Sharpening Awareness in Powerful Times
This is the second in a series of five posts written by Graham Leicester and Maureen O’Hara as part of a collaboration between International Futures Forum and Koreo. The first post outlined the structure of the series. Below, Graham and Maureen look at the context of our times and how we can learn to read the landscape better so that we feel more at home in it rather than constantly overwhelmed.
“We are always here”
In 2005 our friend Eamonn Kelly wrote a book called Powerful Times. It was about the future, which we have always seen “through a glass, darkly”. With our eyes accustomed to the gloom, might it be possible, he asked, to see the way ahead just a little more clearly?
The short answer was no. Every plausible, evidence-rich, internally consistent and compelling version of the emerging future Kelly found could be matched with an equally plausible, evidence-rich, internally consistent and compelling story of a pathway leading in precisely the opposite direction.
It is a glorious condition of life itself. Contingency and indeterminacy is of the essence. As Iona Heath, a remarkable doctor who thinks deeply not just about quantity but also about quality of life, says, “Only because we do not understand everything and because we cannot control the future is it possible to live and to be human.”
At the same time, too much uncertainty can be disconcerting, even overwhelming. Kelly’s book takes its title from an episode in the turbulent times of the Renaissance. Pandolfo Petrucci, Lord of Siena was challenged by Machiavelli on his inconstant, confusing and frankly suspicious behaviour. His response was simple and disarming: “Wishing to make as few mistakes as possible, I arrange my affairs hour by hour, because the times are more powerful than our brains.”
That description surely resonates for many of us today. We live in a ‘VUCA world’, an ugly but now pervasive shorthand — volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous. A tangle of interconnected challenges, horsemen of the apocalypse, black swans, synchronous failures, cascading collapses and much more.
We have been living with these threats for some time. A global pandemic, for example, has been sitting at or close to the top of the global ‘risk register’ for at least a decade — alongside many other equally worrying and ultimately connected challenges.
However, we can do better than Petrucci. We know more. We have learned more about human capacity and ingenuity, especially in crisis. We can manage our confusion without tuning out the creative, life-giving energy of contingency, imagination and the unknown. We can learn to ‘keep calm’ — as all those wartime posters and their parodies tell us — not just to carry on, but to grow and adapt and expand into the challenges we face.
It was heartening then, in a call with three senior Scottish Government officials soon after the Coronavirus pandemic broke in spring 2020 and the UK went into lockdown, to find a calm acceptance, even recognition.
Unlike the Lord of Siena, these people had their wits about them. They were not going to let themselves be overwhelmed, nor did they mistake this crisis for the last one. They knew they were being drawn deeper into the tangle, but they were ready, not spooked. As one of them said early in the conversation: “We are always here. And we have been here before.”
An emergency arises out of emergence — trends gather pace, reach a tipping point, trigger disruption, interruption or worse, feed off each other in unexpected ways that threaten to overwhelm us.
It is helpful to discern three distinct modes, interlinked and mutually reinforcing. The global pandemic has made each one of these modes more obvious, more visible and more intense.
There is clearly a real emergency (or a ‘visible’ or ‘manifest’ emergency — they are all real): the incipient breakdown of systems we used to take for granted, from democratic governance and decision-making to ecological balance, the persistence of poverty, inequality and injustice which threaten social cohesion, the challenge of maintaining basic universal services like health care or clean water, cumulative carbon emissions triggering a climate emergency. And so on. The list is familiar and daunting.
At the same time there is a conceptual emergency: the pervading sense of cognitive dissonance experienced when the core concepts we have relied on to make sense of our world are no longer up to the task. We are confused. We don’t know what to believe any more. The ways of thinking and acting we have relied on in the past are no longer effective, or are even counter-productive. Our problems are showing up as paradoxes or intractable conundrums. We don’t know what to do, we have no faith in any of the ‘solutions’ on offer, but we must do something. This is a conceptual emergency.
The real and the conceptual emergencies are also felt in an existential emergency, in which their effects show up at the level of the human being, individually and collectively. The shared narratives and patterns of life which provide the glue that hold individuals, communities and societies together start coming apart. Societies become incoherent and fragmented, experiencing ‘culture wars’, a loosening of cultural solidarity and a loss of faith in shared institutions. Individuals can no longer make sense of their own lives — where to go, what to do, how to live. Our collective sanity and sense of continuing existence as a species on a liveable planet is cast in doubt.
