On the economic narrative, and its limits

Behind any life, and any society, are numerous background narratives that give us a sense of who we are, who other people are, and what’s possible for us. They tell us how we can live, what’s of value, and how to relate to one another. And they tell us what’s important to pay attention to, and what’s marginal.

Sometimes the background narratives are visible and explicit in a family or community, such as the way in which biblical narratives give a sense of belonging and orientation to people who are part of some religious communities. But most often – even when there are visible and explicit narratives available – the narratives we actually live by are invisible, and we see them clearly only as an outsider entering a society for the first time, or when the narrative runs into trouble and starts producing unintended consequences.

For the last century or so in the West, we’ve lived in a background narrative that’s directed our attention most strongly towards what’s measurable, particularly what’s financially measurable, and has discounted almost everything else. The bottom line, financial return on investment, this quarter’s results – all have been taken for what’s ‘real’.

And at the same time, we’ve considered what’s not measurable largely ‘unreal’ – the quality of our inner lives, our relationships with others, supportive and close-knit communities, the care we give and receive, our capacity to nurture and appreciate beauty. We can’t pay much attention to these, we say, because in the ‘real world’ there are tough business decisions to make. There are profits to be made.

I’m not arguing that profit is somehow unreal, while beauty and care are real. That would be an equally narrow way of looking at the world. But it’s becoming clearer and clearer how our narrowness – our failure to appreciate and include all dimensions of human life in our businesses, institutions, and in our public discourse – is wreaking havoc in our present and seriously limiting our capacity to respond to the complexity of the future we’re creating. The shocking rise of inequality in even the richest of the worlds societies, the shaking of our financial systems, our seeming inability to respond creatively to climate change – all ought to have ourselves asking whether what we take to be unquestionably true about how to live is, really, deeply questionable.

We urgently need to expand our horizons – to start to take seriously that which we’ve marginalised in the relentless colonisation of all aspects of human life by the narrative of economics.

Photo by Freddie Collins on Unsplash

Midrash

In the Jewish tradition, any story is an invitation to interpretation, to imagination, to invention. You read a story not so much for what’s true in it, as for what can be imagined into the spaces. So a straightforward story can become the launching point for wildly differing interpretations, all of which are held alongside one another even if they’re paradoxical, mysterious or downright contradictory.

It’s a tradition known as midrash and it embodies a commitment to see things from many angles, to have many different kinds of explanations for what might initially look obvious and simple. In midrash there’s no such thing as a story with a monopoly on the truth.

Often, it’s helpful to do midrash with your own life, with your work, with your relationships.

You probably already have habitual ways of explaining who you are, who others are, what’s happening, and what’s possible. Perhaps you currently have only one telling available to you, one that’s so familiar, so trusted, you can’t even tell that it’s there.

Making midrash from your own life involves starting to tell a different story from the one you’re currently telling. Maybe you’re not the righteous, wounded hero after all. Perhaps they’re not out to get you, but are trying to help. Maybe you’re not as in control of your life as you think – or perhaps you’re much more in control already than you knew. Maybe it is possible for you to be someone who asks for what you want. Perhaps there’s a contribution you’re making that you can’t see because of your self-critical stories. Maybe life has an invitation for you that’s not going to come from trying harder and harder until you work yourself into the ground.

These are just a few of the stories you might have about yourself and life, and a few of the alternatives you could start to imagine. You could also ask others how they’d tell the story of your situation – great midrash can begin simply from here.

Even if you have only one way of explaining your life, it’s already midrash, already just one interpretation of many that are possible.

So much opens, and so much suffering can be avoided, when you stop believing your own stories as the only truth.

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Declaring Meaning

When we find out how much of the world is made up – by us – it’s tempting to pull everything apart. We pull apart institutions – because we see how groundless their authority is. We pull apart politics – because as we see more into the ordinary lives of our politicians we discover that they are ordinary and flawed like us, and we no longer have reason to simplistically trust either their intentions or their abilities. We pull apart relationships – because we don’t feel any reason to commit, beyond our moment-to-moment likes and dislikes. And we pull apart beliefs and practices that can bind us together.

This step – using reason to see through what we’d taken to be unquestionably true is in so many ways a necessary developmental step for each of us and for our society. Indeed, it’s the step that allowed us to discover science and its methods of rigorous, grounded inquiry. And it made it possible to undo the divine right of kings to rule over us, and to bring about democracy.

But it’s also so easily the route to nihilism: the move to render everything meaningless, everything pointless, everything disposable as we discover that the structures and stories and roles we used to trust were made up by other people. And, as the philosophers Kierkegaard and Nietzsche warned us, this ends up with us tearing meaning apart too, as we find out that what meaning we encountered in the world was only there because other people declared it anyway.

And so the next step important after undoing it all is to find out that it’s also within our power to put things back together, to declare meaning for ourselves. To find out that there are many kinds of truth, including those that take into account goodness and beauty as well as just reason. That out of the fragments of what we have taken apart, we can still choose practices, people, relationships, stories, commitments and vows to live by that invest life with purposefulness, care, and dignity.  And that this is possible, and necessary, in every sphere of life – in work, home, community and politics – specifically because we’ve found out that without it there is so little for us to stand on.

