Catastrophe Thinking

I am pretty sure my entire life has been lived under the hovering cloud of the apocalypse. Sure there were moments of possibility – the fall of the wall, the election of Obama, the end of apartheid in South Africa. But mostly the global events we hear about focus on the end of civilization as we know it, albeit in small chunks at a time. It is still framed as disaster…. we are losing what we had and aren’t moving into a better world (except in small isolated ways). From AIDS to Bird Flu, from Rwanda genocide to Sudan and Burma, nuclear proliferation, the Gulf Coast disaster 2.0 (and Katrina as 1.0), Haiti (and so many other earthquakes, mud slides, volcanoes, and other weather/geological disasters for humans) – plus economic crisis and climate change, the extinction of so many species, and the war on terror (which just grows fear and terror) all converge – even for those of us who don’t watch the news. There is overpopulation, sex slaves, and child mortality issues as well as deforestation, crumbling infrastructure, and coach potatoes living in suburban nightmares. There are activists working cancer into their bodies with their martyr-like dedication. There are those in sedated near oblivion – zombie-living. There are hedonic wealth-seekers facing doom with greed and opulence. This is the story of crumbling and disintegration. Our globalized post-modern world tumbling through catastrophes.

We tell this story, and we have been telling this story, for my whole life. And the fear-mongering started long before I was born – the the cold war threatening nuclear annihilation for half a century.

I am tired of this story. I am tired of seeing faces worn down with the contraction of fear. I am weary of the negativity and desperation driving people to hate, divide, hoard, and fight. I am sick of finding out my government is justifying killing people in order to obtain more resources (because, I guess, we are in such a state of lack!).

We victimize ourselves, and in that suffering, we victimize others with our trauma.

Enough. Put it down. Don’t believe the hype. Don’t fight for a world you already gave up on.

Look for the flower emerging in the sidewalk – life pressing through without complaint or blame to assert its urge for sunlight. Nature is incredibly resilient and adaptive. Work within the world we have to co-create the world we want. Focus on what is going well and right, and encourage more of it. Breathe and be the serenity prayer.

Do not deny the brutal facts before us, but know that you see those facts through a filter of the story you are telling yourself (and others) about the world. You can transform that story and see those facts in a fresh light – from a different vantage point. Turn on the thrivability light, and recognize that life gives rise to more life. Never before in human history have we known a greater wealth of possibility.

After three days in Philadelphia discussing philanthropy and philanthropic strategies for transformation, I feel deeply convinced and inspired by a model I can see of thrivable philanthropy. Gerard calls it evolutionary philanthropy, and there might be some subtle distinctions. However, let me explain. And then I hope it will be more clear why our stories about our world could shift to transform our experience of it and the world itself.

Let’s call charity the work that we do to address immediate needs of others who can not, for whatever reason, care for themselves. It is as if you are standing on a riverbank, see a baby floating downstream, and you rush out to save the drowning child. Only, there are not enough people pulling drowning babies from the river, and the babies have suffered from being in the river. Our hearts break open. Some savvy volunteer wonders aloud – “who is tossing babies in this river?” And a crew of helpers decide to go upstream to find the cause. And they discover a system out of balance allowing babies to land in the river. They decide to change the system and set up programs to help mothers and advocate for social justice. We call this social change and social justice work. Still, babies are floating down the river. The philanthropist supporting this work starts to wonder – huh, what impact is my giving having? I want babies to stop ending up in the river – this is madness! And the social justice worker says – well, we think we have decreased the number of babies in the river, but this is a complex adaptive system so I can’t name all the causes and effects! I can’t clearly attribute your dollars having saved babies without acknowledging other programs and the dynamic changes in the system in which our town operates, babies are born, the economy shifts, and nature takes her course. We might have even changed our baby counting practices in a way that changed how many babies we can account for, which skewed the numbers giving an artificial bump. But we are not sure.

Then a thinker stands up and says – it is the very culture and beliefs in which we operate that give rise to these systems that aren’t taking care of all these babies. And the philanthropist has to choose now – either fund better metrics to know whether there is an impact… or fund cultural shift. And there are still babies in the river, and everyone’s hearts break open knowing it and seeing it. And they are sad.

Transforming culture takes longer, it is harder to measure, the complex dynamic system of it all makes it next to impossible to attribute agency clearly. And, it is where the greatest possibility for creating a culture that ever more deeply transforms itself, cares for each other and the whole, and enables the world we want.

Change your story.

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