Who Do We Choose To Be, Part 3: Restoring Sanity

It is a bizarre world now, and it seems to get more insane, polarized, aggressive and anxiety-provoking every day. Nova Scotians are burning indigenous fisheries, the Government of Alberta is attacking health care structures amid a pandemic, and the US election is a dumpster fire that may end in a non-peaceful transition of power. Wheatley’s book predates these particular incidents, but all of them fit her premise that we are in the midst of a culture of collapse – that our era of greed and dominance needs to transition to something more loving and humane. 

I’d like to believe there is more hope than she brings to the table. As a Buddhist, Wheatley interprets the world cyclically and naturally sees our civilization as the end of a cultural cycle. Thus there is nothing individual human agents can do to hold back the tide of insanity at national or global scales – it is what it is. As a Christian, I would disagree on some of these points and argue that this is a time for prayer, fasting and repentance – and that there is ample evidence in history that societal change is possible without war, famine, plague and death. National leaders can arise who inspire humility, service and calm over greed, individualism and violence. But where are they!? Our world is warming, and the ocean is acidifying, poverty and human sufferings are increasing. Our systems are not working, and things are getting worse as we seek distractions instead of solutions. Instead of coming together, we are turning upon one another. 

“As things deteriorate, relationships disintegrate into distrust, self-protection, and opposition. Internal conflicts increase and no one even notices threats to the whole as they fight for their tiny piece of the pie. Leaders use fear to control and manipulate people and everyone moves into self-protection. Distractions, entertainments, and entitlements become primary instruments of allaying people’s fears and controlling them.” (54) 

What I like most about Wheatley’s book is not her prognosis of collapse but her prescription for renewal. Recognizing the emergent nature of reality, she offers strategies for leaders of households and organizations such as businesses, congregations or even small universities to bring sanity during the contextual chaos. This begins with a leader stepping back and looking for trends in how organizational culture is changing. She offers five snapshots in this regard: 

Quality of Relationships: If you were to create a trend line from a few years ago to now and a few years ahead, how are people relating to each other? Has trust increased or declined? Are people more self-protective or less so? Are they more willing to be there for one another, to go the extra mile, or not? What’s your evidence for any of your conclusions?  

Fear versus love: If these are two ends of the spectrum of human emotions, which I believe they are, consider where you see examples of each. Also look for tendencies: which reaction, fear or love, is more likely in specific situations or with specific issues? Are either of these emotions coming to dominate as time goes on? In your leadership, what role does fear play? Are you more fearful? Are you using fear to motivate people? 

Quality of thinking: When a crisis happens, how do you respond? Are your values used to resolve the crisis? Do you consider the future? Is long-term thinking still happening (in conversations, decision-making, planning)? Has it made an impact? If so, is this visible to people? How difficult is it to find time to think, both for yourself and others? 

Willingness to contribute: What invitations to contribute have you extended and why? How have people responded? Ongoing, what are your expectations for people willing to step forward? Are those higher or lower than a few years ago? 

The role of money: How big an influence, as a percentage of other criteria, do financial issues have on decisions? Has money become a motivator for you? For staff? Has selfishness replaced service? How do you know?  

Wheatley suggests responding to an organizational culture focused on fear and the bottom line of money by revitalizing corporate identity around what it means to be human. Sane leadership is “the unshakable faith in people’s capacity to be generous, creative and kind… It is the deep knowing that even in the most dire circumstances, more becomes possible as people engage together with compassion and discernment, self-determining their best way forward.” (32) Leaders need to resist reactivity, self-protection, and denial and instead use their power and influence “to create islands of sanity that evoke and rely on our best human qualities to create, produce, and persevere.” (11) She borrows from Grace Lee Boggs to describe how in islands of sanity, we must rely on human human beings, linked our species’ technical name: homo sapiens sapiens. (166) Top-down god-playing leaders who have narcissistically ascended above other human human beings will not create islands of sanity. 

To be sane in today’s world, Wheatley suggests new skills. She advocates mindfulness as a mechanism to deal with the difficult emotional and personal triggers that emerge every day (264). Mindfulness practices will enable a leader to create space to find responses that generate possibilities rather than aggression and to develop a stable mind. “The intent of any mindfulness practice is to know yourself, not to become peaceful. Knowing how your own mind works makes it possible to stay present and engaged in hypercharged situations without losing your cool… There is no other way to prepare oneself for the difficulties, tragedies, and insanity that will continue to escalate. We can’t change this world, but we can change ourselves so that we can be of service to the world.”  