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Better off knowing this

Behind all our attempts to manipulate and control the world so it’s just as we’d like it (and behind the pain, frustration, sorrow and disappointment that our inevitable failure brings), we’re just trying to find a way to feel safe and to feel at home.

I think we’d be better off knowing this.

Then we’d set aside our mission to control what can’t be controlled. And we’d work on how to feel safe and at home in the world as it is – in this ever-changing, surprising, vast and mysterious life in which we find ourselves.

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Taking responsibility for our stories

Given that we are the only creatures (that we know of) that can tell stories about ourselves;

and given that we live totally, inescapably in the stories we tell;

and given that stories of any kind can be more or less truthful, more or less kind, more or less generous, more or less creative, more or less freeing of our enormous potential…

… given all of this, don’t we have a profound responsibility to question the stories we were handed? To not just take things ‘as they are’?

And to actively find – and consciously live by – the most truthful, kind, generous, creative, possibility-freeing stories about ourselves, about others, and about life that we can?

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Our stories about our feelings

When you feel emptiness, what do you do?

Reach for something to eat?
Turn on the TV?
Pick up the free paper on the train?
Hide away in sorrow and resignation?
Zone out?
Lash out at your colleagues or your family?
Find someone to blame?

What’s the story you’re telling about what this feeling means that has you act in this way?

We’re so quick to tell stories about what we’re feeling. This feeling is something to be fixed, a sign I’ve done something wrong, proof my life is heading nowhere – or that it’s heading somewhere. It’s because of you, it’s because of my parents, it’s to be avoided at all costs, it’s precisely the thing I need to feel in order to know myself and be ok.

But our familiar, habitual stories about our feelings can imprison us in smaller worlds than we deserve.

There’s always another story you can tell.

Maybe the emptiness is because you’re tired. Or you’re under attack from your inner critic. Maybe it’s pointing you towards something essentially true about all of our existence – that everything is changing all the time and there’s not so much for us to stand on.

Or maybe you’re feeling it because you’ve forgotten something important – your essential aliveness, the deep roots of your history and biology, all that supports you moment to moment.

Each of these stories points to a different course of action. Same feeling, different response. Sleep perhaps, or an act of self remembering (creating art, meditation, poetry, music, prayer, beauty, touch).

Or maybe what to do with what you’re feeling is simply to allow it to be for a while, no correction or compensation required. And no story either. Let it do its thing and watch as it eventually, inevitably, and with no apparent help from you, changes you and turns itself into something else.

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Heaven and Hell

In the The Barefoot Book of Jewish Tales written by my friend Shoshana Boyd Gelfand is “Heaven and Hell”, a gorgeous story for children and adults about how our interpretations and practices are constantly shaping the world around us.

In the story, an elderly woman named Ariella is given a tour of each of two possible after-lives. Hell, to her surprise, is an elegant palace nestling in beautiful gardens. Tables are set with delicious food and everyone is gathered for a feast. But as Ariella looks closely she sees that they are all frail, desperate, and starving. Their arms are held straight by long splints and because of this they are unable to bend their elbows to bring food to their mouths.

Hell is a beautiful paradise filled with longing, sadness, meanness and misery.

Isn’t much of the world this way?

Heaven, even more surprisingly, looks exactly the same. Same palace, same food, same splints. But here everyone is well fed, and happy. The difference? The residents of heaven know about kindness, and have learned to feed one another. The very same physical situation with a change in narrative and different practices brings forth a radically different world.

It’s so easy for us to imagine that the world we inhabit is fixed, solid. We come to believe that we are a certain way, and the world is a certain way too. But it’s more accurate to say that we’re always making the world together through our interpretations and actions – what’s ‘real’ about the human world is much more fluid than at first it might seem.

And of course the worlds we bring into being in turn change us. The narcissistic, individualistic, cynical world brought about by the residents of hell keeps their meanness and their resentment going, and their starvation. And the world brought about by the residents of heaven amplifies their kindness.

When we head off the possibility of change by claiming the world is, simply, “the way it is”, or when we say “but in the real world this could never happen”, we need to understand that we are active participants in having the world stay fixed in its current configuration. The world is never only the way it appears. And that ought to be a reason for great hope for our families, organisations and society. And a call for our vigorous action on behalf of an improved future for all of us.

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What the storm is all about

When you’re in the midst of a storm in life – some difficulty, confusion, fear, or uncertainty – it’s easy to imagine that something must have gone terribly wrong.

After all, aren’t you meant to be successful? Aren’t you meant to be on top of life? Aren’t you meant to be in control? To have it all figured out by now?

And if you’re in trouble isn’t it clear that it’s your fault?

The narrative of personal striving and personal success that so many of us have taken up as the benchmark for our lives doesn’t help here. It’s too individualistic, too solitary. It assumes you have infinite power to shape your life. And that your success or failure, your happiness or your despair are down to you alone. It’s not a big enough story to account for the kind of difficulty you’re in, to account for being a participant in a world that is so mysterious and so much bigger than you are.

