Moving beyond systemic blocks to caring

The social systems we live in – cultural, economic, political, and the rest – often make it difficult to effectively care.  Understanding better the systemic realities that block our caring can help clarify how we need to change our lives and our societies.  Here I explore some of the dynamics involved with money, time, distraction, complexity, individualism, and public relations – and new directions being pioneered by many among us, noting their common roots in caring.

Inside us all is a life energy, a motivating force, a place of drive and calling, of needs and dreams, of passions and values – a place of caring for ourselves, for others, for our world, for everything that brings us vitality and meaning.  This psychospiritual realm is the source of most of the good we do.  It is a source of tremendous free energy, power, and accomplishment when we actually use it.  More often than not, however, it is blocked by the stories we tell ourselves and each other and by the life-impeding ways our social systems are set up.

All too often we find ourselves swimming upstream against cultural, political, and economic systems that make it hard for us to effectively care, systems that alienate us from each other, from the results of our actions, and even from our own deepest feelings and needs, systems that waste the fullness of who we are and what we could do in all our uniqueness and diversity, individually and together.

These systems preserve themselves and grow in power by restraining and channeling our individual and collective life energies.  When those energies are freed up, they tend to move beyond the boxes and boundaries that define our social systems.  In other words, they can be disruptive.  Most of us agree with restraining them because we usually don’t know how to deal with the disruption they bring into our own lives, to say nothing of how they disrupt the larger systems we depend on.

Of course, we could create social systems that help us deal creatively with differences and disruptions.  But the business-as-usual systems keep us too busy, distracted, and separate to undertake profound transformations of any kind.  If we want to change that, we need to become more aware of the dynamics that carry us along in business-as-usual patterns, constricting our capacity to creatively and effectively care.

Here are some of the systemic forces that alienate us from the life in and around us and block our caring energy:

*  Money – and the reductionist statistics, profits, interest, and speculation that have accumulated in and around our money-based economies.  Money isn’t intrinsically alienating, but it has that potential and often manifests it in very subtle ways.  The power of money is precisely that it allows us to abstract value and thereby free us from the limitations of direct barter exchanges.  But as we become absorbed into the money economy, we come to address our needs and dreams primarily through commodities.  A good bargain becomes – in practice – our bottom line.  We no longer feel a need to know those involved in our economic life and/or the sources of the goods and services we use.  Sometimes active barriers are placed in the way of our knowing – as in the opposition to GMO labeling, laws against filming factory farm operations, strict laws against whistleblowing, and journalism that distracts us from the economic dynamics behind our social and environmental problems.  We often don’t even track our own hearts because if we have (or can get) the necessary money – so the story goes – we can have whatever we want.  Really feeling into what we most deeply want – and expressing those feelings – gets in the way of our working for money.  Furthermore, if we have a currency or contract backed by the state and/or major financial institution, we don’t need the claustrophobic answerability of community or the inconvenience and risk of sharing.  Caring about money is the way to care about everything.  We understand that even philanthropy – literally “love of humanity” – is primarily about money.  Money becomes toxic as it becomes the primary filter through which we view all other values and potential satisfiers and the primary means we have for manifesting them in our lives and societies.

*  Speed, pace, lack of time, and lack of deep time.  I sometimes think that if we rigorously tracked down the reasons why we “don’t have time”, we would discover nearly every life-degrading way our society is set up, including the subtle ways it prevents us from changing the way it works.  Time is even commodified and monetized – we “take time”, “spend time”, and “save time” – and believe that “time is money”.  The time in most of our lives lacks spaciousness and is rigorously linear and chunked.  It is also anchored to the past and/or the present and/or the future in ways that restrict life energy.  We retain old resentments and habits but forget history and are oblivious to our roots in the stars.  We work on our to-do lists today and seek immediate gratification but miss the joy of being present in the vast eternal now, a rich source for both spiritual and sensual aliveness.  We delay life to save for retirement but forget to take into account Life a dozen generations into the future.  We’re moving too fast to stop or to jump off safely or to let the texture and meaning of things soak into our being.  We are also moving too fast to transform the systems of oblivious rush in which we are caught.

*  Distraction, addiction, consumerism, and jobs.  For too many of us, our time, energy and attention are no longer controlled from the center of our being and influenced by our empathic relationships with life in and around us.  Our time, energy and attention are channeled by outside forces, systems and institutions that are kept alive by consuming that very time, energy and attention.  Our days are filled with busy-ness, entertainment, acquisitive materialism, and a struggle for security and happiness that ironically feeds our sense of having no time.  The technological marvels that are supposed to free us and meet our many needs are instead used to increase our productivity (for which there is infinite demand) and obsess us with having the latest things (of which there is an eternal and evolving supply) and seeking the best pleasures (which are so seldom adequately satisfying).

