'The optimism of the action is better than the pessimism of the thought.' (Greenpeace)
Resilience is a common buzz word today, partly in response to the complex mental health challenges that individuals and communities face in a brittle, anxious, non-linear and incomprehensible (BANI) world. Who would have imagined 3 years ago, for instance, that Covid19 would strike or that Russia would invade Ukraine, with all the ramifications this has precipitated in our personal and collective lives? It can feel like too much time spent on the back foot, reacting to pressures that may appear from anywhere, without warning, from left field – rather than creating the positive future we hope for.
A psychological, social and political risk is that people and societies develop a ‘Whatever’ attitude, an apathetic ‘What’s the point?’ mentality. After all, what is the point of investing our time, effort and other resources into something that could all get blown away again in a brief moment? A good friend worked in Liberia with a community that was trying to recover from the effects of a bloody civil war. They started to build schools, hospitals and other infrastructure and, just as things were beginning to look hopeful, a violent, armed militia swept through the area and burned everything to the ground.
This can feel like an apocalyptic game of snakes and ladders. Take one step forward and, all of a sudden, back to square one again. A close friend in the Philippines befriended people in a very poor makeshift community, surviving at the side of a busy road in boxes and under tarpaulins. She worked hard to improve the quality of their lives, to ensure that they felt and experienced authentic love, care and support, and it started to have a dramatic human impact. Faces brightened and hopes were lifted. Then, out of nowhere, government trucks appeared and bulldozed that whole place to the ground.
It could be tempting to give up. One coping mechanism is to focus on living just one moment, one day, at a time because, after all, 'Who can know what tomorrow will bring?' This may engender an element of peaceful acceptance, akin to that through mindfulness. It can also morph into a form of passive, deterministic fatalism: ‘We can’t change anything, so why try?’ Martin Luther King's response stands in stark contrast who, in the face of setbacks, advocated, ‘We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would more tragic than to stop at this point. We’ve got to see it through.’
Psychologically, both approaches could be regarded as survival strategies, as personal and social defences against anxiety. In a way, they are adaptive responses: ways of thinking, being and behaving that seek to create a greater sense of agency and control in the face of painful powerlessness. In the former case, a level of control is gained, paradoxically, through choosing to relinquish control. It's a letting-go rather than a clinging-on. In the latter, a fight-response (albeit a faith-fuelled, non-violent fight in the case of MLK), control is sought by changing the conditions that deprive of control.
Each constitutes it's own way of responding to an external reality – and it’s out there as well as in here that the real and tangible challenges of resilience and transformation persist. The social, political and economic needs of the poorest, most vulnerable and oppressed people in the world don’t exist or disappear, depending simply on how we or they may perceive or feel about them. MLK’s call to action was radical: ‘We need to develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness. It’s no longer a question of what will happen to us if we get involved. It’s what will happen to them (and us) if we don’t?’
[See also: Resilient; When disaster strikes; Clash of realities]
‘Instead of singing the same song in different ways, we need to learn to sing a new song.’ (Nancy Akanbombire)
I took part in a fascinating international webinar this afternoon organised by INTRAC: ‘Shifting the Power through Organisation Development’. It called for fundamental shifts in the ways in which we perceive ourselves, others and our work, particularly as consultants engaged with civil society and civil society organisations (CSOs) throughout the world. It also challenged us to examine our stance and approach by applying critical reflection and critical reflexivity to our relationships and practice. Underlying values of humility, courage, curiosity, engagement and co-creation shone throughout.
The overriding theme, which extends well beyond organisation development (OD) and our work with CSOs, was how to make a paradigm shift that enables sustainable transformation. This is a big question and one that we now face urgently in so many different contexts globally. Our tried-and-tested ways of thinking about, construing and addressing situations are somehow leading us into disaster after disaster – and the stakes couldn’t be higher. This ought to be raising some serious red flags, not just Ukrainian flags: and the fact that it isn’t should be cautioning us to think very hard.
Take, for instance, the devastating war in Ukraine that risks disastrous consequences for the lowest-income countries where fuel, energy and food security are already at crisis point, yet our gaze is fixed on Europe. Take the climate emergency that still threatens to kill the entire world, yet captures our attention for a brief moment then slips back to the fringe. Take the on-going Covid crisis with risks of a variant emerging from anywhere that could wipe out all of humanity, yet only 1% of people in the poorest countries have yet been vaccinated. What powers and vested interests lay hidden here?
I raised a red flag with some friends this week: ‘Why are we putting up Ukrainian flags everywhere, and not Russian flags?’ The response was instinctive and immediate: ‘Firstly, we want so show solidarity with Ukraine that is on the receiving end of a brutal and unjustified attack by Russia. Secondly, if we put up Russian flags, it would look like we’re supporting Putin.’ I get it. So, I asked a second question: ‘So what about showing solidarity too with the Russian people who are proud to be Russian, who are horrified by Putin’s war and who are also suffering terribly for showing dissent?’
