Reflections 1 August

On my mind this week – Refuge.

As I’ve listened to the news this week, and talked to people, the idea of different types of refuge has found its way into my consciousness. When we are in the midst of the uncertainties we face, we all need somewhere to shelter to make sense of it, and what I noticed was the different sort of places people seek that shelter.

Some seek it alone, in the work of philosophers and poets, of the sort so beautifully curated by Sue Heatherington, Steve Marshall, John Kuzava , George the Poet and others, who combine words, images, music and ideas in ways that leave us refreshed. Others seek it in nature, on long walks, sometimes down ancient pilgrim ways, as John Connell recounted on radio this morning.

Others seek escape in crowds, from sports events to festivals. We are all different, and each have their place for us.

What unsettles me though is sometimes who, or perhaps what can be hiding in those places. Populism loves crowds, where the skilful use of social media and simple, repetitive, messaging creates villains around who crowds can congregate. It struck me as I listened to Lewis Hamilton being booed for qualifying on pole in Hungary yesterday, following a sustained period of vitriol following the incident at the British Grand Prix, or remembering back to the abuse our footballers took after losing to Italy. It is present as Simone Biles and Ben Stokes take refuge to protect their mental health. It has been a sad feature of Western politics as others are demonised to divert us from the failures and lack of vision of those in political and leadership positions. It harks back to The Roman Games, Gladiators, and crowds baying for blood. It is a classic signal, over centuries, of when an era is coming to a natural end and that end is being resisted by those who have benefited from it.

So I have been reflecting on how we make sense of things together as we experience, first hand , the end of the industrial era and the beginning of what is emerging but not yet clear. Our relationship with the long term implications of Covid when local relative security is no harbinger of a return to global normality. The tussle over “working from home” when it is becoming clear that the issue is less where we work from, but more how we work, for whom, and why as the next withdrawal of furlough support starts today. When airlines facing huge pressure due to collapsed volumes refuse, at least in public, to acknowledge that climate change requires that current volumes are probably far closer to a new normal than those prior to the pandemic.

I was very struck by a reference in Jeremy Lent’s “Web of Meaning” when he summarises research on the evolution of social groups with these words “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic Groups beat selfish groups.”  It makes sense. Competition (Latin root: “to meet, to come together”) is a wonderful way of stretching the envelope in a particular narrow area of specialisation – as in sport., and altruism is by far the most effective to way to grow as a society. Specialism in depth, generosity in breadth.

Perhaps what we are experiencing now, as we sense the end of an era, is the boundaries of competition. As Alanis Obomsawin who was described as “an Abenaki from the Odanak reserve, seventy odd miles northeast of Montreal”, was quoted as saying “When the last tree Is cut down, the last fish eaten, and the last stream poisoned, you will realize that you cannot eat money”

Which brings me back to wondering how we make sense of what is going on around us, and position ourselves regarding what may emerge, and who we want around us as it does. We cannot do it alone, and large groups expose us to manipulation. So perhaps the answer lies in small groups, people who we can spend time with, online and off. People we can get to know and trust and share skills with. People with whom we can compete to get better at what we do, but work with across skills to grow together. Beyond that, groups will find each other. They do not need to be organised. Technology as mycelium.

Whilst technology gives us an unparalleled ability to do this, it has been hijacked by business models based on scale. There is far more money to be made broadcasting shiny mediocrity at scale in search of advertising revenue than there is off connecting people who want to build something new that does not care overly for selling advertising space and data. Something altogether more human, as we find ways to leverage creativity and imagination to live lives we want to live, appreciating and nurturing the planet on which we do it.

I find myself hoping, and believing that as technology grows up, it will move beyond  it obsession with blindly doing things because it can, like a rebellious teenager, to something more mature and do things that will leverage the sheer joy of being alive.

I’m an optimist, providing that we start talking to each other, not just follow the baying of the crowd.

Places I’ve been taking Refuge

Who do we choose to be? Margaret Wheatley. Still the best book I’ve read for our times. Provocative and joyous in turns, it asks the questions of us that matter. I now have a spare copy on my Kindle to dip into as needed.

Four Quartets. T.S.Eliot.  I think I may have read this through the extracts I’ve seen posted by those who inspire me, so have bought my own. I’m glad I have.

The Righteous Mind. Jonathan Haidt. I’m trying to better understand why crowds are so susceptible to charlatans.

Resources I’ve enjoyed and appreciated.

Turbulence. Askthepilot blog. Aircraft very, very rarely crash because of turbulence. The pilots find it as uncomfortable as the rest of us, but they understand it better, which is why they don’t crash. We would do well to understand the turbulence around us, rather than just react to it. (Clue: Small group conversations help)

Social Capital. Robert Putnam wrote about the difference between the “bonding capital” that keep groups together, and “bridging capital” that brings different groups together. This is a good, short summary, and I found it valuable when thinking about where competition stops and collaboration begins.

Going back to the office is trickier than we thought. The Economist. Thoughtful article on what promises to be a chronic, transformative issue.

A quotation that resonated

(thank you Sue Heatherington)

‘For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice.’

T.S Eliot

Have a wonderful week everyone.

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