One thing that Sara Gordon and I have in common is that we’ve both seen a psychotherapist to help cope with the concept of planetary destruction.
Okay, maybe that’s not the only thing I went to therapy for, but it’s certainly one of them. During a particularly tough time, my therapist, Sherry, used to remind me of the phrase socks before shoes.
It’s pretty self-explanatory: you must put your socks on before your shoes. Putting your socks on second or forgetting them entirely results in sweaty, blistered, raw feet, possibly housing a fungal infection.
Relating the concept to activism looks like this: You must care for yourself before you try saving the world.
I don’t know if Sara’s therapist ever provided her with similar advice, but our conversation reminded me of Sherry’s socks before shoes mantra.
Sara approaches climate activism with a socks before shoes ideology, and she urges others to do the same. “Everybody has to choose when they can and can’t engage in this,” she told me. “It ebbs and flows, your ability to do this and fit it into your life. That flow is so personal and nobody else’s business.”
Sara has an intimate understanding of this ebb and flow. She considers herself a child of Mother Nature and has always held a deep love for the Earth, but took a backseat in climate activism for several years after the birth of her son in 1992.
“I became increasingly anxious about bringing a child onto the planet at this time.”
Already well aware of the gravity of our climate crisis, Sara faced the struggles of new motherhood in conjunction with her fear for the world she brought her son into. She knew that this problem humanity created would fall heavily on him and his generation.
So Sara took some time off from saving the planet to put on her socks. She nurtured her young son and relearned how to care for herself despite the fear she felt for the future of this planet and its inhabitants.
One day in 2000, Sara received an offer in the mail for a subscription magazine titled Yes!
“It was taglined A Journal of Positive Futures, so I immediately subscribed. I opened my first issue and the first thing I read was an interview with Joanna Macy.
“She said something like, ‘even if we don’t make it as a species, this is an incredibly exciting time to be a human. We have the opportunity and the imperative to make the shift from an industrial growth society to a life sustaining civilization.’ That was so powerful and liberating for me that someone would say out loud ‘we might not make it, but what an incredible time to be alive.’ Because I felt that it was a terrifying time to be alive.”
Joanna Macy structured her process, called The Work That Reconnects, first with gratitude, then honoring our pain for the world, seeing with fresh eyes, and finally going forth. Joanna must be familiar with socks before shoes.
“This became my drive,” said Sara. With her socks securely on her feet, Sara slipped on her shoes and came back into the climate activism scene kicking.
She spent the next couple decades committing herself to meaningful work. First working her way up to receive formal land planning certification, then finding employment with Peconic Land Trust’s conservation planning department, Sara cultivated meaning and purpose in her life wherever she could.
She also became heavily involved in education and service-learning, designing projects that advance the curriculum intentions of a class while also meeting a real need in the community.
And while she was working with Peconic Land Trust and several South Fork schools, Sara was accepted to train with Al Gore on the Climate Reality Project, learning to present a slideshow version of An Inconvenient Truth to members in her home community.
Then, in 2008, Sylvester Manor hired Peconic Land Trust to plan the conservation efforts of the land, and Sara found herself project managing in the place she found the most meaning: it was a blank canvas, a future she herself could help shape.
While working at Sylvester Manor, Sara still finds the time to engage with Carbon CREW, now guiding her third group.
With the kind of climate work people like Sara have done, there’s much to be hopeful for. There are millions of people who dedicate their lives to bettering the state of our planet, and that amount of care is reassuring.
Still, like many, I’m concerned about the world my generation is inheriting. With record-breaking temperatures, wildfires, droughts, and storm systems, we know there’s a problem. But why aren’t we acting more?
Sure, there’s the matter of money and convenience, but it must be more than that. Money and convenience are factors, but what’s proven even more immobilizing is doubt. Doubt over our ability to fix the greatest problem humanity has ever created embeds hopelessness into my generation’s perception of the future, and if our future is hopeless, what’s the point of acting at all?
There is, however, still hope for our future. The inspiring works of Paul Hawken and Damon Gameau have proven this fact. The question is whether this hope can spread as quickly and infectiously as the hopelessness it must displace.
