IMAGE: WILL SARDINSKY from LOAM SUMMER 2016
WORDS: KATE WEINER
Over coffee recently, my friend Andrea and I found ourselves steeped in conversation about compassion. Andrea is the founder of Be Zero and an environmental activist who cares deeply about meeting people where they are at. When she posted a snapshot on Instagram of her well-worn and well-loved leather journal (this girl still continues to tack on pages seven years later!) several commentators questioned whether she was "really" a vegan. For both of us, this kind of critique missed the bigger picture. Because there's WAY more at play than just the material at hand. From the devastating chemicals in vegan-friendly pleather to the value of holding onto objects that stand the test of time, the real question isn't what makes someone a vegan; it's what kinds of actions best reflect someone's values. I know many vegans who will eat eggs from a friend's farm and wear only secondhand leather. These choices resonate with their personal vision for a kinder world and that is where it's at.
Andrea's experience is familiar to many activists that I meet. There will always be a handful of people trolling—both online and in person—for "gaps" between a person's values and their actions. In an activist landscape shaped by blink-fast social media, the simultaneous need to perceive nuance and the struggle to illuminate intricacies is real. When we're insecure about our own inevitable shortcomings (because NO ONE has got it "right") we're quicker to project that anxiety onto others. I see this a lot in the environmental movement on a micro and macro level. And it's high time that each one of us work against this wave of self-righteousness because harsh judgement doesn't do anyone any good. Compassion will forever be key to generating change.
Below, four suggestions for creating the conditions for compassion.
ASSUME GOOD INTENTIONS
Everyone is trying to do their very best with the emotional toolkits that they've been given. I know—this is a tough one. But if we can assume good intentions, if we can accept that people are imperfect, we can work through the bumps toward a place of greater loving-kindness. I think sometimes people are so afraid of trying to make a difference because it won't be 100% that they stay stagnant. Fear of failure shouldn't be an impediment to working wholeheartedly for the future—hell, for the present—that we want.
YOU DON'T HAVE TO NAME IT TO KNOW IT
The environmental movement(s) is a pluriverse (we've said this a million and one times on Loam but dammit, it's the truth). Labels like "food justice" don't translate in every community. When we honor, celebrate, and nurture cultural differences, we grow the grounds for reciprocity. You don't have to name something—to fit it neatly into a box, to place it firmly on a spectrum—to know what it is. I have met incredible environmental activists through my work who don't think of their labors through the same framework as me. That's not only A-OK, it's profoundly necessary. A homogenous environmental movement wreaks the same devastation as monoculture.
COMPASSION IS A CHOICE
Compassion doesn't always spring from our souls. Sometimes, you have to work really freaking hard to be compassionate. You have to watch your extended family dig into a heap of processed meat or an environmental campaign manager trash a plastic water bottle and hold the space in your heart for healing. You have to realize that you too make mistakes (often) and that you too are deserving of love.
We're not "better than" anyone else; we are always "right beside." We're learning together and that's hard and beautiful all in one breath.
COMPASSION IS CONTAGIOUS
We can model for others the kind of interactions that we crave. As Grace Oedel notes in our profile of Dig In Farm, "when you take one good step, it has unknown good benefits." When you show compassion in small (and big ways), you enable others to exercise compassion too. And then suddenly, maybe, hopefully, we will have a luscious, pluralistic, passionate environmental movement powered by the trust that people are basically good and this world is worth cherishing and that if we work together—imperfectly but persistently—our dreams may very well be realities.