The Call to Stewardship

There is a certain amount of reverence that comes when you see something – really see it – as alive. When you understand that it has a life of its own. That it exists for its own ends. That it has potential that can’t fully be known and that may or may not be completely realized, depending on countless influences and interactions. There is mystery and magic in something that is alive.

For a direct and simple experience of this kind of reverence, find the point on your neck where your pulse is strongest. Take a moment to feel the rhythm, silently breathing in a sense of wonder at the life flowing through you, animating you, powering you all these years, creating you, healing you, propelling you for a time. You are alive. That is something to marvel at and be grateful for. Your aliveness is something worthy of profound reverence.

With reverence comes an invitation to care. We are wired with a sense of care – care for ourselves and those close to us, certainly, but also a broader compassion for all living things, with an inherent sense of kinship and responsibility – even the most hardened among us.

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Reality TV and the (Even More Real) Search for Reverence

When my teenage daughter told me she was getting hooked on a cooking show, I thought that was wonderful. “It’s Gordon Ramsay,” she said. “I like watching him yell at people,” she continued, with a conspiratorial smile. In a surprised reaction, I blurted out that I thought shows like that were part of the problem in the world today. We watch someone yelling at other people, and we start to think that’s OK. It’s glorified even. She was frustrated with my response. “Mom, it’s reality TV!”

Calling it “reality” TV makes it seem as if it’s more real than alternatives – more true to life. But behaving rudely and crudely is not more real than being kind and compassionate. “That’s not as exciting to watch,” said my neighbor. Fine, but let’s call it what it is: Rude TV? Ineffective Behavior Televised? Immaturity On Air? Any other suggestions?

My theory is that we’re attracted to these shows because we secretly wish we could act in those ways. We all have that part of us that wants to yell obscenities at someone and then storm triumphantly out of the room/slam down the phone/drop the mic. But childhood is when we are supposed to learn that acting on those impulses usually doesn’t serve our longer-term interests. It’s when we’re supposed to learn empathy and effective means of expressing and negotiating our needs. What happens when children learn the opposite lesson – that acting on our basest impulses makes us the star, the winner – and this is then reinforced continuously into adulthood? The current political and civic scene in the United States is what happens.

The problem is compounded when, as we watch these scenarios of rude behavior, our brains can’t distinguish whether we’re the yeller or the victim. We take in both sets of emotions. We are simultaneously titillated at the expression of aggression and also humiliated and shamed. And both of these emotional states get in the way of finding reverence for all life – starting with our own. This may be the greatest tragedy of all.

In my book, The Age of Thrivability, I propose that it is “our reverence more than our reason, that will allow us to love and believe in ourselves enough to do what’s really needed… that will guide us in cherishing the Earth as our larger self… that will help us nurture each other… and that will enable us to honor and trust life enough to settle into grace.” How do we expose our children – and ourselves – to this reality? That’s my driving question.

My daughter will likely be disappointed that she won’t be watching Gordon Ramsay. I’m going to propose some family cooking tonight instead. I’ll offer to yell at her if it’ll make it more interesting. Heck, she can even yell at me if she wants to. Let’s really get it out there, rather than voyeuristically watching someone else expressing their anger and frustration. And then let’s see if we can find our way closer to grace.

 

Update: My offer was accepted! Apparently, Gordon also swears a lot. So we’re having, “F*%ing Meatloaf” tonight.

Beyond the Buzzwords: The Need for a Deeper Look at Thrivability, Regenerativity and Resilience

Over the past two decades, the business world has gradually become more aware of living systems principles. The vocabulary of emergence, resilience and self-organization has grown more common, as has the general language of purpose, passion and thriving. Even the human spirit has emerged as a more welcome concept at work.

It has also been more widely acknowledged that we are moving out of a mechanistic paradigm and into one characterized by adaptability, interrelatedness and creativity (characterized by life, I would say).

Yet in my experience, the “machine story” is still going strong, especially among organizational and political leaders. It’s one thing to use new vocabulary; it’s another to understand what’s really behind it. And it’s still another to embrace it as the full nature of reality – and as the nature of your reality as a leader, a community member, and a human being.

