“I’ve started viewing both optimism and pessimism as spectator sports, as forms of disengagement masquerading as involvement”

July 3, 2018

Look for positive possibilities and ways to partner them into greater probability — excerpt from a letter from a climate activist and organizer

Meg Wheatley and David Spangler taught me about living in a world of possibilities. We could say, inspired by the poet Muriel Rukeyser, that the universe is made of possibilities, not atoms. They are everywhere. They are everything. Some say God (or the devil) is in the details. I say God (and the devil) are in the possibilities. Every moment is filled with them. Although we don’t get to control how they turn out, they are very responsive to our actions, our beliefs, our caring. That is the edge of co-creativity where Life resides most vividly.

Some say it is narcissistic to think we are playing a role in everything. This is true if we’re talking about a linear world of cause-and-effect responsibility. But I see reality as bigger than linear. I see it as an infinite, infinitesimally dense web of co-creation, a sea of mutual participation. Spangler has called this “a co-incarnational universe” — everything is bringing everything else into existence.

So we join with everyone and everything — past, present and future — in sharing influence on what happens. We are neither guilty nor innocent. Rather, we are consciously or unconsciously involved. In everything. Our actions matter. Our awareness matters. Right here and right now. Because we are a factor in the Life of Everything.

This ultimate application of the admonition “Think Globally, Act Locally” points towards what we might call “participatory responsibility.” Are we playing the best role we can imagine, given the limits of (our infinitely expandable) awareness?

I think this is what I am asked to do: To care about the larger whole and all the Life within it, and to act in my own life with the purest awareness and intention that I can muster towards being a worthy participant in the unfolding of positive possibilities for all, for the whole. Of course, I fail at this, over and over. And within those failures are more positive possiblities for me to find and engage…

So I look for the positive possibilities in the crises we face. On the one hand, I sometimes feel that our chances are slim and that ultimately it is only by the grace of God that “we will make it” (whatever that means to each of us). On the other hand, I realize how much we often undermine our chances by losing touch with our intrinsically co-creative role in the unfolding of every one of these potential crises, in the fate of the possibilities that are there. That role includes inspiring each other, evoking our best selves, calling forth the best possibilities no matter how small That is the essence of participatory leadership. We can each do that — for ourselves, for each other, for the world.

Faced with a wall, a man said to his comrade,
“We can go no further.” His comrade said,
“But there is a crack in the wall.” The man
said, “But the wall is so large and the crack
is so small.” To which his comrade said, “A
crowbar in the crack, and we’ll be on our way.
Or set a few seeds in it, and they’ll take that
wall down for us in God’s good time. Which
shall it be?” They were soon on their way.

We are the faces and fingers and feet of the God of Possibility. It is through our participation — although not only through our participation — that God (or the Goddess, or the Tao, or Life) works wonders.

This is easy to visualize if we remember that it is through our hands, but not only through our hands, that we work our own wonders.

Our efforts and caring — even when we “fail” — provide a changed context for the efforts and caring of others elsewhere, tomorrow. The Whole evolves through our roles, through the active Being of each and every one of us.

This is

  • bigger than taking personal responsibility,
  • bigger than letting others take care of us,
  • bigger than taking care of each other,
  • bigger than setting up institutions to care for people,
  • bigger than realizing the role of history and environment and culture in how we all behave,
  • bigger than knowing that inaction and action are both forms of participation,
  • bigger than being aware of the upside and downside of every form of participation (and taking action anyway).

It is each and every one of these things, and more. It is all true. It is all real. But it is only possible to enter this Reality to the extent we let go of outcome and become more compassionate, eager, aware agents of Positive Possibility.

So what is possible here in in these emerging crises for us, for those we love, for our communities, our societies, our world? Do the chances look slim? Do the outcomes seem impossible to grasp? Often they do. But isn’t that what makes life an adventure?

Some people say that’s why we stay alive, from day to day: to find out what happens next. All games and adventures are built out of uncertainty (if we knew what would happen, we’d soon lose interest). Humans thrive on challenge, on the unknown.

True, we can have too much challenge, too much uncertainty. However, if we look closely, we’ll find that that only happens when we’ve become too attached to outcomes. In the moment of that realization, our challenge becomes “How well can we learn to let go and stay engaged?” That’s a real trick. The real trick.

To be alive is to find out what’s possible, to see how far we can push/cajole/invite the flow of reality into the channels of positive possibility.

Which is often hard. I want to see a better, more sustainable, more humane, more meaningful culture. I have often felt that we don’t have much of a chance of getting it. Too often, the more I learned, the more the social and psychological dynamics seemed stacked against us. And then I’d encounter a new innovation, some unexpected allies, or a sudden turn of events that opened doors I didn’t even know existed.

I’ve come to believe that things are getting better and better and worse and worse, faster and faster, simultaneously.

And so I’ve found myself bouncing back and forth between optimism and pessimism. “Things are going to work out well.” Or: “There’s going to be real disaster!” It’s been really exhausting.

But lately something’s changing about all this. I’ve begun to notice how the whole optimism/pessimism dichotomy is a death trap for my aliveness and attention. I watch myself acting as if my sense of what might happen is a description of reality. And what I notice is this: whether I expect the best or the worst, my expectations interfere with my will to act.

That’s so important I’m going to repeat it. Whether I expect the best or the worst, my expectations interfere with my will to act.

I’ve started viewing both optimism and pessimism as spectator sports, as forms of disengagement masquerading as involvement. Both optimism and pessimism trick me into judging life and betting on the odds, rather than diving into life with my whole self, with my full co-creative energy. I think the emerging crises call us to transcend such false end-games like optimism and pessimism. I think they call us to act like a spiritually healthy person who has just learned they have heart disease: We can use each dire prognosis as a stimulant for reaching more deeply into life and co-creating positive change.

And so I’ve come to conclude that all the predictions — both good and bad — tell us absolutely nothing about what is possible. Trends and events only relate to what is probable. Probabilities are abstractions. Possibilities are the stuff of life, visions to act upon, doors to walk through. Pessimism and optimism are both distractions from living life fully.

More and more, I’m seeing myself as an ally or midwife of positive possibilities. Those possibilities need me to help them move towards becoming real. True, we often need miracles, but miracles can only go so far. Miracles need us to meet them halfway. I’m trying to move as far towards the miracles as I can, and draw them out.

I’ll probably never know if I’ve moved far enough, if we have moved far enough. But the movement, itself, is so alive I can hardly stand it. And I keep meeting incredible companions like you (whose value to me evoked this response), and doing unbelievable things together. The world could not be more filled with possibilities than it is now. On the wind I smell good food cooking out there somewhere. My appetite for what could be lifts me to the road again, over and over, where I get covered with dust, tired, sore and discouraged. And then I smell it again, and the sun rises.



PS: A note on wisdom, related to this, which I just found in papers I was cleaning up (heaven knows when I wrote it, among all these stacks of paper)… “I see God in the infinitely complex and co-creative power of nature. When Jesus said we should be like the lilies of the field, he was surely inviting us to sit there and gaze at the clouds. But perhaps he meant more, as well. Perhaps he was inviting us to participate in the wholesome patterns of nature woven from strands of wisdom laid by the hands of a wise God and/or by the trials of four billion years of evolution. We people can never hope to replace this wisdom with some substitute derived from our own intrinsically small-picture intelligence. But we can learn and follow this natural wisdom. This insight informs permaculture and aikido, as well as meditators.”

PPS: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to clarify my own thinking here. I hope it is of some use to you, for it arose from my caring about you. We have a very long and amazing road to go yet.