The teacup tinkles gently as it is being set down on the glass table by the gentleman in deep green. Satish Kumar’s apparel looks simple yet elegant, inaudibly embodying everything we are about to discuss.
He really is a phenomenon. Maybe it is the two and a half years of peace walk that he conducted with a friend, delivering peace tea to world leaders. Maybe it is his willingness to meet people and to share his adventure stories about non-violent resistance. Maybe it’s the balance he gets from writing alongside the care for his apple trees.
Whatever it is, when we sit down to talk with him over a cup of tea – he chooses a green kind – we are glued to his lips. Not because he presents very complicated concepts but because of the contrary. He shines elegant simplicity.
When he talks, Satish uses a lot of repetitions and a calm voice to engage us in his way of thinking. Listening to him speak evokes a warm and fuzzy kind of feeling that makes you believe that everything is going to be alright, even in a crisis. For those curious, yes, he really transmits the trust, love and optimism he is talking about – but let us start at the beginning.
Like so many stories in this day and age, ours starts with mentions of Greta Thunberg and Fridays For Future: just a few weeks before the global school strike for climate change on Friday, September 21, the 60-year old American novelist Jonathan Franzen published a long article in The New Yorker. His message was that the striker’s commitment was meaningless, global warming having already gone too far to stop. One should give up, he concluded. And while hundreds of thousands did not give up on this day – us included – Franzen’s article is a far from isolated example. In recent times, it has become increasingly common to express the opinion that one could just as easily give up trying to change politics or society for the better: It seems like it has become a kind of intellectual manhood rite to publicly state that one dares to stare straight down into the abyss with rationality as the primary weapon.
Reading these words, you easily understand Greta’s anger. It’s easy to see why, when looking at something existential, we seem so easily drawn to big grandiloquent feelings of despair: our brains love panic! It’s one of the first things we want to speak to Satish Kumar about. He, who publicly stated that realism was “an outdated, overplayed and wholly exaggerated concept”, now explains that Greta is acting out of fear and that she, along with most of us, needs to change her way of thinking.
“Despair dissipates energy! So, if you want to have energy to act, you need to be optimistic and hopeful. Activism requires optimism! If you want to change the system, it will need to happen out of love!”
If realism is outdated, where does that leave us? We find ourselves in a space of creativity, where the discourse won’t be about whether we have concrete solutions or not and, where it will be impossible to give up. In the space of creativity, we are not bound to quantify our actions. Un-concrete actions do not ask for concrete results and we are free to be artists creating hope.
Satish encourages us to clean up our lives and dig for the essential, away from consumerism, money and greed. To find time for ourselves, for those moments of tranquility in which we stare at a tree, in which we care for one another, in which we share meals: “Outer problems come from inner problems! If minds are polluted and corrupted, so are our environments.”
And he advocates for us to become “artists of everyday life”, because “not every artist is a special kind of person, but every person is a special kind of artist.” Schumacher College, of which he is a cofounder, gives an idea of what that means: students living together in a community, growing their own food and cooking for each other alongside their classes. It’s all about a balance of body and mind, physical and intellectual.
“I have to be honest, during his talk, he made the thought of leaving everything behind and returning to the countryside to work with my hands very appealing. I can see that many in our student community would feel the same way, seeking for a balance in their free time.”
The holistic approach within UNISG is mostly focused on academic activities, but there is potential. Doing some quick math, it becomes clear that if 450 students were to spend one hour in the garden each week, we would have eleven full time workers instead of just one and the garden next to our classrooms would flourish right along with us.
And while not everyone might have the time to spend an hour in the garden each day, everyone can become an artist of life, for “all of us have imagination! Everything we do becomes a work of art. Art should not be a profession of a small elite, imprisoned in art galleries. Every home and every office should be an art museum!” Satish is right!
Before leaving each other, one last question slips out: “How do these times make you feel?”
“Again, I think I wanted to have it, I wanted the former Jain monk to break it to me about how climate change is terrifying to him, along with some scary data. But instead, Satish Kumar answers in serenity.”
“I feel that we are living in a good time and in a time where there are many opportunities to put things right. If everything was proper and perfect then there would be no challenge and challenge make us sharpen our language, our communication, our activism, our everything to be more effective! It is a challenging time and therefore it is a difficult time and therefore it is a good time”.
All of a sudden it seems simple. During the entire conversation this man has been elegantly changing our minds. Even now, he calmly presents the possibility that we are living in a good time. Satish ends his answer with a metaphor: when a mother gives birth to a baby it is a life-or-death experience but without the labour pain there is no mother and there are no children. And we are going through labour pain in this moment, giving birth to a new society, a new worldview, a new way of life, and that is good.
It might sound insulting for someone to call our university a kindergarten but that is what we wish to call it now. We wish to see Greta Lab and the Friday Forums as the kindergarten of this new worldview that we are collectively in labour pain for, our nursery for teaching one another about how to tackle the challenges and where together we learn how to act of love.
With these thoughts in mind, we finish our cups of tea and say our goodbyes to Satish Kumar, who, in the span of just one hour managed to install some sense of peace in us that before was almost unthinkable. Maybe, we muse on our way home, the tea also played its part.
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