No, there’s a bigger, more generous account of finding yourself in life’s storm that goes far beyond blame and fault, far beyond success and failure. Haruki Murakami has found the words to express it beautifully and clearly, in his Kafka On The Shore:

“Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts.

Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn’t something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you.

This storm is you. Something inside of you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn’t get in, and walk through it, step by step…”

But the storm will pass, he assures us, and once it is over:

“You won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over.

But one thing is certain.

When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in.

That’s what this storm’s all about.”

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The peril of having one story

The problem with being sure of your story – the one you have that explains to you who you are, who other people are, and what’s happening – is what is inevitably left out.

Your confusion, longing, terrified waking in the quiet hours of the night, your disorientation –

A sign that it’s all over, and that you’re lost?

An inevitable part of the human condition (experienced by many more of us than will ever let on)?

The birth-pangs of something new? Some new way of living, thinking and relating that is emerging into life?

Each story about what you’re experiencing leads to a different place, to different possibilities.

Each story calls on a different way of relating to yourself and others.

Each story is sustained by different practices (what you’re doing repeatedly in your actions, your thinking that keeps it going).

And none of them is ever the whole story.

Part of the practice of a life fully lived – and leadership well done – is the practice of finding new ways of telling what we’re sure we’ve already understood.

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Tight spirals

We discover early in life what the people around us expect from us. And we find ways of doing just that. Even if we’ve completely misunderstood what was being asked.

Meeting these expectations becomes, before long, central to our identity. We know ourselves as this or that kind of person, and then actively work to keep the identity we’ve established going. It feels familiar and comfortable to keep having people around us respond to us in the way to which we’ve become accustomed.

I learned early on to be the peacekeeper: the pursuer of harmony, making sure I and everyone around me remained undisturbed and untroubled; listening, supporting, staying quiet, defusing conflict, avoiding anger (my own and other people’s).

All these ways of being seemed, unquestionably, to be me.

And of course they affected and shaped what was possible in any kind of relationship with me. Peacekeeping can be a great gift to the world, but also stifling and frustrating for others when anything genuine and troubling and sharp needs to be said.

Other people around me took on other kinds of identity – the helper, making sure everyone is cared for and nobody is left out; the achiever, getting ahead and making things happen, knowing themselves through the outward signs of success; the challenger, being sure to be in control, using assertiveness and power to have things happen.

We have powerful inner forces that keep us inside the bounds we’ve established – among them the inner critic, and shame. For years, if I would be ashamed – mortified – if I said anything that I thought might hurt or upset another. And I’d be eaten up by my inner critic if anyone dared express anger towards me.

This is such an important topic because most of the time we can’t tell that this is what we’re doing – manipulating the world so it’s just so – not too hot, not too cold, but just as we expect it to be.

We lead this way. We relate this way.

This is why we all need people around us who can see through our strategies and habits, who can see who we are beyond the tight spiral these identities produce in us – a spiral which keeps the horizons of the world smaller than we imagine, and smaller than we need.

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What we pay attention to (and what we don’t)

So often what we are doing in our lives (and hence in every activity, relationship, project) is joining the dots, stringing together the phenomena we experience into coherent narratives and explanations. In other words, we are always interpreting – and which interpretations we choose (or which choose us) is of enormous significance.

Of equal significance in this is our choice of phenomena to pay attention to. What we notice, and what we take to be meaningful, is a matter of both choice and practice. Choice – because an infinity of phenomena reach us and we pay attention only to some. Practice – because the way we pay attention (which includes what we pay attention to) is both a matter of habit (we most easily pay attention to what is familiar to us) and skilfulness (our capacity to discern and discriminate between different phenomena is something that can be learned, and cultivated over time).

The current cultural background of scientific materialism in which most of us are deeply schooled without our knowing it does not help us well in developing life-giving interpretations from which to live life, nor in learning to pay attention to what might be meaningful to us. This is not through any fault in science, itself a powerful and rigorous method for discerning deep and fundamental patterns and truths about the material universe. But looking at our lives only this way has us pay attention only to certain kinds of experience. We look only at what can be reasoned about, logically and in a detached way. We treat as true only that which can be proved, measured, quantified.

Scientific materialism, in its deep commitment to understanding the material world (and in understanding the world only as material) has little scope for understanding what’s meaningful to people, what makes our hearts sing, how we are moved by encountering or making art, what it is to love and be loved, what it is to care about life, the world, others. Or, more accurately, when it does have something to say about these topics it can only say that love is a particular firing of neurons in the brain, or an evolutionary adaptation to make it more likely that we reproduce; or that art is simply an adaptation that allows us to build social status, or that our appreciation of it comes because of the transmission of pleasure signalling chemicals to reward centres of the brain. And while all of these might well have a kind of rigorous truth about them when looked at from a materialist perspective, they tell us nothing about the meaningful experience of being human – what it is to love, or be loved, to create art, or be moved by it, to open to the mysterious and endless wonder of finding ourselves alive, or to be a whole world – as each of us are – of relationships, language, meanings, longing, desire, sadness, grief, joy, hope and commitment.

