Like many of my generation, in my teenage years I discovered The Little Prince. It seemed to capture the collective imagination for a while. To be honest I couldn’t now tell you its central message. For me it was as much about the wonderful illustrations as the story itself.
A couple of years back my memory of the book was rekindled by seeing a quote from its author Antoine De Saint-Exupery. Its message certainly has stuck with me:
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to yearn for the endless immensity of the sea.”
There’s something about this quote that sums up where I think we are at the moment. Let me give you an example of what I mean. In this past week my social media feed has been full of doom and gloom articles about the state of the world – and the environment in particular. The gorgeous British summer, long, sunny and unusually warm, is used as evidence that the climate crisis, so long predicted, is with us here and now.
Given the forest fires, flash floods, rising average temperatures, it’s hard to deny that global warming is here to stay (although I have written elsewhere of the dangers of becoming fixated with this).
Many commentators are, I’m sure, doing their best to wake us all up. While this is definitely needed, if we stay too long in the collective recognition of the horror we have created, we are likely to freeze as a species. This in itself may not be a bad thing. The freeze reflex is a last-ditch survival instinct and a moment of global stillness may actually be what’s needed to kick-start the transition.
But, returning to The Little Prince, what about “yearning”? What if we began to yearn for the metaphorical sea, or even for the far distant lands that lie on the other side of it? This feels to me like the missing piece in the current landscape of change: something that helps us to long for the future world that beckons.
When I posted to this effect on Facebook a friend replied: “Yes, I understand. And I look forward to reading some of this next wave of writing from you!” I never could resist a challenge. So here goes.
Over the past couple of years I have run workshops to explore this topic, sometimes calling them “The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible” after the book by Charles Eisenstein. In these workshops we imagine the world after capitalism, the world that more accurately reflects the deepest yearning of the human soul.
Three themes in particular keep recurring: economy, community, nature.
People often express the desire to live in a world that is not dominated by money. They want to be able to live a life that allows them to be creative, to follow their dreams, to share their gifts. This is in contrast to working to make a living, holding down a job they don’t really enjoy in order to pay the rent. People understand that whatever they do has to be useful to others, to society. They know they have to pay their way in some form. They just want a little more freedom to be themselves, to be authentic as they serve the greater good.
Then there’s a theme about how we live our lives in relation to each other. I’ve encountered a deep yearning for closer or more meaningful relationships with others. People talk about getting to know their neighbours, living in communities where they know other people well, spending more time with loved ones. Often this is accompanied by a desire to give – to support friends when they are in need, to visit the vulnerable, to help out when needed. To find a place of value, contribution, connection, love.
For this to be sustainable it’s usually seen as being accompanied by time alone, often in nature. There’s a common recognition that nature is a healer: time spent walking, or swimming or just sitting outdoors is nourishment. It provides rest, recuperation, regeneration.
And this intuitive understanding seems to trigger a desire to reboot our relationship with the natural world. To find a way to be in connection, in communion. To be in a respectful and nourishing relationship with Mother Earth – a relationship that enshrines both give and take.
This summer, while helping to run a workshop on social entrepreneurship, I met a young Mexican migrant called Roberto. By coincidence Roberto had landed upon three core themes for a good life: A Life of Purpose, Healthy Relationships with Others and Respectful Interaction with Nature. The resonance with what I’d been encountering rang clear as a bell.
And yet none of this really does it justice. The content is all there but it’s not quite poignant enough to stir us all to action. Perhaps only poetry or music or art can really do that. Perhaps what we’re missing is the poetry of revolutionary yearning. So let’s have a go at that too:
This is the moment to define an age
the choice we were born into:
to follow ego’s lust to the edge of loss
or turn to the lap of the land
let loose our grip on the reins of power
and slip instead into the step of Nature’s rhyme.
This is the moment between mastery and trust
the decision to step from dominion into communion
to find our place not over but amid the fecundity
of a Universe on fire with love.
A world awaits.
It has sat quietly in the corner of your heart
the corner you’ve called childish, fantastical.
For years it whispered:
“I am real. I am already here.
That I beat in time to your blood,
that I sing in tune to your soul
is to remind you
of the part you’ll play.”
For years it has murmured
“Give in to the call
when this all gets too much.
To give in
is to let the yearning out,
to set free the timeless flow of human spirit.”
For years it sang softly
to remind you that a world awaits
a world at one with itself
a world bursting with energy and love
a world too full of the fruits of toil
where dead seas and desert sands bloom
in infinite scent
where forests climb endless peaks
to breath new life into rivers and skies
fields and shaded streets.
Imagine your place in it all
a home that feeds your soul
a role that does justice to every gift you hold
every dream you ever shaped
every simple act of kindness you forgot to make.
To love your neighbour
to nourish the soil
to share the bounty of shared endeavour
is not a childish game
it is a mirror held up to the human soul.
To tear down borders,
put need before greed
breathe unity into every act
place first the healing of the Earth
is less a fantasy and more
the mission of a species understanding its worth.
This is the choice we came into
a delicious crisis that graces a race
once in its lifetime.
This is our coming of age.
Grab it while you can.
Now all this may seem somewhat idealistic. Or you may be thinking “That’s all well and good, but HOW exactly?” And this is precisely my point. The “how” is what we’ll need to work out. It is the task of our age. That’s what happens when you gather people together to yearn for the sea. They teach each other how to build a boat. You don’t have to know how to do it before you make a start. No-one ever knew before they began, the precise details of how they were going to achieve the most challenging things.
The question for now is this: do these things speak to your heart? Do you recognise them as the yearning of your soul? If so, then that’s enough to make a start. Gather together your boat-crew and crack on! The open sea beckons.