i just got off a call with two people who are starting up a program for strategic planning for non-profits. they had heard about my work on The Light Ahead podcast and wanted to chat with me about next economies and NGO networks.
on the call, one of them used the metaphor of “blowing things up” a few times. in that they had created a plan for their work, but blew it up last week (which was both frustrating and good). or that non-profit sector employees are in a different place than many board members and funders, and those relationships need to change (or “blow up”) for real transformation to be possible.
i wondered, asking that if we’re trying to get from here to there (or if we’re just trying to get out of the “here” we identify as undesirable), what is that process like?
what do we call it? change? transformation? culture shift?
what metaphors do we use for it?
and are these metaphors violent? scary? doom-and-gloomy? apocalyptic?
do we perceive this as a painful, difficult experience? (does your body even react viscerally because of this question, because it can already imagine the answer?)
do we assume there will be some kind of revolution? and, given our limited understandings of revolution, do we imagine it as hard, bloody, with much sacrifice and death?
it’s important to consider the metaphors we use in how we understand and talk about what’s next.
it’s also important to be clear about whether we are in the camp that is a) making incremental shifts so that there is less harm done within current systems, or b) working from a totally different set of assumptions, values, and ways of being. (or c) some mix of the two.)
to be explicit, i’m pretty sure i’m in B. i tried camp A for a while but the kind of energy required to say “NO” so strongly and so repeatedly always turned into a kind of self-incendiary anger that my body just couldn’t sustain. (check out block, build, be as a framework for figuring out where you might be if you’re not sure – their model supports being in multiple categories.)
in my very non-scientific way (sorry, entomologists), i’ve been using the metaphor of a butterfly chrysalis to describe the process, as such:
an intact caterpillar decides one day to create a cocoon for itself. then, magically, they break down into liquid form while maintaining the imaginal discs they had been carrying since birth. (tangent: imaginal discs are actually magic, by the way, and they are the genetic codes that create new body parts: caterpillars go around carrying the seeds for wings before they know they’ll be able to fly. (this is real.)) then, somehow they reconfigure themselves and emerge as a being capable of flight, light enough to float on air and to travel with millions of their peers to other worlds thousands of miles away.
(brief pause for the several questions i have for these beings that i’m just going to leave here: does this hurt? what happens in how you understand the world and your surroundings? as a butterfly, do you remember what being a caterpillar was like?)
on the other hand, the metaphors i have been given from mainstream media are more in the direction of fear-based, apocalyptic, individualistic, and escapist. this is evidenced by the fact that it’s way easier for me to imagine the gritty details of specific apocalyptic scenarios: zombies, natural disasters, wars, escapist so-called “cottagecore,” nuclear bunker canned food storage, etc. there are so many movies about this and the mainstream/corporate news broadcasts every night look very similar to this. my social media feed has so many millennials glamorizing the process of redoing old vans and then living in national parks with their cats who have been trained to walk on leashes so as to not get eaten by bears. (ok, maybe that’s because i often share these stories because they’re so ridiculous, but hey, don’t judge me by my algorithm.)
there are other metaphors, other ways of understanding what is possible. a lot of “what if…” questions come to mind:
what if the shift was easy, or at least easeful?
what if, instead of it being punitive, returning to community felt like a warm embrace? (see: the book we will not cancel us, circle practice, transformative justice)
what if relinquishing stolen land and resources made us feel whole instead of empty? and helped us start to repair relationships with land and communities? (see: the land back movement, though not everyone is non-violent, and with good reason.)
or look at all these amazing “what if” questions created by intelligent mischief, asking us to consider:
i asked before about going from here to there, or at least just getting out of the “here.” i don’t know that we have to know where we’re going. i think it’s ok that we don’t, and maybe even good. (though certainly some of us know more details about the next place(s) than others.)
In the book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott wrote: “E.L. Doctorow said once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.‘ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you.”
the other thing is, is that if we’re still deeply in the “here,” (or even just in the mentality of the “here”), our ideas about the “there” will be really similar to what we can currently understand, embody, feel, or imagine. so in the meantime, i propose that we focus more on the breaking down, on the cocooning and going back to imaginal discs (one of which is definitely about justice and reparations, and we have ideas about others), and, importantly, becoming less attached to the “there” as the goal. for now the outcome is the process: the process of slowing down, and as norma wong says, the process of creating the conditions to become aware of what else is emerging.
additionally, if we’re so caught up in an anxiety about where we’re going, we won’t be able to be present with the process (and, therefore less likely to be able to support others in it), and we won’t know how we got to the next place either. this anxiety limits our possibilities, too.
so…how do you imagine the work of our time, the work to move ourselves outside of extractive, imperialistic, racist capitalism? is it a violent, rough, scary thing? or is it an easeful return into the embrace of true community and wholeness?