Emergent Paradox: How to Prepare for the Unknowable Future.
The news feels pretty old at this point, though the gong rang most resoundingly in the collective consciousness with the release of the film An Inconvenient Truth, a mere 12 years ago.
We are in trouble, and although we have a pretty clear bead on the roots of the problems, reaching back 10,000 years or so, we are struggling with how to set things right, and do so before we plummet into worldwide, cultural and societal collapse.
The reasoning is mournfully circular: we, humankind, have gotten ourselves into this mess because of the root assumptions of the dominant culture, which has spread itself throughout the world. Daniel Quinn identifies these fundamental assumptions as: 1) that humans own the planet, 2) there is only one right way to live and it is our way, 3) therefore we have the right to decide who will live and who will die.
Everything we perceive, and any step-by-step solution we might generate, is bound to be tinged by those suppositions. Implicit bias constitutes one of the most powerful forces within any culture. We don’t learn how we do things here by others explaining this to us, but primarily through the contextual clues that saturate our every waking moment from within the womb to our death.
To destroy key underpinnings of our culture feels like we are destroying ourselves, so enmeshed are we with our own culture.
We have what is known as an outside of context problem (OCP) which Wikipedia describes as “a challenge utterly outside a given group’s… set of experience. Because an OCP is something that has never happened before, the end result is unpredictable.”
Much of what our entire context has taught us to believe, implicitly and explicitly, is exactly the problem. So, by definition, the solution exists outside of what we know to be true down to our marrow. But as Albert Einstein famously said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Dang.
We spend at least the first 20 years of our lives learning to orient to the world as it is given to us, relying on the guidance of those older than we in formulating this working framework. Then we have to use that understanding to survive within that structure.
Then somewhere along the way, if we are very, very, lucky, we begin the process of deconstructing that understanding, tossing out the nonsense we were fed and trying very hard to fill in the holes with more reliable information. For my generation and those adjacent, that has left very little time and energy to correct matters, as the best of our capacity has been left in a trail behind us.
Working for a living, child-rearing, and simple aging takes its toll.
The younger generations have started life by being handed a bag of crap for their future, a future that will necessarily consist of undoing all the harm the rest of us have caused while also generating an entirely different way, a much, much better way, of doing things, just as they themselves have barely gotten a grip on the world as it currently functions. They were birthed onto wildly shifting sands.
But how do we act in a way completely at odds with what we know in our bones to be true? Or, for younger people, how do we act in a way that is essentially contrary to what our parents and grandparents insist is so?
We need some bridge concepts, metaphorical stepping stones from the reality we have known to the one we literally cannot imagine.
When I turned 50 years old, I went tandem skydiving to affirm my trust in life. During my one hour of training, the instructor walked us through the process step by step. At one point, he described how, once we had reached the altitude of 10,000 feet, we would move to the open door of the airplane and sit on the ledge just before jumping.
He said, “At that point, I will peel your fingers from their death grip on the door frame, will count to three, and launch us out the door.” “Death grip,” I thought, it’s pretty simple. Why does he think I’ll have a death grip? I always liked flying, so for the ride up, I was calm and cool. Then, when we reached 10,000 feet, the videographer opened the door! Alarm bells rang like claxons in my head.
Rationally I knew that skydiving meant that we would of course have to first open the door. Then step out of it into the infinite sky onto nothing at all. But the reality of just the door opening exploded my reason altogether. Fortunately, I was trained well in obedience to authority as a child, so when the instructor kindly urged me to scooch toward the door, I did.
And sure enough, although I have no memory of grabbing the door frame at all, he certainly did have to peel my fingers away before launching us out above the New Mexican desert, to descend face down at 141 miles per hour.
That is basically what we have to do now. We need to generate some general values-based guidelines for action, guidelines based on what we want instead of the principles we have been raised to trust, and launch ourselves, not knowing what the outcome will be. And unlike my skydiving, we will not have someone to guide us who had done this dozens of times before.
Freefall first, hoping for a non-deadly landing.
We’ll launch ourselves towards lands that we cannot now imagine but will create as we fall.
Luckily, we do have the help of some thinkers who have some great ideas about how to approach this outside of context problem. As Einstein also famously said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
Daniel Quinn speaks of the story that “mother culture” whispers into our ears from the moment we arrive here, and Charles Eisenstein speaks of telling a new story.
Winona LaDuke, Roxanne Swentzel, Lyla June Johnston, and many other indigenous activists are helping us to re-access older ways of being in relationship to food, place and community. Elke Duerr makes films that imagine our taking a place within the natural world, instead of outside of it.
Adrienne Maree Brown, in Emergent Strategy, tells us, “There is such urgency in the multitude of crises we face, it can make it hard to remember that in fact it is urgency thinking (urgent, constant unsustainable growth) that got us to this point, and that our potential success lies in doing deep, slow, intentional work.”
Does even reading that sentence make you feel a bit anxious? Yes? That anxiety is rooted in the very brainwashing from which we are trying to free ourselves. That anxiety tells us that she’s onto something. This very thing we need to do to survive feels very dangerous.
If we want a world where people care for each other, then we have to take the space to care for each other, now. If we want a world where we work constructively together, then we must be mindful of how we are working together. We have to slow down in order to turn our trajectory enough to end up in a better place than the one we are leaving behind.
If we act from a space of fear, then we are bound to create solutions that also contain the problems fear generates. If we want a world free of plundering the natural world, if we want to move towards a world where people treat each other with respect and value each other’s gifts, then we’ll need to unplug from the lies we’ve been told about scarcity and the acceptability of collateral damage.
This does not require more time, it only requires bringing this intention to how we already spend our time. Let us bring this to our family and work relationships, and to our organizing meetings.
So much of this kind of new thinking is not new at all, but is what indigenous communities, artists, mystics and healers have been saying all along. Brown and others provide a useful segue from our dead-world thinking to a way of being and acting within a world of connection. So let us strap ourselves to one another, peel our fingers from the open doorway, and jump.
Laura Ramnarace, M.A. was driven to earn a Master’s degree in Conflict Resolution while on her quest to find out why we can’t just all get along. She has published a book on inter-personal conflict, ‘Getting Along: The Wild, Wacky World of Human Relationship’, published a newspaper column also titled ‘Getting Along’, and submits regularly to Rebelle Society. Since 1999, she has provided training to a wide variety of groups on improving personal, working and inter-group relationships. She founded ‘Nonviolent Action New Mexico’ for the purpose of educating people about the power of strategic nonviolent action as a means of constructive change. She is currently working on a solar punk novel set in southwestern New Mexico.