#21: OBSTACLES TO TRANSFORMATION

The first response to my manifesto came from Ray, my tax man, and he was dubious to say the least.

“It sounds great,” he admitted, “but no way does it happen.  We—and by this I mean the whole human species—is not capable of changing that much, that soon.  You’re trying to put square pegs in round holes, without a knife to whittle with.  No way.”

I pointed out that one of the things that define our species is its malleability.  We are always reinventing ourselves.

“But not to this extent,” Ray insisted.  “You’re talking about transformation on a global scale—something twenty times the size and scope of the Renaissance,  and all crammed not into several centuries, but into several decades if we’re to have any chance of avoiding being sucked under by climate meltdown.”

I answered that people who believed in a flat earth sailed west nonetheless, people whose religious faith insisted God made the earth the center of the universe managed to figure out that our planet orbited around the sun.  That must have seemed enormous to them, even if it seems a matter of course to us in retrospect.  They just did what they needed to in the face of what seemed overwhelming odds.

“Come on,” Ray laughed.  “You’re talking about retiring the whole Industrial Revolution—just for starters.  This would be the biggest deal ever in human history.”

I could only shrug.  Ray had a point.  This is a large load of becoming very different over a very short time.

“But all that is trumped by necessity,” I finally responded.  “Big or little, we have to do it.  The option is disintegration and misery.”

Ray said he couldn’t argue with that.  “But,” he added, “that doesn’t mean it will happen.  People have a long record of making themselves miserable as well as making themselves transcendent.  Plus you’re asking them to start their change before their misery shows up.  Wisdom in anticipation of something that hasn’t yet happened is a very tall order.  You better have directions to give people, because otherwise it’s going to be over most everyone’s head.”

Again I had to defer to Ray.  It is a tall order.

Indeed, my mind spent the rest of the day in the shadow of that tallness, trying to visualize the tasks it imposes on us, and what kind of mindset we need to accomplish them.  My goal was to sketch out a road map of how to get from here to there, but the enormity eventually overwhelmed me.  So what I ended up with was just a list of four large obstacles to taking up the work of transformation.  All of them play prominent roles in our personal and social character.  Since character and the understanding it generates are what will empower us to reconfigure, I figured identifying the obstructions pinning us in place is at least a good way to start starting.  We will certainly get no further until we master at least these four:

1. Fear.  Growing trust is central to transformation and fear, of course, destroys trust.  So in trying to get a grip on how afraid we are, we’d best start not with addressing the threats, but rather concentrate on the way fear—appropriate or inappropriate—reverberates through the entire society, going from specific to generalized, from the learned to the anticipated.  Then we can work our way back to engaging fear’s primary sources.  Reducing fear’s echo requires identifying what we’re afraid of whenever it arises and then identifying all the secondary effects that fear generates.  The antidote is pausing to examine and understand rather than acting instantly on reflex.  The goal isn’t to eliminate the capacity to be afraid—that would be both pointless and suicidal—but rather to tame it, manage its projections, and replace it as the lens through which we assess the world.   Being fearful will keep us from reaching out and from taking risks.  And we will need to reach way out and take a lot of risks to have any hope of handling what’s in store for us.

2. Self centeredness.  Like merging traffic, transformation works best when we look out for the other and tame our appetite for being first in line.  Making more out of less and apportioning a shrinking pie require empathy and compassion and the willingness to on occasion, defer.  Those traits allow us to integrate our needs with everyone else’s, where the self centered always end up behaving like oil in water.  The pressure the situation will apply to us will be unsupportable unless we can reconcile ourselves with the other.  We act on those more selfless traits all the time when faced with emergencies.  What needs happen is to expand that approach until it becomes a constant in our behavior rather than an exception.

3. Control.   We expect to be in the driver’s seat and that need to control ultimately confines us to a very limited set of options.  It is also particularly unsuited to transformation, a process in which everything is up for grabs—and even more so since our transformation is a response to a physical world degenerating into flux, unpredictability, and disruption.  We need to get really good at flowing with developments rather than directing events.  It will feel like being lost sometimes, but it is the only way we can then be found in a very different place than we started out.

4. Anger.  The impulse to rage when confronted with the massive necessity of change is perhaps the most insidious of my four obstacles.  Anger stops everything else in its tracks, disables our sensibilities, and foreshortens the social playing field to just the immediate present tense.  It also demonizes the other and cripples self knowledge and perspective.  We treat anger as an act of nature but, in fact, being angry is a choice we make—perhaps by default but made none the less.  And exercising anger means accepting an entire logic and epistemology that is, again, self constructed.  While anger may be impossible to extinguish, we can decide never to act on it and in so doing, initiate our transformation.

 

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3 Responses to #21: OBSTACLES TO TRANSFORMATION

  1. Ruth Friend says:

    I’m likin truedog more every week. He’s undersome transformation himself.

    R

  2. Perry Anderson says:

    You are, of course, right, Dog, and you rightly point out that the obstacles we face can be overcome only through our spiritual transformation inasmuch as what limits us is our own human makeup. We have, of course, been working on that for millenia. The task, from a historical and philosophical perspective, seems itself an insurmountable obstacle, yet, if we do not keep trying, we surrender what little hope we that that we shall overcome. Keep the faith!

  3. Carolyn Taylor says:

    Your four points seem to get at the forest-level set of awarenesses that indeed are or would be fundamental to real transformation. (At some points in reading them, I found myself recalling the late wise man John Gardner’s seminal gem, Self-Renewal. I would question one wording, however, when you say “…being angry is a choice we make—perhaps by default but made none the less.” Do you mean being angry or acting out in anger? From my point of view, perhaps reflective of my bent as a psychotherapist of a largely narrative-therapy orientation, anger itself is no more or little more of a choice than fear. You seem to acknowledge that it would be folly to seek to eliminate fear (surely the most primordial of emotions – in the whole animal kingdom – presumably the first emotion known to humankind) but I would make a nearly similar case for anger and instead put the focus on choosing to act upon anger rather than making the quest one of jousting against anger itself. Yes, in some cases, the very act of developing empathy and compassion (noted in your 2nd point) can mean choosing to see the other’s point of view that can indeed mitigate or quite immediately put anger in check. But anger at injustice is not even, imho, an obstacle but rather a mostly healthy response to true (and not myopic, self-centered) injustice. It’s what we do with anger, whether we let it control us, divert us from our higher priorities or better self that strikes me as the target to address. Perhaps that’s part of what you allude to by saying “perhaps by default” but, if so, it was a bit opaque for me to infer that. Other than this quibble (? or perhaps more substantial than a quibble), I endorse. (And having been at Stanford and the demonstrations in your era there, I also send salutations. The newest alumni mag is the reason I found your blog here.)

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