Lessons from the Bay: Overharvesting
By Nancy Lincoln Reynolds
A man lived at the edge of a village opposite a tall mountain. He wanted to cultivate his garden, but was thwarted by two large rocks that sat in the middle of it. He was determined to move the rocks and so, after much effort, loaded them into his cart with the intention of going through the village and depositing them on the top of the mountain. As he began his journey, he was stopped by his neighbor who asked what he was doing. After explaining the need to get rid of the rocks, the neighbor shared a similar problem and asked if his friend could manage to cart his large rock as well. “Certainly,” said the man, and off he went with three rocks in his cart. A bit farther down the road another villager asked if the man would haul a couple smaller, but also unwieldy rocks, and those were added to the load. And so it went with others asking similar favors until the cart was almost too laden with weight to push. Some people with small stones did not even ask, but simply placed their burdens on top of the ever-growing pile. So heavy was the load that the man became enormously frustrated and almost gave up. He persisted and finally reached the foot of the mountain.
At first the climb was very steep and nearly impossible, but the man quickly learned that if he set some of the rocks aside along the way, he could continue. Each time he unloaded a rock his burden became lighter until, at last, he was near the summit with only his two original rocks remaining in his cart. The last several yards were relatively easy. He happily parted with his rocks and made his way back down the mountain, through the village, and began to tend to his garden.
All of us have large rocks that inhibit us from accomplishing what we want to do, and we carry them around in our carts as if there were no place to lay them. Usually these rocks take three forms: guilt, responsibilities and unsolicited burdens. Guilt can be a huge boulder emerging from regret over something we have done or someone we have hurt. Intentionally or not, we can be overwhelmed by the heaviness of remorse for the offense as it weighs us down in depression, anxiety and even fear of being found out or punished. The need for reconciliation is often profound, and taking steps to forgive or seek forgiveness provides great relief.
Guilt may also be borrowed, taken or assumed from another. Children often unconsciously borrow the guilt of their parents or grandparents such that the feeling becomes their own. A man whose father had been a prison guard in Nazi concentration camps had been on the verge of significant financial gain several times. Each time he managed to sabotage his progress because, at some level, he felt he did not deserve the happiness. This borrowed guilt may take the form of shame in the individual, and the unconscious negative messages can inhibit success for that person.
Some of us have multiple rocks in our carts in the form of responsibilities. The sorting required of this kind involves discerning reality: which of these truly belong to me, and which are out of my control and under the purview of another? Parents have particular difficulty identifying these responsibilities. We often overstep the time frame of appropriate responsibility for our children’s lives: their decisions, actions and choices. Getting out of the way can be difficult, but essential to lighten our load and allow others to carry theirs.
Finally, like the man in the village, some of us allow others to dump their rocks into our carts. They often do not ask permission; they simply assume we will take on these unsolicited burdens. Saying “no” is very hard, particularly when the request seems small. Further, taking on more responsibility can be seductive. It may seem to offer value or self-worth or hold out the lure of being called “good.” Making oneself indispensable gives a false sense of security. Some take on more responsibility as a perceived moral duty or religious obligation. All of these may seem to guarantee relationships with those we help but, in fact, they cause us to fracture those relationships because we are overextended.
“Oh, sure what’s one more …?” is a mantra for many people. Knowing our limitations and setting boundaries is critical to good living. As a child I recall my mother having a note above the telephone that read simply, “NO” to remind her not to take on another project. (As I recall, I think perhaps my father put it there for her).
Too many rocks in a cart yield a high cost that eventually outweighs the perceived benefit. It is important to reflect, metaphorically, upon the rocks we cart around and decide which to keep and which to deposit elsewhere.
Again, the Bay teaches us by example. The role of oysters in our Chesapeake Bay is critical to the ecosystem. Oysters are called filter feeders and serve the function of improving the water quality while filtering for food. Their function is much like rock sorting and tossing. At one time, it was thought, there were enough oysters here that all the water in the Bay could be filtered in a week! Now, because of the overharvesting of oysters, the ecosystem has been disturbed and we are having to restock it.
It’s a good lesson to learn. When we overharvest our own time and energy, we become depleted and unable to serve vital purposes. These weeks of transition between Winter and Spring are opportunities to filter and sort through our rocks. Religious traditions support times of self-reflection, sifting, filtering and sorting. We may examine our burdens, tossing out some, laying down others and addressing the rest with determination to move beyond them in our living. Now is a time for preparing to tend to our gardens.
Nancy is the associate pastor of Woods Presbyterian Church in Severna Park and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org