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We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.
 
-Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

Perhaps we’ve all heard hope defined in contrast to optimism-as the perspective that everything will turn out well-as the ability to have faith and find possibility in challenging times.

This year, I’ve experienced and written about the nature of resilience and how to sit with and move on from loss. Hope underlies both and is a key ingredient for practicing gratitude and in framing the vision of the world we hold as individuals or collectively. It has incredible power for boosting confidence, building relationships, and is a key determinant of academic and professional success.

Hope is what gets me up in the morning, despite news from the night before. Hope is what allows me to keep working on solutions to conflicts I might encounter, or those I work with are grappling with. Hope is what inspires me to strive for connection, understand others, keep learning about myself and the world.

Hope is much like water: it is an essential condition for life, or should be. The absence of hope creates a contraction in thinking and feeling and results in actions that hurt others rather than elevate them…and ourselves in the process.

In his ethnography Hope Dies Last, Studs Terkel shares the stories of dozens of people who have been involved in social change-what brought them to that work, and what gives them the strength to continue on. To a person, they testify to the challenges they faced and the inner strength (which I would define as hope) they were able to find, along with a supportive community which encouraged their deeper involvement in their workplace, community, or movement.

We have a profound need to find that strength–now more than ever–in ourselves and in our communities and our country. We will no doubt experience defeats in our lives and in our work, see the people and places we care about suffer, but each of us has an inner reserve of hope which we can cultivate: on our own and with the support of others.

Wherever we might face challenges, hope is a first and best response. In that spirit, I have great hope that the new year brings opportunity for all to craft the lives we would like to lead, and to offer support to others in doing so.

 


 

It is not possible to know what’s possible.

And because this is true, we are free.

We are free to act assuming that our actions–no matter how small–could trigger the tipping point and set off tectonic shifts of consciousness and creativity.

In this spirit of bold humility, I ask us to pay attention.

To consciously let go of defeating and false messages that tell us it’s all over, or that there’s no place for us in this great human drama.

We can’t judge our chances of success, but we can acknowledge the richness of our actions–a richness that’s been rendered invisible, but that we can make visible, so that its ripples radiate.

Most of all, we must realize that not one of us is alone as we set out on the exhilarating experience of democracy-this satisfying and very human walk that requires only that we go on risking belief in ourselves.

Frances Moore Lappé

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Resilience is about being able  
to overcome the unexpected.  
Sustainability is about survival.  
The goal of resilience is to thrive.
 
-Jamais Cascio

We weather so much in this life.

Loss, disappointment, heartbreak…even the intensity of a busy day can be exhausting.

Amidst all of this…and the broader landscape of our communities, work, and world: how do we strengthen our ability to move through hardship (even literal catastrophe in some instances) and generate greater resilience?

The qualities of resilience are sometimes referred to as grit or flexibility, and the magic in an individual, institution or system is the transformation of vulnerability into power.

If we truly learn from our mistakes, what are the decisions we make about our lives and our communities if we can acknowledge and employ the challenges we’ve endured, even when (perhaps especially) when we had no control over them?

Resilience asks us–at any stage of life or at any scale–to practice being comfortable with discomfort, to clarify where we can affect change and where we cannot, to be grateful for the lessons we learn and use them as compost for future experience, and to promote honest and caring relationships with ourselves and those in our lives.

If we are able to do this, we can also generate resilience by crafting organizations, communities, and systems in ways that honor the way the real world works: things may fall apart and we can put them back together…likely different, hopefully even better.

Cultivating resilience requires transparency and a willingness to re-think and re-design our approach to how our lives, our workplaces, our cities, our political and economic systems work to support opportunity, well-being and wholeness.

In a year where we have seen a steady flow of disasters–human, natural, political, cultural–we need a wholehearted effort to share practices that can build resilience in people, in places, and in the systems of which we are a part.

