Jun 13, 2023

Crisis Fatigue and the Co-Creation of Positive Possibilities

A letter to a community organizer and networker overwhelmed by the potential impact of global crises on his community
By Tom Atlee / co-intelligence.org
Crisis Fatigue and the Co-Creation of Positive Possibilities
Image by: Midjourney & Tim Hjersted

Dear John,

You might consider something I'm thinking of calling crisis-fatigue. Like battle fatigue or compassion fatigue. I think its main ingredient is ambiguity-fatigue. It is exhausting to continually contemplate potentially massive threats from a place of radical uncertainty littered with certainties that blink on and off...

How does one respond to this in anything approaching a sane way? I struggle with this all the time. At least a few things have become obvious to me. These strategies are remarkably consistent with what you'd expect the requisites would be for living in a complex, chaotic, unpredictable system:

1) Let go of outcome. Since we're not in charge (and never really were), admit that what happens is much bigger than any of us. It seems we need to be willing to die, willing for everyone around us to suffer, willing to fail at every attempt to make the world better or to understand or to be understood, or to even grow and learn from all this. Let it all go. (I do not mean that we should expect, encourage or welcome such undesirable outcomes. I mean we can want or envision positive outcomes even as we appreciate the fullness of life with or without them. Honoring our desires without being controlled by them clarifies our minds and frees us to be fully present. I know of few forces more powerfully benign than passionate engagement without attachment.)

2) Come to terms with our own intrinsic participation in Whatever Happens. Not only are we not in control, we're not un-involved. Our role in Whatever Happens isn't something we can escape. (One consolation is we aren't alone. Everyone and everything is co-creating Whatever Happens.) This is hard for us to come to terms with because it looks so much like the guilt-based responsibility upon which our society is based ("Everything is not my fault!"); but it is a totally different thing.

Guilt-based responsibility is part of the linear cause-and-effect worldview. ("Who's responsible/ guilty/ blameworthy?" is the social equivalent of the scientists' question, "What's the cause?") But blame can't fathom the complexity of What Happens in a living/chaotic system. Phenomena arise from the whole, from the system itself. Those who stand by when events happen are creating a context for those events to unfold in the way they do -- even when they are miles away obliviously watching a sitcom. Even inanimate objects are participants: Roads are participating in the death of pollinators (by replacing trees and meadows, by enabling the transport of pesticides, by contributing to ozone depletion). Everything participates. It is pointless to point. The route to better conditions is through increased awareness of the whole, and a more radically expansive sense of all our roles. This includes the previous item -- letting go -- because co-creation means we're not in charge of outcomes, we're just vitally important participants in influencing them.

3) Look for positive possibilities and ways to partner them into greater probability. Meg Wheatley and David Spangler taught me about living in a world of possibilities. We could say, inspired by the poet Muriel Rukeyser, that the universe is made of possibilities, not atoms. They are everywhere. They are everything. Some say God (or the devil) is in the details. I say God (and the devil) are in the possibilities. Every moment is filled with them. Although we don't get to control how they turn out, they are very responsive to our actions, our beliefs, our caring. That is the edge of co-creativity where Life resides most vividly.

Some say it is narcissistic to think we are playing a role in everything. This is true if we're talking about a linear world of cause-and-effect responsibility. But I see reality as bigger than linear. I see it as an infinite, infinitesimally dense web of co-creation, a sea of mutual participation. Spangler has called this "a co-incarnational universe" -- everything is bringing everything else into existence.

So we join with everyone and everything -- past, present and future -- in sharing influence on what happens. We are neither guilty nor innocent. Rather, we are consciously or unconsciously involved. In everything. Our actions matter. Our awareness matters. Right here and right now. Because we are a factor in the Life of Everything.

This ultimate application of the admonition "Think Globally, Act Locally" points towards what we might call "participatory responsibility." Are we playing the best role we can imagine, given the limits of (our infinitely expandable) awareness?

I think this is what I am asked to do: To care about the larger whole and all the Life within it, and to act in my own life with the purest awareness and intention that I can muster towards being a worthy participant in the unfolding of positive possibilities for all, for the whole. Of course, I fail at this, over and over. And within those failures are more positive possiblities for me to find and engage...

