Looking Upstream

Burning Bear Trail near Grant, Colorado.
Burning Bear Trail near Grant, Colorado.

Wendell Berry once said, “Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.”  In my opinion, it’s a great variation on the Golden Rule.  It’s also a nicer sentiment than it’s corollary, “Always drink upstream from the herd.”  The second quote comes from a compendium of so-called Cowboy Wisdom, the first from a series of essays Berry wrote about how we’re all connected, whether we realize it or not.

It says nothing new, this bit about how we’re all connected.  Sages have been saying this ever since human beings invented the means to record what the sages said.  It also says nothing most of us haven’t heard regarding treating others the way we want to be treated.  And it expresses nothing new about how crowds tend to muddy the waters, if not downright pollute them with organic waste (to say it politely).

Repeatedly, we’ve found this to be true.  When some storage tanks in WestVirginia leaked a toxic substance into the Elk River, folks in Charleston downriver had to quit drinking and bathing in water from the tap.  There’s a huge “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico extending out from the mouth of the Mississippi Delta.  That’s because fertilizer from farms all over the midwest draining into the Mississippi River has nurtured huge blooms of algae that have sucked the oxygen out of the ocean, thus killing most aquatic life.  While the size of the “dead zone” varies with the amount of rainfall runoff, in 2010 it was the size of the state of New Jersey.  Similar dead zones exist in the Chesapeake Bay, in the Baltic Sea, off China, Japan, South America, and in the Mediterranean.

We need to do something about this, wouldn’t you say?  Of course, we cannot do anything about this unless we do something about the way we conduct business ourselves.  That always takes some effort, and it always costs us something.  But restoring our oceans (and rivers, lakes, and ponds) to health is worth the effort.

Human community is like that.  How you and I act gets passed along.  I felt a little sorry for myself this past Christmas morning for having to work and not be in Virginia with my family. When I stepped into the elevator at UAB Hospital, a nurse stood at the key pad wearing a Santa’s Elf hat.  A little bell jingled on the point which hung over her left shoulder.  She looked at me gaily and with twinkling eyes said, “Merry Christmas!  Which floor are going to?”

I blinked a couple of times, felt a shot of delight at this cheery greeting and responded with, “Merry Christmas to YOU!  I’m heading to the sixth floor”

“Six it is,” she announced, punched the button with a flourish and said, “And a Happy New Year if I don’t see you again!”

With so many thousands of employees in this giant hospital system, I probably won’t see her again soon.  But when I got off on the sixth floor, I felt much lighter at heart.  I saw a maintenance worker standing there with a step ladder.  I said, “Merry Christmas!”

He looked a little startled, then immediately smiled and said, “Merry Christmas to YOU!”

Then as I turned the corner for the unit I was visiting, I heard him say to someone else getting off another one of the elevators, “Merry Christmas!”  And I heard another voice say, “Merry Christmas to YOU.”

It had poured downstream, that good will.  It had probably washed over that RN I met from someone before her prior to her getting on the elevator.  Whatever, this sort of thing happens with more significant matters, too.  When you express love and caring, it eases a load, and when even one load eases, the whole world becomes lighter.

We’re connected, even when we don’t realize it.  That’s why we teach people how to do Support Teams.  We want our connections to get better and more intentional.  We realize what Wendell Berry said in another context: “Healing is impossible in loneliness; it is the opposite of loneliness. Conviviality is healing. To be healed we must come with all the other creatures to the feast of Creation.” (The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays)

You’re upstream from someone.  What are you passing downstream?


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