The Art of Thinking “Little”

By Elle O’Casey

The earth is what we all have in common
– Wendell Berry

Reflections on our shared earth Flickr Creative Commons image by Kate Ter Harr

Reflections on our shared earth
Flickr Creative Commons image by Kate Ter Harr

In today’s political climate, the proliferation of jaw-dropping news and polarizing dialogue seems to be never-ending. In times like these, it’s tempting to adopt an ostrich-in-the-sand posture. 48 years ago, author/activist Wendell Berry wrote a piece in response to the alarming political climate of his day. His essay, Think Little, was published in 1969 during a tornado of events including Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination the year before, Nixon’s inauguration, five years of US combat troops in Vietnam, the My Lai massacre, the introduction of the draft lottery, Cold War SALT negotiations, the Santa Barbara oil spill, the Cuyahoga river fire, and the Stonewall riots.

1969 was undeniably a year full of alarming news and polarizing events. It was in this climate that Berry’s Think Little commentary challenged the “ostrich people” and the feeling of helplessness and paralysis many Americans felt. Berry advocated for individuals to adopt an approach rooted in personal action and responsibility. He called on people to find their voices and translate this into local action on both the personal and community levels, imploring them to ‘think little’ rather than retreat.

For most of the history of this country our motto, implied or spoken, has been Think Big. I have come to believe that a better motto, and an essential one now, is Think Little. That implies the necessary change of thinking and feeling, and suggests the necessary work…the discipline of thought is not generalization; it is detail, and it is personal behavior…even the most articulate public protest is not enough […] The changes that are required are fundamental changes in the way we are living.

Berry called on readers to view public crises as private crises, asking them to stop thinking widespread social, political, and environmental problems were issues beyond their personal control and responsibility.

Racism and militarism have been institutionalized among us for too long for our personal involvement in those evils to be easily apparent to us. Think, for example, of all the Northerners who assumed – until black people attempted to move into their neighborhoods that racism was a Southern phenomenon.

48 years later, it has never been more important to be aware of the global and national events but to not be overwhelmed by them. Instead, Berry would implore us to act with urgency and conviction at the local and personal levels. By starting “little”, we have the potential to create transformative and powerful action.

If we are to hope to correct our abuses of each other and of other races and of our land, […] then we are going to have to go far beyond public protest and political action. We are going to have to rebuild the substance and the integrity of private life in this country. […] We need better government, no doubt about it. But we also need better minds, better friendships, better marriages, better communities.

There are a myriad of ways to act at the local level in our communities. Sustainable Woodstock offers several paths toward involvement and action. You can check out our activities on our website or our Facebook page. Start by attending one of our events. This Thursday (February 16), we’ll host our monthly Green Drinks event at Norman Williams Public Library in Woodstock starting at 5:30pm to discuss ways to take action in reducing your carbon footprint, as well as participate in initiatives that make our communities carbon neutral.

Do Just One Thing: Think Little

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