So I look for the positive possibilities in the crises we face. On the one hand, I sometimes feel that our chances are slim and that ultimately it is only by the grace of God that "we will make it" (whatever that means to each of us). On the other hand, I realize how much we often undermine our chances by losing touch with our intrinsically co-creative role in the unfolding of every one of these potential crises, in the fate of the possibilities that are there. That role includes inspiring each other, evoking our best selves, calling forth the best possibilities no matter how small That is the essence of participatory leadership. We can each do that -- for ourselves, for each other, for the world.

Faced with a wall, a man said to his comrade,
"We can go no further." His comrade said,
"But there is a crack in the wall." The man
said, "But the wall is so large and the crack
is so small." To which his comrade said, "A
crowbar in the crack, and we'll be on our way.
Or set a few seeds in it, and they'll take that
wall down for us in God's good time. Which
shall it be?" They were soon on their way.

We are the faces and fingers and feet of the God of Possibility. It is through our participation -- although not only through our participation -- that God (or the Goddess, or the Tao, or Life) works wonders.

This is easy to visualize if we remember that it is through our hands, but not only through our hands, that we work our own wonders.

Our efforts and caring -- even when we "fail" -- provide a changed context for the efforts and caring of others elsewhere, tomorrow. The Whole evolves through our roles, through the active Being of each and every one of us.

  • This is
  • bigger than taking personal responsibility,
  • bigger than letting others take care of us,
  • bigger than taking care of each other,
  • bigger than setting up institutions to care for people,
  • bigger than realizing the role of history and environment and culture in how we all behave,
  • bigger than knowing that inaction and action are both forms of participation,
  • bigger than being aware of the upside and downside of every form of participation (and taking action anyway).

It is each and every one of these things, and more. It is all true. It is all real. But it is only possible to enter this Reality to the extent we let go of outcome and become more compassionate, eager, aware agents of Positive Possibility.

So what is possible here in in these emerging crises for us, for those we love, for our communities, our societies, our world? Do the chances look slim? Do the outcomes seem impossible to grasp? Often they do. But isn't that what makes life an adventure?

Some people say that's why we stay alive, from day to day: to find out what happens next. All games and adventures are built out of uncertainty (if we knew what would happen, we'd soon lose interest). Humans thrive on challenge, on the unknown.

True, we can have too much challenge, too much uncertainty. However, if we look closely, we'll find that that only happens when we've become too attached to outcomes. In the moment of that realization, our challenge becomes "How well can we learn to let go and stay engaged?" That's a real trick. The real trick.

To be alive is to find out what's possible, to see how far we can push/cajole/invite the flow of reality into the channels of positive possibility.

Which is often hard. I want to see a better, more sustainable, more humane, more meaningful culture. I have often felt that we don't have much of a chance of getting it. Too often, the more I learned, the more the social and psychological dynamics seemed stacked against us. And then I'd encounter a new innovation, some unexpected allies, or a sudden turn of events that opened doors I didn't even know existed.

I've come to believe that things are getting better and better and worse and worse, faster and faster, simultaneously.

And so I've found myself bouncing back and forth between optimism and pessimism. "Things are going to work out well." Or: "There's going to be real disaster!" It's been really exhausting.

But lately something's changing about all this. I've begun to notice how the whole optimism/pessimism dichotomy is a death trap for my aliveness and attention. I watch myself acting as if my sense of what might happen is a description of reality. And what I notice is this: whether I expect the best or the worst, my expectations interfere with my will to act.

That's so important I'm going to repeat it. Whether I expect the best or the worst, my expectations interfere with my will to act.

I've started viewing both optimism and pessimism as spectator sports, as forms of disengagement masquerading as involvement. Both optimism and pessimism trick me into judging life and betting on the odds, rather than diving into life with my whole self, with my full co-creative energy. I think the emerging crises call us to transcend such false end-games like optimism and pessimism. I think they call us to act like a spiritually healthy person who has just learned they have heart disease: We can use each dire prognosis as a stimulant for reaching more deeply into life and co-creating positive change.

And so I've come to conclude that all the predictions -- both good and bad -- tell us absolutely nothing about what is possible. Trends and events only relate to what is probable. Probabilities are abstractions. Possibilities are the stuff of life, visions to act upon, doors to walk through. Pessimism and optimism are both distractions from living life fully.

