Feeling like it’s All Out of Control

Most people looking at the world today feel that there’s little if anything they can do to make it work for them.

You see this expressed in a variety of ways. The stifling of their personalities at work, to protect the job. The avoiding the polling place on election day, as a waste of time. The fall off in community engagement.

Yet none of this makes anyone happy. We want to be ourselves, and to love our work. We want to be good citizens and we want communities that work. We want to make a difference.

Here’s the paradox: to make it feel like you’ve got some control, you’ve got to overcome this ennui of feeling out of control.

In other words, you have to work through the despair you’re feeling about the way things are.

When I look at things like the Transition Towns initiatives, what I see are people trying to assert themselves back into control.

When I see people who — even in this economy — head off to do their own venture, or join a start up, I see people looking for a place to make a difference.

In other words, it’s not all hopeless. We just have to take it upon ourselves to go around the institutions we have.

Take, for instance, this weekend. It’s the weekend of “Jane’s Walks“.

Jane Jacobs is well known for her work on what makes for vibrant city neighbourhoods, economically vibrant cities, and how these are the building blocks of nations.

Jane’s Walks are led by … one of your neighbours. They are a chance to explore a neighbourhood, led by someone who’s taken the time to know what you’re looking at and to share it.

Pretty simple stuff. It started as one walk. Now there are dozens of them here in Toronto.

They’ve spread across the country, too. Calgary, Red Deer, Edmonton … a long list.

While on the walk, not only can you meet people and discuss the neighbourhood, you can also get ideas.

You remember Margaret Mead’s famous quote:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

This started with one.

Organizations, institutions, formal structure is not required to begin.

Transition Toronto is now looking to design and deliver a theatrical experience to explain the transition to a future city that has and uses far less energy than today.

This is a smart idea. People learn faster from experiences than from words.

Again, the idea is to plant seeds, and to help this person here, that person there, shake off the slough of despond and start to take control for themselves.

Finally, we have people like Robert Paterson down in Prince Edward Island.

He writes on health care as getting well, not spending money. He writes on food as locally sourced and supporting a neighbour. He looks at education as taking the time to teach, and taking the time to learn, not massive institutions and centrally-planned curricula.

What he’s talking about is his province — with a population much the same as the corner of Toronto I live in — becoming its own place, not an extension, at the end of the Confederation Bridge, of a continental-scale set of entities operating globally.

A “here” to care about, not an “anywhere”.

That’s another form of taking control: to decide that it’s worth a penny or two to support things in your community.

Finally, there’s the work of Francis Koster in the United States, who collects and verifies ideas for neighbourhood infrastructure.

Don’t invest in financial instruments, but in your community. Put a new HVAC system or roof into your school and get an income stream and capital payback over the cost savings. Keep your resources circulating locally, where you can keep an eye on them.

As anyone with a background in IT knows, the infrastructure upgrade projects aren’t sexy, and they pretty much always pay off.

All of these are ways to feel like you’re in control.

In the world we now live in, that’s an essential.

And you didn’t have to go and vote, either.

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