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My Learning Journey – Ocean Robbins

by Ocean Robbins: Each of my eight great grandparents were Jews in Eastern Europe who fled persecution…


They found refuge in Canada and the United States.  Some of them managed to build a life in the “new world,” others were driven crazy by the trauma they had endured.  All four of my grandparents grew up with a great deal of terror, and they struggled to pass on a life of material security to their children.

My dad’s father succeeded — materially — beyond his wildest dreams.  He created an ice cream business that flourished.  Known as Baskin-Robbins, or 31 Flavors, it became the world’s largest ice cream company.  My dad grew up swimming in an ice cream-cone shaped swimming pool, eating enormous amounts of ice cream, and inventing new flavors.  My grandfather worked almost ‘round the clock, building the business.  So my dad hardly knew his father, except at the corporate headquarters, where he was pushed from his earliest childhood to one day join his father in running the hugely successful company. But rather than commit his life to inventing a 32nd flavor, my dad decided to work for the growth of compassion and healing in his life and in the world.  He walked away from the company, and from any access to his family’s ice cream fortune, and moved with my mom to a tiny island off the coast of British Columbia, Canada, where they built a 1-room log cabin, grew most of their own food, and lived on less than $500 per year.

That’s Where I Came In
I was born in that cabin, with few material possessions and a very simple lifestyle.  I grew up monetarily poor, but rich in many other ways.  I had all my basic needs met: clean air, clean water, time with my mom and dad, and beautiful nature all around me.  As I grew up, a deep love of nature and the Earth emerged within me.

Then in the 1980s, when I was 10, my family moved to California, and my dad began working on a book calledDiet for a New America, which was one of the first books to show how our food choices affect not just our health and happiness, but also the future of life on Earth.  His book became a runaway bestseller, and he began appearing on most of the major national US talk shows. The media had a lot of fun with my dad’s story, calling him the “Rebel without a Cone.”  They said he was the ice cream heir who walked away from a life of sure riches because he wanted to make a difference in the world, and tagged him the “Prophet of Non-profit.”  His work made him something of a celebrity.  There were 20,000 letters-a-year pouring in from enthusiastic readers, and the response to my dad’s work brought financial security to our family.  Inspired by his example, and feeling blessed by tremendous emotional and spiritual support from both of my parents, I felt that I wanted to give something to the world, and to do something to reach out to my generation.

At the age of 15, recognizing that the planetary bio-system was deteriorating rapidly under the impact of human activities, and that my generation seemed too cynical or too distracted meet these challenges, I and my friend Ryan Eliason started a project that would become YES!. Our goal was to help young people make a difference in the world.  We organized a national tour, speaking to school assemblies about the environment and what our peers could do to make a difference.  Ryan and I found other enthusiastic young people to join us, raised tens of thousands of dollars, and launched YES! as an organization.  The response to my dad’s work opened many doors for us, as people who were inspired by his books would ask how they could help and he would often encourage them to support YES!, or to bring us to their communities.  Fueled by this support, tremendous passion, and a lot of hard work, YES! reached half a million students in high schools in more than 40 US states in the first half of the 1990’s.

The Journey of Self Knowledge and Partnership
As we continued our travels from city to city, experiencing the realities and struggles of many different kinds of communities, we kept broadening our definition of the environment to include people as well as the planet.  We diversified our performance troupe, our organization, and our message.  And I, too, was challenged to see how privileged I was, in ways I had never recognized. I realized that I was coming of age as a white, heterosexual male with a US passport and financial sufficiency, and with all kinds of opportunities available for me and my work.  Even more significantly, I had loving parents who had always helped me believe in myself.  Stepping out of what had always seemed “normal” to me gave me  a fresh perspective on who, and what, I was.  As I engaged with young people from a broad diversity of backgrounds, I was beginning an ever deepening journey in my relationship to my own experience of privilege and the many questions and contradictions therein.

Why did I have so many opportunities when billions of people were struggling to feed their families, and when tens of millions of American young people were living below the poverty line?  In a world with a vast wealth divide, economic resources give certain people more power, more influence, and more freedom than others.  Sweatshop conditions and the treatment of farmworkers are directly linked to lowering the costs of goods, which in a consumerist culture means that some form of violence and exploitation is linked to most of what we consume. How did I fit into all that?  I didn’t want to be defined by the madness of the times, but at the same time, I was part of larger systems and institutions, and I was impacted by them in ways I did not intend.

