The way of love is not a subtle argument,
The door there is devastation.
Birds make great sky-circles of their freedom.
How do they learn it?
They fall. And in falling
Are given wings.
In a recent meandering conversation with a friend – about consumption, simple living, sustainability, cultural transformation, why more people don’t take the “obvious” actions they feel are right for their lives – my friend asked, “What would you shout from the mountaintop so the whole world could hear?” After a pause, I found myself paraphrasing Rumi, “Leap! And you will be given wings!”
This metaphor of leaping and flying gives an accurate description of the fear that holds us back from making change and the support that we discover when we move past our fear. Several authors besides Rumi have expressed the same sentiment. For example, John Burroughs wrote, “Leap and the net will appear.” And O.R. Melling wrote, “When you come to the edge of all that you know, you must believe one of two things: either there will be ground to stand on, or you will be given wings to fly.”
Fear has its place, of course. It was hardwired into our beings on the savannas of Africa tens of thousands of years ago for good reason. Fear kept our ancestors safe from “lions and tigers and bears” and the unknown tribe downriver. But just like our hardwiring for sugars and fats can be a curse in our culture of abundant junk food, our hardwiring for fear becomes a curse when it is triggered by people and things that make life worth living, causing us to isolate and separate ourselves from each other. Worse, these fear reactions can keep us from reaching our fullest individual potential and can rob the world of our unique gifts.
Our culture is drowning in fear and a quick look into the daily lives of Americans illustrates that point well. There are the obvious signs of fear: guns, locks, dogs, security cameras, metal detectors, and so on. But keep going and we get to how many of us know our neighbors, how much insurance we buy, or beauty supplies and antibacterial soap, fashionable clothes, jobs we hate but give a paycheck...Further still and we can see how we tacitly endorse war after war and economic hegemony. Living with so much fear has caused us to become adept at outsourcing all the functions of our lives to “experts” who placate these fears – in birthing (to doctors and hospitals instead of midwives and elders), in learning (schools instead of mentors and real learning in community), in raising children (daycare instead of parents), in entertainment (screens and watching instead of doing and playing), in safety (locks, police, guns, inspectors, and rules instead of hellos and potlucks). We outsource our lives to professionals, ignore the mutual aid that is possible between neighbors and friends, and become shells of what we could be. If these fears don't serve us, whom do they serve? Follow the money and quickly we discover that business and government profit from every fearful separation between people. The more we fear, the less we share, and the more we need to buy. The more we buy, the more we “work jobs,” and the less we help each other freely. It is a vicious cycle of warped acculturation that feeds on itself and is out of control. So what can we do to confront this and change our world?
Our journey over the last several years has involved lots of “leaping” and we've been blessed with “wings” time and again. In 2009, after living in a 200 square foot strawbale cabin for two years, job sharing, and otherwise simplifying our lives, my wife and I left Reno for a two-year trip that we call our family walkabout (even if it was mostly by train). With our two young sons – a toddler and a baby – we left our jobs, a home, our friends and family in search of a greater vision and purpose for our lives, in search of guidance and support for building more authentic lives for ourselves. We took a big leap that challenged us greatly but when we returned home in 2011, we returned with that vision and were eager to start our Be the Change Project in Reno, Nevada. With the help of nearly 200 supporters we were able to buy property and create an urban homestead and learning center dedicated to service and simplicity and guided by the framework of Gandhian Integral Nonviolence. All just two miles from the casinos, tattoo parlors, and gift shops of downtown Reno. This journey has helped me realize that the wings take many forms – people, insights, information . . . And sometimes they show up as practices or tools that we can use to build the wings we need.
About the same time we started the Be the Change Project, my wife and I became regular attenders at Reno Friends Meeting. I attended my first Meeting for Worship after meeting an older man, an elder in the highest sense, on a peace march, where I learned about his life. For decades his social and political activism had been powerfully informed by his Quaker faith and practice. He so impressed me that I did some research and learned a bit about silent worship and the Quaker Testimonies, and I got the giddy feeling that I had found a spiritual path, finally. I was inspired and began attending Meetings.