Leaders also need to develop participative process skills, especially listening, conflict resolution and problem-solving (198). The mark of a sane leader is collaboration, not decisiveness. Meaningful work involves a life of service, and thus servanthood should be the mark of a leader. “In this time of rising insanity and brutality, work that engages our better human qualities is a gift we can offer to others. This is why we create islands of sanity, so that more of us can experience the gift of doing meaningful work on behalf of others. How wonderful to have the chance to engage together in doing good work, no matter what is going on around us. We are richly blessed.” (270) This highly relational approach gets back to the root of what it means to be a human being. Life is about connectedness and relationships. “In a world preoccupied with meaningless tasks, people are ever more eager to engage in work that offers a chance to contribute, to remember how good it is to be a thinking, contributing colleague. These days, having one good conversation can reintroduce us to what it feels like to be in a satisfying human relationship. The same is true when we have the opportunity to think together and come up with a solution to a troubling situation. The human qualities that have become distant memories, or never known at all, come flooding in when we work together for a common purpose. Meaningful work reawakens us to what it feels like to be human human beings.” (267) 

For a long time, I thought I might be able to change the world. In middle age, I’m much less optimistic that my fantasies of ending poverty, alleviating the mental health crisis among young adults, or solving climate change will come to fruition through my influence. I resonate with Wheatley’s wrestling about what it means to make a difference in the world today. “If it’s not creating change at the large scale, if it’s not striving to reintroduce sane decision making into large systems, if it doesn’t stop the disintegration, then what does it mean to make a difference?… I have sat with this question for years, and I haven’t found an answer that stops the niggling voice of ‘yes, but surely you can think of something with more impact…’ The simple answer is found in all philosophies and spiritual traditions: Focus on serving others. Serve the individual; serve small groups; serve an entire community or organization. No matter what is going on around us, we can attend to the people in front of us, to the issues confronting us and there, we can offer what we can. We can offer insight and compassion. We can be present. We can stay and not flee. We can be examples of the best human qualities. This is a life well-lived, even if we didn’t save the world.” (269) 

Ultimately, Wheatley asks who we choose to be as a leader in this time (249). In her wrestling with this question, she has concluded that this means becoming a warrior of the human spirit. She links this to the Tibetan Shambala Warriors who would arm themselves only with compassion and insight. “A Warrior for the Human Spirit is a decent human being who aspires to be of service in an indecent, inhumane time… Warriors remember what it means to behave decently, ethically. We remember the capacities that every human being possesses. We affirm and work with these forgotten qualities through our presence and our wise actions. And in all we do, we consciously try to refrain from adding to the confusion, aggression and fear overwhelming most people.” (255) 

She finds Warriors of the human spirit in her study of the history of collapsing civilizations, quoting historian Sir John Glubb: “While despair might permeate the greater part of the nation, others achieved a new realization of the fact that only readiness for self-sacrifice could enable a community to survive. Some of the greatest saints in history lived in times of national decadence, raising the banner of duty and service against the flood of depravity and despair.” (252) 

Finally, Wheatley concludes with the most meaningful passage for my own wrestling with where I might go to serve in these troubling times. I’m already there, and likely you are as well: “Wherever you’re working is where you take your stand. You don’t have to go looking for new places, other issues, compelling causes. If you’re in a school, a financial firm, the UN, a refugee camp, a small nonprofit, a church, a hospital – wherever you are, stay there and notice the abundance of warrior opportunities. It may well be they you are already operating in this way – speaking up against unjust actions, influencing policies to address root causes, reminding decision makers what statistics mean in terms of human costs, going to bat for a colleague who’s been wrongfully harmed by administrative action, calling attention to new populations that need services, bearing witness to those whose suffering cannot be solved, comforting a sorrowful person or child… What’s common in all these actions is that human beings are at the center. By our actions, we call attention to people and their suffering. And we act where we can to support and console those near us.” (263) 

Part 1

Part 2

Pandemic Book Recommendation #9: Hope in Troubled Times, Part 1: Idolatry

I started this blog as an attempt to stay mentally healthy and positive during a time of social distancing. Many others have used social media as a platform for humour in this time of trial, and I’ve enjoyed seeing and relating to the many Facebook memes involving homeschooling, cats and social distancing. It worked for a few days. But two days ago I “popped” watching events unfolding in my home country. The context involved the government abandoning the advice of health experts and reopening the US economy to jump-start economic growth.

In the late evening of March 23, I posted the following on Facebook, “What we saw today in President Trump’s speech reveals the true god America worships. What do you say about a society that is willing to offer human sacrifices to appease the invisible hand of the market so we can all go back to consumption at the malls and prosperity in the stock market? Sacrifice the creation to this god – of course! Sacrifice the poor – no problem! Now we also appear to be willing to sacrifice our parents and grandparents. When will we confess and repent?”

