The Call to Stewardship

There is a certain amount of reverence that comes when you see something – really see it – as alive. When you understand that it has a life of its own. That it exists for its own ends. That it has potential that can’t fully be known and that may or may not be completely realized, depending on countless influences and interactions. There is mystery and magic in something that is alive.

For a direct and simple experience of this kind of reverence, find the point on your neck where your pulse is strongest. Take a moment to feel the rhythm, silently breathing in a sense of wonder at the life flowing through you, animating you, powering you all these years, creating you, healing you, propelling you for a time. You are alive. That is something to marvel at and be grateful for. Your aliveness is something worthy of profound reverence.

With reverence comes an invitation to care. We are wired with a sense of care – care for ourselves and those close to us, certainly, but also a broader compassion for all living things, with an inherent sense of kinship and responsibility – even the most hardened among us.

And when reverence and responsibility are ignited together within us, the result is a personal call to stewardship.

Isn’t this what we crave, really? To see the world with wonder, reverence and awe? And to feel called to care and be of service?

Here, service is not the same as servitude (which is why I find the phrase “servant leader” less compelling than “steward”). My parenting is service, both to my children and to the society they will serve in turn. I don’t own or control my children. With love and reverence and a great deal of trust in life, I accompany and support them – sometimes actively, sometimes less so – providing the fertile conditions for them to thrive and for them to contribute to thriving in the world. Yet I am not their servant. I am a steward of my children’s lives. And in the same spirit, we can be stewards of our organizations, our communities and the Earth.

Such stewardship is not a discrete set of competencies that can be trained and certified. It is not a “to do” list. Instead, it is an ongoing personal practice, like a martial arts or spiritual practice, ever unfolding as the context changes, as the living system you are cultivating unfolds, and as you grow and evolve through the process. It is a craft developed over time through experience, imitation and intuition. It is the lifelong journey of growing into wisdom, compassion and the ability to sense what is needed and to respond with effective action.

A fellow champion of living systems perspectives recently told me he doesn’t use the word stewardship in his work because “it implies that we know better” – better than life, as I understood his sentiment. Instead he uses the word gardening.” But to me, gardening can too easily be dismissed as an idle hobby. Stewardship, on the other hand, is more clearly a calling. And sometimes stewardship does call for wise action, precisely because we know better – not better than life, but better with life. Better on behalf of life.

There are rich layers to the idea of a “calling,” as I discovered recently when I co-hosted a week-long retreat on a five-acre wooded island north of Toronto. We were there to explore the deeper role of “place” for our communities, our work, and ourselves. It was a beautiful experience with many profound insights. And most of all, it felt like a nourishing taste of what is possible in community.

As we arrived, we explored the island, getting to know its many features, some of them crafted by human hands, much of it wild. Stopping at points along the way, we shared our stories with each other, weaving ourselves into this place.

On one of the following days, we each went to the part of the island that called to us, where we felt the strongest sense of home. There, we reflected and wrote in our journals, asking: “What does ‘home’ mean to me, and how do I get there?”

A cheerfully clanging bell signaled that it was time to come back together, and I was surprised to notice the intense joy I felt at the sound – at being called back into belonging. Already, these were people I had come to love. Perhaps more precisely, I had come to love who and how we all were together.

As we gathered again, we moved into a common project, taking on a meaningful task together. (In fact, we cleaned our space together, led by Tolu Ilesanmi of Zenith Cleaners.) And we talked about what it means to share a calling – to feel called to work toward the same goal.

What I later learned is that the origins of the word “calling” are the same as the word “beauty,” which was also strongly present throughout our experience on the island. As Michael Jones relates:

“The word beauty itself is closely related to both calling and compassion. As such, beauty lies at the root of what it means to be truly compassionate and truly alive. It is our call to life. To be regenerative is to return the world to beauty.”

At the end of our time together, I was fascinated to notice the different ways we had experienced the concept of a “call” – one personal and divergent; one relational; one rooted in collective, convergent action; and one ethereal and inspiring, a call to life itself. [These are the four patterns of all living systems.] What we found was that when all of these aspects were present and coherent with each other, our work felt joyful, effective, inspired and transformative. The feeling was one of flow and celebration – of thrivability. We were experiencing the full living systems pattern, with place playing a strong supporting role. And we each felt strongly called into stewardship of that pattern.

As I reflect on these different experiences of being called, my sense is that the “responsibility” within stewardship of our human communities is most of all “response-ability.” It is a response to each of those four calls:

  1. to an inner call to come home to ourselves, to our bodies and to the places and stories that shape us;
  2. to our pining for rich belonging and a sense of sacredness in our relationships with the human and more-than-human world;
  3. to a calling or purpose that propels us into transformative, generative action together;
  4. and to the call to life that our yearning for beauty and celebration carries within it.

In our organizations and communities, then, stewardship is less a role or a title and more a commitment to tend to each of these fertile conditions, offered from a stance of reverence for the life in each of us and between us, as well as for the transcendent potential that we may express together. In this way, what we are stewarding is the fullness of a system’s ongoing ability to thrive – its thrivability.

There is paradox woven into this view of stewardship – in reverence for something beyond our full control or comprehension, but commitment to care for it nonetheless. Similarly, there is paradox in stewardship’s call at times to trust life’s process of emergence, passively “holding space,” while at other times actively intervening and even on occasion making way for death. Stewardship demands both patient detachment and fierce determination. “A most worthy dance,” as a friend once said.

[This is an excerpt from The Age of Thrivability: Vital Perspectives and Practices for a Better World, by Michelle Holliday, published in 2016, www.ageofthrivability.com.]
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