Environmental activist and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy once said, “You don’t need to do everything. Do what calls your heart; effective action comes from love. It is unstoppable, and it is enough.” Or as one of her students transmitted it to me, “Everything needs to be done, so everyone should do what they’re doing.”
I’ve been thinking about what everyone is doing lately, especially the bits I’m NOT doing. In this community, there are people collecting and distributing food. There are people present with others at the end of life. Some people rescue others from flaming trucks; some hang out with our teenagers. There are parents who care for children day in and day out, and care aides who tend our elders. There are library volunteers who keep books in our hands and activists who restore and protect habitats. Others plow our roads, develop sustainability plans, build our homes. Some people fix our septic fields and others blockade old-growth logging. Some folks work out the tedious logistics of collecting our recyclables or building affordable housing. There are those who make music, those who stock our grocery shelves. There are the people who give us our vaccinations or maintain a community FB page or put out the paper week-in and week-out.
It is inevitable that we should find our own particular approach to the world compelling. After all, it’s what calls our heart. It is also inevitable that we might look over at our neighbors and wonder why in the hell they aren’t helping us with this important work. It is inevitable that we will feel unappreciated, overextended, and discouraged sometimes. We may hide our grief by blaming each other for what’s not done and never saying thank you for what is. All of this is human. It’s also uncomfortable: I know from personal experience that despair, self-pity and blame suck up a lot of air.
The monk Thomas Merton said that “… the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another. Because of this, love is the resetting of a body of broken bones. Even saints cannot live with saints on this earth without some anguish… at the differences that come between them.”
It’s useless to worry about whether we or anyone else is hopeless, cynical, or uncaring. The real work is to be completely present to the world as it is, to love it and ourselves and each other, and to act intelligently and compassionately. What does it matter how we feel, if we are doing our piece of what needs to be done? Every religious tradition tells us that the world will break our hearts, but staying centred in love will unlock a deep capacity—and joy—within. Whether we consider this the gift of a meditation practice, the Christ, or Mother Earth is unimportant. If you want to participate in resetting the broken bones of this earthly body, start with love for this world, and gratitude for what each of us is doing from the heart.