When we treat ourselves or others as mere material objects and truth as only scientific truth – as we are encouraged to do in so many of our systems in organisations, education and government – we miss out on deeper interpretations that take into account that we are subjects too, living beings who act upon the world through our ability to care and make sense, and who possess an exquisite and precious consciousness and capacity for self- and other-awareness. Precious indeed, because as far as we can tell, compared to the abundance of matter in the universe, life is rare enough. And among all the life we know about, as far as we can tell, consciousness and self-awareness (the capacity to say ‘I’ and reflect on ourselves) even rarer.

Alongside our scientific materialism, we could support our understanding and care about being human by paying attention also to the insights of those cultures and peoples who came before us, many of which we have thrown out in our elevation of reason over wisdom. In treating only reason as valid, we’ve discarded ways of encountering truth that can include beauty, meaning and goodness alongside what can be logically proved to be true. Myth, art, poetry, music, legend and spiritual practices that bind us into communities of meaning and action are all worth studying and taking seriously here. They can teach us to pay attention not only to the deep insights of our logical minds but also to the wisdom of our hearts and bodies, and to our first-hand lived experience of being human among other human beings.

Which brings me back to the ‘dots’ we pay attention to – the phenomena we treat as meaningful in our lives. What we experience does not come labelled for us as important, or not, significant or not. We have to decide what’s worth noticing, and practice living lives in which we make matter what can matter. And it’s incumbent upon us to do this, by paying a deeper kind of attention to our lives and our experience, and to what we choose to care about.

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Stories

We can’t help it. We’re sense-making beings, us humans. And so you and I are always living our lives from a sense of story.

The story profoundly shapes our interactions with other people, and with ourselves. Watch how you’d relate to your sister, your colleagues, from the narrative of ‘the burdened one’ – the one who has been handed too much to carry, and who can’t find any place to put it down. See how much busyness it breeds, how little time to rest, how much resentment, how much of a sense of being in life alone.

And see how differently you’d encounter all of life from the narrative of ‘a healer’ – the one whose responsibility it is to heal herself by taking care of her own body, mind and heart so she can take care of others. Or ‘a painter’ – looking for the hidden light and beauty in everything. Or ‘a bestower of blessings’. Or even ‘an ordinary person’.

The stories we’re living seem so compelling, so true, especially as they seem to account so coherently for everything that’s happening. But any story is only one out of many possibilities, and each story conceals much even as it reveals.

And so it’s important to ask ourselves what other stories we could imagine, particularly those that would bring forward our virtues – patience, kindness, courage, imagination, integrity, compassion, love, commitment, steadfastness, playfulness – qualities that allow us to meet the world more generously, more creatively, and let more of life through.

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The view from here isn’t the only view

The story you tell about this time in your life isn’t the only story. And the vantage point from which you’re looking is not the only vantage point.

Looking forwards, it might seem clear that you’re on the way to a great success, or an inevitable defeat. Maybe it looks like life is all sorted: you’ve arrived and there is not much more for you to do. Or perhaps, from the depths of your confusion, it appears that you’re lost and can never find your way back.

Life is so much bigger than each of us, and so much more mysterious, that any story you have is at best partial. Looking back, what feels now like inevitable defeat may turn out to be a time of building strength: the strength you’ll need to break out of the constraints that have been holding you back. What feels like being crushed by life could be the birth pangs of a new beginning. Maybe the solidity of your success so far turns out to be everything that will be taken from you.

As Cheryl Strayed writes to her despairing younger self in Tiny Beautiful Things, it can turn out that “the useless days will add up to something”, that “these things are your becoming.”

Everything changes. Nothing is ever just what it seems. And though you may feel sure you’ve understood your life, remember that it’s very difficult to see which are the important parts, and quite why they’re important, while you’re still in them.

Photograph by Justin Wise

The next step

What if the way your life is, and the way you are now, are not how things turned out, but training in the preliminaries? Or, said another way, if your life so far was but the education and practice you needed in order to be able to take the very next step?

Thought about like this, your life is now is not some curse, the punishment for some crime, or a consequence of your many failings and transgressions. No, it’s been fertile soil which has nourished just the qualities and skills you need to take the step that only you now can take.

And given the extraordinary unlikelihood of you being here in the first place – the very fact of your life has the odds stacked billions to one against…

… and given that it will be gone in a blink of an eye, even if you live to a ripe age, and given that nobody but you could have lived the exact life you’ve lived so far

… given all of this, the step that only you can take, the step for which your whole life until this moment has been a preparation, that single step is given to you now – however ordinary, however modest – as a gift yours for the taking, if you will but take it.

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Love made visible

Below, nine narratives, nine stories, about what work could be for.

Whether we choose one of these, or one of the infinity of others that are possible for us, there’s no doubt that our narratives have a powerful role in shaping our identity, what we notice, what we think is possible and important, and our relationship with others.

Change the narrative and we change what work is for and much about how we experience it. Change the narrative and we change our relationship with our difficulties and possibilities, with the sense we make of the past and of the future.

Do any of these offer a new way of seeing what you’ve been doing so far…

… and what you might take on next?

