Living Systems Require Stewards, not Masters

Living things require stewards, not masters. Why? Because living things cannot be mastered wholly – and attempts that are semi-successful ruin their objects. It is time that we gave up the idea that we can be in complete control of that which lives. Land, animals, societies and ourselves – we are far too complex to be simplified. There are too many variables. Let us rejoice in the variables!

Yes, let us rejoice. Another ethic for your consideration – let us rejoice in the differences in potential, differences in gifting, differences in outcomes. There is a place for everyone and everything, but shoving round pegs into square holes causes nothing but disappointment and pain. Our complexity, the myriad species of frog, the microbiota in the soil – let us stop, and let us wonder!

But to return to our muttons… let me give you an example of the human condition. In order to achieve the best health, just off the top of my head, one would want to:

  • Go outside regularly, in the sunshine
  • Eat close to the source
  • Eat a variety of plants and avoid processed food
  • Drink clean water
  • Drink a bit of wine, for your stomach’s sake
  • Play
  • Laugh
  • Visit with friends and relatives
  • Rejoice
  • Work at something that brings meaning
  • Get your hands dirty – particularly as a child
  • Have a community
  • Sleep deeply and well for 1/3 of your life
  • Exercise more than you think you should in ways that force your body to move
  • Avoid excess sitting
  • Avoid repetitive motion
  • Spend time with animals (particularly as a child)
  • etc

But doing all this and the list in your head and the list from the latest health guru will still not ensure perfect health. Why not? We don’t control the variables. One of the big things that affects your health is your gut biome (more and more, we learn). Your gut biome is affected by your entire life, particularly your childhood. Not the kid who ate dirt? You might not be as healthy – maybe a fecal transplant could help you… but it can’t turn back time. How about grandma? What was she eating when she was pregnant with your mom? What kind of water was mom drinking when she was pregnant with you? None of these are in your control. You don’t pick your genes, you don’t pick your environment (especially as a child) – and you aren’t in control of accident or malice that was inflicted upon you. Mental health and PTSD directly affect your physical self. Our current culture implies that we are at fault for failing to have perfect health… as if we were masters, controllers, creators – and we are none of those.

It is better to consider oneself a steward of the body one lives in, not a master. You may be able to live the Instagram ideal – you may not. What you can do is take care of what you’ve been loaned. Stewardship, not mastery. You can take what you have been given and make the most of it. All bodies decay eventually – should we feel shame for aging? (Well, we do. And that’s a broken thing that causes much damage. Perhaps this is not a thing we wish to keep? Why do we feel ashamed for what time and trial have taken? Control is not an idol worth worshipping – its dues are too dear).

Consider the land – each biome is different, with different requirements and different possibilities. Our cheerful attempts to master the land, to subdue it, have resulted in dustbowls, invasive non-native species, pesticide and fertilizer poisoning, herbicide overrun, etc ad nauseum. Stewardship, carefully considering the land – falling in love – observing, sheltering, encouraging… this is the way to fruitful harvests, harvests that bring wholeness and abundance. Given its microbiome, given variety of species, given clean water and managed, the earth is gracious in its return. Abuse it and it becomes a desert – no matter if your abuse is new school or old. Again I say, we must learn the lessons of history, use the skillful observations of science, and walk with the hearts of the lover if we wish to go forward wisely (and successfully) – in any living system.

Humans are not robots and the earth is not a factory. Ask us to do the same thing over and over and we break. Let us live in all our complexity, in our majesty – and let us live not wildly, but in wisdom, and we will thrive. We have a very universe of wonder to explore – let us do so with the joyful eyes of a child at play, and the care of an artist. This will bring healing.

Living systems require stewards – not masters.

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