This deeper shift is what is needed – more than ever – if humanity is going to make it through the myriad and pressing global problems we’re collectively facing. Far more of us need to be acutely aware that there is life within and around us in our organizations, communities and beyond. Far greater numbers of us need to feel a sense of reverence, service and profound participation in life’s unfolding. Many more of us must listen deeply for what is needed and respond with wise action.

Organizations can be perfect practice grounds for this, but the applications and implications are both personal and universal.

[This is an excerpt from The Age of Thrivability: Vital Perspectives and Practices for a Better World, by Michelle Holliday, published in 2016. www.ageofthrivability.com]

The Silver Lining of These Dark Days

These are wildly encouraging times. (No, really, they are.)

So many of us have been horrified to realize the extent to which bigotry and intolerance still exist – and currently drive the national agenda – in the US and elsewhere. And yet, the ugliness that has been brought to the surface is like an abscess that needed to be cut open, allowing the infection to drain out and be cleaned and healed. This contamination has festered all these years, probably even in the best of us. Better to get it out in the open so it can be addressed with care and compassion, so reparations can be made, and so systemic responses can be introduced to prevent the root causes of the disease. We are in the midst of a good and necessary collective practice of community health.

In this practice, I am especially encouraged by the moral clarity and solidarity I see emerging. In movements like Black Lives Matter, Idle No More and Standing Rock, native and black leadership is acknowledged – and, at the same time, there is broad recognition that their cause is everyone’s cause. Millions are heeding the aboriginal sentiment that, “[i]f you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” We have seen this same sense of solidarity extended to Muslims, immigrants, the trans-gendered and others. This is cause for great hope for humanity.

What remains is to find solidarity even with those who are most intolerant. There are real feelings behind their attitudes – primarily fear and resentment – and those can only be met productively with compassion (which isn’t to say tolerance for harmful behaviors).

In an unlikely twist, the growing climate crisis might help. When catastrophe strikes, differences fade into the background. In the many stories of heroism reported in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, for example, there were none in which helpers stopped to ask, “Who did you vote for in the last election?” or “What’s your legal status here?” From one account:

[T]he Dreamers who volunteered in the aftermath of Harvey are unfazed at the idea that they may be helping people who want them to go back to where they came from. “Honestly, that’s besides the point,” says Omar Perez. “At the end of the day we’re all human beings. I don’t care what you believe in.”

The more that the changing climate forces us to help each other and to heed “the better angels of our nature,” as Lincoln once said, the less relevant our differences may become. The more that nature demonstrates its undeniable power, the more reverence and responsibility we may feel for all life.

I won’t deny that these are challenging times. Nevertheless, I believe that many of our struggles may be necessary preparation for better days – indeed, for an Age of Thrivability – to arise.

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Destiny or Downfall? The Decision Point in American Democracy

The United States seems to be veering dangerously close to Constitutional crisis. Both sides of today’s political divide claim to be standing up for the true intentions of the nation’s founders. So, who’s right?

The answer is: neither, and both. The founders laid out a quite a brilliant and comprehensive plan. But their vision is often misinterpreted and oversimplified at all points along the political spectrum. Many have some of it right. Few truly grasp the broadest original intentions, in all their wisdom and critical relevance for today.

Fortunately, the current climate of political crisis is forcing us to look more closely at that founding vision. And therein lies a precious opportunity. By examining the nation’s “origin story” through a broader lens, we can see that the founding blueprint is rooted in the universal patterns and principles of the natural world. Indeed, the nation’s founders seemed to prescribe the explicit conditions necessary to any living system’s — or society’s — ability to thrive, what I would call its “thrivability.”

If the United States is to find its way out of the current impasse, it is vital that we shift our focus from what divides us to what unites us. In rallying around the universal and unifying principles of life, we may find both the will to collaborate and the means to move into a more generative phase of the American Experiment. In fact, cultivating a collective commitment to fulfill the nation’s destiny may be the only way to avert its downfall. Read more

The Wisdom and Folly of Systems Thinking

I’ve just read an article that excites me and irritates me in equal measure. This is usually a sign that there’s something profoundly valuable there. The article is called The Programmable Enterprise. In it, Esko Kilpi brilliantly articulates the dynamic, responsive, evolving nature of living organizations. But he also falls into the common trap of using the misleading language of the machine. And in focusing exclusively on the “networked” nature of the organization, he overlooks the fullness of what it’s capable of.

