I often find the phrase “be the change you want to see in the world” intimidating, because the change I want to see in the world is huge, sweeping, overwhelming, and must be the result of millions of other people working to change complex systems of injustice that have been in place for years and years. But if I substitute the word “good” for “change,” the adage sounds suddenly manageable. I see good around me all the time, in the hearts and actions of other people. And I have a sense of what is good for people—for me, and for others. Being seen, listened to, acknowledged, encouraged, and valued—these things are good.
I can do these things. I have done these things. For over twenty years, I was able to do these things as a teacher at colleges and universities. I was lucky; the teaching of writing provides so many natural opportunities for the nurturing and mentoring of young people. Places of learning provide community that can support these essential acts of goodness: to see, listen to, acknowledge, encourage, and value others. Being a teacher gives a person authority, so those acts carry enough weight to make a real difference in the lives of some students.
Now that I am working to be the good I want to see in the world outside the often wonderful community of higher education, the opportunities and effects of these acts of goodness are more difficult to see. I need to remind myself that what I am doing now is essentially the same as what I did then. So I write these posts to you, and to myself, and I have to say it, explicitly: in my writing, despite the apparent contradictions, I am still trying to see, listen to, acknowledge, encourage, and value you. I may not always succeed, and some words will reach some of you and not others. But I am trying. This is my goal. Even when I promote my own books, try to be funny, try to get people to buy things, share the words of others, admit to sadness or frustration, piss you off—this is all in service to my overall goal, to be the good I want to see in the world.
At the end of her well-known poem, “The Summer Day,” Mary Oliver asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” There are so many things I want to do: create, protect the environment, love animals, travel, grow things, appreciate beauty, laugh with friends, give to my loved ones, alleviate suffering, promote equality, experience peace… I believe these long-term goals start with the acts of goodness I list above, small things I can do that will, if I’m lucky, ripple through my life to make the larger things possible.
It is vital for me to remember, however, and to remind myself as often as needed, that even if I don’t get to do everything I want to do with my “one wild and precious life,” making these simple acts—to see, listen to, acknowledge, encourage, and value others—the focus of my life is worthwhile. I have been teacher, poet, mentor. I will be more impractical things (writer, blogger, lecturer, workshop leader, publisher, video instructor, and things I can’t even conceive of at this point). But practicality is not my goal, in my professional or my personal life. What’s yours?