 

Autobiography in Five Chapters
I.
I walk down the street
There is a huge hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I’m lost. Hopeless.
It’s not my fault.
It takes forever to get out.
II.
I walk down the same street.
There is a huge hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend that I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I’m in that same place again.
But it’s not my fault.
Still, it takes me a long time to get out.
III.
I walk down the same street.
There is a huge hole in the sidewalk.
I see it.
Still I fall in…it’s a habit.
My eyes are wide open.
Already I know where I am.
It’s my fault.
I climb out quickly.
IV.
I walk down the same street.
There is a huge hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.
V.
I walk down a different street.
Portia Nelson

 

Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss contains its own seed, its own lesson.
 
-Malcolm X

It has been a long, long time since I have written one of these posts…over a year. The last year has been about getting lost and about loss—the challenges and what emerges from these experiences. This post, hopefully the first of a renewed series, honors and harvests some lessons.

As always, I welcome your thoughts, questions, and recommendations and encourage your reflections and ideas around sustainability and social change.


We all have to endure loss, in many forms. Our grieving process is often private, held close…sometimes too rushed. Yet there is a strength in the vulnerability that comes when we experience loss and when we realize that we may be lost.

In one of her many wonderful books, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit muses:

The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation. Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration — how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?

I’ve found that loss is absolutely transformative and about exploring unknown territory, and that it may be that in “extending the boundaries of the self” it is to become more ourselves. Loss of any kind, and getting lost, is to experience a sense of disorientation that can help us see what is important and who we truly are.

Whether it is the death of a loved one, the heartbreaking loss of a pivotal election that has consequences for our communities, or the tragic and accelerating disappearance of landscapes, cultural traditions, and species, loss sharpens the definition of who we are and what we value.

If we listen—especially in the midst of a loss when much of the external noise that characterizes our lives is necessarily muted—one can experience a window that brings us not only to sadness, but to gratitude.

From this place, we can shape a renewed commitment to how we want to be and what we want to do. One of my favorite Wendell Berry quotes is about this moment:

When we no longer know what to do

we have come to our real work.

And when we no longer know which way to go

we have begun our journey.

The mind that is not baffled

is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Loss—and being lost—takes us away from what we have become accustomed to long enough to ask deeper questions from a different place. In doing so, we create a power in ourselves from confronting obstacles—like that impeded stream—that helps us act and respond in new ways.

Most importantly, I’ve learned and struggled with what it means to feel loss—the sadness and the demarcation it creates in our lives—and then do the best I can to build alternative approaches personally, professionally, and politically that honor what emerges from that experience.

What comes from valuing vulnerability, connection, slowing down, opening up which are so often diminished or demeaned within our culture? Seeds for greater commitment to kindness and understanding, to cultivating community, to being strategic about solutions that can create opportunity for all.

This post is dedicated to my father, Myron Zackman, and to our beloved dogs Roshi and Bubbles, all of whom died in the last 8 months. Their lives brought great inspiration and joy for me and for so many others.

 

 

Thanks

Listen

with the night falling we are saying thank you

we are stopping on the bridge to bow from the railings

we are running out of the glass rooms

with our mouths full of food to look at the sky

and say thank you

we are standing by the water looking out

in all directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging

after funerals we are saying thank you

after the news of the dead

whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

in a culture up to its chin in shame

living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you

in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators

remembering wars and the police at the back door

and the beatings on the stairs we are saying thank you

in the banks that use us we are saying thank you

with the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable

unchanged we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us

our lost feelings we are saying thank you

with the forests falling faster than the minutes

of our lives we are saying thank you

with the words going out like cells of a brain

with the cities growing over us like earth

we are saying thank you faster and faster

with nobody listening we are saying thank you

we are saying thank you and waving

dark though it is.

W. S. Merwin

 

Perhaps the most radical act we can commit is to stay home.
Terry Tempest Williams 

Overwhelm seems to be a part of our conditioning. Particularly in the work of social change–where there is an urgency in both the task at hand and a challenge in arriving at the outcome–I regularly talk with colleagues confronting perennial overwhelm and overload.

When this occurs, stepping back and staying grounded is a crucial practice. Rather than working through the problem, or working more, it’s important to find time to step away for some perspective…whether that’s a break, an opportunity to get outside, or just stopping to take a breath and feel the ground beneath us.

This is a simple yet elusive practice, so we need reminders and support. A post-it note or quote on our computer monitors or an hourly alarm which help create space for a break, leaving “buffers” on our calendars between meetings, an agreement with a colleague to take a daily walk.

