I dropped heavily into the back seat of the car, exhausted from a full day bouncing between production lines and meetings with factory engineers. The air conditioning was a welcome escape from the hot, thick air of summer in China. I stared out the window, trying to clear my mind. The streets were packed. People were everywhere, walking with umbrellas to fend off the sun, others driving cars, riding bicycles or tractors or some bizarrely constructed vehicle that seemed to be a combination of both. This place felt so heavy. For me, at this moment in time, China felt heavy and full; full of meetings, full of people, full of factories to visit, full of pollution, full of fires I had to put out, full of billions of things being manufactured in every single breath I took, full of potential and full of irreparable damage. It was Just. So. Full.
My driver made his way aggressively down the crowded streets, at times pulling up onto the sidewalk (full of pedestrians mind you) in order to avoid the red lights and traffic jams. Oh how badly I wanted to teleport myself back to my tiny apartment in Hong Kong and retire for the day. Finally we made it to the highway onramp and began accelerating. I watched as the half-constructed sky-scrapers faded behind us, replaced by flat stretches of watery rice fields.
Suddenly, without warning, my driver slammed on the breaks, threw the car in reverse and spun us around, quickly accelerating and flying past the ramp we had just used to get on. Startled, I leaned forward just in time to see a line of cars that were blocking the entire highway, sitting at a standstill. Apparently my driver was trying to save us from hours in this traffic jam, but as a result we were cruising the wrong way down the highway at 70 MPH. I sat deeper in my seat and thought, what the hell are we doing?
At that moment, this question wasn’t inspired solely by my driver and the fact that we were flying in the wrong direction way too fast. It was a much bigger question that had woven itself into my view of the world. It was a question embedded in the products my company was sourcing for our clients. It was a question embedded in my mind every time I walked across a bridge with water flowing beneath it so polluted I had to cover my nose and quicken my step. It was a question that taunted me after I began having to wear masks whenever I left my apartment in order to keep my lung condition from worsening. It was a question embedded in the realization that everything, every single thing, carries with it a cost when we choose to bring it into existence.
The weight of it all settled on me silently, almost unconsciously and even as I continued with my work, that “what the hell are we doing” question just wouldn’t let me be. And yet, what could I do? I was just one person, this massive system had been around far longer than I had, and “business as usual” just felt so… usual. The experience burned me out. It shut me down, stole away my fuel for inspiration and reinforced the belief that it was all too big for me to have an impact that mattered. It made me feel small and insignificant.
I felt this way the other day, as I walked the shores of the Rio Trancura, along the outskirts of Pucon. Since October 1st, I’ve made time everyday to get outside. Some days I have hours to spend out exploring. Other days I might only be able to steal away for a half hour or so. Regardless, I try to find new spots every day, and I am finding that it’s a beautiful way to constantly discover new angles through which to see this lovely place I call home.
In addition to getting outside everyday, I have committed to post a photo of any trash that I happen to collect during my adventure. My intention from the start was to raise our collective consciousness of the stuff we consume. The entire project has turned into a kind of experiment, and I can feel how radically it’s already shifting my perspective as my mental filters change and I continuously acknowledge the incredible volume of stuff around us, even in this wild and remote corner of the world.
As I pulled into the somewhat overgrown lot with a dirt boat ramp, my eyes immediately swept back and forth between the huge piles of trash. It looked as though the area was recently designated as the public dump. I was shocked. Throughout my efforts this month, I’ve picked up a lot of trash, much more than I have in the past, mainly, I think, because I just see more of it now. But this place was by far the most polluted and it just kept getting worse as I edged closer to the river.
I got out of the car, let the dogs out, put my backpack on and began walking toward the river. As I walked to the water’s edge, I looked to my left and right, trying to decide which way to go explore; but all I could see was trash. Everywhere. Instead, I walked back up to the car, took my gloves and trash bags out of my backpack and left my pack in the car. Today would not be about the adventure. Today was about the trash.
I was so pissed off at the end of this day. I spent about an hour collecting trash along that incredibly beautiful river, and I was never more than 100 feet from my car the entire time. I focused on the trash closest to the river, along the trail and in the sand. I packed out diapers, paint cans, cardboard boxes, bottles, plastic, cans, clothing and by far the most styrofoam to date. 3 kayakers floated by, waving at me as they moved along; 4 large rafting groups also passed by. The sight of them discouraged me, as I felt indignant that they were not making more effort to care for this precious place we were all so lucky to enjoy.
I lugged the two trash bags that I had filled back to the car, cursing that I hadn’t thought to bring more. I sat in the car with the engine off feeling heavy. Feeling that same silent weight I felt when I was in China, when I was just becoming so aware of the amount of stuff we were producing. Here the weight was tied to my heightened awareness of all the stuff we were consuming. My efforts felt futile, small and insignificant. The two bags of trash in my car didn’t even appear to make a dent in the garbage that remained. Yet again I felt like we were speeding the wrong way down a highway and I was sitting there wondering what the hell are we doing?
Over time, I have found that confronting big, heavy, challenging realities can be overwhelming and discouraging. I have also found that confronting them can lead to some of the most inspiring and motivating work I have ever done in my life. The trick, for me anyway, is to first get out from under the weight of it all, to begin by letting go of the weight of the world. We simply do not have enough strength or space to bear this weight while also imagining positive solution-oriented ideas that lead to incredible change. While the process of getting really pissed off and angry about a certain reality can be a pivotal catalyst for action, in order to be effective with whatever action you take, you have to let go of that anger and frustration to make space for all the creative juices to flow.
For me, the most powerful way I have learned to let go and make space is to go outside into nature. After reaching an overwhelming state of cynicism during my first few years working in global manufacturing, it wasn’t until I retreated to the Appalachian Trail and removed myself from the discouraging environment that I really began to see how I could influence change in this space.
Sometimes you have to go out to go in. After my angry evening on the river, I decided I should go climb a mountain the next day. I went to a remote area where I would have to work physically to muscle my way up. As I hiked up the steep trail, I spent time with all of my thoughts and frustrations from the day before. I acknowledged them, dug a bit to the core of what was motivating them, and then I let them go. The higher I climbed the lighter I felt. As I entered the incredible mixed coihue and araucaria forest I stopped repeatedly, leaning back and staring in awe at the huge trees. A child-like grin spread across my face as I was filled with delight and wonder by my surroundings.
As I reached the ridge I stopped to catch my breath and take in the view of the three incredible volcanos on the horizon.
I felt invigorated and strong. I continued along the trail and began thinking about different approaches I could take to inspire curiosity about the things we buy. I explored how I could motivate changes in behavior locally in a way that could also inspire others globally. I imagined tangible solutions I could contribute to immediately, and played with big, fantastic solutions that had huge-reaching impacts. I just let all of the creative ideas come in and excite me and it literally felt as though my excitement about these solutions was filling the space I had made when letting go of the anger about the problems. I didn’t feel heavy with this invisible weight, I felt lifted by this invisible force.
I can do this. You can do this. We can do this. Whatever it is- whatever impossibly huge thing you want to tackle, whatever negative thing that you see in the world that you believe can be turned into a positive- it can be done. Don’t be discouraged by the weight of the world. It is not your responsibility to carry it. It is important to acknowledge it, to face it and see it for what it is, but then let it go. Let it go and get on with the good stuff, the stuff that excites and inspires.