Remembering hope

Relaxing my skepticism

John Robbins came to Kelowna last Thursday. He filled the Kelowna Community Theatre with his message of hope. A lot of us went home feeling a little taller, a little more peaceful.

In spite of his being the author of seven best sellers, Robbins is probably the most modest guru I’ve ever come across. I liked him for that. Generally, my bullshit detector starts resonating pretty quickly when someone rich and famous starts telling me how I can change my life or improve the planet. The needle hits the red zone when they natter on about how rich I can be if I just tune into the right thoughts. A lot of them sound like factory-stamped purveyors of a single philosophy: follow my simple plan to assured wealth.

What if assured wealth isn’t our highest goal? What if our insistence on material excess is killing the planet?

Choosing life over fortune

My detector was quiet Thursday night. Robbins is a modest man. Riches have never been his ultimate quest. Though he was in line to inherit the Baskin-Robbins fortune, he turned it down. His father, Irvine, who had worked hard to develop 31 flavours of ice cream, one for every day of the month, sold more of the sweet treat than any other company in the world. John grew up in the business, learned all its secrets, and walked away for the crazy pursuit of a simple, meaningful life.

John Robbins walked away from the Baskin-Robbins fortune ["Fresh strawberry ice cream", photo by joyosityWhen Diet for a New America: How Your Food Choices Affect Your Health, Happiness and the Future Of Life on Earth Second Edition appeared in 1987, Robbins gave his father an autographed copy. Irvine Robbins refused to read his son’s expose of factory farms. He was not interested in his offspring’s insistence that chronic diseases were linked to food from a system that dishonours animals, plants, environments, and people.

Years later, when the ice cream tycoon learned he had no more than two years to live unless he changed his life, he finally read the book—not the autographed copy but one his doctor handed him. He followed his son’s advice, changed his life, and outlived his doctor’s prognosis by a factor of ten.

So much love

What impressed me most with the story was not just Robbins’s decision to create his own life rather than inherit ease. It was also the love. John Robbins couldn’t be the businessman son his father wanted, but he could be the son whose love was stronger than the inevitable disappointment.

Love seems characteristic of John Robbins. He and his wife Deo share a plot of land with son Ocean, his wife Michelle and twin grandsons. The multi-generational family lives the life Robbins writes about in The New Good Life, where success is measured by the things too often overlooked: “personal contentment, family time, spirituality, and the health of the planet and those living on it.”

Starting over

With six bestsellers bringing in royalties and his latest, The New Good Life: Living Better Than Ever in an Age of Less, racking up healthy sales, Robbins should be financially comfortable. And he would be had his investments not ended up in the hands of Bernard Madoff. So at an age when he might be contemplating slowing down and resting on his laurels, he is out on the speaker’s trail, sharing his vision of a world in which living well on less means all the world’s people can thrive. He’s philosophical about it, and that makes him even more real. He’s one of us, trying to recover from a financial pounding.

Singing with, not to the choir

His words resonated with this audience. Yes, we were the choir. No one came to be convinced. The theatre was filled with people who already embrace his message. But a choir makes beautiful music through harmony. If John was the choir director last Thursday, we were the voices combining in an anthem of hope.

John Robbins at the New Living Expo:

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3 comments for “Remembering hope

  1. Cathy
    October 27, 2010 at 3:26 pm

    Hey Catherine,
    Yeah there were parts of his talk that I really enjoyed. But my alarms were ringing when he talked about his investment — ‘blindly’ through a trusted lawyer — in Madoff’s scheme. I couldn’t reconcile that with his wish to live simply, to forego the wealth of his father’s corporation, and to want a better world with long term happiness rather than short term profits.

    He stated the lesson learned from his financial loss was about all the richness of the love and support around him that helped him get through the financial poverty. But the lesson I wish he had spoken about was that he had strayed off his path, that slipping into his father’s money-reaping paradigm at all costs was not the road to success. Where did he think the higher-than-average returns were coming from — investment in windmills, solar panels, seed banks, and vermiculture? He’s not a naive man, he must have at least suspected that his higher-than-average profits, even had they been from windmills, were balanced by others’ losses.

    I left right at the end, because I was so dismayed at this last parable. “May all be fed”, indeed. A 9.6% unemployment rate in the US, with more ripples from the tsunami still to hit, in part due to investor’s-gone-wild.

  2. October 28, 2010 at 8:24 am

    I understand completely, Cathy, and agree with your assessment. But I live in a glass house. Until I build my own edifice without such fragile surfaces, I’ll cut other people some slack, particularly when they’re doing good work in spite of their own compromises with life.

  3. October 28, 2010 at 8:50 am

    Thanks for sharing this thought-provoking piece. My bs meter has revealed to me the name of one particularly renowned guru could well be “DeepPockets” C.

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