Such small adjustments and breaks in our schedule can make a big difference alone-and can be complements to deeper opportunities to stay grounded.

Because of our orientation to communication via technology, it’s easier to forget and acknowledge where we are. Our places matter-and can help keep us grounded. Whether we are the middle of a city or live in a small town, look out our window into the woods or over a street, connecting with the places we find ourselves is a powerful way to settle ourselves. It may provide a perspective on our place in our community, the world, or the cosmos…or literally offer the feeling of being “grounded” somewhere amidst seemingly endless e-mails, posts, and other intangible information we are asked to navigate.

When I worked in downtown San Francisco, I would take regular breaks to stay grounded by stepping outside and looking up-staring up into the slice of sky between huge buildings was calming amidst the motion of the city and the overwhelm of work. This can also come from focusing on something very small or specific…a leaf, a bird, the pattern of light on a building.

Beyond individual practices and connection with our place, there are also ways of working collectively that support staying grounded. Much of the work of paying attention to process is about creating opportunities for groups to connect more authentically through their experience. In a recent post on Designing for Uncertainty, Brooking Gatewood observes that:

“it takes patience to slow down to develop shared understanding, especially in high stakes situations; it takes vulnerability and humility to admit uncertainty and listen for a wisdom deeper than our problem-solving minds; and it takes tremendous courage and trust to act collectively toward shared interests”

The process of slowing down in our work–individually and/or collectively–provides an opportunity to stay grounded. While this has the potential for increasing the impact of our efforts, it has the even more important benefits of honoring our own health, transforming our relationships with others, and strengthening our connection with community and place.

In the woods,

we return to reason and faith.

Nothing can befall me there;

no disgrace, no calamity

that nature cannot repair.

 

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

In the work I have often referred to as “restoring the civic ecosystem”, my practice has to been to focus on ways to connect people with each other and with place…whether it is their own or a more distant place that might need their attention.

That act of connection is critical in doing our work in the world: in affirming our purpose, communicating with others, and completing a task or project successfully. In much of my work with individuals, organizations, communities, and networks it is often the case–because of our cultural “default”–that we don’t have or don’t take the time to connect sufficiently.

And often technology (claiming to better “connect” us) can get in the way.

The most successful people, teams, and communities I have encountered make some form of connection a central part of their practice. Recent analysis (which I found somewhat humorous and in the category that I call “no-duh” research) revealed the essential factor in creating a strong team: it basically boils down to “Be nice.”

Whether it is taking time for self-care to get exercise, meditate, or just go for a walk in the middle of a busy day, reach out to a colleague for a conversation that might not be about a project, but about how they are and talking through the bigger picture of your work together, or starting a meeting with a check-in (no matter how brief), this allows time for connection.

Such practices create a stronger sense of purpose and meaning, more effective relationships with colleagues (and friends and family!), and better outcomes in our work.
The poet Patrick Cavanaugh has written that “Sometimes the truth depends upon a walk around the lake.” The time we take to authentically connect can bring us closer to the truth-whether that is our own, or shared understanding in a team or community.

It is also essential to practice connecting with place: to talk with our neighbors, to notice the feel of the place we work or live as we head out into our days, or to observe some element of nature even if we live or work in a congested urban area. This not only has important physical and psychological health benefits, but brings our attention to participating more fully as citizens-not simply as “workers” or “consumers”-and to connect with how our place and our planet sustain us.

Carl Jung shared that “Everyone needs a piece of garden, no matter how small, to connect them with the earth and therefore with something deeper in ourselves.” Whether it is our own garden or one we simply pause to observe in our neighborhood or on our way to work, this connection can be calming and transformative.

In an era where it seems like political and social discourse indicate a fraying and degraded set of connections, practicing some form of connection can keep us grounded, supported, and acting in a way that restores and maintains the communities and places we care for.


For one human being to love another human being:

that is perhaps the most difficult task

that has been entrusted to us,

the ultimate task, the final test and proof,

the work for which all other work is merely preparation.

 

Rainer Maria Rilke

Excerpt from “Letters to a Young Poet”

It is good people who

make good places.

