[P2P-F] Fwd: Our responses to existential threats
michel at p2pfoundation.net
Thu Dec 5 21:06:44 CET 2013
---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Tom Atlee <cii at igc.org>
Date: Thu, Dec 5, 2013 at 12:37 PM
Subject: Our responses to existential threats
To: Michel Bauwens <michel at p2pfoundation.net>
Tom Atlee's Co-Intelligence Journal . The Co-Intelligence Symbol . What
this message is about: I explore here the diversity of responses - my own
Tom Atlee's Co-Intelligence Journal
. The Co-Intelligence Symbol .
*What this message is about: I explore here the diversity of responses - my
own and others' - to existential threats like extreme climate change and I
offer one way to map and make sense of those responses.*
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Our responses to existential
The dance of vulnerability and strength
*Note: This essay makes an interesting companion to my earlier essay Crisis
Fatigue and the Co-Creation of Positive Possibilities
In my last post I said that in this post I would "discuss some of my own
strategies for affirming life in the strange circumstances in which we find
ourselves... in the face of the possible end of civilization or of the
human race itself."
Working on this has turned out to be more complex, interesting,
challenging, and productive than I expected - especially since my own
responses to our "strange circumstances" have been changing so often, even
day to day and hour to hour.
It turns out this is not unusual. For example, many studies of Elisabeth
Kübler-Ross' five stages of grieving and loss - denial, anger, bargaining,
depression, and acceptance - note that people can experience these in any
order, in any intensity, and for any length of time. For this reason, these
supposed "stages" are perhaps more usefully understood as "dimensions" of
the grieving process.
So it is with our responses to huge existential threats*: We can find
ourselves in twenty minutes of intense anger or transcendent peace before
moving on to some other response. Or, at the other extreme, we may settle
into a routine of activism - or depression - with only minor variations for
months or years on end. Such reactions are shaped by internal and external
influences unique to each person and situation.
In my own case, I have been exploring the dynamics driving our existential
threats intensively for over a year while in the last few months I have
also been exploring the transformational vision of my friend Miki Kashtan.
Miki is a leading practitioner and trainer of Nonviolent Communication who
has articulated her worldview in two book manuscripts about which she asked
my feedback. Through her and my friend and colleague John Abbe (another NVC
practitioner), I've been exploring the personal, social, and evolutionary
implications of what I now summarize as "life energy" - that which
motivates and guides our choices and actions. This life energy takes many
forms, including our needs and desires... our passions and callings... our
urges and drives... our values and principles... our dreams and
aspirations... our vitality and exuberance... and our feelings about
everything that matters to us, everything that is important and precious to
Our individual and collective life energies are both indelible realities
and resources for possibility. I've been imagining what movements and
societies would be like that were explicitly and effectively grounded in
meeting the needs of that energy by using that energy.
This mix of end times explorations and life energy realities and
possibilities has proven very intense. I've found myself swinging
especially between inspiration and depression, but that's only part of it.
I go into states of surrender where "it doesn't matter". Sometimes the idea
that "what I do doesn't really matter" is oddly but sweetly liberating -
freeing me into quiet tolerance, peaceful appreciation, and relaxed
activity. At other times the idea that nothing I do matters weighs me down
into hopelessness. On some days I find myself living in a kind of highly
conscious denial - totally engaged in a bubble of creative activity
*as-if*what I do matters, while remaining quite aware that outside my
existential threats are growing, radiating their toxic nihilism that, by
some grace, simply doesn't impinge on my soul. Sometimes I just love what I
do and the preciousness of the people and things around me simply because
they are expressions of that remarkable life energy which is pulsating in
and around me in the moment, regardless of what may happen in the future -
a perspective that derives its magic precisely from the imminent
impermanence of it all, a view of life already well known to Buddhists,
poets, and many people who are dying or have lived through death, among
In the last two weeks as I tried repeatedly to usefully describe this
shifting emotional landscape, I've found myself swinging even more severely
between these and other states and responses. That emotional, spiritual,
and existential upheaval generated much writing activity but no coherent
understanding to lead me beyond the raw messiness of it all. This
difficulty was exacerbated by my commitment to hold the whole reality
conveyed by the expression "things are getting better and better and worse
and worse, faster and faster, simultaneously."
