A New Year Reflection
As I sit here staring at this bright, blank page before me, I consider what it looks like to start fresh.
In life, we don’t often get a blank page to work from – we all have baggage and commitments from our past that we carry forward – but I think it’s right to get ourselves in a head space that allows us to imagine new and better lives for ourselves, and for the world.
As author Barbara Kingsolver once said, “Hope is a moral imperative.” At the start of a new year, we collectively determine to hope so that we can make progress.
Too often, though, the resolutions we make feel like a collection of chores predetermined for us by the masses. Eat well, exercise, go to bed on time. While all of these may be admirable, for me they just aren’t meaty enough to propel me forward. This year, I want more.
My hope for 2017 and beyond is that I develop the kind of habits that lead to seeing the world through the eyes of kindness and justice.
When I started writing on justice issues, my particular focus was on making more ethical purchases. That meant avoiding sweatshop labor and prioritizing sustainable raw materials sourcing. Simple enough, right?
But the Catch-22 of thinking about and working toward justice is that everything is interconnected.
Depressed wages in developing nations are a direct result of political and economic decisions enacted by domestic and foreign governments. The fact that demand still exists for low wage jobs is due, in part, to cataclysmic social shifts that force people out of now unsustainable agrarian lifestyles and into the cities.
At each step in the supply chain, someone has been asked to cut costs even when there’s nothing left to cut. It’s an impossible race to the bottom. There are no winners.
Demanding fair wages is just a start. It won’t fix broken systems.
I mention all this because it serves as a microcosm of the broader problem of having a pet issue without considering the big picture. But the big picture can be totally overwhelming. It can overload us to the point of shutting us down. What’s the solution?
Put another way: How do I learn to see big problems in their even larger context and respond effectively and compassionately, without total overwhelm?
I believe the first step forward comes from within.
There are relatively immediate, physical lifestyle changes I can make in my life that will have a positive effect on the world. I can shop and eat sustainably and responsibly, for instance. But for long term change, you need buy in, and you only get there when you’ve changed your point of view, when you see the world through new eyes.
To that end, my resolutions for global change are deeply intertwined with the small, daily tasks of just being in the world. The key is being in a way that shapes you into the person that can effectively bring about long term progress.
1. Practice humility.
The first step is admitting that I don’t have the complete picture, and maybe I never will. To be clear, I can learn from and trust my own interactions, but I can’t necessarily make drastic conclusions based on my highly individualized experiences.
To cultivate humility, I will seek out communities that challenge what I think I know without dismissing me. My workplace is a dynamic and diverse environment, so I will start there, working to have productive conversations on politics and ethics around the lunch table.
2. Think local.
The concept of social justice didn’t really click for me until I joined a local community organizing group. When you work with people you live near, you already know what’s at stake for your community. That relative intimacy helps you work through personal issues to find solutions.
It reminds you that people – including yourself – are deeply flawed, but that imperfection is not a barrier to doing good.
To cultivate local engagement, I will stay in touch with people working toward systemic change in my own community.
3. Cultivate intention.
I manage a retail space, so on any given week, my life bumps up against the lives of at least a hundred people, from volunteers to staff to customers. I’ve realized over the last few years that each time I make eye contact with someone, I have a responsibility.
I can make someone’s day better or not affect it at all (hopefully, I never make it worse). I choose to do what I can to make it better. My shop recently committed to “see our customers as the unique people they are, and celebrate it.” Imagine what a difference that could make if we clearly and intentionally projected that ideal. Imagine the hope.
To cultivate intention, I will consider the way I interact with every single person I come into contact with and do my best to celebrate them for who they are, and who they can be.
I want hope to become habit.
And the only way to get there is to, slowly but surely, let my heart be changed. I know it won’t be easy, but it’s worth it for transformed communities.
Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.