Some acquaintances were discussing shirts. "It's so aggravating," one said, "the fold at the collar gets frayed, and then you can't wear the shirt to work, even though the rest of it is perfectly good." The other pointed out that at one time people wore collarless shirts with separate collars, and at another time people would unpick the stitches, flip the collar over and sew it back to the shirt.
Either way, such small, outmoded cultural byways prolonged the shirt's usefulness; when truly too worn to wear it would get cut up, the good parts used for rags, or for small sewing projects such as patching other textile items. I started thinking about how I darn my hiking socks, sew on buttons, sewed a patch on a screen last summer, put down composted manure in the raised garden bed in the fall, and how my husband installed a new storm door bought only after making sure parts would be available should something break. I thought about my involvement with a community gardening network and savanna restoration work. I began to think about tikkun olam.
Lately, I've been thinking a lot about that Jewish phrase that means "mending, or repairing, the world." I confess I don't know much about either its theological interpretations in Jewish religion and culture or its historical roots. Yet ever since I first came across the concept--was it in Rabbi Abraham Heschel's writings? Or in Roger Gottlieb's Green Faith?--I have spent time meditating on what it might mean to be engaged in the process of repairing the world. What attitudes and actions does this require of your average resident of the Midwest--as opposed to the great and heroic in faith and action whom we might revere, who might serve as models, but beside whom we (well I, at any rate) find ourselves to be extremely small in stature, limited in reach? Mending the world indeed! A large assignment, yet according to what I've read of modern Jewish thought, God expects humans to engage in this work, whoever and where ever we are.
Obviously the world is so broken, in so many ways, that there is endless patching, mending, fixing to do and no one person can make much progress. Yet, as I have reflected over the years I've noticed that there is room to be human and an acceptance of the imperfect in this way of thinking and acting. There is, as in the Japanese concept of shibumi, a virtue in simplicity, modesty, and everydayness. There is hope. One is not expected to try to save the world, as so many young idealists set out to do when they first begin to understand that injustice, cruelty and exploitation of humans, other species, and the earth abound. That way often leads to despair, denial, cynicism and worse. Nor does tikkun olam require us to create the world anew--as if we had that power, anyway. The world is what it is; history, matter, energy and time form a net from which we can't escape; and human nature doesn't change. Tikkun olam doesn't require that you belong to a faith tradition or bind yourself by dogma and creeds. It merely asks that you take an active part in mending the world--however you can.
When I truly embraced this attitude I came to better understand what living a low-carbon, sustainable life means; so much of sustainability involves mending and care-taking of one sort or another. Grand notions and big ideas abound--large plans about sustainable development, industrial scale cradle-to-cradle manufacturing, and big green technology that together with miraculously changed ways of human interaction will… save the world, whether from peak oil, or climate change, or whatever. Entranced by those grandiose notions and schemes, it's easy to forget that this sort of completely anthropocentric thinking and action is what's gotten our civilization--and earth systems--in trouble in the first place.
Yet much of true sustainability and living the post peak oil, low carbon life comes down to the homely, unglamorous, often low-tech arts and crafts involved in mending things--tools, clothing, buildings; or helping other things mend themselves--garden soil, relationships, communities, ecosystems. It involves practicing reconciliation ecology by choosing to work in partnership with nature. It requires rethinking the human place in creation and eschews violence. It is, I think, characterized by understanding one's own imperfection and by recognizing that restraint often has more to do with the truly valuable than extravagance and excess or the flashily heroic. Stitching these seams patches together a good way to live (in all senses of the phrase) governed by the overarching principle that these are worthy actions to be taking--tikkun olam.
Though many people and organizations are moving towards sustainability in inspiring ways, in the U.S. our lives remain full of the need for mending caused by the gaps between current mainstream practice and the more sustainable way--even in small things. We can and often do, even in a recessionary time, throw away the old, the used and choose to buy new so as to avoid having having to fix anything. We ignore the human and ecological misery from which these new products and services often spring and to which they contribute. We are expected to; our market economy depends on it; our culture makes it difficult to do otherwise.
But part of the idea of tikkun olam seems to be that each of us has a responsibility to discover, as we live our lives, the ways in which we can take part in its healing project--how we can help others, how we can help the living earth. We can choose not to, of course. We can choose not to engage with the world around us in this way; we can choose to live in destructively I-centered ways, unwilling to take responsibility for how we live, or for examining the principles/beliefs/cultural assumptions that, examined or not, govern our lives. We can fall into cynicism and despair. That to me is the way of death. I choose life and renewal. Tikkun olam.
Image: Green Circle Fractal (Wikimedia Commons)