The ‘why’ will guide the ‘what’ and the ‘how’

We are distracted from distraction by distraction, filled with fancies and empty of meaning.
T.S. Eliot (1943)

In Start with Why, Simon Sinek (2011) explains how Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela were able to drive large-scale cultural changes in a non- violent way. The common thread is that they articulated their vision from the why, to the how, to the what. Inspiring leaders start with what they believe in first, making their worldview and motivation explicit. Sinek suggests that once we are clear about why, we can define the values that will guide our behaviour and inform the systems and processes we put into place. The why defines the how in an action-oriented way. In a nutshell, why offers a purpose, cause, or belief; how expresses the values that guide our actions and how we aim to manifest the higher purpose in action; and what refers to the results of those actions.

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The design guru Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, writes in Change by Design “Don’t ask what? ask why?” and continues: “asking ‘why?’ is an opportunity to reframe a problem, redefine the constraints, and open the field to a more innovative answer. […] There is nothing more frustrating than coming up with the right answer to the wrong question” (2009: 236–237).

Warren Berger reminds us of the power of inquiry, encouraging us to ask ‘beautiful questions’ using why? and what if? as a path to breakthrough innovation. The art of asking beautiful questions is about i) challenging assumptions, ii) inquiring about things normally taken for granted, and iii) wondering about new possibilities (Berger, 2014).

The practice of living the questions together starts by frequently asking yourself and others: are we asking the right questions? Which questions will help us make wiser decisions? What if we did things differently? What informs our current perspective? If we answer the question “why is the human species worth sustaining” in a neo-Darwinian way, along the lines of ‘because we are the most intelligent and competitive species and therefore should continue to exploit nature for our benefit’, we are unlikely to find timely responses to climate change and ecosystems degradation, and will be confronted with deepening ecological, social and economic crises.

We will live into a very different future if we answer the question in a different way: we are co-creative participants in a 14-billion-year process of universe becoming conscious of itself. We are a keystone species capable of creating conditions conducive to all life. We can design for human, ecosystems and planetary health, and nurture resilience, adaptability, transformability and vitality. We care; we are compassionate beings able to love and to express this unifying emotion through poetry, music and art. Like all other species we are life’s gift to life, creating meaning by being in and through relationship.

In a conversation I had with Professor David Orr in 2006, he suggested that we must ask why humanity is worth sustaining before considering how we might do so (see Introduction). He did so in response to a question I had asked him about the role of spirituality in the cultural transformation and transition ahead. David started his answer by saying:

Humans are inevitably spiritual and the question is not whether we are, but whether we are authentically spiritual or not. It bubbles out of us. We are meaning-seeking creatures, and if the highest meaning in my life is soccer, I will make soccer my religion and it will orient my life. It will give my life meaning and gravity and direction. It just happens to be a bad religion. I could make environmentalism a religion. That happens to be a bad religion, too. We can’t help but make something into a belief system, and you can argue why this is for us. This goes back to the early cave paintings. This is part of humanity. As soon as we identify the human species, we see a species trying to grapple with: what does this mean? Where are we? Who are we? How did we get here? You see these questions being asked. They pop up in early philosophy, early art. This is what it means to be human.
David Orr, personal comment (2006)

He emphasized that to ask “why we should sustain humanity” is not an “idle debating question, and it takes you to the core of spirituality. What do we owe? How are we obliged? What do we owe to the far distant future? What do we owe to the distant past? What does it mean for us to be stewards or trustees?” Finding answers to all these questions can help us to re-contextualize our existence in a meaningful universe rooted in our interbeing.

Beyond all religious dogmas or denominations of faith, beyond all our differences, we can find common ground in the communion of our interbeing with each other and all life. The future of our species depends on finding this higher ground as humanity, as nature, as life, as expressions of a living, transforming whole capable of self-reflection.

All the world’s faith groups could express the meta-narrative of interbeing in diverse ways without opposing their foundational scriptures. At the heart of spirituality and the root of all religions lies a process of making sense of the relationship between the intimate and the ultimate.

In Lamps of Fire — the spirit of religion Juan Mascaró offers a synthesis of the spiritual essence of religion through selected passages from Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism, Confucianism, Shintoism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism. Mascaró believed in the recuperation of a profound humanism to unite humanity beyond its differences (east and west, north and south) and offered his book in the hope that it would become “a light in deep darkness and a refuge in the storm” (1961: 9–11).

In the face of gut-wrenching attempts to justify inhuman barbarity with the misguided righteousness of religious fundamentalism inciting crimes against humanity, on the one hand, and ever more urgent warnings from the scientific community that we have dangerously over-shot planetary boundaries and are facing catastrophic climate change, on the other hand, humanity needs to find common ground for a coordinated, cooperative response.

We also need to find a higher ground of shared meaning and significance so we all know why we are in this together and why it is worth transcending and including all our differences in pursuit of a shared vision of thriving together.

[This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures,published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]