creating a kinder world

in 28 square feet

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Imagine, if you will, that you are at the center of an invisible circle. Your body, standing, is the center point, and the radius of the circle extends three feet away from you in all directions. Perhaps think of an abnormally large hula hoop on the ground that is six feet in diameter, and you are standing directly in its center. Wherever you are right now, become aware of what you see within that circular space. What do you see within the three feet in front of you? What do you see in the three feet to your right? To your left? If you turn your head or your body, what is in the three feet behind you? Just for a moment, consider that three feet around you in each direction your circle of influence. What happens within that space has the capacity to be influenced by YOU.

Three feet from us. It’s just a mere 36 inches – a yard. The circle covers just a little over 28 square feet. It’s not a big space. On a planet whose surface area covers 197 million square miles, the three feet around us in each direction seems a bit insignificant. We might be tempted to think that whatever happens within that space can’t have much effect on a world that is exponentially larger. However, those three feet around us in every direction aren’t static. Those three feet shift as we do. As we move through our lives, those three feet of influence follow us like our own shadow.

Think back to the past twenty-four hours. During that time, who was in that three-foot space? Colleagues? Family members? Cashiers? People on the bus or train? The couple sitting in the booth behind you? Did you notice those other people? Did you interact with them in some way? And if so, what was the nature of those interactions?

Sharon Salzberg, a meditation teacher and columnist for On Being, recently wrote a piece entitled Your Three Feet of Influence, encouraging all of us to consider that

“the world we can most try to affect is the one immediately around us.”

She mentions how we often speak wistfully of the things we value – things like fairness, generosity, and compassion – yet we speak them as if they are out of reach in the world as it is. We speak of them with a certain “cynical idealism” – that yes, ideally, THIS is what we would like to experience, but we aren’t holding our breath to see examples of it in the world. I mean, really. Have you seen the news lately?

Yet Salzberg challenges us to be open to doing what we can to create this reality – one that is filled with those things that we value: kindness, compassion, generosity, fairness, and so on – even if it is simply within our three feet of influence. Much as Gandhi spoke of “being the change you wish to see in the world,” Salzberg challenges us to create this ideal in our own circle that follows us wherever we go.

In the article, she describes the experience of her son’s friend – running late, already in a bit of a mood, and on a packed subway train during rush hour – I think we all can relate to experiencing similar moments. Salzberg recounts the story as he attempted to practice this idea of his “three feet of influence.” Reading through his thought process in each moment, it was evident that he was being pulled in two different directions. There was the immediate, reptilian response of reactivity that each interaction seemed to elicit – but in being aware enough to want to put this idea of kinder influence into practice, he chose not to act on that instant impulse. Instead, he paused for a brief moment and intentionally chose the kinder, more understanding response. The small shifts that occurred – within him and within those around him – were noticeable. There was more patience. More connection. He was influencing his three feet.

I am reminded of a recent experience I had while riding a train into downtown Chicago with a friend. As we were chatting through the din of the late-morning commute, my friend said to me,

“He’s drawing an ear.”

A bit confused, I looked where her eyes were looking, and as I saw the man in the corner seat with a pencil and drawing pad, she said, “Once in a while, he holds it in such a way that I can see his drawing. He’s drawing the ear of a passenger.”

When I think back to that moment with this idea of our “three-foot circle of influence,” I find it curious and amazing that the artist, unintentionally and unaware, was affecting his own three-foot circle. (Granted, my friend and I were a bit more than three feet away – as was the passenger whose ear was being drawn, but still.) Though I don’t think the subject of his drawing was ever consciously aware that his ear was being sketched, his humanity and his mere existence were indirectly being affirmed by the artist. Directly within the artist’s  three feet of influence, however, there was a young man with a thin face and lean, long body. Probably in his twenties, he, too, was intently watching the man’s process. This went on for several stops. And then? 

They spoke.

A connection was made. One circle of influence overlapped another. A question was asked, and the young man admitted that he, too, was an artist. Though we could only hear bits and pieces of this conversation between these two “strangers,” it had to do with process and with the type of pencil the older man was using – and it ended with the older man offering both the pencil and his drawing of the ear as gifts to the younger man. The young man was quietly grateful and descended at the next stop with the drawing and pencil in hand. My friend and I were moved. Inspired. THESE are the stories that need to be told, the stories that need to be heard.

Our circles of influence may not be physically bigThey may only cover a thin sliver of the earth’s entire surface, yet the impact we can have upon that sliver need not be overlooked. In Salzberg’s story, the young man – as well as those in his circle – experienced a visceral, positive effect after he chose a different, kinder response from what his initial reaction would have been. His attention and his intention created a shift. An artist, seemingly unaware of his own circle of influence, created another shift for three to four others nearby.

What if, one by one, we decided to take full responsibility of our 28 square feet? What if we began to commit ourselves whenever possible, to do what we can to create the kinder, compassionate world right where we are? Will we remember and succeed every time? No, we’re human – not perfect. Yet what if, at least some of the time, more of us begin to bring just a little of that intention into our 28 square feet? How much area could we cover?

shari miller