Anna Sewell 

There is an important connection—for me personally and for all of us politically—in the relationship between people and place.

At a young age, I was fascinated by stories of how people came to be who they are and where they are—an interweaving of biography, history, and geography. As a child, I remember devouring biographies of Martin Luther King, Louis Armstrong, JFK, and Amelia Earhart among others…along with a curiosity about family, friends, and strangers and the way their lives took shape.

From the time I heard the following quote by conservationist Aldo Leopold, it seemed to justify and outline a path for my work:

There are two things that interest me:

the relationship of people to the land, and the relationship of people to each other.

This intersection of people and place is at the heart of my own personal passion, and is increasingly important as we become more detached from one another and the places we live and love. From the influence of our busy lives to the distractions of technology (in many cases meant to more effectively connect us), and from the speed at which we move through our communities to the demands we put on the land locally and globally—we have much to attend to and restore.

The vitality of our communities, our economy, and our political process depend upon a practice I’ve referred to as “restoring the civic ecosystem”: a knitting together of relationships—with one another and with the places that give meaning to our lives.

 


A Vision
If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow-growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it,
if we will make our seasons welcome here,
asking not too much of earth or heaven,
then a long time after we are dead
the lives our lives prepare will live
here, their houses strongly placed
upon the valley sides, fields and gardens
rich in the windows. The river will run
clear, as we will never know it,
and over it, birdsong like a canopy.
On the levels of the hills will be
green meadows, stock bells in noon shade.
On the steeps where greed and ignorance
cut down the old forest,
an old forest will stand,
its reach leaf-fall drifting on its roots
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
Families will be singing in the fields.
In their voices they will hear a music
risen out of the ground. They will take
nothing from the ground they will not return,
whatever the grief at parting. Memory,
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling light.
This is no paradisal dream.
Its hardship is its possibility.
Wendell Berry

All great achievements require time.

-Maya Angelou

There’s something very particular about engaging in work with others, and especially across organizational boundaries when we collaborate to create networks for social change.

What I’ve seen as a key element is what I’d call promise, a word I appreciate for its dual meaning: a commitment we make to ourselves or others that we do our best to fulfill AND the possibility we see in a direction or course of action. Both characterize the spirit of collaboration, which combines the hope of greater impact with ongoing relationship.

In my practice over the last year and over the past decades, I’ve seen many essential ingredients which help hold teams together and allow networks to sustain themselves and succeed including the achievement of concrete outcomes, clarity around communication and structure, and the development of shared values. These are all rooted in embracing the full nature of promise.

Here are some of the ways I see this show up in networks focused on social change and sustainability, though this can be generalized to any team or group hoping to create meaning and results:

  • The Promise of Space. This is a “no-duh” idea, but for a network to feel important and ultimately to succeed, those participating need to create the time to show up-both at network gatherings and meetings, and in dedicating a part of their time to what the network is trying to achieve. I often hear from people that “we also have our day jobs” and acknowledge this truth and challenge–yet successful networks (and network mindsets) are those where everyone feels the broader goal of the network serves their own goals and where the space they create is honored.
  • The Promise of Learning. People need a concrete reason to participate in a network, and beyond a particular outcome, it’s also important to acknowledge other values created–one of which is learning. This could be about the exchange of information or about building skills including the practice of collaboration itself, which Eugene Kim reflects on beautifully in his piece on High Performance Collaboration Requires Experiencing Great Meals.
  • The Promise of Promise. While it’s a little “meta”, this practice is critical to network success: much of the feeling in a network and possibility it holds is emergent–we may think we know why we’re collaborating and what the results will be (and may not), but we need to experience the potential of “not knowing” and where that might guide us. Curtis Ogden’s recent post on Network Impact: Hidden in Plain Sight elevates this idea powerfully.
  • The Promise of Care. Most importantly, commitment and possibility are embedded in relationships where people experience three things-a feeling of trust generated by an ethic of “I’ve got your back” or “we missed you” (or both), a practice of self-care shared by the group, and-this is the magic ingredient-having fun! In teams and networks where there is a genuine feeling of fun and wanting to be together-even when things get hard-the ability to commit over the longer-term and build connection for collaboration increases.

