America broke the rules of living systems

“Without ethics, politics has no limits. America broke the rules of living systems, and lost its balance. All the oxygen flowed to a smaller and smaller section of the body politic. The history is brief and unquestionable: close to toppling, the society momentarily pulled itself upright, and then became even less ethical, less balanced, more endangered than ever as a lawless financial system came back from death, and like a foolish patient after a heart bypass operation, continued in its old ways.”

I read this last week in an essay by Earl Shorris about America’s latest pathology, published in the December 2011 issue of Harper’s Magazine. For several years now, I’ve been in conversations with people about the nature of our society’s failing systems—be those schools, healthcare, food, energy, economy, and so on. For better or worse, I’ve had a chance to be in rooms where each and every one of these systems that our society depends upon has been criticized, mourned and raged against. We’ve wrestled with what to do. Should we provide hospice to these dying systems—offering palliative care to the terminally ill? (Such as treating obesity and diabetes rather than the industrial food system.) Should we struggle to revive them, perhaps with a transplant or bypass surgery? (Think TARP for our economy or No Child Left Behind and now Race to the Top for our schools.) Or should we move forward, focusing all our energy on creating new life, nurturing a small seed of what might someday become a healthy, mature system? (Heartfelt efforts to create local food systems, renewable energy and zero-waste living practices are growing but still a fraction of the scale needed to sustain our communities.)

I confess I’ve been biased in my thinking toward the latter (here’s a video that expresses that view). Let’s build the new! Pioneer uncharted territory! Focus on what’s possible rather than what’s so! In writing Walk Out Walk On, Meg Wheatley and I shared stories of people who were creating the world they wished for despite all evidence to the contrary—friends in Zimbabwe who doggedly declared abundance in the face of absolute scarcity, friends in Brazil who danced resignation into joy. My heart expands when I recall these experiences of walking out of fear and constraint and walking on to create, imagine, dream and build.

But I also know that breathing life into the new is insufficient.

I spent seven years looking forward, learning from people who are willing to dare to create a healthier, more resilient future. I’ve also spent seven years with my back turned on the diseased patient—one with whom I am so intimate that I don’t even recognize as part of me. And surely the society that we inhabit today lives in us, and we in it.

That raises a question for me about how much we can really support systemic change if we are unable to turn back and face our diseases, bearing witness to pain and suffering in our social body. When our action to change the world is fueled by anger, frustration or rage at the way things are, it risks being reactive, another aggressive response to disease—another bypass surgery. But when we can look at “the way it is” with compassion and grace—and really listen to and notice what’s needed—then perhaps we can find our way to the root source of the illness, to the ethics and values that we yearn to see expressed in our households, neighborhoods and nation.

I’m all for looking ahead to envision a brighter future. But I’m beginning to slow down in my race to fix things, acknowledging a deeper wisdom that is inviting me to let today’s suffering sink into my heart and guide my actions. I am learning that to be still is neither passive nor complacent. It is perhaps the place from which we’ll discover our greatest creativity and capacity to respond to society’s chronic problems.

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