It seems that the world is going through a lot of changes. We’re working hard on ourselves as well, doing what we can.
In this post I’ll share what I and many friends like you are finding is most helpful for addressing both of these challenges, the outer and the inner.
I’ll start with an observation (from Peter Block) that analysis is interesting but it’s not powerful. A better analysis doesn’t by itself lead to transformation. And the messes we’re in require transformation.
Neither can we resist ourselves into a future worth living. We just back ourselves into more of the same problem.
Here’s a quote you’ve heard but that bears repeating: You can’t solve a problem with the consciousness that made it. Nice words from Albert Einstein, that paradigm shifter in physics! They’re true! You can’t solve the problem within the current set of assumptions. You can’t and I can’t! We can’t. We can’t solve our problem within the current set of assumptions.
Can’t solve our own problems. Can’t be fully effective agents of change in wherever activism we’re drawn to, political change, revitalizing our neighborhoods or cities (or countries). Can’t solve climate change with that mind. Or whatever it is. Can’t feel powerful and effective about what’s happening now.
So what exactly are we overlooking by focusing on analysis?
Here’s a true story that points to the heart of the problem. The heart of the problem, properly understand, points to the heart of the solution.
The data for my friend Heidi’s Master’s thesis was derived from in-depth interviews with European students planning for a career in sustainability. Heidi’s work was on attitudes to climate change and she was with the students as they explored their feelings and attitudes and beliefs around that thorny subject. Part of the interview process involved the students writing the story of the future, with an imagined role for them as it turned out for the better.
But here’s the thing: Her interviews revealed that not one of the students actually believed their stories of the positive future.
Not a single one!
They felt a profound lack of alignment between their actual experience and what they imagined they “should be experiencing.” There was a disconnect between what they were working toward and what they felt. And they felt badly about the disconnect. Many felt guilty as if it were their fault.
They also imagined that they were the only ones who felt that way!
Even the professional “sustainable-istas” felt isolated and lacking resources in being agents of sustainable change. What’s that mean for you and me?
For me this story beautifully illustrates the problem we’re collectively facing today. The discrepancy between their inner experience and the conventional wisdom had never been explored by the students: They had no context, no place or time in which they could investigate it.
And no one had ever thought to ask!
Let’s unpack this situation to see into it more clearly.
The mysterious second box
Taking the “unpack” metaphor to heart, imagine two boxes the students, and perhaps we, carry.
In one box go the facts, everything we know about climate change: The measurements, the melting Arctic ice, international accords, falling price of renewables, the math of CO2 emissions, extreme weather events, water shortages. Just the facts, Ma’am.
In the second box goes how the students felt personally. Into it would go whether they were doing enough, their trust or lack of it in the government – but also the raw feelings themselves: fear, despair, anger, isolation, the sense of being unable to talk, shame.
The contents of only one box, the first one, is allowed in our public sphere. The feelings and intimate responses the students carried weren’t welcome. But of course, they didn’t go away. The students carried that box and all its contents around with them all the time. Privately and alone.
Each individual student carried their own.
The result was a stuckness in moving the issue forward. A stuckness in living the issue and working with it.
The first box treats the problem as a problem “out there” in the world we can look at and analyze. The second box includes the personal experiences of self including those we’ve shared with others.
The second box is not part of the conventional social conversation. It’s not on the media landscape at all.
The good news is that the second box may be coming soon to a computer near you! I spend many hours a week exploring the contents of the second box in an exciting conversation with people from all over the world. Fun, positive, uplifting, funny, life-changing.
You can too.
The second box does not just contain climate change, important as it is. Much else is in that second box: Our personal history with everything that’s really on our minds is in there.
And note this important fact; It’s not just the grief and the low end of the emotional spectrum that becomes unwelcome in our impoverished conventional social conversations. Because the social dimension is severely inhibited we can’t collaborate fully or richly experience the higher register of our feelings either – the joy, the celebration, the working together. Like the bottom end of the emotional spectrum, these are all social endeavors.
How do we solve this problem?
The good news is that we (that is, many of us) know how to do this conversation and we’re getting better and better at it and learning faster and faster!) The key is to explore the second box. Together. Working for the future is a social endeavor!
Everything shifts when the lived experience and personal feelings are allowed into a common room with the respect that they deserve. When they’re welcomed just as they are. I’m not just talking about the pretend welcome that we often do when we don’t know it’s safe to do the real thing.
We’re learning a lot about how to do this, how to do it safely too so it’s an energetic up, an example of the future we want. None of us does this perfectly all the time but our intention and our humanness carry us a long way.
If we can tolerate all the parts of a problem being allowed in the room it DOES shift.
The solution is to create or restore community so that our own experience and our voices are added in. We’re what’s needed.
The trick to this is that we have to make other people’s experience and voice count too – just as much as ours. They’re what’s needed to.
We can’t do this alone. We can do it in small groups for that purpose. The small group is the unit of transformation as Peter Block says.
We can do it in our neighborhoods or we can do it online. We can do it with people from all over the world. We can have the conversations we always wanted to have. There is nothing in our way to doing this, wherever we live.
But there is a price. It’s steep: We have to step out of the comfort zone that the one-box life affords us. We have to risk getting beyond belonging more and being special and “dare to be ordinary.”
In the past we didn’t know a way to do that because historically we’ve came from societies in which the second box was profoundly not welcome. We have the resources we need to deal much more profoundly with every situation including the messes we’re in.
The opportunities for new conversations are available and their evolution and our own are likely tied up together.