learning from chickens

this is the season for humility. it’s always a season for humility.

but lately, humility has become a central theme, a principle to not only aspire towards, but to practice. to be mindful of. just like gratitude.

in last week’s permaculture design course session, we did a quick activity outlining the characteristics, needs, and yields of chickens. we examined what chickens need – food, shelter, water, air, and so on – with what they give – fertilizer, eggs, meat, carbon dioxide, gentle tillage, pest control, entertainment, therapy, and more. we then repeated the exercise with ourselves, and i found that i identified more concrete yields/outputs for chickens than i did for myself. moreover, so many of my outputs felt humxn-made; things like ideas, friendship, experience design, art, and action plans. the chicken’s outputs seem to directly benefit the ecosystem around it – its manure, for example, directly supports soil and microbial health, which then helps plant grow stronger and heartier, which then becomes nutritious and delicious food for animals and humxns. i can’t even offer poop to the ecosystem with the way i live now. i take from the earth more than i give back, and what i give is largely anthropocentric.

then, in one of the youth design sessions i was facilitating the other day, one of the students asked what we meant by building humility. i was caught a little bit off guard – i know what humility means to me, but admit that i don’t have practice defining it on the spot.

i stumbled – humility is about being vulnerable. it’s about acknowledging one’s limits. it’s about modesty, being modest. humility and humble are related.

which, are all true, but are really just a series of complex and loaded words that need to be further broken down to be more easily digestible. the exercise of trying to define humility was, in itself, an exercise in humility.

in creative reaction lab’s equity-centered community design, we define humility as “the willingness and ability to accurately assess oneself, acknowledge gaps in one’s knowledge, and be open to new ideas.”

the willingness – to say that i am open to looking at myself, seeing that there are things i don’t know, and that there are things that i don’t even know that i don’t know, and being open to new ideas.

i like this more than the webster definition of humility as a “modest or low view of one’s importance.”

i think that the former definition provides a little bit more heft and context to humility – it’s the recognition that we are just grains of sand on an ocean.

• • •

humility, to me, is deeply interlinked with perspective — with the recognition that the universe is m a s s i v e and our doing and being is, in the graaand scheme of things, quite small. not unimportant, just small. and it’s kind of beautiful to me to think of it that way – that what we do matters, but that it’s never the only thing that matters. that there is no single right answer. that there are hardly ever right or wrong answers. that everything is a gradient and that everything is in flux. the universe is always expanding, right? i find myself sometimes getting caught up, wound up and stressed out about things that i perceive to matter, that i internalize as mattering, that doesn’t matter to the soil around me, or the chickens around me, or the worms or the gases in the air around me. that sometimes i’m too caught up in the air – that too much of my energy is churning above my shoulders. that rather than rooting, i’m flying and bouncing around, that i’m preoccupied with what is in my head. humility challenges me to think about what is worth worrying about or thinking about or what is actually real to beings and spirits beyond me.

it reminds me of the limitations of ideas. the limitations of ideating. it challenges me to not try so hard.

to relinquish control – which we’re conditioned to pursue.

co-existing with systems and cycles of nature is really about relinquishing control, especially of other beings.

i could redirect control to controlling my mind – but even then, even the term “control” seems to evoke negative energy. i think there is something to be said about practicing more mindfulness and awareness and self-regulation without framing it as self-control.

if i stop trying to control myself – my thoughts or actions or desires – will i also stop trying to control what is external to myself?

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