Waking up to our interconnectedness – to the real, if invisible, influence that each one of us has on the earth and its people – was a bit of a shock. Like the time I sat sobbing on my couch after reading an article that traced the root cause of climate change back to me. The sadness I felt went beyond post-partum malaise; it was a visceral response, not to a rational scientific argument, but to the quiet tragedy of a walrus and the newborn pup she couldn’t feed because the melting ice floe could not hold them. Heartbroken, I mourned for her as only another new mom could.
During those weeks in 2005, I came to terms with a devastating reality. With nearly every action I undertook as a consumer, I was contributing to the Sixth Great Extinction. With my internalization of the fact of anthropogenic climate change, I had to own that by participating in our established system of production and consumption, I also perpetuated it. And that meant things had to change, starting with me.
Or did it?
Learning that you are part of the problem seems to demand you become part of the solution. But if behavior is any indicator of attitude strength, a great many people do not believe they are part of a problem they need to solve. If you’re reading this and feel the opposite, regardless of which issue keeps you up at night, then you might be a bridge person.
Whether architecturally significant, merely decorative or strictly functional, bridges are conduits that carry people from one place to the next. Whether guided by a creative impulse that won’t let go or simply the strength of your conviction, as a bridge person, you are the link that transports others to new ways of thinking and being. You are a cultural translator who learns to see from different vantages in order to help others meet in the middle, somewhere above the chasm that divides us, in order to find the way forward.
Stories of bridge people pepper the pages of history. Like the one about the scrawny seamstress of humble origin who beat her Belle Epoque rivals at their own game: fashion. While other French women of the period were content to be weighted down in heavy skirts and restrictive bodices, the tailor’s apprentice, guided by her own dissatisfaction with the status quo, began to design loose-fitting garments made of breathable fibers. She astutely marketed her creations to prominent women who saw the new “sportswear” as ideal for enjoying their seaside vacations sans corsets.
Meanwhile, the seamstress found inspiration in the simple lines and fabrics of sailor’s uniforms, not to mention her own sense of empowerment in wearing her lover’s white cotton shirts and riding breeches. She translated her own awakening around fashion’s potential for freedom into clothing that allowed women to be comfortable in their own skin. With creativity, courage, an innovative spirit, and the ability to see value in the essential over the ornamental, Coco Chanel leveraged her vision to set a new standard for femininity.
If the road is made by walking, bridge people carve out pathways to new paradigms with personal action, and those that persist can create a movement. To become a bridge means becoming comfortable with adaptation, and accepting the need for constant learning along with the discomfort of being constantly misunderstood.
“The problem with being a bridge is you get walked on from both sides,” said writer Brian McLaren, who knows the downside all too well.
I first met Brian in 2011 at the Wild Goose Festival, a social justice conference in the backwoods of North Carolina that I’m still not sure how I landed in. My friend Cynthia, a writer from California, had invited me to go with her to promote a book we had collaborated on together. There I met seekers from all over the country whose curiosity and dissatisfaction with cognitive dissonance had propelled them to look beyond their own faith traditions for insights into existential concerns. And for us, Brian posed some unconventional questions:
Why do we need to have singular and firm opinions on the protection of the unborn, but not about how to help poor people and to avoid killing people labeled ‘enemies’ who are already born? Or why are we so concerned about the legitimacy of homosexual marriage but not about the legitimacy of fossil fuels or the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, (and in particular, our weapons as opposed to theirs)? Or why are so many religious people arguing about the origin of species but so few concerned about the extinction of species?
Brian’s book Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crisis, and a Revolution of Hope presents a provocative, yet rational and factual model of the “suicide machine”- the very system that I had woken up to one day, yet struggled to articulate. He closes with a message of hope that can be found within our potential for systemic change through personal transformation, much as the undomesticated “rebel” Jesus did.
For some of Brian’s views, he has been labeled a heretic, just like centuries of religious reformers that came before him. But he did and continues to do what bridge people do: ignore the naysayers, stay true to the message, keep linking to others who understand, and find joy in the journey of modeling another potentiality for humanity.
Being a bridge person forces you to get in touch with your identity, because that will serve as your North Star in those moments when you wonder which side you even came from, so steeped in other modes of thinking you will become. For my part, when it dawned on me that I hated my identity as a consumer, I began to wonder what it would be like to become a sustainer instead. And thus began my journey into sustainability.
That was 18 years ago. Some days I’m amazed by how very little progress I’ve made to heal the earth of its wounds. But when I’m able to get past that disappointment, I look at the road that took me from personal action – building a green home, writing a green book and launching a green business – to global connectivity with my work in corporate sustainability and research with the Inclusive Economy Consortium. And I’m still glad to be part of the continuum of change. If you feel the same, let’s connect and keep the change moving in the right direction – the direction of evolution.