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

Who Do We Choose To Be? Part 1: Collapse

If you can even call it a debate, last night’s toddler-like banter was troubling in every way – a low point in American politics in an already upsetting time. In my sleepless night processing the debacle, I’ve been continually reflecting on Margaret Wheatley’s 2017 leadership book: Who Do We Choose To Be?

Wheatley draws on two disparate kinds of literature to “summon us to be leaders for this time as things fall apart, to reclaim leadership as a noble profession that creates possibility and humaneness in the midst of increasing fear and turmoil.” (8) The two lenses are the science of living systems and the pattern of collapse of complex civilizations.

The book is not a hopeful volume. Wheatley has rejected altogether what she describes as the ambush of hope. She believes it is too late for this, at least at the global or in America the national scale. She laments, “I’ve read too many authors who lay out the reality of our situation in stark detail, but then in the last pages feel the need to say something hopeful even though it contradicts their own argument. I have no interest in grasping after or reviving possibilities that have already passed. I have an intense desire for us to step forward as leaders for this time, hearts and minds fully open and wise, in service to whomever needs us.” (22)

Early in the volume, she requests that readers approach the book using a “Dwelling Mind.” In my reading, I followed this advice and took the time to pause and reflect on each section. The hard copy is laid out in a way that makes this easy – it is a work of art. I found her words to be true: “If we dwell with the increasing uncertainty of this time and not rush to that comfortable place of action, dwelling mind supports the emergence of clarity for our chosen role as leaders.” (23)

As last night’s debate makes clear for America, and a cursory glance through global headlines reveals for most nations of the world, we are in a time of decline. Reading lines like this invokes pain and fear, and optimists like me want to grasp for the line of hope that we expect to be next. Where is the “But…”? Wheatley encourages us to mindfully face the reality that is so obviously before us. “We can no longer solve the large-scale global problems of this time at large-scale levels: poverty, economics, climate change, violence, dehumanization. Even though the solutions have been available for a very long time, they require conditions to implement them that are not available: political courage, collaboration across national boundaries, compassion that supersedes self-interest and greed. These are not only the failings of our specific time in history; they occur in all civilizations at the end of their life cycle.” (10)

Drawing upon historians such as Sir John Glubb and Joseph Tainter, Wheatley walks the reader through the stages of collapse that have characterized societies throughout human history. Glubb summarizes these stages that tend to run their course in ten generations or about 250 years. They include 1. Age of Pioneers. 2. Age of Conquest. 3. Age of Commerce. 4. Age of Affluence. 5. Age of Intellect. 6. Age of Decadence. The final two, which Glubb described in his book in 1976, are worth considering verbatim from Wheatley:

Five – Age of Intellect: “The arts and knowledge flourish in the midst of decline. Intellectuals are prevalent and engage in incessant talking as a substitute for action. The belief takes hold that problems can be solved by mental cleverness rather than selfless service and courage. Natural sciences advance but do not prevent decline. Civil conflict increases even as the empire is under dire threat. Instead of banding together to preserve the nation, internal political fractions seek to destroy one another.” (36)

Six – Age of Decadence: “Wealth and power have led to petty and negative behaviors, including narcissism, consumerism, materialism, nihilism, fanaticism, and high levels of frivolity. A celebrity culture worships athletes, actors and singers. The masses are distracted by entertainment and sporting events, abandon moral restraint, shirk duties, and insist on entitlements. The leaders believe they are impervious and will govern forever. This age also develops the welfare state as imperial leaders generously build universities and hospitals, give grants to university students, support the young and the poor, and extend citizenship to everyone. When they run out of money, all this benevolence disappears and these institutions shut their doors.” (36)

We’re likely past the tipping point for many of the challenges confronting our civilization. The fires on the west coast and hurricanes on the east in yet another record warm year should serve as a wake-up call that, if there is time to slow down anthropogenic climate change before the great barrier reef is bleached and the Greenland ice sheet slides into the sea, that time is quickly fading. We are in the midst of the sixth great mass extinction on the planet – and we are the cause. Yet we continue to ignorantly blaze into the future in a fog of faith that our technological sophistication and the myth of progress will save us. But we are blind. “Lost in the seduction of technical creativity, we fail to see what else is going on. What’s happening in society to relationships, to poverty, to violence, to alienation? What’s happening to our land, our traditions, our people? Why have more than 65 million people fled their home countries and now live as refugees? What’s being done to address our enduring human needs for home, for community, for contribution, for good work, for safe children? And what about our planet?” (41)

Wheatley rejects the capacity of global and national leaders to do anything about these challenges. “The powerful always defend the status quo because it is the source of their power and privilege. Any change that benefits others would destroy their position. And their position is all they care about defending.” (10) Her hypothesis is not encouraging and is best received with a spirit of mindful resolve or bourbon. “For those not blinded by the false promise of progress, we may understand the dire state of this civilization. If you’re paying any attention to the news from everywhere, it’s hard to avoid the specter of collapse.” (32)

If Wheatley is correct and we are in the final phase of Glubb’s stages, this is a moment for each of us to slow down and ask fundamental questions about what it means to be human in this time, and particularly what it means for our domains of leadership. We could choose to bury our heads in the sand and lose ourselves to withdrawal, suppression and denial – or we can choose to step into these times with sober-minded resolve. “Do we, as most do, fall into private collapse consumed by fear and despair? Do we become one who does nothing but complain for what has been lost? Do we succumb to grief for the suffering of so many? Do we give up and pursue whatever time is left in hedonistic pursuits? Do we cocoon in self-protection bubbles with a nine-foot TV screen and Surround Sound? . . . Or do we acknowledge where we are and step forward to serve?” (32)

If 2020 is any indication of what is in store for us, 2021 will not be much better. “Systems that are failing now will continue to deteriorate. Uncertainty, confusion, and fear will continue to predominate. People will withdraw further into self-protection and strike out at those different from themselves. Corrupt leaders will intensify their false promises, and people will subjugate themselves to their control. The chaos cycle predicts this has to happen, that things must fall apart. And human history documents in astonishingly clear detail the pattern of collapse that all civilizations go through.” (8)

How, then, should we react? For Wheatley, “Blind reactivity and fear is not the answer. Self-protection is not the answer. Denial is not the answer. Sane leadership is.”

What is sane leadership? That deserves its own post, and I’ll provide it shortly. But first, I’ll walk you through how I came across Wheatley’s work in the first place through a second post on emergence.

More soon…

Part 2: Emergence
Part 3: Islands of Sanity