He’s not alone. I write about this tendency in my book, The Age of Thrivability. The systems thinking that underlies Kilpi’s proposals (and those of many others) is, I argue, “a limited and temporary bridge.” What’s truly needed is living systems thinking. With this, we recognize that an organization, like any living system, “consists of interwoven relationships between distinct, locally acting parts that together make up a coherent whole. Those relationships,” I write, “include responsiveness to changes from context and from within the system itself. And this generative – and regenerative – process is set in motion and sustained by a self-regulating and self-integrating property [that is life].” Only with such a comprehensive view are we able to support the organization in “tak[ing] on full, dynamic creativity and intelligence.”

I will share Kilpi’s article below, with my own comments inserted in orange. His insights are important. And the places where I feel he strays or falls short are useful invitations into further exploration and conversation.  Read more

It Takes a Village to Raise an Entrepreneur

Like the African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child, I would also say: it takes a village to raise an entrepreneur. We have this myth of the lone, heroic entrepreneur. And certainly, there is courage and heroism in launching a business. But if you are to succeed, there must also be countless influences and supporters along the way, as well as advisors, suppliers, partners, and, of course, customers. Any business exists within the context and fabric of a community – a living ecosystem or “village” – that is vital to the enterprise’s ability to develop, adapt and thrive. It may be useful for the entrepreneur to remember: you’re not alone. Perhaps more important is to recognize: the business is not you. It is something you steward on behalf of and with the support of the village.

Consider the very word “entrepreneur.” Those with some knowledge of French may assume that it means “take between-er” or middleman. In fact, the word comes from the Latin “inter prehendere,” which means to take hold of something with both hands in the interest of both responsibility and mastery. There is a sense of adventure in the full etymology. There is craftsmanship implicit in such an endeavor. And there is also generosity. The entrepreneur undertakes something on behalf of the community, in service of the common good. This is the spirit of the relatively new concept of “social entrepreneurship,” but the social implications are, in fact, baked into the word “entrepreneur” itself. Read more

The Refugee’s Gift

I’ve been helping a family of Syrian refugees – Omar, Salwa and their 7 children – since they arrived here 3 weeks ago, sponsored by the Unitarian Church of Montreal. After escalating violence, their home was destroyed by bombs 4 days after the youngest child was born, by Caesarean. That day, they began the long walk to Jordan, where Omar and Salwa were then not allowed to work and the family faced ongoing discrimination.

Despite their awful experiences, I’ve never felt such peacefulness, love and easy laughter as I do with them. Only the oldest son speaks some English, so I don’t always know what they’re saying. That allows me to be an observer, noticing the dynamic of their interactions. It’s really something beautiful. Just to watch them and to be in their presence feels like a gift to me. And I have to believe that their relationships must be a core source of their resilience.

In my book, The Age of Thrivability, I write briefly about this at a general level: about how this is a common characteristic in Middle Eastern cultures, how this is one critical piece in a vast evolutionary landscape, and what it means for the survival of humanity.

Specifically, I write about how:

  • All thriving living systems demonstrate a small number of characteristics: convergent wholeness; dynamic, responsive relationship; divergent parts; and self-integrating life.
  • Over the major eras, humanity has developed each of these characteristics in turn, first operating from a consciousness of wholeness and present-moment awareness during the hunter/gatherer era, then moving to embrace relationship consciousness in the agrarian era, eventually exploring divergent, individualistic consciousness in the modern/industrial era, and now – if we’re lucky – embracing a level of consciousness that can integrate wholeness, relationship and individuality to carry us into an Age of Thrivability.

“Rather than interpreting the eras of humanity as a series of definitive shifts taken by all humans in lockstep,” I write, “it may be more accurate to view each era as the appearance of a new option on the scene. At each transition, some parts of the human population began to experiment with an alternative focus, while others continued to steward one of the other core capabilities.