Work as…

.. a way of setting the world straight – fixing what’s wrong, making good, bringing integrity, standards, and justice into the world

.. love made visible – an opportunity to dedicate ourselves to our deepest commitments with our minds, hearts and bodies, and in relationship with others

.. a way to cultivate excellence – finding ways to do things better, with greater impact and with ever-increasing quality of attention and skill

.. an expression of artistry – work for its own sake, for the depth and expression and creativity that is unique to human beings

.. an opportunity to learn and discover – work as the pursuit of understanding, learning a field from end to end and using that learning to solve problems that would otherwise continue to challenge us

.. a way to lay down secure foundations – work as what makes it possible to have somewhere safe, dry and warm to live in, a shelter for ourselves and those we love, and the resources that will help us respond to unknown future challenges and possibilities

.. an exercise in freedom and hope – work as what enables us to break the confines of otherwise predictable lives – to play, to experiment, to meet people, to try out new things, to bring into our lives and into the world that which has not been so far

.. a challenge to the status quo – work as a way of upending things that need upending, revolutionising what needs revolution, using our power to shift cultures, expectations and the way things are done.

.. the practice of peace – work as a way of bringing people together, forging community and connection, relationship and shared purpose, a way of having our many differences serve us and each other rather than separate us

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The limits of happiness

This being human is a guesthouse, writes Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, the 13th century Persian poet. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.

I think Rumi’s right. To be human is to be visited by a stream of experiences, each arising and fading away after the other in a mysterious succession. We know only a little about how to influence the stream. Sometimes we find ourselves able to direct its course by being with certain people, or taking up certain activities, or by being in a place resonant with beauty or with memory. And we can sometimes influence the stream by trying to block it – holding on to sadness, or resentment, or anger through the stories we tell ourselves about life.

But, mostly, to be human is to have a stream coursing through us that arises of its own accord, without our volition. And when we seek to constrain the movement of the stream so that it consistently feels a particular way we also end up having to constrain some portion of our aliveness and freedom. Our fullest humanity comes when, as Rumi recommends, we learn to meet all our experiences at the door laughing, and invite them in. 

Each year, as I experience ongoing rivers of sadness, joy, tenderness, rage, sorrow, fear, longing, love, satisfaction, frustration, deep confusion and hopefulness that flow through me, Rumi’s advice seems more necessary, and more true. And it seems no more passing mood gets me in more trouble than the expectation of happiness. When happiness is the standard, almost anything else falls short. When I imagine that happy is the way I should most often feel, I can twist myself into all kinds of knots trying to bring it about, and invest myself in all kinds of comparisons, and standards, and unforgiving judgements about the life I’m already living. I can imagine that others have found the key to happiness – that they have it in a way that I don’t. And I have found out how easily I can end up narrowing my life in its pursuit, pushing away or disapproving of many other kinds of experience that arise, quite naturally, in day to day living.

Let me be clear – I think happiness is wonderful, and I love to feel it. And I’m also saying that I think there is a trap in making it life’s primary purpose, and in thinking that it’s even possible to cling onto it without in one way or another narrowing ourselves. Because happiness is just one of Rumi’s visitors, destined to be followed by all kinds of other experiences in any life that is allowed to breathe. And also because we ourselves are changing all the time, so that many of our attempts to generate future happiness are deeply flawed. The person we’ll be when the time comes for the happiness we’ve longed for to arrive will be different in so many ways, and may feel happy about different things, than the person who is making future happiness plans today.

So if happiness is transient, and if chasing it can so easily diminish us, what is worth pursuing? I think the answer almost certainly lies not in trying to feel a certain way but in the purposeful cultivation of what the ancient Greeks called the virtues – those capacities and qualities that allow us human beings to live in meaningful, vibrant, engaged ways, whatever our circumstances. There’s a wide freedom and much possibility in cultivating integrity, goodness, kindness, creativity, connectedness, flexibility, forgiveness, devotion, gratitude, resoluteness, intimacy, patience, truthfulness, warmth or wisdom, to name just a few.

Each of these virtues can be nurtured in an ongoing way through our everyday practices of speaking, listening, working, making, resting and expressing. Each may bring us happiness, yes, some of the time. And each may sometimes bring disappointment or frustration, or any other of Rumi’s guests. But it’s also the case that each of the virtues, if we’ll be disciplined enough to work on them and to attend to them, can also bring us deep opportunities for meaningful engagement with life, for belonging, and for contribution, whether we’re feeling happy, or sad, or despairing, or whatever else comes our way.

Photograph by Justin Wise

Secret superpower

Many of the most courageous people I know are also the most afraid.

Living with such an intense inner experience of fear – and surviving it – cultivates within them extraordinary capacities to keep going, to face things as they are, to take action when it’s called for, and to be present with others who are afraid.

I know how much I value having such a person by my side when there’s something genuinely terrifying to face. Someone who knows fear intimately. Someone who has found ways to work with it. Someone who already knows what to do.

Many of the most courageous people I know hardly see themselves as courageous at all.

They relate to their fear as a defect, a failing, a reason to judge themselves, as fuel for the harshest inner criticism. That they are afraid obscures the view, so that they’re blinded to the gifts they bring.

They do not see that the part of themselves they most wish to banish is the very source of blessings, the source of their secret superpower.

