First, please accept my apologies for ‘disappearing’ since early March. But what a whirlwind it’s been with a pandemic and now protests. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
As is true for many of you, my daily existence took an abrupt turn. Several years ago, I took the role of medical director of the county health department, as a favor to a friend who was spinning too many plates. It was the kind of job where if I spent more than one hour a week, it was excessive. That all changed in early March and has consumed my time ever since. There are so many stories, so many lessons applied, and so many lessons reinforced and learned. I affectionately now refer to BC—Before Covid- and it seems eons ago. And there is so much to share.
Catalyst for Change?
But it is mid-June, and I want to start with now. The past few weeks have seen protests everywhere, even in our small rural county. Unfortunately, some have turned violent, but not here. Some have taken advantage to instigate violence for their own fringe agenda. The sight of people, so many people, walking the streets………wearing masks! Tell me when in BC would a TV show have dreamt that scenario up.
But now, it’s just the way we live- people learning a new dance, balancing the risk to their health in order to express their outrage, indignation, and frustration alongside the real risk to their health from a virus that doesn’t care about those feelings. On the one hand threading the needle between risking health going against the basic rules of pandemic containment, but mitigating that risk to the extent they can, and on the other hand, risking health going against a longstanding societal infrastructure and taking on that risk to the extent they can. It is quite something to see so many galvanized for a cause, figuring out how to thread that needle and putting it all on the line. I’m only sorry that violence and injury are marching alongside as well. I’m only sorry this kind of fervor requires each side to see the other as ‘other.’ It seems like we are in a standoff between the World As It Is and the World As I Want It To Be. And in this moment, neither side is budging. We are all holding our breath, waiting to see what will come of it. But right now, maybe that is what it takes.
Through the lens of Free The Brain, we see that people will change their behavior, alter what they do every day if they see a good enough reason to do so, a glimpse to a path that is more likely to result in success and survival. If you believe people don’t change, are resistant to change, not wired to change, then you have either been in a silent retreat or you must have put on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon and never took off. Here is a case study that says otherwise. We have asked, even expected, people to change in an incredibly short time frame, up end the seeming stability of their lives, adapt to a new world order-some better than others. For many, if not most, Covid was seen as a good enough reason to do so. But for some Americans, it is not good enough. And we have learned something about Americans; for quite a few, that willingness to do so lasted about 6 weeks.
After that, commitment starts to waver; rationales start to fall apart; fears start to dissipate; the common concern loses its punch even if the virus has lost none of its. And the preferred mode of the brain - to see everything like a problem with a one step solution - slowly creeps in from all sides, gradually infiltrating that good enough reason, and after a bit degrading its power to lead. “It hasn’t affected anybody I know” “It’s not nearly as bad as they said it was going to be” “Just let me get back to my life” “Someone must be responsible for my suffering- I didn’t do anything wrong” “Only the old people die” “It will be over soon.”
What we now see reminds me of a revolution- the various factions willing to put aside their agendas and disagreements long enough to overthrow those in power. And when that has been achieved, and they are the ones in power, they utterly fail to govern or live up to the lofty ideals that briefly banded them together. Its back to their own agendas, unable or unwilling to work together. That good enough cause gone with the wind.
The Power of A Shared Outcome
Nevertheless, we have seen the power of a shared outcome, the impact when people coalesce around a cause good enough- a shared vision of what success looks like and what we are trying to achieve, with enough overlap between what each party wants it to be and wants it not to be, merged together to provide an overarching direction- a consensus statement each party can agree to live with and support and for the time being something they are willing to be on board with, even if it is not totally in line with the World As They Want It To Be. But for us, just as for the revolutionaries, the solidarity underlying the shared outcome is actually a fragile merger. And as it loses some of its momentum, it loses some of its participants. The actions people were willing to take in the name of success at that moment slowly devolve into a descent into my way vs your way- success the way I see it, rather than the way we see it- the dreaded dueling solutions.
