Ruined: The Crush of Enlightenment

The more I learn about systems, the more I feel I am ruined now. Like any good enlightenment, once it happens, you can’t ever quite go back to thinking the way you did before. I can’t go back to thinking the world has single/independent problems or single solutions. I can’t believe in single causes. And when I look for what led to events that are transpiring, I can’t blame a single source. Instead, I am always looking for the complex interweaving of causality. David Harvey’s fantastic “Crisis of Capitalism” shows the causes of economic collapse from 6 different explanatory perspectives:

  • Human Frailty
  • Institutional Failures
  • Obsessed with a False Theory
  • Cultural Origins
  • Failure of Policy
  • Systemic Risk

And, I look at this list Harvey has, and I realize, yep, I have, at one time or another, played a sort of blame game with each of them. However, now that I think in multiple perspectives about interlocking complex adaptive systems that operate beyond simple linear singular causality…I am no longer able to come up with simple easy answers like: Vote! March! Go around! or Change policy! I guess I do still have a fondness for “Avoid toxic ossified institutions” and “Beware of Systemic Risk.”

The trouble with ideas that enlighten us is that we can’t go back. We might want to. It might be an easier life back there. The answers appeared more obvious (because the perspective dictated them).

I once had a contract cancel – basically, simplistically – they said something to the effect of: you are a breakthrough person and we already decided on breaking down right now, so we brought in someone who does that. And you see this all the time – we look for what we already think the answer is and we seek reinforcement of our belief. And usually we don’t have to go far to get it (that old lure of homophily) I call this mirror-thinking. We go looking in mirrors to see our existing beliefs are true, and sure enough they give us our beliefs right back to us.

The more you think in multiple perspectives, the harder this sort of mirror-thinking becomes. I return regularly to Donella Meadows’ work on Intervening in a System. It stands as a reminder not to get trapped in solving system issues from a single perspective.

However, I warn you. Should you pursue the path of seeing through multiple perspectives a world of interlocked complex adaptive systems… you can’t go back. You can never go back to that serenity of simplicity in problems/solutions/interventions or views.

As you begin to step into the various positions and stories people occupy, you may fill with compassion, seeing each operate under their beliefs with positive intentions. There is something incredibly uplifting recognizing that all people operate from a love for someone or of something. It is love behind everything, even war and violence. And there is something incredibly depressing recognizing that this is what we get as a result despite all that love. Try not to get lost. I have gotten lost in compassion or in understanding one element in the overall system.

Because to really perceive what is happening requires a deep both and. Both the details and the context. These details and those details. This context and the context of that context. Don’t get dizzy. It is easy to get dizzy zooming from perspective to context to culture to cultural context and then back into another perspective. Take something for the SEE sickness. Ginger is good.

Brain science is revealing that Westerners are very focal-point centered. We Westerners want an object in the middle of our pictures. People from other cultures value context. Think, for example, of the elaborate etiquette systems of China, India, and Japan, where behaviors are dictated by context and even the slightest contextual clues provide information for effectively navigating culture. Students from countries like China will focus their eyes on the context even more than the object in the center of a picture. Learn to do both. Flip back and forth in rapid succession from one to other until you can hold both at the same time. Learn to soften the edges of your eyes and see from your periphery. (I learned how to do this over the summer while I was in Australia – mind-blowing!)

Once you learn to see from all these perspectives, you can never fully occupy any of the places as if you were unaware there were others. You are stuck always transcending any given place/space. And while experiencing the rush of the enlightenment to perceive – deeply perceive – what is happening and why and where to make a leveraged action for yourself or those you love – you are also crushed out of who you thought you were and into someone else altogether. Your very being begins to exist in all these perspectives more and more of the time. Your very being becomes distributed experiencing the world from different perspectives nearly simultaneously. This can be disturbing, and no, you probably don’t need to see a doctor. You are already ruined now. :)

Don’t lose yourself to existential bedazzlement. Stay on, stay steady. Grow your multiple perspective skills. Grow your ability to hold both the particulars from different perspectives as well as their context simultaneously. Because, while you can never go back, it is also the most amazing awe-inspiring view I have ever imagined. Crushing or not, like all tremendous experiences they hold the space where anxiety meets wonder in an exquisite dance of perception.

**warning: using multiple perspectives may harm or damage feelings of self-righteousness. Side effect can be greater levels of creativity and innovation.

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