Then yesterday morning much of this "mess" came together in an intriguingly
coherent (to me) understanding that I will attempt to share here.
Our responses to existential threats - a map
In the drawing below and the description that follows it, I'll try to
summarize what I came to see about our responses to existential threats.
This map is based on four quadrants generated by two axes. The vertical
axis ranges from *LIFE ENHANCEMENT* at the top to *LIFE EROSION* at the
bottom. It reflects a sense that in the face of gigantic challenges, we can
reach into life or turn against it, internally and externally. Our
responses in that regard can be placed along this axis.
The other axis, the horizontal one, ranges from *LETTING-GO* on the left to
*ACTION* at the right, reflecting the extent to which we are attached to
the outcomes of what we do. The "Action" end of that axis might also be
called "Agency". (I found it hard to choose the right word to describe the
right side of the map. But its essence is that we are seeking to have
impact of some kind, whereas on the left side we are simply present with
reality - in either joyful or depressed ways.)
These two axes create the four quadrants, which I've loosely labeled
PRESENCE* in the upper left, *INCLUSIVE CARING ACTION* in the upper right,
*ANGER* in the lower right, and *DESPAIR* in the lower left. I think of
these as distinct but overlapping energies that tend to characterize our
responses to the profound challenge presented by existential threats.
Straddling the axes we find other realms of response that contain energies
from both of the quadrants near them. Between Appreciative Presence and
Inclusive Caring Action, for example, we find *SERVICE*. Between Inclusive
Caring Action and Anger we find *CONFRONTATION*. Between Anger and Despair
we find *CYNICISM*. And between Despair and Appreciative Presence, we find
Join me now for a short tour through those energies and some of their
manifestations, moving clockwise around the map starting in the upper left.
Exploring this map more deeply
First we'll explore *APPRECIATIVE PRESENCE* where we focus on Being, on
spiritual matters, on the beauty of the present moment, and on radical
acceptance, non-judgment, and humility in the face of Mystery. We
experience here a kind of positive surrender, a letting go into a larger,
ultimately life-affirming reality. We may have arrived in this state
through meditation, through grace, or through the soul-shaking realization
of an existential threat. Our radical acceptance may be shaped by some
transcendent perspective provided by religion, spiritual experience, or
science (for example, the amazing 13.7 billion year "great story of
evolution"). We appreciate life and everyone and everything around us as
miraculous and precious, because they embody transcendent dimensions while
at the same time being profoundly impermanent. At a very physical,
scientific level, we may have seen how the complexity of the dynamic
systems within which we live - both social and natural - make our coveted
outcomes fundamentally uncertain and uncontrollable. In any case, we think
things like "whatever will be will be" or "let go, let God" or "whatever
happens is the only thing that could have".
Following the map clockwise, we find more action orientation and
intentionality in our appreciative state and move into *SERVICE* which
manifests as various forms of help. This mode starts off in the left
quadrant as charity - especially compassion, lovingkindness, and mindful
support - addressing in a personal way the suffering and struggle created
by our dysfunctional social systems. As we move further toward the activist
side of the map, our service manifests more in community work like
facilitating meetings, mapping or developing resources, or participating in
gifting, sharing, and support networks. To the extent we retain some of the
detachment-from-outcome that characterizes the upper left quadrant, we may
be particularly drawn to facilitative and catalytic roles, networking, and
spirit-centered activism rather than the more outcome-driven modes present
further into the upper right quadrant.
The more immersed we become in that upper right mode of *INCLUSIVE CARING
ACTION*, the more we identify as change agents seeking to make a positive
difference in the world at large, especially seeking to transform social
systems that generate widespread suffering, destruction, and existential
threats. I see this energy epitomized, for example, by active nonviolent
systemic change efforts, especially those guided by systemic thinking about
leverage, and by Gandhi's insights about the strategic potency of love,
truth, noncooperation, and a positive program - a combination which
possessed what he called "soul force". (Gandhi's approach is basic to - and
enhanced by - Miki's vision.) My co-intelligence work to "access the wisdom
of the whole on behalf of the whole" is in this quadrant, along with all
other efforts to "create a world that works for all". There is lots of
systemic and cultural creativity going on in this quadrant. I believe most
actions there are nonviolent - a connotation carried by the word
"inclusive" in the quadrant's name.
