming. We feel divided from others who look different to us or have different languages and customs. We see tensions in our media and reflected on the streets. Climate change appears to be insurmountable. What can one person do?
As a human, it is easy to feel paralysed and to assume that what we do as an individual doesn’t matter. We get stuck in the past or the future, running all the “what if” scenarios on instant replay. Maybe part of this frozenness lies in forgetting that we are part of a collective and that collectives have power that begins in changing small things.
No ant, beaver or wolf believes themselves to be powerless. They simply focus on doing what they are doing in the moment. While a human can lose their head at a mere thought, an ant is capable of lifting 5,000 times its own bodyweight before it loses its head — literally. To us, what an ant can carry seems minuscule, but working together ants have a powerful capacity to move and shift things.
The same is true for your average beaver. Working together to build a dam, beavers demonstrates the capacity of nature’s premier construction engineer. They change the course of rivers, create wetlands and impact the wider environment. Scientists now believe that beavers could help to mitigate climate change.
Wolves are well know for their cooperative hunting abilities. Working together, a wolf pack can bring down far larger animals. They also work cooperatively to take care of young. Reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone National Park has impacted positively on its entire ecological strength.
So if we take a leaf out of the book of nature, we can see that small things make a big difference. Once you remember that you are actually part of a collective, you also realise that everything you do has an impact.
Humans are social animals. We tend to follow the lead of others to fit into what is going on around us. I remember landing in Japan for the first time and suddenly realising that my phone would not work. It was about the same time I also realised I didn’t have the correct address for where I was going. There I was in Shinjuku station not understanding any of the signs or how to find my way. I had to rely on watching others to figure out what to do. That’s what we all do when we end up in a situation we don’t know how to cope with.
This human tendency led to the development of the broken window theory, a criminological theory that states that visible signs of crime, anti-social behaviour, and civil disorder create an urban environment that encourages further crime and disorder. In the early ’80s New York City put this theory to work to clean up the urban environment, including the subway, and thereby dramatically reduced crime.
We humans tend to move with the prevailing surroundings. If we are surrounded by beauty, we tend to soften. If we are asked questions with true curiosity, we tend to open up. If we are treated with kindness, we tend to pass it on. If we are invited to show up with more than just our rational mind, we tend to be more committed.
So let’s get practical about what one person can do. Some ideas….
Create beauty. Decide to become a guerrilla gardener. Sneak up on a public place that needs some love and attention and claim it. Clean up the rubbish. Tend the soil. Plant some seeds. Intend to leave beauty in your wake. Here’s a little clip of seed bombing an installation at an art gallery.
Ask more questions. Become a question connoisseur. Asking a question is a systemic intervention. And when you do it with curiosity, it opens doors. It’s time to raise your question literacy and get really good at them. An added benefit? The better questions you ask, the more wise you appear to be! Here’s my favourite cartoon about questions.
Decide to be kind. Choose one day a week and go for it! The most famous proponent of kindness is the Dalai Lama, who said: “Kindness is my religion.” Kindness is a great antidote for tension, anger, fear, separation and all the overwhelm we are facing today. It invites us to be the best of our humanity. If we all chose one day, I’ll bet we wouldn’t all chose the same day. That means kindness would just keep going. Try it with me?
Invite others to show up fully. Use a check in (and a check out!) for your next meeting. In my 25 years of working with groups I’ve noticed that we tend to want to rush into task. We like to think of ourselves as accomplishing something. But the more difficult the task, the more relationships comes into play. Most groups break down because there isn’t enough cohesion to help them lean in when the going gets tough. The simple practice of checking in — and really listening to each person’s voice in the circle — is one of the quickest ways to keep building relationship. Here’s an excellent new website that tells you exactly how to do it.
My version of being practical is deciding how you want to make an impact and keep practicing it every day. One person can do the small thing that will make the big difference. Let it be you.