the power of thinking little

Thinking little is not very fashionable these days. We are supposed to ‘reach for the stars’, ‘follow our dreams’ and above all ‘think big’.

Of course it is good to try and make the most of life, but these messages also carry a danger – they make it easy for us to fall into the trap of ‘all or nothing thinking’.

‘All or nothing thinking’ was explained to me at a depression management group a few years ago (and it must have been a good one because I haven’t needed to go back since!). The ‘all or nothing’ syndrome is the one that goes: ‘If I can’t write a work of great literature, I’d better not write at all.’ Or: ‘Since I have shouted at my children this morning, I am clearly a complete failure as a mother.’ It has been genuinely life changing to recognise this kind of thought pattern for the lie that it is.

Recently, I’ve seen how ‘all or nothing thinking’ can be the bane of the environmental movement too.The evidence on environmental degradation is, frankly, scary. What can one person do in the face of melting ice caps, increasing food shortages and peak oil?

Way back in the early 1970s, the US writer and farmer Wendell Berry wrote a prescient essay entitled ‘Think Little’. In it he argues that we have got so used to everything being done on a large scale – food production, government, protest movements – that we have lost sight of the fact that ‘there is no public crisis that is not also private’. He writes passionately about the importance of anyone who is concerned about the big problems of the day to start by ‘thinking little’.

A man who is trying to live as a neighbor to his neighbors will have a lively and practical understanding of the work of peace and brotherhood, and let there be no mistake about it – he is doing that work.

When it comes to the environmental crisis, Berry is clear: if you’re worried about it, start growing vegetables.

A person who is growing a garden, if he is growing it organically, is improving a piece of the world. He is producing something to eat, which makes him somewhat independent of the grocery business, but he is also enlarging, for himself, the meaning of food and the pleasure of eating.

Berry is not saying that our action on the environment should only be about our gardens, but he believes that growing vegetables can lead to a radical shift of mindset – one that is essential if there is to be any long-term change in the way we treat the world. As we reconnect with the way the soil and the weather work to produce food, so we grow in understanding of why our wasteful economy is so wrong. I can’t do him full justice here: if you haven’t already read it, it’s a must.

Berry and my depression management techniques have combined to give me fresh hope about our garden. Much as I love it, it is hardly your ideal piece of veg-producing ground. It’s looking particularly sad at the moment.

It can look quite pretty in the summer – here’s a family gathering in 2010. It would still be easy to moan about how small it is, how there’s too much paving and about that darned shed that takes up far too much room. But this is to venture into ‘all or nothing’ territory, too – ‘If I can’t have an allotment or better still a smallholding, there’s no point in trying to grow more food.’ What rubbish! And how ungrateful!

Inspired by Berry, I have determined to ‘think little’ about producing more food this growing season. This means two main things for me: first, not to worry about what we can’t do. It is better to start slowly, with something small, than not to start at all. And second, to look out for all the nooks and crannies, the tiny, hidden places, where an extra plant could be stuffed in.

Like this primrose, somehow surviving in a drystone wall.

 

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19 comments

  1. Very true. “All or nothing thinking” is insidious as it creeps in to so many of our issues. I hadn’t thought about this in a while and needed the reminder:) Good post! Angie

      1. Hi Jo
        What a great article
        really inspired me to think little and resist all or nothing which as you say tends to lead to paralysis

    1. Thank you so much. I need to learn to see the garden as a lovely place to be – it is too easy to look on it as simply a place where there is loads of work to do.

  2. Inspiring, Joanna. I’d never heard of all or nothing thinking before, and I’m certainly guilty of thinking that way myself sometimes. I’m all for eating elephants, or taming backyards in bitesize chunks.

  3. Hello Jo

    I’ve only just discovered your blog, but I very much like your ethos and will be following you.

    I’m very keen on those tiny plants that survive in unlikely and inhospitable places, particularly in the city.

  4. This post really struck a chord with me; I struggled with depression throughout the Winter and can really relate to the all-or-nothing thinking that you describe. I find my garden a great solace, and any time spent in it at all improves my wellbeing completely. However I also find that I get very quickly overwhelmed, too, by all the jobs that need doing. The Bindweed! The lawn! The weeds! The planting! So my own approach to thinking little is to try really hard to just enjoy the incremental improvements that I make to our little wild patch, and to remember that I can’t do it all in a day, and to feel good about each little bit that I do.

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