But sometimes we feel more angry energy, more outrage. Then the defining
quality of our response becomes *CONFRONTATION*. We find ourselves engaged
in critiques and demonstrations that, although they may not involve
physical violence against people, may include angry verbal attacks, an
adversarial us-versus-them attitude, and even damage to the property of the
people and institutions we see at fault. There's a lot of "speak truth to
power" energy here and a call to commitment and courage in battle on behalf
of Life, albeit with less love than we find when those calls occur as part
of a fully nonviolent effort.
When our energies are totally shaped by an intention to dominate and
vanquish, we find ourselves fully in the lower right quadrant - *ANGER*.
Here we engage in targeted attacks on blameworthy people and institutions.
In its rawest forms, the focused energy of anger can manifest as terrorism
and a determination to "tear it all down". We seethe: "If you're not
outraged, you don't understand what's going on!" Those toxic people,
organizations and systems must be stopped or destroyed at all costs. It is
us or them. Life and decency depend on our taking them down.
But all too often our passionate anger or activist efforts just feel
impotent. Impotent passion produces *CYNICISM*. Caught between aggressive
and passive impulses, we feel bitterness and develop an actively nihilistic
take on life. We make it clear to everyone that the bad in the world is
overwhelming and the good is illusory. Our hopelessness here has a
disturbed, disturbing vitality to it. In its most extreme forms it can
actively suck the life out of other more life-positive responses, which
places it squarely on the "Life Erosion" end of the vertical axis. But note
that it arises from frustrated caring.
If we feel totally impotent and experience crushing hopelessness we find
ourselves in *DESPAIR*, in the lower left quadrant. Here we sink into a
sad, disconnected, passive energy, giving up, feeling apathetic and
depressed. From our perspective the situation is simply too overwhelming,
too disastrous, too self-annihilating to bear. Nothing can really be done
and all meaning and vitality drain away. Whatever...
Despair is the dark manifestation of *WITHDRAWAL* on the "letting-go" side
of the horizontal axis. The despair facet of withdrawal manifests as
"giving up", resigning ourselves to pained, often awkward indifference.
But, in more general terms, withdrawal on this map means simply moving away
from the demands of life and away from the attachments that bring pain -
especially away from the monumental demands of existential challenges. We
can withdraw into entertainment, pleasure, busy-ness, and/or the more
confrontable challenges of personal life, home life, and work. If we happen
to be in the brighter, upper-left manifestations of withdrawal, we move
away from challenge into enjoyment where our "letting go" energy manifests
as going with the flow. To the extent we truly engage with life while
letting go of outcomes, however, we find ourselves again in the upper left
quadrant being an Appreciative Presence. Which bring us full circle.
Now, in the middle of this circle, where all of these diverse energies
intersect, countering and weakening each other, there's a realm I've
labeled *"NORMALCY"*. Most of us live our lives there, held in place by
psychological and social forces that conserve the status quo. Many of us
live there quite oblivious to the mounting threats around us. As we go
about our daily business and bump into bad news about the world, we may
drift towards one quadrant or another but we soon find ourselves drawn back
by the demands and attractions of normal life. Or we may be caught between
simultaneous opposite responses - like despair and activism - that hang us
up in status quo behaviors and institutions by default, whether we want to
be there or not.
The arrows on the fine diagonal lines radiating out from the "Normalcy"
circle suggest that the further we depart from "Normalcy" in any given
direction, the more we manifest the energy of the quadrant we are moving
into. But the psychological and social gravitational pull of "Normalcy" is
what we call *DENIAL*. When we're truly in denial - especially when our
denial is supported by our social environment...by media, politics,
economics, and our friends and family - we seldom venture very far out into
any of the quadrants, but stay in the middle doing what we can to maintain
a sense that things are "normal", that the familiar status quo is what will
continue to exist, so we're sort of going to be ok or at least not horribly
worse off (even when somewhere inside us we know that's not true). If we
all act like things are normal maybe really horrible stuff won't happen.