The power of a shared outcome is on my mind as I reflect on the successes our small county has had in its attempts to get ahead of the virus. The coming together of various agencies who in the past might have had some interactions that, well, left them not exactly trusting the motivations of other agencies, but who have now come together for a common purpose and with a shared outcome in mind, let down their guards just a bit and in working together on certain projects discover that maybe that the other is not so bad. Maybe I can trust them to share the load with me. Maybe together, we can each better reach that notion of success. There are many of those stories to be told since early March and I hope to get to some of them. For me, I am humbled to have been welcomed in to be part of that. It's something that may well serve everyone in our small community around here going forward long after we can enter AD- ‘After the Dance’- the steps we are all doing to navigate through the standoff between the World As It Is and the healthy people and healthy society in the World As We Want It To Be.
This has me today thinking about the cry to ‘Defund the Police’ and its various permutations. I’m not sure what that means exactly. Oh yes, I have read several different versions of what certain people want it to mean. Right now, the fragile merger brought on by the stark images is enough to hold people together in their zeal for change. But such a slogan may well contain the seeds of its own demise. For it appears to me to represent problem thinking- a faith in the one step that will solve it all. Is the willingness of these factions to rally around a powerful cause at risk of disintegrating in the face of a slogan with differing meanings? Will this just devolve into dueling solutions? If and when the battle over whether change should happen is won, will that opportunity to then craft change survive?
The Recipe For Change
The 1985 Montreal Protocol taught us the three steps- over 200 countries committing to curb the worldwide use of CFC’s in order to stop the deterioration of the ozone layer with its attendant risk to the climate and the world population- the science to grasp the issue, a catalyst that makes it clear enough that now is the time, and the R&D each party must undertake to figure out how to survive in a new world order they can no longer avoid being part, one they ignore only at their own peril. In that story of change, it was clear it took all three.
The science is clear- longstanding racism and discrimination has taken a toll. A catalyst may have emerged in the death of George Floyd and others. And if this catalyst turns out to have been meaningful enough to make it clear on all sides there is no going back, we then need a period of R&D- society needs the opportunity for each party on all sides to figure out how to survive in the new world order. Change requires all three.
Perhaps we have a catalyst that will prove to have been meaningful enough. Will enough people in each faction be willing or even able to move from problem thinking to dilemma thinking- from fixating on their narrative and its solution to contributing their narrative and solution. Will we avoid dueling solutions and look instead for the balance among all the valuable but competing options- to participate in evolving a consensus that asks not what you believe is the best way forward, but seeks to learn what each party can live with and support, especially for those who do not yet see their success and survival in that changing.
To pursue such a consensus, we must each acknowledge that I cannot ‘know’ your experience, just as it impossible for you to truly ‘know’ about mine. Nor is that a critical ingredient. What it does require from each of us is to honor that each person has a unique experience that matters- even the experience of those I see as ‘other,’ whatever one’s color, or economic, political, religious, and social background and experience.
This insight starts to unravel the dilemma of change, and why a catalyst is necessary, but not enough. A catalyst depends on problem thinking. To get the brain’s attention requires a problem it can focus on, something concrete it can wrap itself around, a threat with a clear image that blocks the way forward, something that must be dealt with now, and one it sees a high enough likelihood it can solve, be done with, and then move on to the next - something it will devote its limited energy to and sees as a good use of that energy.
But add in other perspectives, other nuances, others’ concerns, and that nice neat package of a challenge and fix looks less concrete, less clear. The edges blur - the image too hard to focus on, too challenging to wrap one’s brain around.
Problem Thinking vs Dilemma Thinking
Problem thinking doesn’t work when what you really have is a dilemma.This is why a catalyst is required, but is not enough for change to take root. A catalyst opens the door. But to walk through into the space where R&D can tackle the dilemma takes crossing the threshold from problem thinking to dilemma thinking. This may explain why previous incidents never gained enough traction to result in change. Yes, there were ‘solutions’ put forth and ‘reforms enacted,’ but those incidents turned out not to be meaningful enough for the kind of transition to dilemma thinking that had the chance for consensus, R&D, and change. Lofty ideals, firm beliefs and ideology, an ‘obvious’ solution may be a place to start; they serve the revolutionary with a firm footing to rally around, but it’s no way to govern.
The challenge for a catalyst is that it is impossible to know what is meaningful enough for a person to make this transition; it’s only possible to look back and say it was so, or not. With the Montreal Protocol, the NASA photos stood as an image that made it clear. Even the industry execs, who tried hard to dismiss that their product and their efforts posed a real risk to the planet, had to face up to this reality for themselves and their kids and grandkids. Those images made it clear it was enough of a risk to their success and survival even they could no longer ignore.
