I think whales are graceful. That’s a funny way to describe a giant moving through the ocean. Whales remind me of my mom. She wasn’t particularly graceful either. She wore crazy socks and tie-die shirts. But she moved through life with a giant heart and an ability to see past the cruelty of the world to find hope in nature. My mom loved whales. I remember eating popcorn with her and watching Jacques Cousteau documentaries on PBS. I’d glance at my mom in between buttery handfuls and see the joy in her eyes. Sometimes she’d even cry. That used to make me laugh. But lately I’ve begun to understand. Nature has graced my heart too.
I read an article recently about giant ocean tankers colliding with whales as the tankers steam across the ocean bringing goods from one side of the globe to the other. It was originally thought that the whales didn’t see the ships. But apparently they do. In fact, they’ve even learned to dive to avoid them. But the ships keep getting bigger and faster and the whales simply can’t evolve quickly enough to keep up with the growing aspirations of a global economy. We want cheap goods fast. So we trade life for expediency.
This trade off – immediacy in lieu of nature – is weaved throughout our culture. As we forget to take time for the whales, we often forget to take time for ourselves. We demand that products arrive overnight at any cost, and we demand the same of ourselves: staying late at the office, ignoring the cost of missed little league games, school plays, and walks in nature with our spouses. When it’s not safe to care for ourselves, it’s impossible to care about each other. In so many ways, a world devoid of nature is a world devoid of love.
How is it that little boys and girls grow up to build boats that kill whales? What happens in the process of growth that causes us to forget the joy of rolling in the grass? When does getting ahead become so important that we’re willing to plunder life around us? Or as the great poet Mary Oliver asked in prose: “Listen – are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?”
Clay Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor and author, answered in this way: “I look at my students who graduate every year, not a single one of them has a strategy to go out and get divorced or to raise kids that hate their guts. And yet a shocking number of our graduating students actually implement that strategy that they did not intend to pursue.” We tend to invest our time in things that pay off quickly. Our need for approval and validation is so strong that we are always looking for the activity that gives us the most immediate evidence of achievement. Making something, shipping something, doing something quickly fills this need. Taking the time to care for a whale doesn’t… nor does caring for ourselves or others.
I’ve applied these questions looking back on my life, wondering what happened to that tender little boy who loved whales and shared popcorn with his mom. There came a time when it was no longer safe to be tender. It became easier, or perhaps safer, to win approval by doing big things than by having a big heart. So like most of us, I embraced our warrior culture. I got a warrior job, I ate warrior foods, and I played warrior games. Being a warrior gave me a quick fix, the immediate sense of achievement, approval from my peers, and the trophies of success. But warriors often end up in a wasteland alone without compassion.
Compassion is slow. It’s born through mindful attention, the antithesis of the expediency of warrior life. The meditation teacher, Sharon Salzberg, often quotes a seven-year old boy who, when asked what mindfulness is, replied by saying, “Mindfulness is not punching people in the nose.” Another way of looking at mindfulness might be that we learn to stop punching ourselves in the nose. We connect with our tender nature. We become aware of our need to be loved, to be appreciated, to have meaningful connections with friends and family. We remember the joy of walking outside. We find success in the slow things, sitting in the garden, sipping hot tea on a cold morning, slowing down to allow the whales to pass. We tend to believe that our failing in nature is born from incompatibility, or blind ambition, or even the rapid advance of our technology, but it’s not. The choice isn’t between progress and compassion, but simply between caring and not caring. We love our lives and nature by being mindful to their unfolding.
Since moving to the mountains I’ve been slowly reconnecting with the tender boy inside whose mom taught him to love nature. It’s time to plant our vegetable garden and my wife has been busy making trips to the nursery. I like to spend time with her so I often go along and sit off to the side observing the goings on: the workers who know the particulars of plants with a peculiar precision; the way my wife listens to the whispers of the plants before choosing which ones to bring home; the buzzing of the bees in the wisteria lounging on the fence by the bathroom. I’ve learned the names of plants in the process… the Aptos Blue redwoods in the wooden boxes in the corner, the coral-bark maples taking refuge from the afternoon sun beneath the big-leaf magnolias, the difference between a pineapple-guava and an olive tree. There’s an intimacy in knowing a plant’s name. It’s a slow process, a relationship, like knowing that the guy behind the counter at the coffee shop is actually Stephen, a college student who likes to read Thoreau when he’s not making lattes. We care by being mindful of the nuances of life, and of each other.
So I’ve gotten to know the plants and it’s why I know we can move tankers through the ocean without killing whales. It’s also how I know we can make money while still caring about life. I know these things because the man who charged through life unaware of his impact is in the garden now. I know this because I’ve taken time to pause, and to care and I’ve witnessed softness blossom in my warrior heart. I’ve felt the tenderness bubble to the surface and express itself as tears and essays on nature and compassion. I know there’s hope for the cruelty of our world because I too can be cruel, and still springtime in the garden brings me hope. And I know the names of plants. Nature’s taught me that compassion is possible when we take the time to care. Perhaps that’s why my mom loved whales.
Big hugs of love,
photo credit: Kevin Garner 2016