My conversations with friends and relatives across the economic and ideological spectrum keep coming back to what we fear. I hear children afraid of facing bullies at school, adults afraid of losing their jobs and being unable to provide for their families, women afraid of walking alone and meeting dangerous strangers. I hear people listening to the news and fearing that liberal politicians will confiscate their guns and then violently oppress them, or that conservative politicians will force them to conform to fundamentalist religious views. I hear people looking at the future and fearing terrorist attacks, economic collapse, sudden unavailability of fossil fuels, pollution of air and water, or the storms, epidemics and food shortages that could accompany climate change. Some of these fears make sense to me. Others strike me as exaggerated or strange. I don’t really know what the future holds.
I do know something about living with fear. I struggled with anxiety and obsessive/compulsive thoughts for several years. At first I didn’t want to admit what was going on. I wanted to disassociate myself from others who were struggling with mental illness. I was ashamed of my own fearfulness and angry with people who noticed it. I took elaborate precautions—checking and rechecking doors to make sure I’d closed them, washing and rewashing my hands to get rid of possible germs. Finally, I had to admit that my problem was not germs or open doors but fear itself. I read some books on mental health, talked with a counselor and wise friends, and began to heal. I didn’t entirely stop being afraid, but I learned to admit my fear, name it, and keep on doing the work at hand, being present to the people in front of me, or enjoying the beauty around me. Instead of letting my fear divide me from other people, I have learned to let it connect me to other people, giving me greater compassion for their fears and struggles.
Many of us need to learn how to deal constructively with anxiety. It’s quite easy to let our fears alienate us from other people, to project our fears onto those whom we have defined as Not Like Us: liberals, conservatives, Christians, Pagans, men, women, poor people, rich people, “foreigners”… Perhaps we can’t immediately choose not to be afraid, but we can choose to stop letting fear push us into polarization and suspicion. We can stop blaming other people and start looking at the things in our own lives that contribute to what we fear.
I think that, if we look closely, many of us will find a divide between our convictions and the practical consequences of our lives. I know I found this to be true when I studied economics and became aware of the effects of my consumption. I opposed war but depended heavily on the fossil fuels which motivated so many wars. I was concerned about environmental issues but used many things produced in ways that depleted scarce resources and produced toxic waste. I intended to love my neighbours but I bought food and clothing produced by people working long hours in unsafe conditions for little pay and less respect. I set out to bridge the gap between my life and my beliefs. As I worked on this I also discovered one possible bridge between people of different classes and ideologies.
I’ve spent the last twelve years as a full-time volunteer in a non-profit community / sustainable farm. Our mission is to live an alternative to the consumer culture. We raise gardens, chickens, pigs and goats. This allows us to buy less food grown by poorly treated migrant workers and it yields plenty of surplus produce to give to neighbours. We build, repair and heat our own buildings with wood sustainably harvested from our forested land. We also share some lumber and firewood with a nearby homeless shelter, make wooden toys to give to refugee kids and sell surplus. We run many errands by bicycle or cargo tricycle, though we still use the car too often. We invite people to visit, volunteer and learn how to grow, make and do more for themselves and their neighbours. People accept this invitation for a wide variety of reasons.
Some guests come explicitly looking for a way out of the consumer culture. Some people are troubled by the ill treatment of workers because it violates religious teachings about the sanctity of life and the importance of neighbour-love, others because it undermines equality and social justice. Some are concerned about losing independence, others about losing solidarity. Whatever their motivation, many of them find value in simplifying their wants, learning basic skills, and taking time to savour the pleasures which are available free of charge to anyone who stops to pay attention.
Some guests come looking for a constructive environment for their children. We welcome families to walk in our woods and learn more about native plants and animals, to work in the garden and learn organic techniques and take vegetables home. Parents say that it’s unusual and delightful to spend hours with their kids without having to argue with them about what they can watch or what they can buy. Some parents want their kids to grow up with “traditional Christian values.” Others want them to grow up free-spirited and question authority. They all seem to find it helpful to do basic work together and spend time in the natural world.
Some guests come looking for a way to make ends meet. When the local paper plant downsized, a neighbour came to ask us questions; she already had land, chickens and a garden, and she wanted to learn about raising dairy goats. We showed her around, gave her information and answered what questions we could. She has more goats than we do now; she sells milk products and we’ve taken our does to her buck in breeding season. An injured migrant worker came to our farm for a few weeks to recover. He worked at home in Puerto Rico during the peak construction season, but when work was slow he came to the mainland and put up with poor work conditions and social harassment so that he could send money home. He watched our work, helped us as much as we let him (that is, as much as we thought he could without slowing his recovery), and told us when he left that next time he went back to Puerto Rico he’d plant a garden and buy goats. He thought that might enable him to feed his family through the off-season so that he could stay home and be a father to his children.
Some guests come looking for a sustainable way to help their neighbours. As food prices rise, many food pantries and soup kitchens receive less donated food while more families come to them for help. Some are starting to look into growing their own. Volunteers have lived and worked with us for a few days or weeks and then gone home with skills and seeds to start gardens in their own churches and outreach centres. One planted a garden at the intersection of three neighbourhoods with different ethnic backgrounds and a history of tension. People from all sides worked in the garden, took vegetables home and began seeing each other as fellow gardeners and potential friends rather than potential threats.
Some guests come looking for a way to weather the various disasters they fear. I tell them we aren’t survivalists, that I don’t think we can make ourselves secure by any precautions we take. I do think that we can choose to live in a more just and sustainable way that is less apt to create disasters and that we can learn skills that make us a bit more resilient in hard times. These practices don’t guarantee anything for our future, but they open up some helpful possibilities and they also enrich our lives in the present.
Certainly the presence of all these guests enriches our lives. Their help makes it easier for us to grow or make enough to give away. Their pleasure in the farm reminds us to see and enjoy things that we too often take for granted. Their very diverse questions and opinions keep us thinking and stretching. The sharing of their gifts delights and enriches us, and the sharing of their wounds helps us learn compassion.
My community’s work suits our skills and our very rural area. I know there are many other ways of building community, competence and compassion with other skills and in other settings. I have a friend who spends much of her time in the fibre arts room of a community centre in her small city. She’s learned and taught spinning, weaving, mending, clothes-making, quilt-making, dyeing and much more. As she and her neighbours work together they also share everyday trials and triumphs—illnesses, deaths in the family, estrangements, job losses, birthdays, graduations, new skills learned, reconciliations. They’re an ethnically and politically varied group and their discussions can become quite heated, but they have come to know and care for one another.
I hope that all of us can learn to share this kind of understanding and care with our neighbours. There’s a verse in the Christian scriptures that perfect love drives out all fear. We may be far from perfection, but we’re all able to take some small steps, right here, right now, towards attentive and practical loving and the freedom from fear which this brings.