At any one point in history, then, different populations have held different focal points, though they may be contemporaries and even neighbors.” Sitting with Omar and his family, the contrast between their focus on relationship and my own strongly individualist (U.S.) culture was striking.

“Indeed, such variations explain much of global conflict today,” my book proposes.

“It is important not to interpret these different focal points as a basis for value judgment. Convergent consciousness is not naïve and wrong, as many modern observers have assumed; instead it represents a capability that continues to be critical for our survival. And divergent thought cannot be considered more evolved, intelligent or important than relationship consciousness. In fact, it is becoming ever clearer that the divergent lens is catastrophic if taken as the only reasonable perspective. Each of the lenses is equally valid, representing a vital source of intelligence and capability. Together, they are the multiple faces of wisdom.”

Indeed: “If different societies today demonstrate different focal points, this may be cause not for derision or conflict, but for celebration: together, humanity has all the ingredients needed to reach full thrivability.”

When I posted on Facebook that I loved the Turkish coffee my new Syrian friends served me, my Kiwi friend Dave “Tex” Smith wrote: “This is part of the immigration story. To bring to each other our love and passion for life and ways of living.”

May we find much to learn from each other and many gifts to share.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Just as communism fell in Russia, capitalism and Western-style democracy are not immune to the same fate. In fact, the US election, the global rise of nationalism and the worldwide persistence of poverty, social unrest and environmental degradation are all signals that capitalism may be about to hit a wall.

The difference is that the communists had capitalism to turn to. But what do we turn to next?

To answer that question, we have to understand the worldviews that underlie communism and capitalism and that render both unsustainable.

In simplified terms, communism values the collective more than the individual, whereas capitalism values the individual over the collective. As practiced, each in their own way, the two systems see the world and its institutions as machines to be managed and engineered. With these limited lenses, neither has been able to create the conditions for widespread personal and societal thrivability.

What’s needed instead is a worldview – an overarching narrative – that is elegantly able to integrate individual and collective needs. Only a narrative grounded in the self-organizing, self-integrating processes of life meets that requirement. After all, nature never settles for the false dichotomy of part versus whole.

The good news is: paradigm pioneers around the world are blazing an enticing trail, with innovative approaches like social entrepreneurship and impact investing. Grounded in the language and logic of living systems, these new options invite each of us to find our greatest personal reward by making our best contributions to the collective good. The early results are extremely promising.

The bad news is: the individualist, mechanistic worldview won’t hand over sole control without a fight. Donald Trump is the most extreme product of this worldview and its duly appointed spokesperson. Indeed, the entire US election process can be understood as the individualist worldview having a massive temper tantrum.

So, how do we put this unruly brat of a worldview (and a president-elect) to bed?

Certainly, we must resist and block the unreasonable demands and abuses of the tantrum.

Equally, though, we need to tell the emerging story, recognizing the values of individualism and also weaving them into a more complete view. We have to imagine together a society in which individuals can be honored even as they honor all life.

If we look beyond the dogma of communism and capitalism, beyond the dichotomy of individual versus collective, or of republican versus democrat, we can see that the expanded story is all around us, in everything that is alive and in the most vibrant parts of our communities. “You don’t start with the corporation and ask how to redesign it,” advised author Marjorie Kelly in a recent essay. “You start with life, with human life and the life of the planet, and ask, how do we generate the conditions for life’s flourishing?” The same is true of our societies and their governing structures.

“To change something,” said Buckminster Fuller, “build a new model that makes the old model obsolete.” That is our most urgent task.

What Rituals for Modern Times?

It was a year ago, during a week-long island retreat, that I strongly felt the connection between ritual and reverence and the vital need for both in every context of our lives.  For over a decade, my work has been driven by the belief that if we are to be wise and capable stewards of life on Earth we must feel reverence for it.  Without reverence for life, we lack the vision and motivation to do all of what is needed.  Without reverence, we aren’t fully nourished.  We aren’t fully alive.   Read more