More and more, I'm seeing myself as an ally or midwife of positive possibilities. Those possibilities need me to help them move towards becoming real. True, we often need miracles, but miracles can only go so far. Miracles need us to meet them halfway. I'm trying to move as far towards the miracles as I can, and draw them out.

I'll probably never know if I've moved far enough, if we have moved far enough. But the movement, itself, is so alive I can hardly stand it. And I keep meeting incredible companions like you (whose value to me evoked this response), and doing unbelievable things together. The world could not be more filled with possibilities than it is now. On the wind I smell good food cooking out there somewhere. My appetite for what could be lifts me to the road again, over and over, where I get covered with dust, tired, sore and discouraged. And then I smell it again, and the sun rises.



PS: A note on wisdom, related to this, which I just found in papers I was cleaning up (heaven knows when I wrote it, among all these stacks of paper)... "I see God in the infinitely complex and co-creative power of nature. When Jesus said we should be like the lilies of the field, he was surely inviting us to sit there and gaze at the clouds. But perhaps he meant more, as well. Perhaps he was inviting us to participate in the wholesome patterns of nature woven from strands of wisdom laid by the hands of a wise God and/or by the trials of four billion years of evolution. We people can never hope to replace this wisdom with some substitute derived from our own intrinsically small-picture intelligence. But we can learn and follow this natural wisdom. This insight informs permaculture and aikido, as well as meditators."

PPS: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to clarify my own thinking here. I hope it is of some use to you, for it arose from my caring about you. We have a very long and amazing road to go yet.

Tom Atlee is vice president and research director of the Co-Intelligence Institute, a nonprofit organization he founded in 1996. His early co-intelligence research in the late 1980s focused on the relationship between group dynamics and collective intelligence. Beginning in the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s, his focus shifted to developing society's capacity to function as a wise democracy. From 2005-2010 he explored possibilities for the conscious evolution of social systems, grounded in a sacred science-based understanding of evolutionary dynamics. During 2011-2015 he focused on public wisdomco-intelligent economics and participatory sustainability. Seeking more practice-based ways to engage people around the idea of wise democracy, he is now doing courses and developing a community of practice around the wise democracy pattern language. He hopes these intertwined, expanding explorations can help channel the energies surrounding our 21st century social and environmental crises into positive possibiities and system-transforming initiatives.

Tom's social change vision is grounded most deeply in new understandings of evolving wholeness which recognize the value of diversity, unity, relationship, context, uniqueness and the spirit inside each of us and the world. Co-intelligence is intelligence that arises from that kind of wholeness. It has collaborative and collective dimensions, and intrinsic interconnectedness which we see clearly in wholesome forms of politics, governance and economics. Co-intelligence theory also highlights the many facets of intelligence (like head and heart), wisdom, and the higher forms of intelligence (natural and sacred) that move through and beyond us. Although Tom and the Institute focus on very practical issues of group, social, political, and economic dynamics, co-intelligence has many esoteric dimensions as well.

An early theoretician and advocate of collective intelligence, Tom's inclusive mapping of the field has been featured in two major books on the subject - Mark Tovey's Collective Intelligence: Creating a Prosperous World at Peace (2008) and Nasreen Taher's Collective Intelligence: An Introduction (2006).

His work on "wise democracy" features his coined category of existing forms of "citizen deliberative councils" which he promotes in his books The Tao of Democracy: Using Co-Intelligence to Create a World that Works for All (2003) and Empowering Public Wisdom: A Practical Vision of Citizen-Led Politics (2012).  He has been a significant theoretician in the field of dialogue and deliberation, being lead integrator of the Core Principles of Public Engagement (2009) and a major contributor to the GroupWorks pattern language of group process (2008-2012), as well as a steering committee member of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (2002-2005).

Much of his work features new visions of social change agentry - from the co-intelligent activism articulated in his books Participatory Sustainability,The Tao of Democracy and Reflections on Evolutionary Activism: Essays, Poems and Prayers from an Emerging Field of Sacred Social Change (2009), to his co-organizing of the Evolutionary Salon on Philanthropy (2006) and the Storyfield Conference (2007) to his many blog posts on social issues and action.

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