Thursday, February 10, 2011

Living a Commons life

A friend wrote to me recently:
I read your blog regularly and I agree with a lot of what you propose.  Even when I don’t, or more often when I don’t know what I think, I find a lot of interesting ideas to share with friends.  You, Sean and Caroline do a great service!  However, while I oppose neoliberalism and abhor the rising inequality of the United States, I am not sure what I can do on a daily basis to address this. Most of what you suggest would require major policy shifts to become real, and I want to know what I can do to lead a ‘commons’ life right now, without needing to be involved in advocacy. Or am I just kidding myself, and really getting involved in a commons revolution is the only way to truly affect change?
My friend is a therapist.  She works for herself and volunteers as a therapist in a program for abused children.  She votes, gives away money, and buys most of her food at the Farmer’s Market. She has a cat and a dog she took in when a client of hers died.  I think she is living a commons life in many ways. 

But her question is legitimate—if we always propose ideas that few ordinary people have access to implementing, then how useful is our philosophy?  On the other hand, we cannot be so naïve as to propose that everything can be solved by individual agency.   Living a commons life, however, is not just about all the action we take—whether it is individual or as part of a large movement.  It is about how we ARE in the world.  When I was in seminary, we often debated the concept of evangelism:  should we go out and try to convert people to Christianity (and of course, sub-debates about what form of Christianity we were talking about), or should our lives be such that people would be attracted to our faith without us having to say anything about it?  I came down fairly solidly in the second camp, partly because I did not have a firm grasp on what I would be converting people from and to. (I was like the joke about what happens when you cross a Unitarian with a Jehovah’s Witness?  You get someone who knocks confidently on your door, and when you open it, she has nothing to say.)  Yet when I look at my actions on a daily basis, I know there are many times when people would not be at all attracted to what I believe. 

So how can we live a “commons” life right now, in our work and home?  Here is a short list based on my shortcomings over the past week:
  • Don’t honk at people who cut you off in traffic.  It jars all the other drivers and it doesn’t really fix anything.
  • Speak to homeless people who ask you for money, whether you give them money or not.  They are used to being looked through and over and around.   I feel badly when I don’t give a homeless person money, but pretending I didn’t hear them is just rude. 
  • Don’t imagine what someone you dislike, but have to work with, is going to say, and then don’t imagine what clever cutting bon mot you are going to say back.  This is a true waste of brain cells.
  • Buy a few extra oranges or a hunk of cheese and give it to a homebound neighbor.  Act like you bought the stuff by accident and want to share it so it doesn’t spoil.  Tell her she looks nice in whatever she is wearing.
  • Send a thank you note, even if it is really late.
  • Stop working after 6-8 hours.  Then do something fun. The only way to have a balanced life is to have a balanced day today. 

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