That transition reveals itself in consensus around a shared outcome- what are we trying to achieve? What do we want it to look like and not look like? What do we want that outcome to do and not do? What are we willing to work towards? What does success look like for us. Consensus exists when you see all parties working toward it- on board with a shared outcome, on board applying themselves to the R&D. No stonewalling going on. I wonder if Defund the Police leaves enough space for that. I wonder if the calls for Law and Order do either.
A Dilemma of Dilemmas?
This virus and these protests each demand focus and attention, each begging for its shared vision and its shared outcome-each requiring its own R&D that in many ways compete with each other. Mass gatherings do gain attention; mass gatherings can kill. A dilemma on top of a dilemma. When was the last time we faced that?
And yet, is it mere coincidence that these two great challenges- the virus and the response to discrimination- have emerged onto the scene at the same time?
I think not. Whether choosing to follow the public health recommendations or not, the virus has forced change. It has up ended whatever stable foundation we thought we had. The inertia that keeps us so firmly in the status quo has lost some of its grip. The pandemic has greased the wheels of change, leaving our minds less attached to the past and more open to awareness of what we have been willing to tolerate in the name of preserving the status quo- namely, a story we have told ourselves in the name of success and survival, that nonetheless contains harm for others- a story that may no longer be the best version available to get us to the very success and survival that has eluded us.
And the virus has created unprecedented uncertainty about the future. It is no longer fruitful to devote much brain power to a future so uncertain. There is no firm image to latch onto yet, and in the absence of any notion of a shared outcome, it is just too paralyzing to expend much brainpower there.
Reminds me of my favorite Yogi Berra quote:
‘If you don’t know where you are going, you just might end up someplace else.’
And if we know anything from Free The Brain, it is that the story we tell ourselves is not the full story. It is our best explanation, really a theory about what is happening, but an unproven theory at best. And we know it takes less energy to hold onto that story than to challenge the version. It takes less energy to defend the very things that underpin the narrative than to re-‘think’ it. At best, the story we tell ourselves is an illusion, maybe the best illusion we can muster, but an illusion nonetheless. The real risk is that this story raises the likelihood of misguided decisions and choices, risk that the path we believe at the time is the best one actually is, instead, one we could have been seen as not the best one able to arrive at the success and survival we crave. The story appears to be our best bet to succeed and survive, but in the light of day, in the light of Covid, maybe not so much or maybe no longer.
Where To Now?
The world with Covid, the world with discrimination, the world without a firm base to stand on- We are all venturing forth, whether we want to or not, taking a leap of faith into a future we know little about, propelled by a virus we cannot see and a history we can.
The brain is wired to put the cart before the horse- to anchor on a ‘solution’ without a full awareness of the issue or a full acknowledgement of each party’s risks. And, as Yogi Berra said, to end up some place else.
Maybe the best thing we can do is focus on now- what is it I need to do today. Without a past to anchor us, without a clear enough future to move toward, without a firm footing, maybe that is all we can do and trust the next steps will eventually reveal themselves. Not a comfortable reality. Not the way most live their lives. But a fertile milieu for a catalyst to take hold. When there is so much discrepancy between the World As I Want It To Be and The World As It Is, in that uncomfortable space, that’s where a catalyst can do its magic.
Creativity and innovation take either knowing the destination or knowing the path. If you know both, there is no need to innovate. If you don’t know either, that is chaos.
Right now, no one knows where we will end up. We cannot know what the future will look like. But we can take steps now. We can craft a shared outcome rooted in concensus- what we want it to look like and not look like; to do and not do; to be and not be. Then, we can take steps toward what we are trying to achieve and what success looks like.
And once we have at least some clarity about what that can be, the work required to figure out how to survive in the new world order can begin. We can be the horse pulling the cart along that path, rather than the other way around.
Creativity or chaos. Innovation or dueling solutions. Revolution yes, but what then?
As the Good Witch of the North said to Dorothy struggling with how to get to the Emerald City: 'it’s always best to start at the beginning. Just follow the yellow brick road.’
And for right now, that path starts here: What is the shared outcome each party is willing to get on board with? What is good enough to make the effort worth it, not just for those who see it, but for those who don’t? Trust the yellow brick road will take us from there.