These emergencies have been with us for a while. What has changed over time, and which the seismic disruption of the pandemic has highlighted, is the intensity — and indeed the extensity — of these three emergencies. They now hunt in packs.
The annual World Economic Forum Global Risks Report for 2020, for example, registers only real emergencies: climate action failure, weapons of mass destruction, extreme weather, water crises, cyber attacks, infectious diseases and so on.
Dig a little deeper, however, and each one reveals its roots in conceptual confusion and complexity; each one relates to and impacts on all the others; each one reflects recent trends in big data, fake news and an erosion of trust in the agencies responsible for providing reliable information and keeping us safe.
Each is also starting to show existential impact, contributing to rising levels of mental distress in most countries and cultures across the world — showing up in sleep problems, anxiety and depression, suicidal thoughts and behaviours, addictions, violence, relationship and family breakdown, the ‘diseases of despair’.
No wonder we go to such elaborate, often unconscious, lengths to keep acknowledgement of the real emergencies at bay.
But now the defensive bubble is burst. It is impossible to ignore the ravages of the Coronavirus pandemic across the planet, the harsh spotlight it has cast on structural poverty, inequality and racism, the prospect of economic disruption for years to come, the unravelling of consensual reasoning and even collective sanity.
Here we are. We are always here. And we have been here before.
Coming to our Senses
Just as there are three emergencies, so we also see — at a human level — three predictable responses.
One is defensive denial. This is the most common. We refuse to acknowledge that things have changed and strive to maintain the comfort of control and coherence by reasserting old truths with more conviction and urgency. We stress fundamentals, ignore inconvenient information, rationalise, blame others, deflect, interpret complexity in simple terms.
These strategies are mostly unconscious and are a default defence against too much unsettling information and rising psychological uncertainty. Because they are unconscious, we usually believe the distorted view of reality they present and are hard to persuade to any other point of view.
Denial can offer temporary comfort in new circumstances and will quell anxiety for a while until stability returns. But if it needs to be maintained over a prolonged period, the costs in psychological effort and energy mount. We become easy prey for despotic leaders, vulnerable to anyone or anything promising the restoration of certainty, simplicity and recovery of the familiar.
A second response is collapse. It usually follows the first, as the effort involved in tuning out reality eventually becomes too much and gives way. The result is not a return to good sense, but rather the opposite. Again largely unconsciously, people fall into a delusional or fantasy world where they make up a reality that is tolerable for them, however distorted it might be.
In that unreal world they can give up the struggle to make sense of the complexities around them, they can tune out, get lost in their fear and rage, grasp whatever conspiracy theory allows them to hang on, secure in their delusional belief that they will be fine. The collapse can come suddenly, like an avalanche, or as a slow slide into decay. This is a dangerous, psychotic level of defence against unbearable levels of anxiety.
If these responses were all that is available to cope with powerful times, the human species would have perished long before now. Fortunately, beyond denial and collapse, there is another response possible.
We can as individual persons or in groups adopt a more growth-oriented stance, neither denying nor tuning out the confusing and overwhelming complexity we experience. We can sit with the messiness, engage with it, develop and grow through it.
In some situations, when conditions are right, we can transcend the apparent chaos and expand into something genuinely new. We adapt to the times not as they are but as they are becoming, allowing the new circumstances to call forth capacities, individually and collectively, that we did not know we possessed. This is the growth response and it is transformative.
We are human beings. We can grow. Given the right conditions and support, we rise to the occasion.
The first step is awareness. If we are to move beyond denial or confusion, restore ourselves as agents rather than passive victims of circumstance, we must first become more conscious and skillful in tuning into the landscape we inhabit.
Roger Federer is a remarkably graceful tennis player. Like many great sportspeople he has learned through experience to read the game in all its complexity so that, even when playing at speed, he seems to have more time on the ball.
We need to learn to do the same in our own fast-changing environment. ‘Time on the ball’ in our context provides an opportunity for conscious reflection on what we are doing, how we are being. It prevents overwhelm and enables us skilfully to respond to events — even getting a few moves ahead of them — rather than just reacting to them.
