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10 November 2016

Simple habits for bewildering times

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

I flew over the US today—from San Francisco to Dallas—and the land looked the same as it always has. Spiky cities with handfuls of suburbs along the coast; crinkled olive hills giving way to majestic red canyons as we flew. And yet, the country has a decidedly different feel this morning. The woman in the seat in front of me has been weeping inconsolably. All though the Koru lounges in Wellington and Auckland last night, the word apocalypse was bandied about. I am flying over a broken country, with a president elect who knows how to tear things apart but has shown no sign of knowing how to put things together.

I have been wondering about the way complexity helps us understand our current state and make sense of it in a way that seems more hopeful than the despondency around me—and in me, if I’m honest. How do our Simple Habits help when the world around us feels foreign and grim?

Asking Different Questions: We are predisposed to believe that the past will predict the future. And we are predisposed to project a story into the future that is simple and partial and then to believe it’s true. Thus all of the discussion of the apocalypse and the talk of Hitler. To project the past into the future is to leave us feeling it has all been written already, that the future is as known as the past is. I think in these cases it is our certainty more than our uncertainty that is so upsetting: those of us who are not Trump supporters believe that now disaster is inevitable. We need to ask different questions here. What do we know about the present state that will help us? What looks to be at the edges here? What is still vulnerable to change? Where are the pinpricks of hope in the darkness? The election is behind us but the future is not written.

See systems: A piece of this is the understanding that complex adaptive systems change in ways that are neither linear or predictable. Systems can take massive shocks and not change much at all, and they can be changed by small things that touch against a piece that was unexpectedly vulnerable. The size and scale of this shift in the US—added to the size and scale of Brexit—is upsetting and bewildering. Complexity theory would let us know that these systems might well be vulnerable to a positive change as well, and that a small shift might make a difference. (For example, look at what happened to gay rights and look what is happening in the legalized marijuana space—issues that were stuck for decades have come loose.)

Take multiple perspectives: This one is particularly hard for me right now. From my perspective, more than half of the people in this great nation have voted for bigotry, stupidity, and violence. But of course, that’s not in any way how they think about it. They have voted for greatness, for possibility, for the hope of a tomorrow that is better than today (although the exit poles would suggest that they voted for a tomorrow that is sort of like 20 years ago). They think I voted for a corrupt woman who has been the insider in a system from which they are disenfranchised. I need to understand the pain so great that it made people ignore things that seemed to me to be impossible to ignore. I need to understand the core feature of hope they experienced, their sense of the greatness that was lost and needed to return. My stories about the people who voted for this president elect are not helpful, not healing. If we are to build a new future together, that needs to change.

Experiment and learn: It is doing something that looks most appealing to me right now. And it is my paralysis about how big the problem is and how small I am that keeps me despondent. But my theories tell me that even tiny moves might make a big difference, that in complexity, it is experimentation and edging forward that creates new possibilities from a foggy present. The point is to notice, and then intervene at whatever scale you have easiest access to intervene in and whatever issue is most central to you. Furious about the way women were treated here? Find a way to make a difference for women—in the life of a single woman who might otherwise struggle or in the lives of a community or group of women. Frightened about the way we’re treating immigrants? Hire one for a living wage, volunteer at an NGO that helps immigrants, or just be kind to people around you who are struggling, who clean your house or park your car. The point is to notice what you care deeply about—which is sadly more obvious when it is under threat—and use that noticing to experiment with ways to make a change in the direction you most desire. And then learn from what happens when you make that change.

My daughter has moved to the US for the first time in a decade to attend a small liberal arts college where she is thriving and her mind is opening like a flower. In her first presidential election, she voted for a woman. Naomi will never think it’s impossible for a woman to rise to the top of the ticket; for her Hillary’s loss was devastating, but her nomination not such a miracle. From Naomi’s perspective, the presidency is totally available to the half of the population who have never had a shot before.

Naomi and I wept together on the phone last night, but this morning she has awoken with a new sense of hope. She and her friends feel mobilized by this election. This is a defining moment that is likely to redirect her considerable drive and intelligence towards a life of public service and making a difference—to unite us with all those in pain, and to work to cherish the planet and all of its inhabitants.

Complex adaptive systems theory doesn’t promise me that she and her generation will be successful at what Hillary’s generation could not do, but it surely promises us that they have a shot. I cannot see the future, and my heart aches in the present, but Hillary was surely right: We are stronger together.

4 thoughts on “Simple habits for bewildering times”

  1. Caroline says:

    Deeply moved and very helpful to use the model to call for actions of hope.

  2. Marcia Hyatt says:

    Thank you! Looking to make sense of this painful election.