In my optimistic naivety, I was hoping to discover a vibrant and active community powerfully engaged in the greatest works of our time, tackling problems like the climate crisis (stewardship), immigration, racism, and human rights (equality), militarism (peace), consumerism and materialism (simplicity), and so on. The pedestal upon which I had hoisted Quakerism, like every other pedestal I erect to keep reality at bay, crumbled quickly enough. What I found, however, was a loving and supportive community of people working their way through life’s challenges just like me. A community that helps build our wings when we leap.
And leap we did. For the first three months of the Be The Change Project, my family lived in a small shed while we worked to make the house on the property livable. The house was a real mess that needed foundation repairs, water-damaged walls rebuilt, floors and flooring replaced, plumbing repaired, dead cats and feces removed from the crawl space, and so on. From the beginning we have worked to make friends with our neighbors and to solidify our vision in the neighborhood. We practice radical simplicity: our homestead is electricity-free, car-free, and fossil-fuel-free. We bike for transportation. We raise vegetables, rabbits, pigs, and chickens. We live on about $500 a month from odd jobs and donations, and build things out of earth and straw. We host lots of kids on field trips, and we hold free (gifted) workshops for adults. Our neighbors are great, quirky in their own rights, and we share with them our chickens’ eggs and the occasional pork chop. Food does so much to build connections.
Along with our spiritual practices, the guidance of Quakerism, and the fellowship of our neighbors, we have found one strategy to be invaluable in our efforts to live authentically: contextual thinking. That is, we seek to align our daily actions with our values by looking for ways to shift the whole contextual framework around a decision, rather than just relying on willpower to make a change. For example, we do not own a car. If there was a car in our driveway with a full tank of gas, I would drive it...often. I know this because that’s what has happened when friends have left their cars in our driveway when they’ve gone away on trips. I find reasons and make excuses to use their cars. Willpower alone is not enough. So, instead of trying to reduce our carbon footprint by placing limits on how much we allow ourselves to drive our family car, we simply don’t own a car at all. In this way, we have shifted the whole transportation context for our family. We bike to meet virtually all our needs. This gives us exercise, allows us to see the city and its people in a close way, slows us down, reduces our carbon footprint, and withdraws support from oil and car companies. We do use cars and trucks on occasion, but we do so by asking for help from friends and neighbors. That brings us into more conversations and more connections, which are building blocks for the world we want to create.
A second example involves how we relate to electricity. We’ve created a context around electricity so that it doesn’t even enter our home. If we had chosen only to keep the light switches off for certain hours or days each week, we'd be battling those switches and challenging our willpower dozens of times a day. Instead, by keeping electricity out of our home altogether, we bypass the whole coal and big energy industry and welcome the joys of deeper connection with the rhythms of nature and her seasons.
My family has voluntarily changed our context in different ways that support our testimony of simplicity, but such changes can happen involuntarily through external forces as well. A great macro example is the creation of a biking culture in Cuba in the early 1990s. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba had no access to resources needed for running and fixing gas-powered vehicles. Obviously they still needed transportation – to go from here to there – but their transportation context had had changed. So they imported a million bikes from China and, Voila! A biking culture was created. The entire right hand land of every two-lane road in Cuba is now reserved for slow-moving vehicles like horses, carts, and bikes. When my wife and I biked through across the island in this culture, we felt safer and more empowered as cyclists than in any other place we'd ever been.
The development of a bike culture in Cuba was induced by disruptive external events. The country’s transportation context shifted, and people adopted new habits to adapt to change. Here in America, a land of excess, no such sudden disruption of supply chains is likely to occur any time soon. So if we want to create a culture based on the value of simplicity, in the midst of a culture of excess, what can we do? We can leap into our own disruptive circumstances. We can shift our own family economies from contexts of excess to contexts of simplicity. We can choose to arrange our lives so that our daily circumstances teach us to thrive on “enough” and rejoice in it. We can clear away the clutter that we’ve piled around ourselves to barricade away our fears, and to barricade away authentic living in the process. We can fall trustingly into an unknown future. And by falling, we can learn to fly. ~~~
Kyle Chandler-Isacksen runs the Be the Change Project with his wife and family in Reno, Nevada, and attends Reno Friends Meeting. He is a natural builder with a passion for simplicity and for working on regenerative alternatives to our society's great challenges.