Monday, October 09, 2017

Cultivating Our Gardens

In Voltaire's satirical novella Candide, we follow the protagonist, a young boy, who travels the world. The boy starts as a coddled innocent, but as he's exposed to the various evils of the world, he becomes increasingly less optimistic about humanity. In the end, Voltaire, while not outright rejecting optimism, finds what I always considered a pragmatic middle ground in which Candide concludes that the best way to live in this imperfect world is to surround ourselves with friends and "cultivate our garden."

On Friday, I shared a small story about a group of kids playing together. They were working on a common project, negotiating, asking questions, taking turns, agreeing. It was one of those beautiful moments from the preschool of which there are many, every day. Sure, we fight and cry and even hit sometimes, but most of what we do, when we do it together, has the savor of Candide's garden, a place neither a hell nor paradise, but rather one in which we work together to make good things grow. As I wrote the piece, which mainly involved transcribing the overheard words of the kids, I mused as I often do upon why we adults struggle so much with this.

I immediately thought of our political leaders in particular and I wasn't the only one. Several readers commented along the lines of "I wish our politicians would read this." And wouldn't it be wonderful if our elected representatives, those we ostensibly charge with the sacred task of representing us in this project of self-governance, could manage to negotiate and question and agree the way the children do here in our little garden? It would be both wonderful and impossible, at least as long as we reward them with the root of all evil: money and its co-joined twin of power.

And that is the difference. The children playing together at Woodland Park are doing it strictly for the purpose of cultivating our garden, this little community of families that have come together primarily for the purpose of cultivating it. That is all. That is our highest incentive: to create a place to which we can return and create it some more. No one is here for money or power or (to include the greasy buck of education) grades. That's why the kids can do it and the adults cannot.

Or rather, parts of the adult world cannot, the parts that grab headlines in the evening news. Most of us, most days live our lives very much like the kids. We come together each day with our friends, neighbors, and colleagues, and strive to make this day a peaceful and productive one, cultivating our gardens. Perhaps we ultimately do it for the paycheck, but that isn't what we set our sights upon day-after-day the way the politicians and businesspeople and criminals do, the ones who make the headlines and make us despair of humanity.

I'm not making the case for retreating from the wider world: it's important to know what's going on and to make our opinions heard. But change of any kind starts with us, each day, as we cultivate our gardens. That is the lesson I learn from the children.

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