So it is in the best superhero origin stories, and so it is with all of us.

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Better off knowing this

Behind all our attempts to manipulate and control the world so it’s just as we’d like it (and behind the pain, frustration, sorrow and disappointment that our inevitable failure brings), we’re just trying to find a way to feel safe and to feel at home. 

I think we’d be better off knowing this.

Then we’d set aside our mission to control what can’t be controlled. And we’d work on how to feel safe and at home in the world as it is – in this ever-changing, surprising, vast and mysterious life in which we find ourselves.

With thanks to Lizzie for pointing this out to me today.

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Questioning our stories

Given that we are the only creatures (that we know of) that can tell stories about ourselves;

and given that we live bound up in the stories we tell;

and given that stories of any kind can be more or less truthful, more or less kind, more or less generous, more or less creative, more or less freeing of our enormous potential…

… given all of this, don’t we have a profound responsibility to question the stories we were handed? To not just take things ‘as they are’?

And to actively find – and consciously live by – the most truthful, kind, generous, creative, possibility-freeing stories about ourselves, about others, and about life that we can?

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Stories to live up to, to live in to, to let go to

As 2016 begins, two kinds of stories are on my mind.

Stories I try to live up to. And stories that I might start allowing myself to live into.

The live up to stories are the ones that keep going because they’re how I’m known by others, or because they’re a familiar way for me to know myself, or because they boost my self esteem. Some of them I created. Some of them were handed to me in the ongoing dance of relating to one another that is a given of human life.

Among the live up to stories: being the thoughtful (or deep thinking) one, the mysterious one, the one who has more important things to do than pay close attention to time, the intelligent one, the diligent one, the sensitive one, the one who cares, the one who knows about things.

It’s not that these stories are false. But when I take them up because they’re familiar, or because I think they’re expected, they easily become something of an act – a way of acting like someone who is like the way I’m known to myself and others. They become a proxy, a cover story. They reflect and refract much that is true, but they’re not me, myself. They’re neither who nor what I am.

Trying to live up to familiar stories is quite different to opening myself so that I can live into new stories – stories that might breathe life and possibility into the world.

And this is quite different again from letting go of how I know myself so that unfamiliar stories – stories I can barely imagine – can begin their work of living themselves into me.

On the economic narrative, and its limits

Behind any life, and any society, are numerous background narratives that give us a sense of who we are, who other people are, and what’s possible for us. They tell us how we can live, what’s of value, and how to relate to one another. And they tell us what’s important to pay attention to, and what’s marginal.

Sometimes the background narratives are visible and explicit in a family or community, such as the way in which biblical narratives give a sense of belonging and orientation to people who are part of some religious communities. But most often – even when there are visible and explicit narratives available – the narratives we actually live by are invisible, and we see them clearly only as an outsider entering a society for the first time, or when the narrative runs into trouble and starts producing unintended consequences.

For the last century or so in the West, we’ve lived in a background narrative that’s directed our attention most strongly towards what’s measurable, particularly what’s financially measurable, and has discounted almost everything else. The bottom line, financial return on investment, this quarter’s results – all have been taken for what’s ‘real’.

And at the same time, we’ve considered what’s not measurable largely ‘unreal’ – the quality of our inner lives, our relationships with others, supportive and close-knit communities, the care we give and receive, our capacity to nurture and appreciate beauty. We can’t pay much attention to these, we say, because in the ‘real world’ there are tough business decisions to make. There are profits to be made.

I’m not arguing that profit is somehow unreal, while beauty and care are real. That would be an equally narrow way of looking at the world. But it’s becoming clearer and clearer how our narrowness – our failure to appreciate and include all dimensions of human life in our businesses, institutions, and in our public discourse – is wreaking havoc in our present and seriously limiting our capacity to respond to the complexity of the future we’re creating. The shocking rise of inequality in even the richest of the worlds societies, the shaking of our financial systems, our seeming inability to respond creatively to climate change – all ought to have ourselves asking whether what we take to be unquestionably true about how to live is, really, deeply questionable.

We urgently need to expand our horizons – to start to take seriously that which we’ve marginalised in the relentless colonisation of all aspects of human life by the narrative of economics.

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Stories about Money

Money is rarely just money to us. Beyond being a means of exchange of goods or services, it’s also wrapped up with meaning – written through with stories and symbolism, emotions, hopes, dreams, possibilities and, often, fears.

And the story about money within which each of us lives profoundly shapes our lives, given that it is an inescapable feature of the way human culture has developed.

