Olympic torch jan 132012

A year ago today, I walked from my Vancouver hotel in the crisp early morning air down to Canada Place and found the sun catching angles of the miniature Olympic torch.

I had spent the previous three days in an international conference on sustainability, meeting people from around the world, learning details of their work that I would otherwise never have known.

As my breath crystalized in temperatures unusual for Vancouver and the sun broke past the mountains, I reflected on the unsettling experience of losing my own horizons.

I am from the prairies. While born in Alberta and despite having lived elsewhere for many years, there is something about the expanse of the prairies on a clear day that is only matched by standing on the ocean’s shore, looking out to sea.

I am used to Big Sky, the northern lights covering the night overhead, the sunrise or sunset that radiates out from where I stand in all directions. The horizon is a long way off, but it’s there. I can choose a direction to travel and the road might be a long one, but I can see where I am going.

Not any more. Most people in the world have the opposite experience of my Big Sky, teemed into urban environments where a few feet in any direction is all they can see. They walk by habit, by necessity, not by choice or sight. Their horizon is literally cut off by the people all around them or the random, ramshackle world we have built.

Much of the human population of the Earth now lives in what architects call “the built environment.” Others construct our horizons. We live within increasingly narrow confines in which our psychological opportunities are as limited as our lines-of-sight.

As more and more people move into cities – even in Canada, as the family farms and small rural communities disappear – that Big Sky feeling becomes more and more evanescent. Our world shrinks, the horizon becomes the neighbouring wall and our destination merely the nearest bus stop.

We can complain – and with justification – that our political leaders are myopic, unable to see past the end of their block or beyond their own self-interest, but that loss of a farther horizon is increasingly characteristic of our own lives, as well.

We focus on ourselves, our jobs, our homes, our debts, our next vacation – and, for the decreasing numbers of people with fewer and fewer children, on our immediate family.

As we lose that far horizon, we are less certain of the destination toward which we are traveling and less aware of both the possibilities and risks involved. It was how I had felt a few days before.

Yet if there is any single barrier to a sustainable future, it is that loss of horizon, that sense of stumbling toward the unknown, in more fear than anticipation as to what the next steps will bring.

We need to see the Big Sky, wherever we are, whoever we are, however hemmed in by circumstance we might feel. That was the reminder I found a year ago, as the world that I could see around me expanded once again.

The Olympic torch, symbolized that morning by the structure left behind as a reminder of the 2010 Winter Olympics represents the flame of possibility, of excellence, the desire to strive to be “swifter, higher, stronger.” Despite crude national ambitions to “own the podium” in Canada and elsewhere, despite the sponsorship dollars that are the real gold behind the achievements in supposedly amateur sports, the Olympics are still about ordinary people choosing their own horizons and doing what it takes to reach them.

We need to keep that flame burning in our own lives, risking the failure that leaves so many potential Olympians far from any podium – and even from the Games themselves. And, in a universe of relations, our horizons are not expanded by our individual efforts but by the people whose lives become entwined with our own.

For me, some of those new relationships that began in Vancouver have grown, threads from my life tied to people who live in different circumstances but who are no longer strangers. By the twitch of an email, we are reminded of the Presence discovered in our meeting by chance, entwined in a world now grown smaller and more meaningful.

Other relationships lie dormant, unresponsive, possibilities unrecognized, opportunities unfulfilled – for now.

For me, the past year has been extraordinary, as possibility has compounded possibility in ways I could never have expected. It has been a gift, shared with me by many open hands, along with wisdom from unexpected directions.

Whatever our horizons, we journey toward them day by day. But they are your horizons, your choices, your journey, just as I have my own – and you have your own companions for the journey that you make.

In the swirl of uncertainty that change toward a sustainable future requires, we each have our own things to do. That day in Vancouver, as I sat thinking in the airport waiting for my flight to leave, I looked out toward the mountains in the distance and read these two passages from the Bhagavad Gita, down-loaded by impulse into my new Kindle earlier that day:

“Good is the Intellect which comprehends the coming forth and going back of life, what must be done and what must not be done, what should be feared and what should not be feared, what binds and what emancipates the soul.”

“Better thine own work is, though done with fault, than doing others’ work, even excellently.”

I took both lessons to heart. A week later, I wrote the blogs that led, in a short time, to the manuscript of Gift Ecology: Reimagining a Sustainable World that was published by Rocky Mountain Books last October, nine months after I watched that Vancouver sun burnish the edges of the Olympic torch.

The Year of the Water Dragon began for me in Chinatown, late one night in Vancouver. As it draws to a close and the horizons of a new year open before us, may you find your own work – and do it well.

“Change the game. Transform the impossible into the improbable – and then make it happen.

“For a sustainable future, we need to understand Life and our relations with other people not in terms of economy or exchange, but as Gift – not in expectation of any return, without calculation of cost, but instead as a celebration of Presence with another.

“In that moment of Presence, the universe changes in the way all of us need it to change.”

Gift Ecology: Reimagining a Sustainable World (154).