Start Here: The Power of the Particular
By Laura Alary, author of Here: The Dot We Call Home
On a wall in my home hangs a print of a beach. There is nothing to identify the location, though the red-brown cliffs rising from pale sand offer a clue. But I know this place well. For many summers I walked this stretch of shoreline every day. I know the red clay road that leads to it, the ditches where lupines grow wild, the steep path down to the shore, the flat sandstone slabs and silver logs of driftwood where I would sometimes sit and just feel the wind. Our world has many beautiful places, some far more spectacular than this. But this particular stretch of shoreline is the one I know and love best.
Uncle Jimmy loves this shoreline too. He has roamed it for far more years than I have. After long weekends in the summer, Jimmy hikes along the coast for miles, picking up garbage: shattered bottles, cigarette butts, and other detritus left behind by thoughtless partiers. For Jimmy, the mess is personal. Every bottle cap or piece of glass that might cut the foot of a child, each piece of plastic that could threaten a sea bird, troubles him as much as if it were littering his own home.
This is the power of the particular: it pulls us past vague generalities to a place of real connection and care. Storytellers of all kinds know this. Do you want your listeners to care about an issue? Grasp a big idea? Take a message to heart? Then make it personal. Tell a story. The word must be made flesh.
The particular helps us love.
It may not always seem this way. In one of my favourite Peanuts cartoons Linus shares with Lucy his aspirations to become a doctor. Lucy scoffs and insists Linus could never be a physician because he doesn’t love humankind. Linus retorts, “I love [hu]mankind! It’s people I can’t stand!” We laugh because we recognize the truth here: A theoretical love for humanity can be easier to sustain than the nerve-fraying effort of dealing with particular people who irritate, annoy, or even hurt us.
But love in theory is not really love at all. True love is embodied, earthy, often messy—and very specific.
We need the small. The local. The particular. We need it to touch our hearts and break them open. But we also need it to keep those hearts from being utterly overwhelmed.
When my parents set about the task of downsizing and selling their home of forty-plus years, they began by emptying out one closet, one drawer, one tiny section of the basement. That was the only way to go about a task that otherwise seemed too big to contemplate. The same principle applies to any challenge that feels formidable—including the precarious state of our environment.
The scope and complexity of the problems faced by our precious planet sometimes bear down so heavily we can barely breathe. Where else can we begin but with the particular?
As I sat outside the other morning, in the tree above my head a gathering of birds twittered and chattered cheerfully. Without warning, I was swamped by a wave of grief at the thought of all the exquisite forms of life—birds, frogs, bees, polar bears, corals, fish, forests—that are in peril through no fault of their own. The particularity of the birdsong in my yard made it personal. But it also limited and focused the energy of my grief.
Apathy sighs, It’s not my problem. I don’t care.
But the particular says, Look here. Notice this thing. Be amazed.
Cynicism whispers, We’re too far gone. There is no solution. So why bother?
The particular replies, We still have to choose how to be in this world, whatever impact those choices have.
Overwhelm cries, This is too much for me!
But the particular says, You don’t need to do it all. Fix your gaze on one spot—this tree, this garden, this beach, this lake—and love it as best you can.
Martin Luther once declared that even if he knew the world would end tomorrow, he would still plant an apple tree. Despair claims absolute certainty. Hope leaves the door open.
My hope is this: When we are ready, having loved the particular with all our hearts, we will look up and see that all over the world, others have been doing the same.
Then the particular will have done its job, leading us where we need to be. Like Uncle Jimmy, we will understand that home is everywhere, and that in all we do to care for and protect it, we are not alone.