Promise in collaboration or otherwise is ultimately not only about commitment and possibility but also about appreciation and gratitude, for commitments fulfilled and for the intention of walking a path together and doing our best (individually or as a team) to achieve what is possible. In some cases, what we propose may be closer to impossible, but often has a greater power as a promise which is inspiring and visionary.

I am inspired by and learn from all of the work happening to make our world more humane, sustainable, just and beautiful…most of which I get to read about and a fraction of which I get to be a part of in some way.

One of my favorite quotes is from Meister Eckhart, who wrote “If the only prayer you said in your entire life was ‘thank you’ that would suffice.”

For those of you I work with directly, or are part of my larger supportive community of friends and family, I wish you a joyous and bright transition to the new year and new possibilities. And for everyone out there doing their part to make the world a bit brighter and better…thank you.

 

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,

tied in a single garment of destiny.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

The wider world wouldn’t function were it not for networks. I often use ecological metaphor in my work, and one of my favorites is that of a redwood grove.

Redwoods are magnificent, inspiring trees for their height, longevity and beauty. Despite their stature, they actually have incredibly shallow roots and the only reason they are not routinely blown over by coastal winds and have been able to stand for centuries is that they grow in groves. Their roots weave together to form a mesh – some extending hundreds of yards – allowing them to remain upright.

So while we may look up and marvel at the height of individual trees, we should actually be awestruck looking down at the connections they have formed beneath the surface.

Similarly, in our views of leadership and institutions, we still lionize and celebrate the individual rather than the system. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has observed that “the fundamental law of human beings is interdependence: a person is a person through other persons.” However, our culture teaches us not to act that way.

While we claim to prize civility and structure laws to uphold it, our dominant education system and economic model enforce competition and create silos, all in a complex world where we need to act more like redwood trees and other ecological communities which thrive on collaboration.

Among the great challenges of our time is how we move from an era largely governed by the primacy of hierarchical models and institutions to one where networks become an increasingly critical form to create large-scale change.

Understanding network life stages and some practices to successfully navigate these transitions is vital – both for advocates and movement-builders in the social sector as well as among philanthropic institutions and the public and private sectors. As we evolve in this work, our attitude and orientation is most critical…as the late systems thinker and activist Donella Meadows shared:

“The scarcest resource is not oil, metals, clean air, capital, labor, or technology. It is our willingness to listen to each other and learn from each other to seek the truth rather than to be right.”

As with any ecosystem, a network moves through a series of stages with particular features. In the arena of sustainability, public health and social equity collaboratives — and generally applicable to other social change networks — I’ve seen these include:

  • SEEDING. At the beginning of any network, a number of groups or individuals realize the need to come together around a perceived need that no one organization can achieve alone. Often this is a near-term threat or policy opportunity, though networks for social change are most effective when organized around a long-term vision. Like early life influences on an individual or ecosystem, the conditions and early members of a network can shape the trajectory and future characteristics of a network.
  • GROWING. Relationships and an understanding of the issues involved within (and across) networks become richer and more complex as a network grows. With clear near-term outcomes and results, networks are able to attract resources (funding, members) to grow their efforts. The most important growth during this time is trust within the networks as individuals and institutions learn and work together.
  • ROOTING. Once a network is “established”-though network membership and ecology is always changing, there is a sense of rootedness that develops: a dedication to a particular set of issues, a clear analysis of the system in which that network is operating, and operating guidelines that have evolved to build and sustain trust and network vitality.
  • TRANSITIONING. It may be several months or several years-and, as with an ecosystem, change is constantly occurring-but all networks move into and through an evolutionary process. This time often brings up questions, even doubts, but network transitions (whether they are beginnings, bridges, or endings) are often the most fertile moments for understanding the real purpose and power behind our collaborative efforts.

Ultimately, these stages require those engaged in networks to act from a place that supports movement-building and community-rather than the success of any one organization’s mission. For in the end, if a network is modeled on a healthy ecosystem or healthy community, we must heed the words of Cesar Chavez, reminding those of us leading change that:

“We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community. Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others…for their sake, and for our own.”


