|WHY WHAT YOU CHOOSE REALLY MATTERS
THE PERSONAL AS SOCIAL
Susan V. Bosak, MA
Social Researcher, Legacy Project for YOU 177
We're a culture that shares endless selfies, Instagram photos of the meals we're about to eat, and often tragically sad personal stories for GoFundMe campaigns.
But when we share to connect our personal issues to bigger social issues, when we push ourselves and others to see the bigger picture, that's when we can change the world.
I started a recent meeting of YOU 177 leaders with three seemingly personal questions that have much bigger implications:
What should happen to the Legacy Center?
What should happen to my mother?
What is the value of the work we're doing?
The three questions are interconnected. They have to do with how we feel about the places we live; how we care for each other, especially our young and old; and how we determine value –
During the meeting, I shared some of my deepest fears and feelings around all three questions. There were moments when people may have felt a bit uncomfortable; discomfort is often part of real change. Then there was some good discussion. I hope the thought and discussion will continue.
Too often we take what happens to us as personal – failure or success. Instead, we need to see it as part of a bigger pattern, recognizing both personal and social responsibility. How can we play our part to change the bigger pattern?
In the moments of biggest challenge – when it's going to cost us money, time, pain – how can we live the bigger connections?
The tragic version of rugged individualism is in the presumptive 'right' of individuals to do as they please, as if there were no God [whatever that sense of larger meaning is to you], no legitimate government, no community, no neighbors, and no posterity.
These are the words of Wendell Berry. He's in his eightieth decade now. He's a farmer on land that's been in his family for 200 years, an acclaimed novelist and poet, an environmental activist, and a cultural critic.
Our seemingly personal choices reflect and shape the values and future of our communities. So, if we share and come together around our personal choices, it can be a powerful force for change.
Check out the video above of Berry reading A Poem on Hope. It begins, "It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old, for hope must not depend on feeling good… The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them?"
The video is a powerful combination of voice, words, and images.
My three questions connect to parts of the poem…
Hope then to belong to your place by your own knowledge of what it is that no other place is, and by your caring for it, as you care for no other place. This place that you belong to though it is not yours.
Having cared for the Legacy Center and its 15-acre arboretum for twenty years, it is "my place."
This is the soul-satisfying place that gives me meaning and informs my work.
It's also a place I share with others – because it does not belong to me. So many people tell us that as they come down the long driveway into the arboretum, the world "out there" disappears for just a while. That's valuable to physical and mental health in a society that's too hurried and stressed.
Each tree in the arboretum has a story, like the one I planted for my father. Around my father's Red Oak tree, as we share its story of courage and strength after my father had a severe stroke, people going through their own losses or struggles find comfort and strength.
As visitors walk through the arboretum, scientific information is woven with human wisdom. Sometimes, as a group, we just stand and listen to the whispers in the rustling of leaves, or watch the sun play with the shadows and make the spring-fed pond sparkle.
The stories and experience of the trees help all ages explore hope and joy, wisdom and playfulness, me and we, dreams and legacies, yesterday and tomorrow. People leave feeling better, thinking bigger than when they arrived.
The Legacy Center is a place of nature and trees, playing its ecological role in mitigating the quintessential legacy challenge of our time, that of climate change. It is also a place of the human spirit and of community. This kind of place is increasingly rare. And it's a model of a new kind of intergenerational lifelong learning in an age-old natural classroom.
People come from near and far to visit with us and the trees at the Legacy Center. As social cohesion declines, researchers looking for ways to rebuild a sense of community have explored this kind of "private space with public purpose" as a way to renew neighborhoods. We can embed these kinds of places in communities to get neighbors talking and interacting again.
I've always seen myself as a steward of the land. The Legacy Center is ultimately a place of legacy. So, what legacy do I and all those who visit want to leave?
Should we allow the trees to be bulldozed, the land to be divided into rows of subdivision homes, or the architecturally significant yet unusual round building to be levelled so that someone can erect an estate home?
Or do we all have a responsibility to protect places like this. Do we work together to ensure these precious 15 acres continue to be shared with the community? How can we ensure that the stories of the trees will live on? How can this place stand for more – and in so doing make the community more?
Journalist Melody Warnick has written a book, This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live. Warnick asserts that "people who feel connected where they live and have good relationships with their neighbors live longer." She also cites the Soul of the Community study that looked into what makes people feel attached to where they live. The study found three key things: aesthetics – feeling the place was beautiful; social offerings – feeling like there were relationships and things to do; and openness – they wanted towns that felt welcoming to all kinds of people.
The Legacy Center fosters all three of these. It is a special place.
The choice about the future of the Legacy Center is not mine to make alone.
The darkness of our ignorance and madness – let it be lighted by the light that is within you, which is the light of imagination. By it you see the likeness of people in other places to yourself in your place. It lights invariably the need for care toward other people, other creatures, in other places as you would ask them for care toward your place and you.
Can we imagine a new way to grow old? As more of us are living longer than ever before, "aging" is much more than a problem to be solved. It's about our vision of what it means to live a full, long life.
My mother Nadia is
I see joy and peace in her face, don't you?
Research tells us that people with dementia can be happier and healthier when they're surrounded by nature. Nadia loves listening to leaves rustle, watching a squirrel, smelling a flower, feeling the sun on her face, seeing the water in the pond dance and sparkle.