Needless to say, this post started a bit of a discussion – and not much of it was touchy-feely or positive. The statement encapsulates a breadth of literature that is worth considering in these difficult days of pandemic. So, I’m going to step away from the positive self-help books for a few days and try to be a bit more prophetic in this blog. No matter your religious persuasion (or the lack thereof), consider looking at the monumental decisions being made in the United States through the lens of idolatry.

In 2007 Bob Gouzwaard, Mark Vander Vennen and David Van Heemst wrote Hope for Troubled Times: A New Vision for Confronting Global Crises. The volume is as important today as it was a decade ago when I started using it in some of my courses. I’m not going to provide a full review of it here, but rather use the book as a lens to consider how our current reliance on progress and economic growth could be an idol, in the fashion of the gods our ancestors would have crafted from wood or stone. I’ll make subsequent posts linking this idolatry to ideology, and then discuss hope for moving forward.

To start, the authors do assert that nothing is inherently evil about the economy, money or the market (170). Nonetheless, like wood or clay, these things can be formed into an apparatus to be worshiped. They describe three steps through which idol worship unfolds. First, people objectify the god using material available in order to bring the god closer. The image acts as an access point or gateway to the divine. Then people venerate the idol by bringing it sacrifices. Finally, people gradually become “reshaped and transformed into the likeness of their gods” (40).

Idols have mouths, but cannot speak,
Eyes, but they cannot see;
They have ears, but cannot hear,
Noses, but they cannot smell;
They have hands, but cannot feel,
Feet, but they cannot walk;
Nor can they utter a sound with their throats.
Those who make them will be like them,
And so will all who put their trust in them. (Ps. 115:5-8)

The authors assert that fear is what drives the final step. The image of their god may remain opaque, but its representation becomes very real. “The power that people delegate to the idol is a power that both saves and destroys. As such, it instills deeper and deeper anxiety. The slightest misstep can trigger the wrath of the idol, a wrath that may bring people to ruin. Serving idols therefore always brings with it a form of hypnosis, a hypnotic narrowing of consciousness. People’s perception of reality shrinks into a matter of merely finding the right type of interaction with the idol. But by then the god has, to some extent, assumed control: it now largely charts its own autonomous course. When that occurs, fear becomes the chief characteristic of life, and the sense of betrayal is pervasive.” (41)

Today it is quite common to hear the market described using terminology usually reserved for the religious realm. This involves not only the market’s saving power but also the sacrifices needed to maintain it.

– “We must follow the dictates of the market.”
– “Only economic growth can save us.”
– “All groups in society need to make sacrifices for a better future.” (97)

We are hearing this very language right now in the debate to jump-start the economy at the expense of the lives of front line health care workers and seniors. These sound profoundly religious, and this is not accidental. “It hints at decisions made about ultimate meaning, done either openly or unconsciously, without which people do not see life as feasible. Imitation saviors still move among us, and we see them as entitled to demand sacrifices.” (98)

Goudzwaard et al. make a strong argument that in the west, we are now trapped inside the cocoon of a perspective that will only consider solutions in line with the way we define progress (25). We have become consumed and obsessed with reaching our goals regardless of the cost. They argue that this is idolatrous in the sense that we exalt our goals of endless progress and material prosperity as the very powers that will deliver us to this end. In this manner, we have become dependent on our creations. But at a cost!

“The gods never leave their makers alone. As soon as people put themselves in a position of dependence on their gods, invariably the moment comes when those things or forces gain the upper hand, when they begin to mold the lives and thoughts of their adherents. Humanly made things or forces begin to control their makers even to the point where they become powers of domination. Against them the human will weakens or even vanishes, while the initial goals tend to become bleak, obscured, or forgotten, building in the moment when the gods’ betrayal becomes transparent. But by then it could be too late.” (27)

These times call for serious introspection and reflection. The economy is a social construct. Have we crafted a god in the form of material prosperity? If so, are we truly willing to pay the price of tribute? Are we so obsessed with our individual net worth and our collective GDP that we are willing to make this level of sacrifice to jump-start the economy? The rest of the world is prioritizing the lives and wellbeing of citizens – the very things the market was originally intended to enhance. Will America offload its responsibilities to fellow citizens and allow a false god to dictate the horrible sacrifices required? If so, can we continue to claim that America is a Christian nation?

Coming Up:
Part 2: Ideology
Part 3: Hope in Troubled Times