This is one of my favorite “network poems” (and seasonally appropriate as well!):

The Seven of Pentacles

Under a sky the color of pea soup

she is looking at her work growing away there

actively, thickly like grapevines or pole beans

as things grow in the real world, slowly enough.

If you tend them properly, if you mulch, if you water,

if you provide birds that eat insects a home and winter food,

if the sun shines and you pick off caterpillars,

if the praying mantis comes and the lady bugs and the bees,

then the plants flourish, but at their own internal clock.

Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground.

You cannot always tell by looking what is happening.

More than half a tree is spread out in the soil under your feet.

Penetrate quietly as the earthworm that blows no trumpet.

Fight persistently as the creeper that brings down the tree.

Spread like the squash plant that overruns the garden.

Gnaw in the dark and use the sun to make sugar.

Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.

Live a life you can endure: make love this loving.

Keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in,

a thicket and bramble wilderness to the outside, but to us

interconnected with rabbit runs and burrows and lairs.

Live as if you liked yourself, and it may happen:

reach out, keep reaching out, but bringing in.

This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always,

For every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting,

after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.

 Marge Piercy

People need wild places.
Whether or not we think we do, we do.
We need to be able to taste grace and know again that we desire it.
We need to experience a landscape that is timeless, whose agenda moves at the pace of speciation and glaciers.
It reminds us that our plans are small and somewhat absurd.
It reminds us why, in those cases in which our plans might influence many future generations, we ought to choose carefully.

Barbara Kingsolver

There’s a small section of the Bay Trail near my home where I walk regularly with my dogs. It’s nothing spectacular, sandwiched between the Bay and the Interstate 80 corridor. I’m often there in the early morning, as an endless parade of cars and trucks is making its way toward the Bay Bridge into San Francisco.

Why it is notable is that it’s undeveloped, its use as a site for fill slowly reverting back to the wild–whatever that might mean in a major metropolitan area. And there are plans in the works to develop this low rise and spit known as Brickyard Cove, to replant native species and improve the dirt paths and gravel parking lot. The plans look lovely, and I’m sure it will be beautiful…but the news of this project also saddened me.

There is growing evidence that green space and nature has a beneficial effect on our health, from backyards and small parks to large open spaces and wilderness areas. Those spaces with increased biodiversity have been shown to have even more psychological benefit.

I would also suggest that we need “wild spaces”, both in the traditional sense of untrammeled wilderness AND–in an interpretation for more developed areas–those places that remain unplanned, where there is no intervention, even if they have been previously disturbed.

We need to be where the natural world–and not only the human mind and hand–creates (or re-creates) the landscape.

As Wallace Stegner has written: “We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”

We need that “geography of hope” in our lives and in our communities now more than ever. We need to engage with the wild, whether that is an actual place or a state of mind, as our lives can often feel over-planned and predictable in terms of our schedules and our habits. We also may stay busy to avoid the wildness or lack of control we may feel.

In a recent article on the role of nature in Facing Fear, author J.B. MacKinnon asks: “Were our distant ancestors, gathered around the fire in the lowering light, touched only by the awesome sunset, or did they also dread the awful night? Do we say that nature is only beneficial when it comforts, calms, and uplifts, as though there are no secret pleasures, no vital lessons, in feeling scared, disgusted, and uncomfortable? Is there a person alive who only ever wants the calm sea, and never the storm?”

The “wild” we may discover nearby, in ourselves or in others can help creatively disrupt the patterns too often inherited from a fast-paced, results-oriented culture. It can inspire us to sit with chaos, come to terms with messiness and imperfection, to do less, to listen more carefully to one another, to allow things to unfold.

I often reflect on this in my work with communities, networks, and organizations, eager to clarify strategy, improve collaboration, and spark change. Noble goals to be sure (and my bread and butter), but deeper discoveries and relationships can sometimes remain unearthed if we rush past the wild places or act too quickly. Sometimes not intervening or taking an unplanned course is the most transformative path, relying on the wisdom of the wild to guide us.

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

–Wendell Berry

During times of universal deceit,  

telling the truth  

becomes a revolutionary act. 

