Working together is a selfish act

This is the fourth in a series of eight posts detailing concepts and attitudes for sustainable personal change. As one would expect of someone maintaining a 155-pound loss for more than 20 years, my examples have to do with food and weight, but their point is to illustrate how anyone can achieve and maintain healthy change. Today’s concept:  “Working together is a selfish act.”

For many people, gardening is a solitary hobby, a way to spend some time alone out in the fresh air. I like being out in the sun, too, but my gardening is not a hobby, and I do little of it alone.

Until five years ago, I did none of it at all, and had trouble understanding why other people did, but such is an expression of the transformation that continues to unfold in my life, more than two decades after it began. The obvious evidence is that I’m maintaining a 155-pound loss for more than 20 years, and though weight loss is what I was after, I’ve received a whole lot more.

My four years in a cooperative community garden typifies a few of them. Just as my pursuit of weight loss led in great directions I didn’t have the imagination for, I have reaped a great deal more than I knew I wanted. Those include the crops, of course, but as fluffy as it might sound, I was also hoping to strengthen my connection to the land and take another step into the local-food movement.

Check, check, and check. But wait, there’s more:

1. Expertise. We had about a dozen members the first spring and I was easily the least skilled, least informed gardener of the bunch, a condition that remained even if you included the fence posts. I’ve gained not only information, but approaches and perspectives. 

For example, I have only three raised beds at home, but when a plant fails to thrive, and I have tended to just pull it and move on. In the shared garden, the practice is to assess what might else go into that space for whatever remains of the growing season, and then plant it.

2. Sense of community, times two. First, there’s the camaraderie inside the fence. I have relationships with lots of fairly like-minded neighbors now that I wouldn’t have otherwise had. But also, I feel more a part of my town by having a stake in a growing town enterprise. If I’m at the playground with my son and see someone peering over the fence, I can invite them in, because I know the lock’s combination. I’m one of the in crowd.

3. Support. I probably should have pointed out by now that this is a cooperative garden, not an allotment garden, in which I would have been less interested. We not only garden together, we plan it, we propagate it, we blog about it, we even dine together occasionally. One outcome is that unlike the garden soloist, I am free to vacation in summer without worrying about what will befall my rooting interests. Someone will always be watching.

4. I get outside myself. Working voluntarily in groups allows me to see where I’m strong. And where I’m not, I get to see how others handle the same challenges.

5. And, not incidentally, there *is* the food. It’s not free, because in addition to sweat equity, we each pay $75 a year to the town for the privilege of working public land. A bit goes into the recreation fund, but the rest comes back to us for seeds, hoses, and other gardening materials when we submit our receipts. 

But I’ve found that when I’m consistently able to make our twice-weekly harvestings, they meet our family’s produce needs for a good four months a year. There’s no way I could do that with my three raised beds.

The widespread view of engaging in community is that, at best, it’s a double-edged activity: Maybe you get something, but you give up a lot, especially freedom. That attitude is understandable in a land where we venerate the rugged individualist, and pine for our own transport and our own chunk of land. But it obscures all the benefits of living, working, and participating in community.

In addition to getting help, community is one place I can offer it as well. It's paradoxical, but it's long been demonstrated to me that the best way to get out of whatever funk I'm in is to try to help someone else with her or his problem. Not only do I often get relief, I also gain perspective, a potential ally, and the warm glow that emanates from generosity. 

Author and wellness innovator Michael Prager helps smart companies
make investments in employee wellbeing that pay off in corporate success.
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