Reflections on Simplicity . . . The Power of Our Beliefs by Carolyn Berry
How often—even before we began—have we declared a task ‘impossible’? And how often have we construed a picture of ourselves as being inadequate? . . . A great deal depends upon the thought patterns we choose and on the persistence with which we affirm them. Piero Ferucci
In September of 1996, I flew to Washington, DC to participate in a series of conversations around the topic of a campaign to create “A New American Dream.” Our intention was to focus on moving the typical American “vision of success” away from monetary achievement and material accumulation, and toward practical, sustainable, meaningful ways to live our daily lives, while participating in the creation of a hopeful future that characterizes us as committed, conscious people joyously joined in compassionate community.
While I spent those few days in our nation’s capital with astounding leaders in the fields of ecology and sustainability, I found that my most profound teachers were my taxi drivers. This was most unexpected, as I had been warned that taxi drivers in Washington, DC were rude, discourteous, and likely to overcharge me. Imagine my relief when my experience was, without exception, that the drivers who delivered me to my destinations in this enormous metropolitan expanse were warm, polite, engaging, intelligent human beings. Without exception, they were people of color, and each was a seemingly vital messenger with a separate part of a magically woven message that made a profound impact on me. I want to take just a moment to tell you about Mahel, my first DC taxi driver.
Passengers from in-coming flights at Washington National Airport are herded to the far end of the airport terminal, where one-by-one they add to the length of a extraordinarily long, single-file line that snakes along a sidewalk full of impatient people awaiting transport by taxi. The day I found myself in this brain-numbing line, the fringes of Hurricane Fran were pelting the DC area with horrible wind and rain. I yearned for a hot shower and dry clothes in the hotel room awaiting me about an hour away in Maryland.
In a parallel universe, which shadowed the extraordinarily long line of airline passengers, there was an extraordinarily long single-lane line of taxis, creeping one at a time to stop at a spot in the cosmos marked by a sign which read, “Passenger Loading Zone.” As each new arrivee shuffled to the position of First-In-Line, the two universes magically converged, as another weary traveler clambered into the back seat of the next taxi that stopped and flung open its doors.
It took some time, but ultimately I held the much-coveted position of First-In-Line. My relief at “having arrived” diminished almost immediately, as a mid-70’s brown beater Buick fleet-car-turned-taxi-cab stopped in front of me. Mahel, a small, haggard Pakistani in his 60’s, stepped out, took my luggage, and helped me into the tattered back seat. This was not what I had expected my first taxi experience in the nation’s capital to look like. We drove in silence for a while; then I started asking Mahel questions. Slowly he realized I was sincerely interested in talking to him and began to talk freely, as I sat in bumper to bumper rush hour traffic just drinking him in.
Mahel talked of the struggles in his homeland, and how he came to realize that he couldn’t stay in Pakistan for many reasons—one of them was religious persecution. He expressed that when he decided to come to this country, the decision was an anguished one, but it was clearly what he had to do. As he spoke, I wondered if I would ever in my life know and understand the level of anguish he had experienced.
One poignant story Mahel told me was a time of what he termed a “great spiritual awakening” for him. The story took place some years ago, before he immigrated to America. He had been a member in a party that trekked the Himalayas. As Mahel and his group were ending their trek, they arrived at a village at the base of the mountains. On the edge of this village was a huge swamp, a perpetual bog created by the constant run-off from a glacier on the face of the closest peak. A crowd of villagers stood at the edge of the swamp that particular day, intently watching something. They were motionless. As Mahel and his trekking companions moved closer to catch a glimpse of the curiosity that held these villagers spellbound, they saw a buffalo calf, stuck in the muddy swamp, struggling and bawling as the muck pulled it deeper and deeper under. The villagers stood motionless and silent, watching this struggling baby buffalo.
Mahel broke the silence and asked, “Why don’t you do something to help that poor animal?” The villagers responded, “There is nothing we can do. By tomorrow, this calf will be gone. Even its nose will slip under the mud of the swamp. It will be lost. It is so very sad.” Mahel was deeply disturbed by the cries of the helpless little buffalo and by the inaction of the Himalayan villagers. The villagers watched him, wide-eyed, as he unpacked his climbing ropes and walked far enough into the oozing, sucking mud to tie the ropes around the baby buffalo’s belly, just behind its front legs. With the assistance of one of his trekking companions, Mahel worked to slowly and ever so gingerly pull the creature out of the quagmire.
Once they had freed the animal, Mahel said it slowly rose on shaking legs and looked into his face. Its eyes met his for several long moments. In its gaze he swears he saw human eyes, and in those eyes was immense gratitude.
This experience profoundly changed Mahel’s life. He realized then and there that each of us are as helpless as we believe we are. The Himalayan villagers believed they were helpless to prevent the death of this little animal. For Mahel, the answer was obvious and simple. He believed he had power to bring about change. And he succeeded.
So what does Mahel’s story have to do with the message of living more simply? For me, the moral to Mahel’s parable of the buffalo calf is the key to successfully creating intentional changes in our life-styles: we are as helpless as we believe we are.
It is clear that in this generation, as we cross over into a new millennium, we face a pivotal time in human affairs. There is increasing consensus among diverse groups of professionals, scientists, and activists that current levels and patterns of growth are simply not sustainable. Let’s look briefly at several broad global projections, where three driving trends illustrate our dilemma:
Within a generation (roughly by the year 2030) we will add another 3 billion people to this planet’s population.
By that time, world reserves of cheaply accessible oil are expected to be completely depleted.
In addition, the climate on Earth is expected to become even more variable due to such things as the greenhouse effect.
Without cheap petroleum to provide the pesticides and fertilizers that support high-yield agriculture, and with the prospect of disrupted food production due to climate instability at the very time that we have increased our population by 3 billion, the likelihood of massive famines and global civil unrest looms large. When many other known trends are factored into this equation—such as ozone depletion, rain forest destruction, massive loss of natural wetlands, soil erosion, pollution of the planet’s saltwater bodies and fresh water fisheries—it becomes clear that we as a species simply cannot continue on our current path of growth and consumption, but must fundamentally restructure our way of living and consuming.
This may all sound just a little overwhelming and discouraging, but it is not my intention to incite fear by passing along these projections. Just like Mahel’s exchange with the Himalayan villagers, I strive to allow the struggling baby buffalo calf to be observed, and then I ask: “Why don’t we do something?” So many times, the villagers up and down the West Coast respond to me, saying, “There is so little we can do that will make any difference now. By the time our children are grown, it will all be gone. It will be lost. It is so very sad.”
But I truly believe there is hope. I am unapologetically an idealist in my work to reduce consumption and reconnect individuals with true meaning in their lives. I believe that each of us can take steps to live in balance. We can take steps to walk more lightly on the Earth—while at the same time giving more back to humanity and achieving a deeper sense of personal fulfillment. We can learn to take no more than we need, and at the same time, give fully of ourselves. I believe with all my heart that when individuals change their lives, they collectively have the power to change the world.
All blessings to you as we journey together, Fellow Travelers.
Carolyn Berry lives with her family in Salem, Oregon. She is a multi-faceted speaker and presenter with a passion for teaching workshops on life simplification and authenticity.