Cultivate Your Garden

How Voltaire's thesis is helping me as we live through history

Photo by Benjamin Combs on Unsplash

In Voltaire’s Candide, the eponymous hero begins life in Edenic innocence, falls from that state of privilege, and is forced to confront the horrors of his historical reality. After realizing that many of the atrocities he’s witnessed sprang from the heady theories and philosophies of Great Men of Power, Candide ultimately decides that the only way to live is to “cultivate one’s garden.” Whether this is a pessimistic retreat from society or an optimistic call to sustainable, realistic action is one of the great philosophical debates of its time that still rages. But when I read this book I had no doubt it was the latter, and that the secret of life is to cultivate one’s garden.

That said, I am not always good at cultivating my own garden. I see something happen (like Trump’s election) and my immediate response is to wonder what enormous project I can undertake that will Change Other People and Make The World Better. I might continue in this tunnel for a while, drafting book proposals and getting people involved who pat me on the head as I spin like a top. But eventually I realize these projects are dumb. Maybe they’re being done by actual experts already. Maybe they missed a crucial snag that utterly deflates the premise. Or, as is often the case, I’ve launched into full blown White Savior Mode without passing Go or collecting my Victorian Era Shortsightedness Trophy.

I think that because of recent events, during which we’ve all been living in constant crisis mode, I’ve been forced to confront this part of myself more brutally and more honestly than ever before. And what’s really helped me understand what’s wrong with what I keep doing is Voltaire’s admonition: cultivate your garden. I need to be cultivating my own goddamned garden before I start trying to till other people’s.

Living through the last few months, with multiple examples of extrajudicial executions of unarmed Black people by police, I’ve been tempted to Try Fixing Shit. I’ve been tempted to Create A New Organization That Will Get Other People To Do Shit or to Ask Black Friends How I Can Help or to Write The Book That Erases Injustice. The problem with these impulses, in order, are: These organizations already exist; my black friends do not need to be explaining shit I can Google; and such books also already exist. As for the organizations and books, many of them not only exist, they’re run or written by POC who by dint of education and unfortunate experience are already actual fucking experts whose roles I’d be attempting to usurp.

How very Karen of me.

So, instead, I’m trying to channel Candide and cultivate my own goddamned garden. I’m doing that by continuing to educate myself by reading those books (that are already published, most by POC) that help me understand the insidious grasp that racism has not only the world I live in but THAT IT HAS ON ME. I cannot become antiracist by denying my own racism. I cannot believe that because I feel lots of feelings and have already read some stuff, that I am now woke, and should be teaching others. I should still be learning.

I’m also cultivating my garden by being honest about my beliefs, for others to see. This stuff can be hard to talk about. For those of us with the privilege to choose, it can be scary to come out on one side of an issue, especially when we know people close to us will be angry. We’re also often told that because of our job or our role or whatever, that we “shouldn’t be political.” Knowing we’ll alienate neighbors, colleagues, readers, or even loved ones is a real risk, especially in our crazily partisan world.

But sometimes cultivating a garden necessitates violence. We must clear away dead things and obstructions so new things can grow. For those struggling with acts of protest, or for those raised to see any destruction of property as anathema, turn to history, which tells us that protests, and even riots, have had a tremendous, positive influence on society. And that goes for our own lives. Sometimes losing someone or something we want/like/love is worth it, when the alternative is losing our own integrity.

These are three things I’m doing to cultivate my garden. I am opening myself up to education. I am being open and honest about my views, even as I let those views evolve through what I’m learning, so that I might ruthlessly confront my worst impulses. And I’m not letting my personal discomfort dictate my level of engagement. In fact, I’m leaning into my discomfort. I’m letting my discomfort inform me about where I still need work and I’m challenging myself to directly confront my discomfort where possible. In other words, if an idea feels risky, I probably need to explore it.

I’m not changing the world, but I’m changing me. And that might not sound like much. It certainly doesn’t satisfy that little voice that wants to pick up a megaphone and shout at people.

But then I stop and imagine. What would the world be like if everyone took that responsibility—to cultivate their own garden?

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