This morning, I read the headlines of the New York Times. They wreaked havoc on my immune system, my hippocampus, my cardiovascular system, or possibly all of the above. Did I need to know that Venezuela’s hospitals are lacking medicines or that there is no food on the shelves of grocery stores? That there is a terrible drought in Australia while fires are ravishing the country and cattle are dying from lack of water? That bad floods are inundating city streets in India?
Then I read that there are unsafe levels of contaminants in the tap water of cities throughout the U.S.; officials wait months before telling the public. This one raised my blood pressure worrying whether San Diego’s water is safe. Is there something else we don't know yet?
Worldwide, women are being raped, children are made to bear arms, and whole villages are destroyed. In our own streets, gays and homeless people are beaten up. I can’t connect to the rage that must fuel such actions. Are these people all mentally ill? No, there are too many seemingly normal individuals committing such actions around the world. I experience visceral pain looking at the photos of starving children in South Yemen. There are, have been, and always will be inhumane actions everywhere. Could it be a genetic defect that plagues humans and contributes to this destructive behavior? No other animal tortures its own kind.
It is distressing to read about suicide bombers exploding themselves in crowded places or about refugees drowning on their way to a safe haven. I worry about all the children in refugee camps who have no access to schools. We are raising a whole generation of uneducated people who will have their own questionable and uncertain impact on our world.
We are not doing enough about the Arctic permafrost melting and releasing methane that will speed up global warming. Because of climate change, we are losing animal species. If the fish disappear due to warming waters, then the animals that feed on them cannot survive. The people whose livelihood depends on fishing are also directly impacted. As we cut down and burn our forests, we decimate the habitats of countless animals. Within my grandchildren’s lifetime, the rising oceans will eliminate most coastal cities around the world. Some of these calamities are already irreversible. Is there any good news? As I sit here depressed, I wonder whether the media does not mention it because it doesn’t sell as well.
Where do I come into all of this? Is there a part for me to play? Can I diffuse world anger and influence everyone to be more rational? As an individual, I cannot make a difference in the politics or economies of the world.
Many years ago, I read a book by Voltaire: “Candide.” The last line of this book has remained in my consciousness for all these years, without my knowing exactly why, but I have finally figured it out. That line is: “...we must cultivate our garden.” I suppose it is all we can do. In other words, we will not fix all the calamities being perpetrated in our world, but we can make a difference in our own little community.
My garden is White Sands, the retirement community where I live. As I started thinking about all the gardens I tended in my past, I realized that my focus was education. Teaching is a means of cultivating one’s garden. Teachers can change the lives of their students by helping them grow their own gardens. As I think of all the hundreds of classes I had the privilege of teaching, some of my students took the ideas that I was cultivating and transplanted them into their own gardens where they flowered to perhaps seed still other gardens.
You can make a difference in your own garden by showing more compassion, being more tolerant and less judgmental, contributing to the welfare of others, saying a kind word, making a caring gesture, putting an arm around a sad person, extending a hand, smiling at the cashier at the supermarket, carrying the groceries for the old woman or limping man, or helping to open someone’s eyes to new ideas and perspectives.
Everyone needs to identify their own gardens. For some it will be their families, for others their workplaces, or the places they volunteer or meet with people. Your garden is wherever you can make a difference by making that little piece of symbolic real estate a better place.
Natasha Josefowitz is the author of more than 20 books. She currently resides at White Sands Retirement Community in La Jolla. Copyright 2020. Natasha Josefowitz. All rights reserved.