Circles of concern, circles of influence

I just read an article in the current issue of The Canadian Friend that resonated very strongly with me. In “Making Peace With Our Place on the Planet”, Tony McQuail of Kitchener Monthly Meeting writes:

Something that has been helpful to me is distinguishing between my circle of concern and my circle of influence. If I spend a vast amount of time and energy worrying about the things out in my circle of concern, I can get pretty wound up, frustrated, and lose my inner peace. When I concentrate on my circle of influence I feel far more positive, and bring a hopeful and constructive energy to bear on situations where I actually have some impact. It helps me work on what I can do, rather than worry about what I can’t.

This is a very helpful way of thinking, to me. I spend a lot of time in this job listening to bad news, much of it coming from distant places where I can’t have much if any direct impact, or occurring on a scale too vast to be affected by individual will. This is generally the point where despair sets in.

It’s sometimes hard, too, to figure out what exactly my “circle of influence” is. I know that I could be doing more than I am. I could put in more volunteer hours than I do. I could donate more money to causes I care about. I could, when my current job ends, go and join the Peace Corps and spend the next few years building schools in Africa or whatever. The point is, there’s this large nebulous zone just outside the things I can currently have a positive impact on, full of things I could have a positive impact on if I had more strength, more willpower, more energy, less time commitments, less emotional entanglements, less ties to the place where I live – if I were, in short, a different person altogether. For me, that leads to more guilt than it probably ought to, and that feeds the despair too.

Maybe it’s helpful to remind myself what exactly my circle of influence is.

My garden is the first thing that comes to mind. A large part of Tony McQuail’s article is about his farm, and the ways in which food production is linked to oil and thence to war and violence. I don’t have the skill to grow some things (celery, so far, has been a dismal failure) or the environment to grow other things (chickens, say, or pineapples – damn you, delicious pineapples, and your inability to thrive in the St. Lawrence Lowlands!), but my boyfriend and I can generally get our quota of vegetables entirely from the garden during the peak tomato-producing months.

Another group within my circle of influence is my immediate circle of friends and acquaintances, with whom I walk a fine line between wanting to mention when they’re doing something environmentally terrible (“You know you shouldn’t be seting Styrofoam on fire, right?”) and wanting to actually keep said friends. Generally I find perky enthusiasm a lot more helpful than nagging. (“Guess what I saw today! Recycled paper coffee filters! Those used to be impossible to find! Isn’t it great how many more recycled products you can get these days? I feel so much less guilty going shopping when I can get recycled stuff, don’t you?”)

Then there’s the other people in my environment, who I don’t necessarily know but who can see me bicycling, or using a refillable mug, or darning my socks on the bus, or whatever, and might think it’s a good idea. I don’t know how much that actually happens, but it’s certainly happened to me a few times. Besides, it’s a critical mass thing – how many people do you see now using reusable grocery bags? Practically everyone. There’s social pressure about it now. Several times in the past month I’ve seen people apologize (to the cashier, or to the other customers at large) for taking plastic bags. This is a positive step. (The next step is for the supermarkets to just stop offering plastic bags altogether. They’re already doing it in Halifax. Come on, Montreal, do you always want to be trailing behind Halifax??)

There’s my government, of course. Sometimes, like everyone else, I feel I have next to no impact on the decisions of the government that theoretically represents me. But I write letters to them anyway. And hey, we finally got Peter McQueen elected; that has to do some good.

There are my consumer decisions – what to buy, what to wear, where to shop. I’ve finally got my clothes-buying algorithm mostly figured out. (The Salvation Army figures prominently.)

Finally (and by “finally” I mean “I’m probably forgetting something”), there’s this blog, and its literally tens of readers (“Dozens! Baker’s dozens! They come in thirteens.”). Writing for a living has always been my goal, though admittedly I usually visualise that as involving fiction. But I’ve always thought writing was one of our most powerful tools for shaping the world. The amount of positive response that Right Relationship has received over the past year has been truly staggering, and I want to make sure to keep that firmly in mind as I continue in my own writing career in the months and years ahead. I know I now have the skill to write well enough to get people interested in what I have to say; now let’s see if I can make sure I’m saying something worth reading.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by drdelicious on January 2, 2010 at 7:01 pm

    I agree that writing books is a good way to get ur message out, but what do u think about the enviro cost of producing more books (trees &c, also transporting them)? Is it really helping the enviromnent or adding to to the problem? I am trying to sell my own book so I worry about this.


  2. Posted by moraleconomy on January 2, 2010 at 7:59 pm

    There are a number of ways to reduce the environmental footprint of books, including using recycled paper or paper from managed forests (a surprising number of publishers do this now), or purchasing PDFs. If you go to the Berrett-Koehler purchase page for Right Relationship (the link in the post above), you’ll see that the book is also available for download, and that it’s cheaper than buying a paper copy, too. So those are some things to consider.


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