*  Complexity of connection, systems, issues.  There is too much involved, too much going on, too much of everything and everyone being connected for much of anything or anyone to be engaged with really well.  Nothing is so simple anymore.  None of us can track it all.  The impacts we have on life, for good and ill, are largely hidden by the complex systemic webs which form our societies.  We live carbon-intensive lifestyles unaware that climate change is releasing flash floods washing away villages thousands of miles away in the HImalayas.  Defensively, our choices narrow down into yes or no, liberal or conservative, paper or plastic.  Our messages become 140 characters or an emoticon or whatever, WTF.  There is too little time, attention, or energy to delve into anything very deeply – or often even adequately, especially as citizens – a fact we may desperately try to hide from ourselves with denial, keeping moving, and asserting oversimplifications – including ideologies and partisanship that divide us collectively while giving us at least a small sense that we can actually have a grip on something.  If we don’t protect ourselves from this tsunami of complexity, we risk caving in from overwhelm or, if we care too much, sliding into burnout, “compassion fatigue” and despair. In the meantime, the complexity of today’s realities continues to expand and densify.

*  The cult of individualism and separateness.  In the midst of ALL of this, the alienating story says we are fundamentally alone and individually responsible for what happens in our life and our world.  We make it or break it as separate selves.  An English Prime Minister went so far as to claim that there is no such thing as society, only individuals.  So much of our politics and economics depend on us buying into that story.  Too much co-creativity, mutual aid, and community undermine our personal need to own our own stuff, to consume more and more, and to produce more of what we’re paid for – and to do it now.  Too much citizen collective intelligence and wisdom undermine the manipulative power of corporations, political players, and governments.  We feel protected – at least to some extent – by our individual rights, by our savings and credit, and by human care that has been commodified and institutionalized (by medicine and insurance) or delegated (to charities and governments), rather than by the communal fabric of mutual caring and the bonds of human and organic (not economic) interdependence.  We are taught to seek customization and self-interest more than common ground and the common good.  We are no longer rooted in place: if we’re uncomfortable or bored, we move somewhere else, virtually or physically, in the process creating silos of like-minded souls, especially online.  Our ability to create ad hoc communities of interest, convenience, and support – as enjoyable as it is – often undermines the fabric of communities of kinship, commitment, and place.

*  And feeding all this we find the rapidly developing power of marketing, public relations, and advertising helping translate the desires of powerholders into messages that reflect our deepest longings and fears and then manifesting those messages into the realities and narratives within which we all live.  These potent tools for managing hearts and minds engage our eager cooperation in maintaining the dynamics that constrain our life energy, that shape and channel our caring.  Rare are the messages that help us to see the whole picture, to understand and empathize with all to parties involved, to reach beyond our habitual boxes to appreciate perspectives and possibilities we’ve never truly encountered before.

As more of us realize how these dynamics play out in and around us, we seek to counter them.  We seek to return – or advance – into lives, relationships, communities, systems, and technologies that nurture a sustainably high quality of life.  We ground our efforts in a different set of dynamics: co-creative empathic partnerships, celebration and wise use of diversity, tapping the powers and joys of the nonmaterial dimensions of life – spirit, appreciation, learning, relationship, creativity – and responsible stewardship of all we hold in common (called “the commons”).  A close examination reveals that every one of these is necessarily rooted in our individual and collective caring for the life energy of each and every life involved with ours.

As we create systems to support this new way of living, we recognize that we all need support to effectively care – especially in the midst of systems that undermine that capacity.  We all carry within us remnants – large and small – of the culture of alienation and small-self interest.  So we try to develop information, understanding, and know-how about how people and groups function in healthy and unhealthy ways – and about how complex systems and various solutions do and could play out so we can make wiser decisions.  We cocreate enough time for becoming whole, for living in wholesome ways, and for reflecting on what’s happening and how we want to relate to it and evolve with it.  We cocreate new rituals, trainings, infrastructure, even institutions – often involving or promoting vibrant conversation – that provide real opportunities to hear each other, to see a bigger picture, and to shift – individually and together – in directions that serve our sustainable quality of life.  We cocreate technologies that further authentic, mutually life-supporting relationships with ourselves, with each other, and with the living world around us.  And we find ways to collectively generate the resources we need to sustain the life energy of those who innovate and carry on this work on behalf of us, our grandchildren, and the living world around us.

To the extent we build systems that develop and expand our individual and collective capacities to effectively care – and which themselves clarify and embody the sensibilities and benefits of caring – we can have societies that support our aliveness in the midst of the larger aliveness we all are part of.  Of course, the only path toward that end is the one we all travel together, a path that thereby promises to be as confusing and challenging as it is meaningful and necessary.

It seems to me that we’re already on it together.

Blessings on the Journey.



Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440

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