-George Orwell 

For numerous reasons and in many ways, we are challenged at telling the truth. Whether we are embarrassed or feel like we’re not enough or we don’t want to hurt someone. Or we’re unsure that our organization is doing the right thing and we don’t feel empowered to speak out. Or we’re not even aware that we’re being untruthful because of societal circumstances or what we’ve come to believe as the truth about ourselves.

In Jon Harr’s book A Civil Action, a real-life story of a suit by families in Massachusetts seeking justice for the deaths of their children due to pollution, attorney Jan Schlictmann is told by an opposing lawyer that “the truth lies at the bottom of a bottomless pit.”

Elephant in the RoomThose working for social change confront lies on a regular basis, and we can occasionally be the victim of our own desire for the truth. Even those organizations that speak out and challenge power can sometimes experience similar issues around power internally or in relationship to their constituencies. I wrote about unearthing organizational secrecy several years ago and still see this in practice on a regular basis.

A wonderful recent blog post by a colleague explores challenges to the concept of inclusion, ostensibly a positive practice by many seeking a greater voice for those who have been historically marginalized. But if we don’t understand the deeper truths many we are trying to include experience within a broader system of power that doesn’t hear their voices. In this scenario, even when the truth is spoken, it has no place to make an impact if the system doesn’t change as well.

Making an impact is another place we are confronted with truth-telling-through the process of living out a vision and mission for our work, in shaping and acting on what has come to be known as a “theory of change.” I was recently working with a group that is inspiring in how they have shifted the landscape in their chosen place and field, and is now addressing questions-much like the issue of inclusion raised in the post above-of whether the strategy they are pursuing may in some way contribute to the problem they are committed to resolving.

A great deal of neuroscience research over the past decade confirms the fact that in our brains neurons that “fire together, wire together” or “where attention goes, energy flows”: if we are what we eat, we’re finding that we become what we think as well. This has the positive impact of enabling us to re-frame our thinking, to innovate, and to build resilience individually and collectively.

However, on both an individual, and also on an organizational and even cultural level, this may demonstrate that a great deal of what we believe is in fact untrue, but simply the experience of thinking the same thoughts over and over again and coming to accept them as the truth. Many in the organizational behavior and systems change space refer to the outcome of such persistent thoughts as “mental models.”

If we come to believe certain things as true in our own lives–which may or may not be–then our organizations and cultures also have potentially slipped into a shared post-traumatic stress disorder where we live out stories and patterns that may not be “true” for us or contributing to lasting change, but simply accepted because “that’s how we’ve always done it.”

Even in instances where entire societies or the world have been deceived, truth telling can be a healing act: not to excuse or correct, but to come to terms with and learn from past injustices.

Individuals and organizations–and hopefully whole cultures–can begin to rewire belief systems and move closer to surfacing and acting from “the truth”: not just a more positive story about our work, but hopefully one that creates richer relationships and greater impact as well.

A Brave And Startling Truth
We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth
And when we come to it
To the day of peacemaking
When we release our fingers
From fists of hostility
And allow the pure air to cool our palms

When we come to it
When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate
And faces sooted with scorn are scrubbed clean
When battlefields and coliseums
No longer rake our unique and particular sons and daughters
Up with the bruised and bloody grass
To lie in identical plots in foreign soil

When the rapacious storming of the churches
The screaming racket in the temples have ceased
When the pennants are waving gaily
When the banners of the world tremble
Stoutly in the good, clean breeze

When we come to it
When we let the rifles fall from our shoulders
And children dress their dolls in flags of truce
When land mines of death have been removed
And the aged can walk into evenings of peace
When religious ritual is not perfumed
By the incense of burning flesh
And childhood dreams are not kicked awake
By nightmares of abuse

When we come to it
Then we will confess that not the Pyramids
With their stones set in mysterious perfection
Nor the Gardens of Babylon
Hanging as eternal beauty
In our collective memory
Not the Grand Canyon
Kindled into delicious color
By Western sunsets

Nor the Danube, flowing its blue soul into Europe
Not the sacred peak of Mount Fuji
Stretching to the Rising Sun
Neither Father Amazon nor Mother Mississippi who, without favor,
Nurture all creatures in the depths and on the shores
These are not the only wonders of the world

When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace
We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.

Maya Angelou

February 2018
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