We can start by tuning up our natural capacity to read our environment using three literacies: psychology, culture and knowledge.
We all have inner lives, an unconscious or at least a sub-conscious dimension to our behaviours of which we are usually unaware. We can tune into this and pay attention.
Noticing, reading and interpreting the psychological dimension of the landscape is a capacity we call ‘psychological literacy’. It allows us to perceive, recognise, feel and interpret our own and others’ psychological experiences as they occur, moment by moment, and spontaneously adjust our behaviour in response to that perception.
This gives us the option of moving beyond the default defence of denial and withdrawal as psychological protection against anxiety. We can engage with reality rather than denying it, drawing on other psychological resources and invoking a transformative growth response.
We can summon a spirit of hope, courage, invention and play and bring them consciously into the mix, in the moment, not in a rehearsed or rule-based way. We can become actively reflective, conscious of the impact of actions and inactions even as we are performing them. That capacity too can be calibrated — so that we don’t become paralysed by reflection, like the athlete who ‘chokes’ through thinking too much.
This capacity for self-awareness, for poise and grace in action, is widely regarded as the beginning of wisdom and of mastery. This is the first protection against denial as a default response to overwhelm — and thus the pathway to learning and growth.
We can also read our environment through a cultural lens. We are and always have been encultured beings.
Until the modern era in the West, and it is still the case in many of the world’s cultures, individuals lived their entire lives within one cultural context. From cradle to grave they were immersed in and shaped by societies that were deeply coherent. The expectation was that children should be socialised to understand and conform to the givens of life in that society. Those givens covered all that was expected for a successful life.
Culture in that context became invisible, like the water we swim in. Today we require a more conscious awareness of culture: an active acknowledgement that we are always operating inside a cultural context, and usually today not in one but in many. We live in cultures that live within us.
In the globally connected 21st century every act has cultural significance. Most of us are blind to all but the most obvious. But some people develop a subtle cultural awareness, which allows them to feel at home in a hybrid, shifting, multifarious culture that denies us more traditional sources of stability and identity.
‘Cultural literacy’ is the capacity to perceive, understand and participate fluently in a culture that shapes us while knowing there are also other cultures, to be able to meet those other cultures gracefully and respectfully and to transgress cultural norms when that is called for with conscious subtlety and respect. It is also to understand that every intervention is a cultural intervention.
Events of recent years have forced the issue of epistemology and worldview into everyday life. What are we to make of disagreements over ‘the science’ in relation to our pandemic response, or the White House’s famous insistence on ‘alternative facts’? We all now need to develop our capacity to read the deeper frames underpinning what constitutes knowledge in any situation, recognising there are many perspectives on what counts as ‘truth’, some more reliable than others.
We need to be aware of how knowledge is created in diverse knowledge landscapes and disciplines — economics, botany, psychology, poetry, politics, gardening, dance — and how difficult it is to weigh any one against the measures of the others.
Many of us of a certain age when asked ‘what is the meaning of life?’ automatically answer ‘42’. Douglas Adams’s famous joke has penetrated into popular culture. It turns precisely on our innate awareness of different ways of knowing which, while complete and reliable in themselves, are fundamentally incommensurable. Life is not an equation.
Knowledge literacy allows us to recognise these multiple systems of arriving at truth, to make the commitment to our own ‘truths’ more tentative and therefore open to new knowledge. It reminds us fundamentally that ‘objective’ knowledge derived from abstraction and reasoning is no more or less valid than ‘subjective’ knowledge gained from our own unique lived experience or the ‘felt’ knowledge that lives in the body. All of these channels are ways of making sense of our world — we can open them all if we choose, and at least become more aware of our assumptions about validity and trust.
Together, enhanced psychological, cultural and knowledge literacy give us an expanded capacity for reading the complex landscape of our lives. These literacies allow us to be in the messiness without being overwhelmed by it. They help us find our feet, come to our senses, and prepare for more effective action.
The arc of the moral universe may be long and bending towards justice (as Martin Luther King Jr put it) — but it helps if we can read the emerging landscape with sufficient clarity to know how and where and when to put our shoulders to the wheel.
by Graham Leicester and Maureen O’Hara, International Futures Forum