When I was a junior in high school, my French teacher had our class read the satire “Candide”. There is a lot I don’t remember about the book, but one idea has stuck with me ever since: Candide tells his friend Pangloss that the only worthwhile thing for people to do is to cultivate their gardens.
While Voltaire was speaking to the horrors of a government system that was a terrible marriage of religious persecution and draconian law (people were still being drawn and quartered for punishment), his advice was not lost on me even as a 16-year-old. His satire made the point over and over that we cannot always expect government, religion or any other institution to do right by us. If we wish to make changes in this world, it must begin with us.
So what exactly did he mean by tending your garden? Our responsibilities are local, so to make this world a more human place, we must begin in our own gardens, backyards, homes, neighborhoods. If we truly want to make a difference, it has to start at home and in small community.
Do you see issues of racism in your community? Talk to your children about racism. That may not sound like a lot of fun, but parents of color have been doing this for years. Write letters to the editor. Listen, and I mean really listen, to what candidates who are running for office have to say and how they say it. Do they use racist terminology? Do they have any ideas for policies that can help facilitate change? If you are voting for someone simply because of the political party they are affiliated with, you are not thinking at all.
I have been so fortunate to know and work with many people who take great care in tending their gardens. My first principal, Nolan Coker, was great at this. An imposing man who kept a pipe in his mouth that was never lit, he never raised his voice to a student or a teacher. He instilled a pride in teachers and students by asking them to invest their time and effort into the school. This was a small country school that was filled with impoverished students, but each one of them felt that the school was theirs. Mr. Coker made sure each student knew they belonged there, and that what we were doing was of the utmost importance. Like any school, there were problems, but Mr. Coker handled them the way a kind and loving father might handle his own kids — firmly, but always respectfully. He ran a tight ship and both teachers and students loved him and respected him for it.
As I look around my own community, I see a lot of different things that need help. We have homeless people. There are those who truly don’t know where their next meal is coming from. There are people who have lost their jobs due to all sorts of factors. There are many who have no health insurance, and don’t seek the medical help they desperately need. It can be completely overwhelming to know where to start. But just like gardening, what do you do? Prepare your soil. Plant your seeds. Water and fertilize. Pull weeds and eliminate pests. And hopefully, if things go well, you will reap a harvest.
What if floods come and wash away your garden? What if drought or pests decimate it? These are the cruel facts of gardening that everyone who has ever attempted to garden must face.
You have two choices: start again, or give up. I am in favor of the former. I am not giving up on our communities or our country because things are looking chaotic and bleak. I believe we each have a responsibility to each other and our communities to keep trying, to look for solutions, to make things better. We can start right here, right now, to listen to each other and to seek to understand.