Over the past week or so, many of us have been recalling where we were when we heard about the attack on the Twin Towers and other targets.
I was awake in the middle of the night. The evening before I had attended a difficult and conflictual board meeting of the organisation where I worked at the time.
I woke up and began to mull over the conflict and couldn’t get back to sleep. I switched on the radio hoping it would soothe me back to sleep. Instead news of the attack on the twin towers jolted me completely awake. Immediately my thoughts went back to the context I was in, the harmful cycle we seemed stuck in. We had to do something in the organisation to move beyond conflict. We couldn’t stay stuck.
This though was conflict on a new scale. How could you experience so much hurt and pain that you would choose to fly into a building? Carrying others with you? I knew that this was a new challenge. I recalled something I had once heard explaining ‘violence as the language of the emotionally illiterate’. Yes, and the emotionally silenced.
My pondering that night led to lots of things. Studying conflict and conflict resolution. The role of emotions in our soul life and how we work with them. Undertaking a doctorate on listening. Striving to become a better listener in my own life.
And yet I continue to feel deep disappointment with the way we focus on reactive ways of being in the world. Reactive and not creative.
I often ponder how that shift is the move of a single letter. C. C standing perhaps for consciousness. Greater consciousness.
Parker J Palmer lamented at the time the inability of the US to take time to grieve before rushing into reaction. To truly acknowledge the feelings and reflect on the situation. It takes time but could it have led to wiser options?
When reactive, we rush. We declare wars. On nations. On ideologies. On drugs. On disease. That’s the reactive path. It plots statistics to prove or disprove its notions. Tries to find weapons which will destroy the enemy or keep it at bay. We see it in our approach to events of that day in September 2001. In industrial agriculture which keeps upping the ante in supplying more chemicals, more sophisticated genetic modification, without appreciating that we are in reactive mode and creating massive cycles of negative reinforcement. The more pests or problems, the bigger our weapons.
Reactivity doesn’t allow wonder. Or grief. Or encourage us to observe more deeply. It doesn’t trust the deep wisdom in problems that is a calling to a deeper, wider and wiser understanding. Instead we act and keep acting. Sometimes tweaking the narrative along the way so that we can make our actions fit. Need to invade Iraq as well as Afghanistan? Hmm, what about weapons of mass destruction? Want to open up instead of insisting on lockdown? Increase vaccination rates! Hey, that’s not exactly successful if we look at Singapore or Israel. Well, send out boosters!
What about the factors that cause the phenomena we seek to address? How can we sit with those long enough that we try something different? Martin Amis’ suggestion that instead of dropping bombs we could have flooded Afghanistan with food consignment packages marked ‘Lend Lease’ (the multinational developer and manager of the Twin Towers).
This may have seemed foolish at the time. There were infinite possibilities for fresh and innovative action we could have chosen. If the reason terrorism arises is that people feel they lack control and resources and experience alienation, then we could have offered whatever would support the development of control, economic stability, education and connection. A lot less lethal than bombs for all involved and less costly than the hundreds of thousands of lives sacrificed and the huge amount of aid and military dollars spent.
And with disease, how about we look at the factors that may contribute, for example, to zoonosis (the transfer of disease from animals to humans). Factors such as climate change and environmental degradation. Understanding how chemical and industrial agriculture affect habitat, which may result in bats, for example, moving from forests to agricultural areas where perhaps they can contaminate pigs, who can pass on the disease to humans.
Or if the viral escape from the lab hypothesis is not just another conspiracy theory, then how about we focus on slowly developing greater trust, cooperation and collaboration beyond vested interests in our research facilities all over the world?
Perhaps there are other reasons that the Covid 19 outbreaks soared in the particular areas where pollution and large-scale industrial agriculture are highest. Do we need to address those challenges to make the world a safer place? Not just for the development of pandemics but of all kinds of diseases and world challenges?
And then how do we live with a disease in ways that respond to it more creatively. What will make people safer without infringing on mental health or insisting on a chemical response? How do we build immunity for all disease?
I don’t have the expertise to answer these questions, but I’m sure it is both a lot more complex than the answers that are currently provided and a lot more nuanced to particular communities, nations and situations.
Lots of difficult questions tied up with the ways we have habitually treated our world for many decades begin to surface when we step back. Not easy questions. Complex, fraught with uncertainty, and requiring our uniquely human creativity.
It’s the same in our own lives. It’s very easy to blame and project, to turn away from the complexity but if we can take a step back and choose to turn towards the difficulties we’ll see a much bigger picture and be able to try out new and creative responses which move us towards healing.
I watched a series of documentaries recently that amply demonstrated the dangers of reactivity and huge destructive outcomes post September 11. I’ve also seen some extraordinary creative responses such as this man’s choice and this woman’s journey. Responses that came from choosing away from reactivity. Embracing forgiveness and creativity.
What marks a creative response is that it refuses to be bound by past patterns or societal expectations. Instead it relies on trusting uniqueness, on giving our intellectual logic-bound mentality a rest in favour of including open-hearted intuition. It doesn’t deny grief or anger, it uses them as a source of positive action. It is patient enough to act with a larger long-term goal in mind. It takes unusual steps, unique to the situation and individual or groups involved. It refuses to reinforce negative cycles of vengeance and destruction.
Although I can’t recall the details of that particular conflict in that organisation 20 years ago, we did take positive steps to address our difficulty more collaboratively. After I left I witnessed that they had to be learned and re-learned.
I’m also still on the path of becoming more capable of seeking a creative way to act and choosing away from reactivity. I know it’s not a one-off exercise. We have to keep meeting and choosing to work through and shed all the layers of resistance that get in the way of a truly creative and generative life. For us. For our organisations. For the world. And we can begin.