Finding Ways to Focus on What Really Matters

by Lorraine Anderson

Humans’ accelerating demand for energy and materials from nature is wrecking life on our planet. That’s what the scientists are telling us. As someone who pays attention to science, I wrestle every day with making sense of what I see around me. It would be one thing if everyone agreed on the problem and all of us were pulling on the same oar to solve it. But instead, the stories we’re telling ourselves and our subsequent actions seem to be wildly divergent.

Just among the people I know (all of whom are in the top 10 percent of income earners on the planet – the top carbon emitters, though a tiny subset of all humans), the variety of perspectives is bewildering. There are the “we’re doomed, so let’s party” adherents. There is the “systemic and/or technological change is our best hope” faction who insist that individual action is not going to save us and therefore decline to take responsibility while they wait. Some say that both systemic change and individual action are called for but find the individual action piece difficult to carry out in the face of mainstream norms. Then there are those who urge tempering our behavior at this all-hands-on-deck moment, but it’s hard not to feel sanctimonious as one of that group, like Jimmy Carter in his cardigan. The trouble is that all of this confusion is keeping us from mounting a coherent response to an existential threat.

I think a different narrative is needed that centers on the question of what kind of life brings humans the most well-being and happiness. In this narrative, we unmask the purveyors of excessive consumption and show them for the imposters they are. Quality of life, well-being, and happiness in reality have little to do with how much we consume beyond a certain minimal baseline. In fact, beyond that baseline our happiness may bear an inverse relationship to how much we consume. We may suffer from the burden of having too much stuff to take care of and having to spend too much of our time working to pay for it.

What is the real source of human well-being and happiness? It’s nature, the nature our economy wholly relies on for its raw materials, the nature we are degrading and disrupting with our excessive demands. It’s nature’s beauty, nature’s health and wholeness, its abundance and wild creatures, its sanity. It’s sharing all this with each other during time spent outdoors. It’s living in tune with nature’s cycles and rhythms, and slowing down enough to really savor the colors, scents, sounds, textures, and flavors of the natural world. We become well when we find a purpose in witnessing and celebrating the things of this world.

This is my experience, at least. Although I have led a mostly urban and suburban life, I grew up with parents who frequently took me and my sibs outdoors and on camping vacations. Now as I navigate postmodern life in a mid-sized college town, the love of nature born then sticks with me. Simple rituals help ground and steady me: beginning each day by slowly, mindfully, gratefully drinking a single glass of water, an elemental connection to nature around me; paying attention to the waxing and waning of the moon, the coming and going of the seasons. As much as possible, I try to reserve the dark months for resting; the months when the sap rises for planting seeds and setting projects in motion; the blossoming months for full engagement with the world and a full plate of activities; and the releasing months for harvesting the efforts of the year past and letting go of all that no longer serves.

I grow some of my own food and cook with the energy of sunshine in the summer. A year ago, when I was pulling weeds and tending the newly planted blueberry bushes in my garden, I noticed an unfamiliar large bird fly overhead more than once. It seemed to be gathering sticks from the tall pines growing along the fence line behind my townhouse. After some observation and research, my partner and I identified the bird as a green heron. We watched in astonishment as over the course of two months a nest was built in a small grove of laurels between our place and the neighbor’s, the eggs were incubated through an unusually rainy and windy and cold June, the babies hatched, and two beautiful young green herons learned to scramble around the branches and then flew away toward a nearby wetland in mid-July, having survived the Fourth of July fireworks on our street.

One of our green heron fledglings.

Photo: Philip M. Lew

Green Heron

Watching these wild creatures up close felt like a privilege and a blessing. It just reinforced a feeling I had been having, a question I had been entertaining: How much would I have to sacrifice, really, to respect the needs of other species? Would I suffer if I had to give up fireworks or shampoo in plastic bottles? Knowing that everything that is manufactured is ultimately extracted from the earth and goes back to it, often as pollution, how much can I refrain from buying so that other creatures and future generations can simply live? When I feel a connection to those beings who will benefit from my choice, it becomes easy. I joyfully choose to consume less.
America’s own philosopher of simplicity, who has been a guiding light to me since I read Walden and visited Walden Pond in college, gave us a way to look at it. “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone,” wrote Thoreau. “My wealth is not possession but enjoyment.” He realized that if you have more stuff, you just have to dust it, so he threw the three pieces of limestone he had collected out the window to allow himself more time to dust the furniture of his mind. He liked a broad margin to his life, he said, and enjoyed sitting in his sunny doorway from sunrise until noon on a summer morning, “rapt in a reverie.” It’s the simple things that bring true happiness – that was his message.
Still, living simply is not easy in our current culture. All day long and from cradle to grave, we in the affluent nations of the world are conditioned to consume. We are lured in the wrong direction by advertising that is sophisticated and ubiquitous. We wade past buzzing and flashing ads in between every paragraph of online news and endure blaring commercial messages to get to the music we want to hear. Even our friends are walking ads with the clothes they wear and the cars they buy. If we see everyone around us doing it, consuming more than we really need seems normal. But honestly? What it amounts to is the normalized destruction of the natural world.
We sometimes need to turn off the never-ending stream of electronic chatter aimed at us so we can think straight. Botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, in a February 2023 interview in the New York Times Magazine, points out that “we don’t have to be complicit with destruction.” She says: “Our attention has been hijacked by our economy, by marketers saying you should be paying attention to consumption. . . . What if we were paying attention to the natural world? . . . If we can reclaim our attention and pay attention to things that really matter, there a revolution starts.” A revolution in personal happiness starts when we realize it’s not what we’re wearing or what kind of gear we have when we’re outdoors that matters. It’s the being outdoors, near to that great intelligence, the beating heart of everything.
Does one person consuming less really make a difference? My answer for myself is, it makes a difference to me. Choosing voluntary simplicity is about living in integrity with what I know.
I recently learned about creating ephemeral Earth altars and mandalas, gathering and placing natural objects as an act of reverence. Last summer on the banks of the South Santiam River near me, I collected sticks and stones, leaves and flowers, anything near at hand. I wondered who would see the mandala I created and how soon it would be dispersed by rain, wind, birds, the river’s rise. Spending a warm afternoon creating this piece of Earth art absorbed and satisfied me, and I felt I had honored the place and its residents while taking nothing away.

c. Pic 2 copy

Earth altar on the South Santiam River.

Photo: Lorraine Anderson.

I believe what we most desire – more than anything we can buy – is a sense of belonging to the living world. A simple shift of attention, finding ways to focus on what really matters and what satisfies our souls instead of what we’re being misled at every moment to think matters, is all that is required. We can do this.

Lorraine Anderson has edited dozens of books encouraging Earth consciousness, including her own compilations Sisters of the Earth and Earth & Eros, and wrote the new solar oven cookbook Slow Cook Solar. She lives in Corvallis, Oregon.