Given the world’s enormous challenges, it’s easy to feel small and wonder, “What can I do to make a difference when my energy and mobility aren’t what they used to be?” I can’t even think about going on a long, slow march for justice on a cold winter day without my back starting to twitch. Yet, when I read about another shooting or I hear hate speech spewing over the airways, I feel like I have to act. Fortunately, I can, starting within the world five feet from where I am.
I adapted the idea of five feet of good from the words of David Spangler, a friend and spiritual teacher who works through the Lorian Association in Issaquah, Washington. Spangler offers “the five-foot rule” to encourage us to work within the sphere of energy closest to us and then influence the world from there. Inspired by his idea, I started noticing all the ways I could support change, in both practical and subtle, energetic ways, even if confined to my chair. During the last election cycle, whenever I heard friends say, “All I can do is write checks,” I thought, “That’s good—but there’s so much more you can do from right where you are.”
One of my favorite role models for elder activism is my friend Anne Stadler from Lake Forest Park near Seattle. Since she was a teen, she has worked for peace and justice, and to support and build thriving communities. And she’s not stopping that work now, although, at 92, she has to watch her steps, care for her energy, and avoid driving in Seattle’s miserable downtown traffic. When I asked Stadler, “What’s changed with your activism after 90?” she replied, “Nothing.” She clarified, “I’m still doing what I’ve always done.” Observing her filled me with ideas about what we could all do support change within five feet of our chairs.
Stadler has always been a connector to whom people are drawn toward because she listens, cares about what they are doing, and almost always sends them off with a list of “who you should know.” “Because I stay in touch with people,” she says, “I can connect them.”
As people share with her about their activities over the phone or via Zoom, Stadler learns what’s happening in the community and gains information to pass along to others. Friendships, actions, and organizations have been born from her connections. When she tells me, “You have to meet Peter (or Audrey or Alice),” I’m right on it.
Staying connected to our communities as we age helps us feel less distant from the change efforts around us.
Stadler doesn’t like the word mentoring because it evokes for her the picture of the wise elder “bestowing” information on others. I still call what she does mentoring, in the best sense of the word, the kind of mentoring that is a two-way street—you learn as much or more than you give. Her mentoring has helped many to amplify their impact in the community.
We may not feel like working on the frontlines anymore, but through mentoring, we can support those who are—our friends, grandchildren, and others in the community. Our listening is still a powerful tool for change.
You don’t need to write a book or Huffington Post article to share your thoughts with the world. The local press will welcome your Letter to the Editor or an Op-Ed piece. Or you can write your position on an issue in a thoughtful email to your circle of colleagues. I’m often informed by friends who take the time to research topics and share their results.
You don’t have to speak to thousands to have an influence. Your Aunt Mabel and Cousin Charley trust you. Perhaps you, in a kind way, can nudge them to question the source of their conspiracy information. Or open the door a tiny crack to another point of view. We influence the people who trust us. Love can even jump party lines if we take the time to listen to opposing viewpoints, and then offer our thinking without imposing it. Realistically, Aunt Mabel may not be ready to question what she heard from her favorite pundit but remember, it took years for the Berlin Wall to come down. And you can always use your influence to share questions and information with those whose perspectives are closer to yours.
In addition to these concrete actions, you can support change from the inside out from a place that is both deeply personal and energetic:
Beginning with ourselves
It’s not difficult to decry issues such as racism, ageism, or homelessness. It’s harder to do the work to see where white privilege and false concepts about the elderly and unhomed live in us. But as I do so while sitting in my five-foot space, I have a more powerful place to stand in talking about social injustice.
Sharing joy, kindness, and delight
We influence through the energy we project. Ever been in the presence of someone who brightens you up? True joy is uplifting—and don’t we all need that? Kindness is way more contagious than COVID—and a great antidote to cynicism. And delight is equally infectious. When you love what you are doing and share about it, you help counter the depletion many of us are experiencing in our lives. Joy, kindness, and delight radiate to others with a hopefulness that makes the challenging work of change possible. Yes, the climate is in peril. Yet, it still matters that we adore attending our watercolor class, walking with friends, or arranging a rose in a vase.
The media world stokes our national agitation. While we urgently need to address climate issues, too much anxiety can leave us spinning and unable to act. Calmness always helps, especially in an emergency. By staying calm, we can steady and support others. The Vietnamese Buddhist priest Thich Nhat Hanh frequently told stories about what happened when the Vietnamese refugee boats met storms or pirates. “If the people on board panicked, all would be lost. If even one person on the boat stayed calm, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.”
Sending good thoughts and prayers
We don’t have to become certified energy healers to send good thoughts, blessings, and prayers into the world. Prayers for peace are a part of many great traditions. Researchers have documented how healing thoughts can impact others—even thousands of miles away from the sender. We can send our good energy toward change leaders we admire, friends in need, and others doing good work. Will our thoughts change the world? We may never know, but spending a few minutes sending out loving support for peace, justice, and what we care about will likely change us.
That’s where it all begins. With each of us. And the amazing potency we have to change ourselves and influence the world as we activate our five feet of good.
Sally Fox, PhD, is a life transitions and creativity coach, and author of Meeting the Muse after Midlife: A Journey to Meaning, Creativity, to be published this summer. Find her at www.engagingpresence.com.