For much of my life, I have zealously pursued the ideal of sustainable living. A deep love for the natural world, coupled with an equally deep perfectionist streak, made me alternately — depending on the flavor of the times — an object of curiosity or subject to ridicule. However, over the past five years, I have had to admit that this ultra-determined sort of sustainability has not produced the eco-perfect life that I expected.
For example: I currently live in York County, Virginia — a.k.a. Suburbia, U.S.A. My community is organized into neat lines of strip malls alternating with freshly bulldozed lots zoned for new construction. Not only do I drive an SUV to cart my kids around a zero-elevation town, but I drive a black SUV — not exactly a sustainable choice for the sweltering South. Last week I bought my groceries at Wal-Mart. The only obviously sustainable practice I have going for me is that my son takes the school bus. How did I get here? And how can I, in any conceivable worldview, still believe that I am committed to sustainable living?
When I was fifteen, ecology was still a fringe concept in my part of the world. But as I learned more and more about how particular human practices harmed the earth as a whole, it didn’t take long for me to become radically devoted to all things green. And with every new piece of information, I added a new required practice to my life. I became a vegetarian to minimize my food-energy footprint. I insisted my mother replace paper napkins with cloth napkins (which she, and I, have used daily ever since). My first job was working in a third-world import store, where I developed a taste for brightly colored Guatemalan clothing and handmade African jewelry. Instead of Christmas gifts, I asked family and friends to donate to the Heifer Project.
After I was married, I grew my own organic garden of vegetables and herbs; made all of my own household cleaners under the expert guidance of Clean House Clean Planet ; bought handmade soap from a friend’s local business; frequented the farmer’s markets; and bought or received almost every other product in our home secondhand. The more I learned, the more practices I heaped upon myself. At the time I had high energy, low expenses, and no dependents, so I was able to maintain my ever-expanding list of practices.
When I became pregnant with my first child, my imagination had molded my long list of practices into a detailed ideal of sustainable living, and I could define it down to the color of the hand-woven place mats on my sustainably harvested hardwood kitchen table. I would have all of my children (and there would be many) without drugs and in harmony with my body’s natural processes. Not a crumb of processed food would touch our lips. I was going to put aside career to be Earth Mother.
I quickly learned that intentions do not equal reality. Undaunted by the fact that my idealized natural childbirth turned into an emergency C-section, I poured all my energy into using cloth diapers, searching out affordable organic food (by this time I had let my garden go), and making homemade baby food and natural cleaners. But what was painfully absent was joy — joy in my son and joy as a mother. Nothing was natural about this.
After I had my second son, I found that keeping two children under two years old alive took all my time and effort. Not only was I unable to keep up all of the sustainable practices I believed were so important, I could no longer prioritize which were most important and which were actually contradictory. If I was constantly assessing whether our activity or snack was the best possible choice, I had no time to linger and play with my kids. My ideal of sustaining the earth was now directly competing with my responsibility of sustaining my children’s lives — not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually.
The death blow to my sustainable-living ideal finally came when our household income was suddenly slashed by two-thirds. Whatever spare time or energy I had was now devoted to simply keeping our bills paid on time and trying to figure out how to keep food — any kind of food — in our refrigerator. Our options were limited to the easiest and the cheapest, and I had no choice but to accept it. I laid down my ideal as simply impossible. Living sustainably was only for the wealthy and/or childless. I made my peace with Wal-Mart, my SUV, and my preservative-laden, pesticide-laden, cheaper food. And I spent a year simply surviving, no longer worrying about whether each action was the most “sustainable” or not.
I may have thought I was just too poor and too busy to live sustainably, but in reality, it was my product-based, practice-based ideal of sustainable living that was not sustainable. My zealous, determined perfectionism fundamentally contradicted the natural, cyclical growing processes that govern not only the natural world I claimed to love and preserve, but us as human beings, too.
Trying to create a perfect external ideal of sustainability, as opposed to allowing our lives to grow naturally from our internal values, is like trying to build a tree (even from sustainably harvested wood) instead of planting a seed. We might get visible results faster, but it will be impossible to maintain over time. To live sustainably long term, I had to learn to honor the spiritual process that brings the renewable patterns of natural growth deep within ourselves.
Life has a way of showing us that its principles will prevail, and seeks — perhaps even in a kind way — to relieve us of the impossible burden of building a living thing. Even when I didn’t recognize what was happening, the new priorities of motherhood and our limited budget pruned my overgrown ideal of sustainability down to a stump. I thought that part of me was gone forever. But what is true physically is also true spiritually: destruction yields new life. Pruning creates vibrant growth not possible otherwise.
