“If you want to save the world, hang up your coat.”
My father (author of the most adorable comments you will ever read) would always say that to me when I was younger. For that matter, he still says it to me now, though these days it’s less of a lesson and more of a reminder. My younger self was terrible about tidying up, about putting things back where they were supposed to go. In particular, I would never hang up my coats. When I took off a coat, it would go over the back of a chair, or a bed post, or an open door; my coats would be found folded on the rungs of the ladder leading to the top bunk of the bunk-bed or over the arm of the antique rocking chair my father had inherited from his grandmother, in a crumpled mass on top of the chest of drawers in the bathroom or draped over the folded-down dinner table, delicately balanced across my electric piano keyboard or precariously perched on the closed cover of the turntable I’d bought for my father so he could listen to his old vinyl records—in other words, anywhere, absolutely anywhere, but hanging on a coat hanger in the closet, where they belonged. And, because I had (and still have) a tendency to own a disproportionately large number of coats for my mostly minimalist wardrobe, my coats might be in all these places at once, leaving all of my coat-hangers unused in the closet, gathering dust.
When he—my father—would admonish me for my negligence, I would compare our conflict to the unhealthy tendency of agricultural civilization to impose an artificial order on the natural order of things, the order that emerges unbidden from chaos. As though throwing my coats down wherever I happened to be, on whatever surface was nearest at hand, gave me access to an ancient and long-neglected moral high ground, and as though his insistence that I hang them up made him like a tyrannical agriculturalist, here to slash and burn through the wild, natural randomness and reshape it into a land of neat little rows and stark straight lines. When I made the comparison, he would smile at one corner of his mouth, maybe even both (if he was in a jovial mood) and tell me a story from his inexhaustible well of Zen koans.
In this story, a young student arrives at a remote and isolated monastery, a monastery full of persistently reclusive monks, monks who were themselves full of that particular kind of knowing silence which tends to ignite the tinderbox tempers of young students like the protagonist of our story. The young fellow had been given to understand that these monks knew how to teach the Ultimate Secret of Zen, and he had come a very long way to seek them out and learn it from them. The monks, however, were not as forthcoming as their new student had imagined. The monks took him in, and permitted him to participate in their daily routines, but from sunrise on the morning he arrived until sunset that night, not one of them breathed a word about the Ultimate Secret, or showed any indication that any of them ever intended to do so. Finally, after hurriedly finishing his dinner, the young student rushes straight away to the chamber of the Master, who was in the midst of his evening’s meditations.
The student finds the Master alone in his room, folding a plain white tea-towel with a look of deep thought on his face. “Master,” the student blurts out, “I was told that you would teach the Ultimate Secret of Zen to any who wished to learn it. Why have you not told me the secret?”
The Master turns around slowly and looks the student up and down. “You wish to learn the Ultimate Secret of Zen?” he asks, his eyes twinkling like distant stars. “Yes, yes!” the student replies eagerly, his eyes glowing like candles. The Master looks at him seriously. “Have you eaten since you arrived here?” he asks solemnly, as though this was the most important question there could be. “I…yes…” the student replies, not understanding. The Master nods.
“Then wash out your bowl,” he says, and hands the student his tea-towel.
Of course, the Master is right, as my father was (and as all the best mentors have an infuriating tendency to be). The monks, by inviting the young man to join them in the rhythms of their everyday life, had been trying to teach their newest pupil the Ultimate Secret of Zen, he just wasn’t listening properly. How we live is who we are. When I marshaled my best sophistry to defend leaving my coats all over the place, my analogy was exactly backwards. By throwing down my coats wherever I happened to be, instead of spending the extra three seconds it would take to put the coat back where it belonged, I was letting my own selfishness dictate how I interacted with my environment. What I should have been doing is listening to the place around me, thinking about how that place had organized itself long before I ever had the privilege of being its guest. Instead of using the place for my own purposes, I should have let my actions flow into the channels of purpose already formed in the place. In this case that would have meant observing my home, finding the place best suited to storing coats, and making use of that place, and not somewhere else, for that purpose. And if there is nowhere in your environment, already provided by the natural world, that is suited to a particular activity—no space where a building a massive industrial oil refinery would be appropriate, for example—then maybe you shouldn’t be doing that.
There was nowhere in my environment that was suited to having my coats piled up on it. (Especially because most of my coats, like most of my clothes, are black, while the cats who shared our home were white, leaving any of them on horizontal surfaces, rather than hung up, was really an exceptionally bad idea.) So I shouldn’t have been doing that. But there was a place that was uniquely suited to hanging up my coats, and so that’s where they should have gone. I get that now.
There was another important lesson I got from that, from my father’s saying to me that saving the world would require me to hang up my coat. I am very much a “big picture” kind of person: while other folks are either seeing the forest or the trees, I’m trying to look at the whole planet, all at once. I’ve always been that way; I guess it’s a kind of philosophical instinct I’ve had from birth. There are good reasons to do that, and perhaps many folks should do it more often, but it can also make it harder to act. Thinking big can make it harder to take small steps. I’m not against thinking big—quite the opposite—but it’s important to maintain a balance between the two. Not one or the other, but both.
So, this long weekend, take those small steps. Is it important to you to live in a way that doesn’t destroy the world? Want to someday build your very own light-footprint hobbit-hole? So do I. If you’re only a small step away from that, I applaud you. But if that sounds a long way off, start by finding your local farmers’ market. Or do some guerilla gardening. Small steps. If we are going to have any appreciable impact fighting against the destruction of the Earth, we don’t have time to wait for the opportune moment. We have to start where we are.
So: if you want to save the world, hang up your coat.