I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world.
This makes it hard to plan the day.
— E.B. White, in a New York Times interview
with Israel Shenker, July 11, 1969
It was so clear, early on, what needed to be done for the world. I had to teach young people how fragile and complex and delicate the earth is, to think with them about solutions to its problems. I joined important teams working on critical issues (all of which seemed to converge inexorably toward sustainability). I founded discussion groups to help us think our way through contemporary environmental problems. At least two, sometimes three, weeknights were occupied with team meetings or group sessions; remaining weeknights and weekends filled up with grading.
One year, shopping at holiday time, I found a little ceramic sculpture of a hummingbird nectaring at a piece of fruit. I started weeping. When was the last time I’d sat and watched a hummingbird? I was exhausted.
Another year during that time, in one terrible week I was reeling from the loss of a beloved friend, then a few days later was diagnosed with breast cancer.
In all my efforts to save the world, I’d neglected to savor it, and my heart and body were suffering the consequences. It took the glaring spotlight of cancer — by definition, uncontrolled growth — to help me see that my life had grown uncontrolled, too full of saving. Not enough savoring, I finally understood, meant risking a death sentence. After recovering from the disease (thankfully, the early stage of the cancer meant lumpectomy and radiation only), I left groups, dropped teams. I’m still teaching, but looking to an early retirement.
My savoring account has grown. I spend lots of time admiring the Anna’s and Rufous Hummingbirds who sip and chase around the feeder on my balcony. I make time for long walks through the forest, for greeting owls and eagles, for just looking across the Salish Sea to see what weather’s up next.
My rebalanced life is satisfying, and I’m happy these days. I’ve gotten back my health and my hummingbirds. Still, I head for bed at night wondering whether I’ve done enough for the earth today. My younger self’s certainty about what’s needed has turned into doubt and ambivalence. Is it really necessary, I ask myself, to make E.B. White’s choice? Surely there’s some way we can both save and savor.
Yes, the needed changes are huge. Yes, it’s getting almost too late to make them. But in our rush and scurrying frantically about, driven by our fear and our desperate grief over what’s already lost, we can’t forget to love what we’re trying to protect.
Giving ourselves the space to be stilled by awe, quieted by a chill morning mist, drawn into transcendence by the flash of a hummingbird’s iridescent gorget: we owe these to the natural world that formed us as much as we owe it our active work to preserve it. We owe it to ourselves.
A great blessing of community is that Marthas and Marys, actives and contemplatives, can take our turns and contribute what we best can when the time is right. So perhaps the solution to White’s dilemma is scale. My life may have shifted toward savoring, bypassing real opportunities for saving, but there’s someone else out there who’s just awakened to passionate engagement and is convening meetings and writing policies. It’s ego talking when we think we can do it all at once, not the humble, unique voice of one creature of one species fulfilling its calling in the ecosystem with all its heart and mind and body. Savoring replenishes the energy needed for saving; saving preserves what we savor in our rest. To each, a place and a person; a time and a season.