Many well-intentioned folks tell me it's "time" to put Nadia into long-term care. But is that her place? Is that the place for any of us as we get old, tucked away in an institution in a corner of society? Can we not, as a society, come up with a more inspired place – especially in light of research that tells us that 8 out of 10 Boomers fear a nursing home more than death?
We need places for aging in community and in nature, that give us meaning and purpose, and are cleverly designed. The Legacy Center includes a Trans/Multi-Generational Design demonstration space.
While we say that the young are the hope for the future, our ageist cultural narrative frequently talks about the old as a nuisance or burden. Getting old is a gift; we just need to learn how to unwrap it. And the future? It doesn't depend on the young. It actually depends on the old nurturing the young so that both can be all they can be. In our age-segregated society, with children in schools and elders in retirement communities or care facilities, we've lost a valuable human dynamic. We need more intergenerational places.
For the oldest and frailest elders, like my mom, what is life? First, it's human being – enjoying her favorite egg salad sandwich, looking out at the trees swaying in the wind or covered in snow, enjoying lotion being rubbed into her hands, listening to her favorite music.
Second, what my mother has is relationships. People are people because of other people. We are social creatures. Too often, in our desire to care for and keep safe our elders, we separate spouses from each other (sometimes their only remaining comfort may be sharing a bed at night), and mothers and fathers from their children and grandchildren. While she may not know exactly that I'm her daughter, Nadia knows I am someone she knows and that I love her. She lights up whenever I come into a room. We have an unspoken understanding and she finds comfort and safety in that. To think that I can bring that kind of joy to someone simply by being present is a gift to both of us and a responsibility I take seriously.
The old don't need charity; they need community. They need a place they belong.
I'm my mother's primary caregiver. As much meaning and joy as it brings, it's hard. There are moments of utter exhaustion and feeling so overwhelmed that nothing makes sense. I know from my aging research work that caregivers are the backbone of the overburdened healthcare system. I also know that too many caregivers, mostly women, are overburdened themselves. When you do the right thing, when you care for another human being in support of them and society, you shouldn't have to do it alone. Too many caregivers face losing their health, their life savings and even their home, their sanity. How long can I keep Nadia in the place I believe she belongs?
One of the goals of the Legacy Center is as a model of a new kind of intergenerational living and aging in community. What happens to Nadia represents the choices and struggles of so many other families. We all need more choices. My family and other families deserve better, and you and I deserve to look forward to something better as we ourselves get older.
The choice about my mother's future is not mine to make alone.
This knowledge cannot be taken from you by power or by wealth. It will stop your ears to the powerful when they ask for your faith, and to the wealthy when they ask for your land and your work.
When you feel a connection to the earth beneath your feet and to the people around you, it shapes what you value, how you spend your time and make your livelihood.
That's why I work for the community – for you. I'm working to help you live an inspired life in communities that are well, smart and caring, on a tiny blue dot in the universe we call Earth.
You can find my heart in the YOU 177 initiative. YOU 177 connects the trees (ecological health) to people of all ages (physical and mental health) and how they interact (social health) to what we value (economic health).
YOU 177 is about big change, what we call 7-Generation Strategy. Young and old come together as part of everyday life not only in support of each other, but to work together to build a stronger community for all.
What does that look like across seven generations? It's about ensuring every baby is born into hope; every child has someone to cuddle and read to them so they learn everything they need to succeed; every youth who feels lost or bullied has someone to talk to; every young adult can find a meaningful livelihood and a good place to live; every adult thrives as a part of community and of nature; every older adult feels valued and has purpose as well as ongoing opportunities to learn and contribute; and, at the end of our lives, every one of us feels our life has been worthwhile and we have someone to hold our hand.
YOU 177 uses an intergenerational approach to problem-solving because the solutions are better, and the innovations benefit all ages for far-reaching community impact.
I believe it's all really, really important stuff. While there are plenty of people who agree, sometimes it's hard to convince the people with money.
Money is supposed to represent what we value in society. Do we value
The argument for paying many CEOs a lot of money is that "we need to attract the best people for these important jobs." But I know, because of what I value, that the most important jobs are those in community – of teachers and caregivers and community workers and others. The most important work, the hardest work, the work that needs you to be the smartest most caring version of yourself, is work with and for people. To get the best people doing this work, to solve the big social challenges we face, we need to value this work.
We also have to look where philanthropy puts its dollars. For big social change work like YOU 177, it takes a lot to do a lot. Nearly 80% of donors and foundations say that social change is one of their dominant philanthropic objectives. Yet just 20 percent of big bets, by dollar value, go to the areas categorized as social change giving.
We need to put our money where our mouth is. YOU 177 takes us on a vital journey from our dreams, our highest collective aspirations, to our legacy, what truly matters over time.
I work for you. The choice about my work is not mine to make alone.
The world is no better than its places. Its places at last are no better than their people while their people continue in them. Belong to your place by knowledge of the others who are… here – and how to be here with them.
The place of the Legacy Center, and the place of my mother and my community work in it, represent a bigger question: What do you truly value and what choices will you make?
© Susan V. Bosak, www.legacyproject.org