After writing this, I noticed that I hadn't mentioned hope much in this
map. Thinking about this, I realized that hope occurs in different forms
playing different roles, depending on where it shows up on the map. In the
Appreciative Presence quadrant it shows up as "trust in the universe", a
faith that in the larger picture whatever happens makes larger sense. In
the Inclusive Caring Action quadrant, it shows up as a belief - however
frail - that our actions could make a positive difference. Or we think,
along with Czechoslovakia's dissident president Vaclav Havel, that hope is
"not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty
that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out."
When immersed in Anger, of course, we hope the worst for our enemies and
the enemies of life, whereas in Cynicism and Despair, we experience hope as
a sorry delusion that ultimately abandons those who believe in it, dropping
them painfully into the hard hopelessness of cruel reality.
Finally, in "Normalcy", hope plays a role as a coping mechanism, a buffer
that helps us bear not facing horrible realities and possibilities. We
"hope" those situations will get handled by someone somehow, because we
don't feel we can put effective attention on them. This is the kind of hope
most people seem to long for and hold on to, because there really is too
much out there for any one person to deal with, especially with family,
bills, a job (if you're lucky), and all the rest of it. In "Normalcy" hope
is a way to not have to think about things, which makes it frail when
crises continue to impinge ever more intensely on our awareness, forcing us
willy nilly out of the seeming security of "Normalcy" into other parts of
this response map.
There's more to all this of course, even if we take what's here as useful.
At the very least it can all be deepened and explored further, and there
are probably responses I've overlooked.
But this picture covers a wide range of my own responses to existential
threats like extreme climate change, as well as most of the responses I see
and hear around me. And since I personally find it an interesting way to
track my own tendencies as I face the unthinkable, I thought I'd share it
on the chance that you, too, might resonate with it. One of its special
qualities, for me, is that it gives me a modicum of distance from the whole
drama, allowing me the healing equanimity of witnessing my own inner
dynamics and realizing they are probably shared by many other people.
I might say that my goal with all this is to help myself and others move
into the upper quadrants, away from denial, despair and rage into greater
life, peace, meaning, and impact. That's clearly a good intention and is
for sure part of why I'm sharing it.
However, under the influence of Miki Kashtan and others, I also view all
these diverse responses as - in themselves - legitimate expressions of life
energy and human caring in the face of truly profound challenges. Joanna
Macy, in particular, has noted how despair and rage are manifestations of
frustrated caring, and that working through them with others can free our
caring into positive collective action.
This latter understanding can increase our compassion for everyone as we
find ourselves and others pulled through these manifestations of frustrated
or free-flowing care. So while I think it is good to strive to make things
better - something I've done all my life - I am learning that it is also
very healthy and necessary to come to terms with What Is, inside and around
us - to be real and authentic about what is happening.
As we try to move beyond denial by courageously facing disturbing social
and environmental realities, we can realize that compassion and empathy -
solid pathways to move beyond denial of the *emotional* realities involved
in the crises we face - are essential aspects of that evolutionary journey
we're all on together.
If we can truly do these things well together, we will have enhanced and
served life honorably and wisely, regardless of what happens to us and
everything we cherish as the future unfolds. And if we happen to be able,
at the same time, to play effective roles in helping life on earth find an
even more flourishing way to persist in greater harmony, I think that is a
true abundance of icing on a very, very big cake we can present to our
great great grandchildren and to the living planetary Mother we share.
- Note: Challenges that could trigger "the possible end of civilization
or the human race" are what some theorists are calling "existential risks,
threats or challenges". I use that concept in this post, especially in the
context of possible extreme global heating and climate chaos making earth
uninhabitable for us and many other complex organisms. Many other
existential risks have been explored, for example in these lists:
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