The more I learned about the realities of oppression and injustice, the more confused I was.  I knew that I had love and many other gifts to share with the world.  From the age of 10, my daily prayer had been quoting from St. Francis, “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.” Surely educating my peers about the environment, and inspiring them to make a difference with their lives, was an embodiment of this prayer.  But the road I was on was slowly teaching me that there is a world of difference between being an instrument of peace and being on a crusade to teach the world.

I used to think that there must be some universal message that, if everyone heard it, would transform humanity.  Over time I was coming to think that human needs are as diverse as human experiences, and that sometimes it is a greater service to listen than to speak; I was beginning to listen – and learn.

YES! evolved with the years, and by the end of the 1990s, our focus had shifted from a high school assembly tour to week-long events we called “Jams” (initially launched as a project of YES! by my dear friend and colleague, Tad Hargrave) for groups of 30 diverse young leaders.  Our “Jam” participants were founders or leaders in organizations or movements working for thriving, just and sustainable ways of life for all, and they came from many dozens of nations.  I was developing yet another kind of privilege:  A global network of friends and allies that worked, learned, and grew with me.  The community of Jam participants, and my fellow conveners and facilitators, have taught me profound lessons about the real meaning of partnership, and about how we can bridge some of the great divides of our times in ways that are healing and life-giving for all of us.

What’s Alive for Me Now
Now I’m 37 years old, and I am married to an extraordinary woman named Michele.  Ten years ago, with a little help from me, she gave birth to identical twin boys named River and Bodhi.  They were born prematurely, and spent their first six weeks of life in intensive care at the hospital.  Difficulty breathing caused them to turn blue from lack of oxygen many times per day, and when they finally came home, we were overjoyed, though we knew it was just the beginning of a long road.  They say it takes a village to raise a child, and in our case, it seems to have taken two villages to raise premature twins.  My mom and dad poured their hearts and souls into supporting us, cooking all our food and doing all our dishes for almost two years.  River and Bodhi were deeply traumatized and needed almost constant care.  To this day they struggle with numerous developmental delays and special needs.  They are also incredible reminders to me, on a daily basis, of the power of play, of the simple healing beauty of love, and of what really matters most in life.

At the same time, sometimes it has seemed a heroic achievement just to make it through the day. Caring for my sons’ special needs while directing an organization and trying to help a generation respond to the madness and violence of our times… There is never enough time to do all the things I want to, so I get to practice doing the best I can with the time I have, and letting the rest go by.

My parents spent twenty years building a solid nest egg of financial resources, and Michele and I also prioritized saving whatever we could to care for our children’s long term needs and our own financial futures.  Then, on December 11, 2008, we learned that almost the entirety of my family’s life savings had disappeared overnight in Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. It was a rude and devastating first-hand encounter with the economic meltdown that has rocked the world’s financial markets and wiped out pension funds, foundation assets, stock portfolios and jobs around the world.
For the past several years, I have offered the following prayer every morning, “may I be given everything I need to do what I am alive for.” In that light, the fact that my wife and I had lost our life savings and the safety net of my mom and dad’s earned wealth in one fell swoop had to hold a crucial lesson. I felt that in some way, I was being tested again, and that this profound loss must be a part of my ultimate purpose.

So we set about rethinking all of our expenses, and looking at what we could do ourselves, what we could make ourselves, what we could do without, and how we could live more simply, more healthfully – and more frugally.  We began renting spaces in our home, and living in more community with loved ones, some of whom needed to downsize or save money themselves.  It is working for us, and I love the community with whom I am sharing space.  I think it is making life richer, and more beautiful, than it was before.  Another thing I’ve learned is that if we ever have any savings to invest again, we will certainly invest differently.

What is clear to me is that we don’t get to choose most of what happens to us.  In my twin’s premature birth, subsequent special needs, and the theft of our savings, I have been stretched physically, emotionally, and financially, in ways I’d never imagined. Some share of tragedy comes into every life, it seems.  It is most likely that a lot of the pain I will experience still awaits me and yet I do get to decide how I respond to it. Perhaps life, is mostly about what we do with whatever is given to us.

I used to pray to God to have things go the way I wanted them to go; sometimes I still do.  But increasingly, I find myself praying for the strength, the wisdom, and the patience, to make the best of however things unfold around me.  My favorite question to ask people right now, perhaps because it is so alive in my life, is:  “What has been a defining struggle or challenge in your life’s journey, and how has your response to it helped you to grow in wisdom, faith, or compassion?”  In these times, when there is so much suffering and so much struggle for so many, we each need to be asking ourselves how we can make the best of what is, and striving to transform our own traumas and struggles into gifts for humanity.  For in that transformation, I believe, lies the hope of the world.

Source: John Robbins


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