Ways of Seeing: Taking action on a human scale

I’ve been mulling over questions about human scale. And wondering what I or any other person can do in the face of seemingly intractable problems?

Last week my granddaughter and I got to see “Into the Woods,” a wonderful and thought-provoking Stephen Sondheim musical. Her mom had planned it as a birthday present, but was kept home by COVID, so I had the pleasure of accompanying a wonderful and thoughtful 9-year-old. Ramona had studied the play and listened to the sound track over and over. She tried to prepare me: “It isn’t exactly a tragedy, but a lot of people die. It isn’t exactly real fairy tales, but you will recognize four of them. It isn’t exactly a comedy but there are hysterically funny scenes.”  She was right about all of that.


The first act was a funny and boisterous exploration of having your wish come true and living happily ever after. Everyone knows it is just a fairy tale, but it is still fun to have the fantasy. In the second act, the giant (two enormous high heeled boots) comes stomping through the world.

Fear creeps in and spreads everywhere. Fear of death, fear of illness, fear of others, fear of starvation, fear that we can’t make a difference in our lives. People first turn against one another as they seek to evade the seemingly inevitable disaster. But then they start working together, contributing what they can from their imperfect but caring lives.

Although it was written 36 years ago this story seemed to be speaking directly to being overwhelmed by climate change, fires and floods, mass starvation and dislocation, COVID, immorality, war, poverty, greed, racism, hatred, and the other challenges we face these days. I was grateful for this exploration of what it means to do something on a human scale, our own puny but powerful human scale. The takeaway from “Into the Woods” was that relationships matter, and caring for one another, even though we do it imperfectly, is what ultimately matters most.

The New England Meeting of Friends (Quakers) held their annual meeting at Castleton recently. The Old Testament story of Miriam was offered to frame questions we were asked to consider.

Miriam, sister of Moses, watches as the baby boy is set adrift in his tiny basket, (technically fulfilling the command of Pharoah that all the baby boys be thrown in the river to drown). She continues to observe until the baby is pulled from the river by Pharoah’s daughter and then suggests a wet nurse: Moses’ own mother. This moment of intervention sets up the story of Moses that we all know. By the time Pharoah’s army has been drowned in the Red Sea, Miriam has become a prophet: She picks up a tambourin and leads the women in dancing, singing, and praising.

The commentator reminded us that faced with huge injustice, there are times to observe, times to intervene, and times to celebrate. She noted that one person can be the source of all those actions. We were asked to consider how each of us felt led in these challenging times, what we could do as a community, and how we could stay open to listening and learning before jumping in trying to save the world on our own terms.

I am grateful for the work being done on national and international scales, and especially grateful for the strength of connections that are woven as we each do what we can on a human scale.


Cheryl Mitchell is president of Treleven, a retreat and learning program located on her family’s sheep farm in Addison County. She does freelance consulting on issues related to children, families, social policy and farm to community work. She can be reached at [email protected].

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