A few thoughts about what money can be:

  • A way of trying to stay safe. If I have enough money, I won’t have any worries any more. Of course, like so many money narratives, there is truth here – a certain amount of money is required to stave off hunger, or to provide a clean, warm, place to live. But how much money is required for safety? Once I’ve taken care of food and shelter, how much is needed to keep me safe from illness, loneliness, absence of meaning, risk of accident, death? Is there ever an amount at which the feeling of the essential, existential riskiness of life is soothed? Can I ever, actually, be safe?
  • A source of fear and shame – in which having it is greedy, but not having it is terrifying. In this narrative any move with money is fraught with difficulty, because both accumulating and spending are highly charged activities.
  • A way of accessing experiences and opportunities – education, travel, the arts, places to live. There’s no doubt that money can provide entry to many of these, and the absence of money can keep some experiences well out of reach.
  • A way of having a certain kind of power in the world – to buy or demand the attention of others, to convince, cajole, reward, threaten or influence others for whom money is an issue.
  • A way to bolster self-esteem, or to look good to others. When I have enough money, people will respect me, or love me, or look up to me. When I have enough money I’ll respect myself. A big question in this narrative – how much does it take? And how to deal with comparison – the inevitability that how ever much money I have, there will always be others who have more?
  • Like a stream of water flowing in and out and through – in which my responsibility, and opportunity, is not so much to be the one who determines what flows in, but rather the one who determines where to point the flow. What will the stream water today, this week, this year, over a lifetime? Will it collect in a pool, a reservoir, a lake? Will it water just myself, those close to me, or others further away, perhaps even very far away indeed?
  • A replacement for belonging, rootedness, home – with money comes the power to liquify what is solid, and to move it elsewhere.

There are of course, so many more stories about money in which we can live – stories that are handed to us by our families, and by our culture. And it’s from the narrative in which we live and act that we assess what is of value, what things cost, what is worth spending on, how much to accumulate, what kind of work we should do and not do, when to stop, when to forge on, how much to trust the world, how afraid to be, what kind of person we can be, how safe we feel, and whether we can rest.

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With thanks to Hilary K. who suggested this topic to me some months ago.

Projects for the imagination

Here are some projects to which it’s possible to turn your innate capacity for imagination.

All of these are meanings already given to us: handed to us by our families and culture, and made up – constructed – by other human beings.

Which means you, and I, and all of us, have as much possibility to imagine and declare new meanings and stories for each of these as anyone who has yet lived so far.

Close in

  1. Who am I – beyond or different to the roles and stories I’ve already taken up?
  2. Who might I be?
  3. What a feeling – bodily or emotional – means (ever noticed that feelings stir up familiar, habitual stories about what’s happening? Perhaps other stories would be more appropriate, life giving, possibility-filled).
  4. What’s possible for me to do?

A little further out

  1. What’s going on in the relationships I’m in (that might be different from the way I’ve imagined it so far)?
  2. Who are others – beyond the roles and stories I have about them?
  3. Who might others be?

Even bigger

  1. What is the organisation in which I work (a machine, a living organism, a pulsing-fluxing-pattern of conversations, a means to make money, a means to make meaning, a way of building community, a way of bringing about contribution)?
  2. What is work for?
  3. What’s the nature of the world I live in (a battleground, a competition to reach the top, a flourishing field of life, a flat dull expanse, a source of continuous disappointment and boredom, an endless wonder)?
  4. What is life?
  5. And what is life, itself, for?

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Movies of the Imagination

In one way we human beings are masterful at repeating what we’ve already learned. It’s our capacity to make sense of what we encounter, starting from a very young age, and to respond to what we find by developing skilful ways of coping, that makes it possible for us to navigate the already existing world in which we find ourselves.

Without our capacity to become familiar with whatever world we’re born into, so much would be impossible for us. Every new development in culture, language and technology would be so confusing to us. Imagine what it would be like if all of us were to wake up each and every morning unfamiliar with beds, shoes, doors, speaking, phones, cars, social custom, police officers, government, tables, computers, schools, forks… It’s our very capacity to develop a kind of background, habitual understanding of everything that makes the development of new culture and new ideas a possibility for us at all.

But our habitual familiarity is also a constraint for us, because we so easily keep on trying to cope with a world that has changed, long after it’s changed. We repeat, for example, the roles and actions that we learned in childhood long into our adulthood – trying to get the approval we sought from the adults around us, or nursing old wounds, or replaying with our friends, colleagues and partners the roles we took up around our parents and siblings in our family of origin.

Which is why a vital counterpoint to our familiarity with the world is our capacity to imagine. We are not fixed, however often it might seem that way. Neither are we doomed to play out reactive, repetitive patterns throughout our lives. We can imagine bigger worlds, and bigger possibilities, and new stories for ourselves and others.

And when we find new stories – with more expansive roles for ourselves and those around us  – and bring them to life by living them in our language and practice, with artistry and creativity, we can actually change the world… at least the world for us and for those nearby. And that is, always, the only place to start.

Such acts of imagination are necessary for all of us. And they, like so many forms of creativity and generosity, can be learned and practiced over time.

And it can be one of the most exquisite gifts of a human life to imagine and bring the new possibilities we see to other people’s lives, as well as to ourselves.

Inspired by Georges Méliès, whose imagination helped him see possibilities in film that nobody before him had seen, and by Martin Scorcese’s beautiful film Hugo, which features him as a central character, and which I saw with my family today.

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Myths we live by

Myths we live by…

… it happens to them, but it could never happen to me

… there’s really no cost to my overworking

… and what I do won’t really affect my body (I’m invincible)

… it (doing what deadens me, sacrificing my integrity, twisting myself out of shape) is only for now

… I don’t need any help

… other people get old, not me

… none of this is, really, happening

… there’s something wrong with me

… there are people who live without pain, grief or suffering (just not me)

… if I wait long enough (am good enough, liked enough, smart enough), someone or something will save me

… I’ll be happy when (I get the car, the lottery win, partnership, I retire)

… everyone’s looking at me

Do you live by any of these?