Another physical principle that has a spiritual parallel, I learned from my naturopath: Even if the body is deficient in many areas, it will only take in what will address the primary deficiency. Pouring supplements into your body (or in this case, adding sustainable practices) to address visible symptoms is a waste of time, money, and energy. Only when the core deficiency is met will the body be capable of absorbing what it needs to address the next core need. That’s exactly what was happening to me spiritually: Establishing new habits is very much a spiritual process. It not only takes time, but takes everything in turn: First the seed, then the shoot, then the leaves, then the fruit.
In the absence of those heavy, burdensome expectations, I was able to discern the living value beneath all of those practices, which was my love of the natural world. That love never died, it was just hidden and weakened by the crazy overgrowth of too many practices. So, for a while, I simply enjoyed the world around me with my children, unburdened by obligatory practices. And that was when I really started to grow: not outwardly, but inwardly. To my surprise, specific corollary values began to branch out naturally from that primary value: pursuing health naturally and investing in local, seasonal, whole food sources. Just two corollary values – not even practices or habits yet.
But from simply naming and nurturing these values, I am beginning to see the fruit of a few new practices that are enlivening rather than burdensome. For example, I have switched from traditional primary care to a gifted, local naturopathic doctor for health maintenance. As part of the pruning, I gave up running (which according to my ideal was the most “sustainable” exercise). But in its place has grown the habit of weekly dance and yoga classes at the YMCA — for the first time in my life, exercise enlivens me. I cook simply and from scratch as much as I’m able, even though our budget still limits how much local, seasonal food I can afford. And for now, that’s enough.
But here the fruit of allowing practices to grow naturally from within really pays off: I now know how to prioritize practices within limited means. For example, I know that my practice of buying local whenever possible is rooted in my value of fresh, nutrient-rich food and pursuing health naturally. Therefore, my first and best options are our local farms and the bulk natural foods catalog. When I can’t afford those options, I’m free to shop at the cheapest, most convenient place because evaluated on the basis of natural health, they’re pretty much equal.
But evaluating my food options based on, for example, economic justice for small, local businesses who pay a living wage, would yield completely different results. The local farm wouldn’t be the first and best choice if it used migrant workers, nor would all remaining options be equal. That’s how I can freely shop at, say, Wal-Mart, while someone else might not. Or how I can drive an SUV guilt-free — the carbon footprint branch hasn’t begun growing yet.
True vision provides a decision-making matrix that goes beyond simple monetary cost or objective right-and-wrong, helping us to discern which practice to prioritize and which to simply let go. If we trust that we are indeed living things to be grown and not built, we will trust that priorities and practices will grow in their own time. I certainly have plenty to do in the meantime to nurture what has already begun growing.
So I am grateful for the pruning process of the last five years, because I’ve finally learned that true sustainability is not evaluated based on an objective list of practices and products, but on how well we yield to a spiritual process — the same cyclical growing process that governs the earth we love. If we nurture our love of the natural world, it will naturally produce the fruit of practices over time. And this approach is certainly no adolescent “do-what-you-feel-like” philosophy.
Most of us determined perfectionists (and virtually all mothers) resist this equally deadly extreme for good reason: Sometimes we simply must do what is required, whether we want to or not.
Certain (ideally, codified) minimal practices should be required of all of us, no matter what we define as burdensome. But the key here is to learn the difference between building and growing. Growing certainly requires work that we must do, whether we feel like it or not. Yet our responsibility is not to produce the living thing itself, but merely to enable it to grow the way it was designed.
This kind of spiritual sustainability is tremendously freeing, because we are operating according to design. It costs nothing and produces much. On the other hand, it is not cheap. Just as in the natural world, new life comes at great cost: It requires the seed, or the ideal, to die. It requires us to accept the pruning and to appear to be an ugly, dead stump to undiscerning eyes, even when everyone else has birds flocking to their branches.
If we truly love the natural world and are students of its ways, we will know that pruning burdensome branches increases growth in the long term. This growth will not only be physical, through the addition of visible practices, but spiritual: The process also yields within us the sustaining virtues of humility, perseverance, and faith. In other words, honoring the growth process with patience is how our sustainable practices will be well-rooted enough to sustain us as well — with any budget and in any context. Even while driving our SUV to Wal-Mart.