Caring What People Think

This past weekend at the Florida Permaculture Convergence, with 150+ other people, I had the pleasure of meeting Rob Greenfield and hearing him speak. Now THIS is a guy with a low footprint! At the moment he’s engaged in an experiment in which he has pledged to eat only what he grows or forages himself. Compared with Rob’s adventurous life, my “10% footprint” lifestyle in a conventional dwelling is downright cushy! It’s great to hear about people who are practicing a low-footprint life in a more extreme, or just different, way.

One of my takeaways from Rob’s talk is how much time and energy we spend caring about what other people think. Our eco actions and voluntary sacrifices aren’t that onerous physically, compared with the burden of “caring about appearances” and living in fear of violating the norms of conventional mainstream society.

I had one such moment last night, at a neighborhood holiday party. I had brought my own dishes and utensils to avoid using plastic disposables. This is something I do all the time, and usually people either don’t notice, or they think “What a good idea, maybe I’ll do that next time.”

However, last night was different. The people at my table had a strong reaction, could not understand why I had brought my own eating utensils and dishes. Instead of just explaining, I went into a shame-spiral and felt stupid and self-conscious, and tucked my stuff away out of sight. I ended up moving to a different table, and also ended up using the provided disposable plate (though I did use my bamboo eating utensils). The plates were compostable paper, so I felt more OK using one than if they had been plastic. And at the end of the evening I collected other people’s used plates to bring home to my compost bin. Still, it felt like a loss.

In retrospect, the way I went about bringing my own dishes to that particular party was unattractive. I had my dishes sitting on the table in a really conspicuous way that was just screaming for negative attention. Part of the problem was that they were stainless steel camp dishes, and looked out of place in the setting. Next time I’ll be a little more considerate of my social environment and won’t have to be as visually obtrusive.

For example, I could have brought a small plain white reusable plate from my kitchen cabinet, instead of the stainless-steel camp dishes that fit right in at permaculture convergences and my UU church potlucks, but stuck out like a sore thumb at my neighborhood holiday gathering.

Or, maybe more important, I could have made sure I set out from my house feeling attractive and self-confident, and then I could have explained my dishes in a matter-of-fact way with a radiant smile and gone about enjoying the party.

While we can’t allow ourselves to be consumed by caring what people think, there is a degree of social consideration that not only is basic courtesy to other people, but also serves the “cause.” Last night I lost an opportunity to be an attractive ambassador for low-footprint living. Lesson learned!

An important aspect of being an attractive ambassador for low-footprint living (or any other cause) is cultivating a consistent self-confidence. I don’t always have it in social settings, and that sometimes interferes with my ability to be an attractive influence. Most of us have our ups and downs with self-confidence, but there are many healthful practices for getting centered and maintaining. The trick for me is to always take time to do some kind of healthy thing to get my mind centered. It’s always time well-spent. Could be something as simple as listening to a favorite song. Or visiting the plants and critters in my yard. Also prayer and meditation, of course.

And oftentimes when my self-confidence is flagging, if I just remind myself of my mission in life, what I’m trying to do to make a better world, I get a boost of confidence and am not so easily derailed by social situations. How about you, what works for you?

If you want to meet someone who radiates self-confidence and is totally out there (he even went around dressed head to toe in trash, to show how much trash people living a typical U.S. lifestyle generate!), check out Rob Greenfield’s website. Though Rob’s footprint is far lower than mine, I have the feeling he never fails to be an attractive ambassador of low-footprint living. Gracious, engaging, knowledgeable, and able to bring humor to a serious subject, he has touched lives all over the world. His talk at the Convergence has given me a booster-shot of courage regarding my own choices (a really helpful thing since I sometimes second-guess my “extreme” choices, which are really only extreme in the context of a hyper-consumerist mainstream society). On his site, you can check out his TEDx Talk “Be The Change in the Messed Up World,” and read all about his projects and adventures.