And have you ever stopped to wonder about the cost?

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Declaring Meaning

When we find out how much of the world is made up – by us – it’s tempting to pull everything apart. We pull apart institutions – because we see how groundless their authority is. We pull apart politics – because as we see more into the ordinary lives of our politicians we discover that they are ordinary and flawed like us, and we no longer have reason to simplistically trust either their intentions or their abilities. We pull apart relationships – because we don’t feel any reason to commit, beyond our moment-to-moment likes and dislikes. And we pull apart beliefs and practices that can bind us together.

This step – using reason to see through what we’d taken to be unquestionably true is in so many ways a necessary developmental step for each of us and for our society. Indeed, it’s the step that allowed us to discover science and its methods of rigorous, grounded inquiry. And it made it possible to undo the divine right of kings to rule over us, and to bring about democracy.

But it’s also so easily the route to nihilism: the move to render everything meaningless, everything pointless, everything disposable as we discover that the structures and stories and roles we used to trust were made up by other people. And, as the philosophers Kierkegaard and Nietzsche warned us, this ends up with us tearing meaning apart too, as we find out that what meaning we encountered in the world was only there because other people declared it anyway.

And so the next step important after undoing it all is to find out that it’s also within our power to put things back together, to declare meaning for ourselves. To find out that there are many kinds of truth, including those that take into account goodness and beauty as well as just reason. That out of the fragments of what we have taken apart, we can still choose practices, people, relationships, stories, commitments and vows to live by that invest life with purposefulness, care, and dignity.  And that this is possible, and necessary, in every sphere of life – in work, home, community and politics – specifically because we’ve found out that without it there is so little for us to stand on.

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We deserve better

And so the skilful move is to find a way to meet what the world is calling for, and what the world is offering you, with interpretations that are big enough, and generous enough. It’s each of our responsibility to find narratives, and the practices that go with them, that allow us to step forward and contribute.

Anything less – stories about yourself that are too small, or too cynical – has you hold back what only you can bring.

The world, and the rest of us, deserve much better than that.

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Practical Magic

There’s power and magic in declaring a new interpretation of events.

But declaring a new way of seeing things – a new way of making sense – is insufficient on its own. Because a change of thought is not automatically a change of habit. And it’s through our habits and our practices that we bring about the world we inhabit.

For example, declaring “I am now open to earning money”, after years of underselling yourself, is a necessary first step. It opens up huge possibility. But that possibility comes into being not through the new thought alone. Rather, it’s brought about because you take up the practices of asking, promising, and making offers of your goods or services that others find enrolling and compelling. And, of course, such practices – if they are new to you – will be tentative and clumsy at first. The hidden possibilities of the declaration become manifest only as you develop the embodied skill that makes its promise real.

Similarly “I am now ready to be in a relationship”. Yes, relationship becomes more possible upon making such a declaration. Here, however, you have to start practicing listening, understanding, kindness, responsiveness, compassion, creativity and love in order to fully bring out the possibilities inherent in what you’ve declared.

So, please, work on shifting your interpretation of the world. But don’t expect a change of mind to equal a change of circumstance. 

The universe is magical, but not in that simple, simplistic, wishful-thinking way.

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Malleable

It’s a powerful move to discover that the truth of the world is not fixed, but shaped by interpretation.

Was losing out on that project a curse, or a blessing? An example of life’s unfairness, or a consequence of the endless, unavoidable change of things? Proof of your unworthiness, or opportunity to contribute afresh, discovering new skills and qualities? Cruel fate, or life calling you into a wider understanding?

Different aspects of the situation come forward according to the interpretation you choose. Events take on many kinds of meaning, depending upon how they’re framed.

In other words, the truth of an event is malleable. Much more than you might often acknowledge.

And even ‘this is just the way it is’ is an interpretation you’re in the middle of choosing.

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Monster or angel?

Pick someone important in your life – a lover, friend, colleague. Your boss. A team member. Brother or sister. Mother or father.

Now look – who are you having them be to you? What image are you projecting their way?

Are you expecting them to take your pain away, to hold you in a perfect embrace (physical or metaphorical) in which you do not have to feel any worry or address any trouble?

Are they an object for your resentment or your hate – propping up your self-esteem each time you belittle them in thought or deed?

Do you have them elevated, on a pedestal, a constant reminder of your own inadequacy (and hence an excuse for the way you over-extend yourself or hold back)?

Are they there to show you that you’re loved and respected always? And when they fall short, to be the target of your frustration and woundedness?

Are you expecting them to parent you? To excuse you? To soothe you? To excite you? To rescue you? To provide for you? To be an object of your scorn? To be a monster or an angel?

And because of all of this, are you relating to them as them, or as an image?

All of this matters because too often we find we’re not in relationship with a person, but with a story. And as stories are smaller and more rigid than people are, it turns out that’s not much of a relationship at all.

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