The room fell silent. Now, a third question: ‘This war - how did we get here?’ Again, an instinctive response: ‘Russia’s aggression.’ The Russian military is aggressive in Ukraine, and the Russian police is aggressive in Russia. Yet that’s an answer to a different question. ‘Do you think NATO expansion to Russia’s borders could have been an influencing factor?’ One frustrated person came straight back at me angrily: ‘You’re acting like a spokesperson for the Kremlin.’ I had touched on a nerve, a boundary: what is acceptable to think, what I’m allowed to ask. Yet this itself is the real learning edge.
So – why do we shrink back? Why do we allow simplistic answers, binary narratives and biased judgements to so easily dominate our discourse; and why do we work so hard to defend them? Why is implicit or explicit silencing so prevalent, including in democratic societies that depend on critical debate as a core value, learning opportunity and safeguarding mechanism? The scale and complexity of the issues we face can evoke anxiety, and to face the fear can feel threatening. We retreat to where it feel familiar and safe: where red flags are torn down – and that could be our undoing.
‘The opportunity to make effective personal choices is highly unequal.’ (Robert A. Dahl - After the Revolution)
New Years’ Resolutions. A time and practice in Western cultures when some of the more reflective or impulsive among us will commit to do something new. It could be, for instance, a new relationship, a new job, a new home, a new diet or a new fitness routine. For many people, very soon after having made a decision, the resolve will dissolve and be lost in the mists of time. Yet central to this idea of resolution is the notion of personal choice and, with it, the principle that I can succeed in achieving what I choose – if I’m willing to do whatever it takes.
I often create (prayerfully) a list of key aspirations at the start of each year, then put practical steps in place so that, all things being equal, I will be able to look back at the end of that year and see that I have fulfilled them. The goals are intentionally inspiring and stretching. They are, with God’s help, within my grasp and, therefore, possible. On the whole, this discipline works by ensuring focus, parameters and accountability. It also centres on people and things that are genuinely important to me and, thereby, taps into values, motivation and determination.
We can think of this choosing-acting-influencing phenomenon as exercising personal agency. Shaun Gallagher describes this as, ‘the sense that I am the one who is causing or generating an action’. ‘I can choose’ is a profound existential, psychological and political statement and stance. It means I can break out beyond the apparent default of my circumstances. We hold the potential to be catalysts of real change in the world, within ourselves as well as in broader relationships and situations – and this brings opportunity and responsibility.
I can choose and you can choose. I think vividly of Jasmin in the Philippines, a poor woman among the poor who chooses to follow Jesus’ call and example, whatever the cost. Rather than allowing herself to be limited by her circumstances or by expediency, she exercises radical personal agency and transforms everyone and everything in her path. Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg are famous examples of women too who take personal choice, action and influence seriously – and, similarly, at considerable personal risk.
There are wider dimensions. A person's sense and scope of agency are affected by structural factors that transcend the individual, e.g. social status; wealth; education; gender; ethnicity; culture. Mustafa Emirbayer and Ann Mische observed that a person’s lived experience limits what possible alternatives or future scenarios he or she is able to imagine. Paulo Freire proposed, on a similar basis, that critical consciousness (‘conscientisation’) is a necessary condition for people to exercise freer choices and agency for change.
I worked with a client from Myanmar and asked her what she dreamed of. She looked at me blankly then responded that she was unable to conceive of a different reality to the one that she had lived until now. She felt crushed by the mental and practical constraints of living as an ethnic minority in a country dominated by a military dictatorship. The impact of unequal and unjust social-political power is not a fixed determinant of agency – but the stark psychological and tangible inequalities of choice and opportunity it engenders are significant.
Other influences include personal confidence, competence and capacity. If a person operates psychologically and relationally from a secure base with trust and support, he or she is more likely to choose to take a positive risk. If, conversely, someone is and-or feels alone and has experienced or anticipates unfair discrimination, negative evaluation or other painful consequences, to act can feel hazardous – especially if the stakes are high. Agency can demand energy, courage and resilience. A person may not (yet) feel ready, willing or able to take that step.
If a client is unaware of or avoiding personal agency, William Glasser suggests stimulating his or her sense of reality, responsibility and relationship in order to enable more life-giving choices. If stuck in a pattern of apathy or passivity, John Blakey and Ian Day propose offering high challenge with high support. If we risk inadvertently colluding with or disempowering a client, Reg and Madge Batten advise focusing attention on what the person can do for him- or herself and, only after that, what we could do by agreement with them, or on their behalf.
Viktor Frankl, victim of Nazi persecution concluded that, fundamentally: ‘The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond.’ In our personal, social and political lives, we can see how a person’s choices, actions and influence are affected by a diverse range of factors. These include the privileges a person may hold (or not) and the opportunities he or she has benefited from by birth, background or context. Jesus – help me choose this year to exercise my own agency for the life and liberation of others. We can be hope.
(Would you like to discover how to exercise greater personal agency? Get in touch!)
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