If it can, I believe we will be able to drive the cultural shifts necessary to enact meaningful change.
Sara is no stranger to doubt and perceived hopelessness. Her approach to handling these feelings is one we can learn from, as it pushes her to keep moving despite doubt’s noise.
When her mind hammers her with the question “am I even making a difference?” Sara chooses to think of Joanna Macy’s words from an event she attended at Harvard Divinity School.
“She said she used to worry about measuring her impact until she thought, ‘I can never know, there’s no way to track it, and what does it matter? These are pebbles in a pond, and who knows how they ripple?’ That was so liberating for her when she stopped putting energy into wondering whether she was making a difference.”
This approach is empowering because it recognizes doubt. It’s a hat tip and a slight nod to doubt in the street; civil but not engaging. It accepts its presence and continues to move despite it.
“I have felt like a hypocrite many days,” she told me. “I used to feel if I wasn’t walking the twelve miles from my house in Sag Harbor to my office in Southampton on the highway with a placard saying Wake up! The end is near, or if I wasn’t standing on a rooftop screaming about rising sea levels and its effect, that I wasn’t doing enough.
“But you’ve got to cut yourself some slack. I’m trying to never use plastic bags, but I still use plastic bags. They come into my world, and I give them as many uses and reuses as possible.
“And then go out and try to make a difference that’s going to inspire others. I have a chance to talk with lots of kids doing field trips at Sylvester Manor now. Planting seeds, throwing pebbles, rippling.”
The truth is we often can’t see or measure our ripples. Listening to Sara reminds me that this work is long-term, wide-ranging, complex, and lacking in immediate reward. We hope we’re building better communities, conserving Earth’s resources, laying the foundation of a bright future for generations to come.
But when the question of if we are really doing this, if our efforts are working, if we’re having an impact prevents us from trying, we lose the opportunity to make any difference at all.
When working with those South Fork schools, Sara wrote a service-learning module called Why Bother?. Standing in between a white board and a group of 9th graders, she asked the early high schoolers, “what is community? What communities do you belong to?”
“That would usually go from ‘I don’t belong to anything’ to a massively inclusive understanding that you have your family, extended family, the block where you live, your neighborhood, school, classes, sports teams. You’re a human being, a part of the universe and everything in between.”
Sara taught her students that the opportunity to make a difference begins with the people and places we are closest to. Saving our environment, changing a culture, ensuring a home for future generations – these are indeed our goals. But our environment begins with our home, a culture begins with a practice, and generations begin with one family.
Sherry, Joanna, and Sara all agree: you must put your socks on before your shoes. But as the necessity to obsess over carbon footprints increases daily, is there really any time for socks? Shouldn’t we all be sprinting barefoot towards net zero before the climate clock strikes midnight?
This idea brings us back to CREW, the topic that connected Sara and me in the first place.
“When I had this chance to do CREW I didn’t really have the time,” she told me. “Now I’m about to start my third one. I have many conflicting demands of my time but doing CREW makes me feel stronger than not doing it.”
The unique thing about CREW is that it helps us put on both our socks and our shoes. CREW isn’t a substitute for therapy, but I have personally found it therapeutic. It’s a way to build community, share information, and it’s helped people like Sara and me cope with the climate crisis.
I think the strength Sara is talking about comes from CREW’s ability to mitigate doubt. CREW answers the question, “am I making a difference?” with attainable goals and measurable impact, all with the support and accountability of a tight-knit community. It recognizes both disappointment and encouragement in the environmental space, acknowledging doubt while providing you with the tools needed to cultivate hope and inspiration in your daily life.
“The fact that CREW has such replicability and potential was part of why I felt it was a good investment of my precious time,” Sara said. “It’s also just been a pure joy. It’s an incredible community building, spirit-nurturing program.”
So before you start sprinting barefoot or sit down in defeat, take a deep breath. Grab some socks and comfortable shoes, and remind yourself that there’s time for us to change, there’s hope for our future, and there are people out there who care.
If you want to find them, click here.