  3. Shelley Horne says:

    I hesitate to comment as an Australian on what has happened in the US but we too are seeing an increase in voting for those who on the surface are bigots and misogynists and yet I don’t know anyone who admits to voting this way. I wonder how we have contributed to this and whether so many of our ‘buttons’ are pushed at once by the people who express these views that it is impossible for us to see clearly and therefore make decisions about how best to react. I have made some observations but not yet resolved my view. I think it is impossible for many of us to truly understand what life is like for the people we think we support. I know that I don’t really know what it feels like to be racially abused, or vilified for my sexuality, religion or circumstances. As a female I have experienced being treated unequally but the truth is I have a very comfortable life. Looking at the way gender inequality is portrayed in the media may give a clue to what underlies our problem. We see articles highlighting the pay gap between male and female executives complete with comments about women’s inability to negotiate as well as men. Maybe women can see the absurdity in the amounts paid to men and can’t bring themselves to argue for the same? All the arguments about equality in the workplace for all those discriminated against are theoretical for many of us but require predominantly white low paid male workers to share their employment opportunities. I think part of the issue remains as old as civilisation, how do we share wealth in our communities? Current methods haven’t worked and continue to expect sharing of opportunity horizontally ( across those in the lower paid workforce) so that someone always feels threatened and as though they are paying so the rest of us can feel good but not give up anything. People will always view this as unfair and push back- which may be what we are seeing now. We need to think about what a fair society really looks like for everyone and have a conversation about how to get there.

  4. Cliff Scott says:

    As I have moved through a stage of grief or two in the last two weeks, some things have gelled in my feeling/thinking about the current state. Your post, Jennifer, touched on a few of them.

    One thing that I am less hopeful than you about is that the past may not be a predictor of what is to come. The pattern has repeated too many times before: a nation becomes inwardly torn, and either begins a process of decline or turns toward a demagogue to claw back its greatness to the eventual anguish of the world or a region. Or, both actually happen in succession. I think it is more likely that one or both of these will be the fate of my country. But, I think it is also true that this fate may be responded to in a way that shortens or truncates the spiral down one or other of these drains.

    We may choose to see what is happening as the lancing of a monstrous sociological boil. All that has become apparent was there all along and building since Ronald Reagan’s time. Liberals and conservatives alike fell prey to a belief in neo-liberalism, a philosophy (often unwitting) of the elites that imagined a new world of progress and global trade without reckoning with the responsibility to care for those the economically dislocated. We allowed what became a kind of refugee-stuck-in-place reality for millions of used-to-be middle class citizens. We now see this and perhaps only because we have our noses shoved into the shit like a “bad dog” for our transgressions. Maybe Trump had to win for us to get it. Maybe we can reframe this sad chapter of American history into a clear description of what must be addressed to recover.

    If this is our opportunity, one in which we ask “if there is a way to see the gift in the situation, what might that be?”, I think this is it: We are beginning to see the depth and the breadth of the issues that can lead a country to believe in the simplistic recipes of a demagogue, even trading away morality and values in a vain attempt at rescue. A rescue, which promises to restore familiar aspects of life that are lost and were felt to be core to well-being (i.e. jobs, money, respect for one’s place in the social structure of the country, etc.).

    Action, as you indicated, is perhaps the only way out of the despair for those of us who aligned against Trump and his minions. But I think we will be wise to consider resistance – as THE action to take – is futile. Might we better act bravely to embrace those who are so certain of the Alt Right message as the first step to ensure struggling middle class agendas are addressed. If we only had invested in the training and technologies that would have put all those unionized workers and skilled technicians out of business when we outsourced work globally! If we only had not acted as though, like “good Americans”, they would just figure out how to adapt in the face of a shift in labor dynamics so vast that no individual or even corporation could address it. If only we had admitted these issues were ones that only the vast resources of government could handle.

    Perhaps these are lessons the complexity of the last three decades has to teach us. We had better be willing to explore and embrace such lessons fast. The learning will strengthen us all and make the next step in social evolution (and the American democratic experiment) possible with less damage to our collective future.

    Safe to fail experiments are taken by governments all the time. If we can figure out how to use the current political configuration of our branches of government to try actions to create new avenues for contribution and reward, perhaps the despair will be addressed. Perhaps we can give hope to those whose lives are dead-ended by the shift to the gig-economy. Perhaps the decline of the country can be foreshortened. Perhaps the lifespan of a demagogic era will be shortened.

    I have come thus far in my traverse of the stages of grief. I guess you might say I am in a place of acceptance or accommodation to the new reality and starting to perceive the move to problem-solving. In addition to the daily life choices, you suggest Jennifer, I am wondering how I can participate in or support somehow the conversation about how we show compassion for the causes of choice making for Trump, commitment and progress to address those causes, and ultimately a reintegration of our split national psyche.

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