Back in January a good friend put me on to an author named Margaret Wheatley, who had recently been a guest on the CBC radio programme Tapestry. What hooked me in was the author asking, “the real question now is: as things get worse and worse, what is right action? What do we do? Then the question is: who do I choose to be? Where can I still give service? Where can I live a meaningful life?”
When she said, “as things get worse,” it wasn’t in reference to the COVID-19 situation. (Back then, which is to say a mere 3 months ago, coronavirus seemed to most people in the west like a China or Asia problem, and we’re now seeing just how short-sighted and naïve… and ethnocentric… we can be.) Instead, Wheatley was referring to the broader decline and breakdown of society—detailed starkly and convincingly in her book So Far from Home: Lost and Found in Our Brave New World—spoiler alert: we are currently in the sixth, and last, stage of a cycle which repeats that of civilizations before us throughout human history.
It doesn’t sound all that inspiring. In fact, Wheatley herself warns readers early on that much of the content she presents will be disheartening. And yet I found her book motivating, to the point of making some constructive changes of attitude and behaviour I might not have otherwise.
I am someone who would not consider himself, by definition, an optimist nor a pessimist. I definitely don’t expect the worst. But I don’t presume that most things will just work out great either. My glass isn’t half full or half empty, it’s simply containing half of its volume at the present moment. I am a realist. And a realist who really, really would like to think and believe positive things but can’t quite make the leap to that pie-in-the-sky, big picture brand of positivity.
As much as I would like to, I have never been able to actually convince myself when I read the more rose-coloured assessments of where things are at and what might be to come. My heart wants to believe the message but my head tempers it from becoming firmly seated in my soul. And so I think that what Margaret Wheatley has to say clicks with me because it is a call to positive action, but one based in reality. It’s the first time I have seen such notions put so plainly yet eloquently—in a nutshell: yes the world is going to crap, no there is nothing we can do to stop it or fully fix it, yes humanity has done it to itself (yet again), yes it’s a one-way street and civilization is in the final stage of breakdown, AND so given that is the case, WHO will you be, and WHAT will you do during this time?
We cannot change the world as it is, but by opening ourselves to the world as it is, we may find that gentleness, decency and bravery are available—not only to us but to all human beings. ~Chögyam Trungpa
Wheatley draws on the teachings of Tibetan Buddhist Master Chögyam Trungpa and her book is peppered with quotes such as the one above. She writes, “Opening ourselves to the world as it is, not flinching from what we see, keeping our eyes and heart open—this is true warriors work. And what we see will always break our hearts.” In asking what kind of person will you be during this time, she encourages people to be “Warriors for the Human Spirit” and actively practice gentleness, decency and bravery.
“Dark times arise when people lose faith in one another,” writes Wheatley, “absent that faith positive belief in others, there is no motivation to act courageously.” That is as prescient now during the current time of pandemic as it is for the broader context of where we are in civilization’s era.
What can you do—what will you do—to practice gentleness, decency and bravery? Who will you be, and how will you be, and what will you be, in this time?
I am presently making my way through Margaret Wheatley’s latest book, Who do we choose to be? Facing reality, claiming leadership, restoring sanity, which has more food for thought. Whether or not you choose to buy from Amazon, it does provide a generous sample from this book if you would like to have a taste. Also, check out Margaret Wheatley’s web site resources section, with lots of free content.