Put on by the Center for Complexity at RISD
Funded by Infosys
The only constant over the first half of this year has been change. Bush fires, threats of a third world war and a global pandemic to name but a few.
The statement “Everything is in flux” feels as relevant today in 2020, as it was when Heraclitus put scribe to papyrus over two and half thousand years ago, capturing his thoughts on nature.
COVID-19, like nature, doesn’t appear to recognise the demarcation lines that constitute our national borders, nor does it appear to care for tourist visas, homeland security or luxury cruises.
Nature, it seems, is oblivious to man-made structures of order.
In Jurassic Park Michael Crichton, conveys through Jeff Goldblum a warning that has an eerie prophetic narrative when listened to with lockdown-ears: “If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us, it's that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but life...finds a way.”
Heraclitus points out that everything is in flux and Crichton explains that this “flux” is everything working to sustain itself…all life is trying to find a way.
Almost five thousand kilometres from Hawaii (where Jurassic Park was filmed) lives the Pando, in Utah. It is the world’s largest living single organism. A forest of Aspen trees covers one hundred and six acres — every tree connected to one solitary underground root.
The Aspen demonstrates a truth of nature; we are all connected. More than connected, we are interdependent, mutually reliant on each other. In nature, nothing happens without affecting everything.
Travelling east from the Pando in Utah to Washington DC, and going back in time almost fifty years, President Kennedy reminded the world of our interdependence. We all inhabit this small planet and breathe the same air. Not only do we share an interrelated relationship with nature, we also experience an integral connection to each other. A global nation grieving together from recent events in Minneapolis, is testimony to our connectivity.
Everything is in flux.
Everything is in flux to sustain itself.
Everything is connected.
We are interdependent, and together with the planet that sustains us, we are constantly in flux to sustain ourselves.
Founder, InHouse Records
Something is very wrong if we think and act, as if we are separate, when actually we are tethered.
Living with flux is difficult.
Chaos isn’t easy to navigate, we need order to make sense of our lives. We limit chaos, mitigating a lot of uncertainty by creating systems that provide enough certainty to help us plan our future days, months, and years. These systems arc across every facet of our lives, from social & economic to political & technological networks and everything in between.
Creating any kind of order from chaos always comes at a cost.
What do we trade?
What are we willing to lose, in order to gain the comfort of security?
Somewhere along this process we seemed to have forgotten our interdependence.
More than forgotten, we act as if we are independent.
Something is wrong.
Inherently, we are interdependent with everything in flux around us, but we act independently as if most things are certain. Something is very wrong if we think and act, as if we are separate, when actually we are tethered.
A decade of working across the homeless sector revealed a profound truth to me: whilst many could survive without shelter and with limited food, none could survive without human connection. We may try and act separately, but the consequences are severe.
I recall living with a slum community on the outskirts of Chennai, India for a brief period at the turn of the century. Many bodies in tight proximity with limited nutrition, sanitation, and a lack of clean running water. One afternoon in conversation with an elder, I asked how the community copes with stress and anxiety. He laughed out loud and locked his eyes on mine as he delivered with assured gravity that “those are western diseases.” The community in Chennai recognised what was inherent to them: their interdependence.
Before travelling to India, I briefly became friends with a Premiership footballer who showed interest in social change and we agreed to meet and share ideas. On our first meeting he confided in me. Me? A stranger? His life had become so independent that even those closest to him were far from him. My friend had accumulated, acquired, and self promoted. We all have. He was thinking separately. We all do.
Thinking we are separate and living independently provides little support for working out our problems.
If the Pando in Utah were to deny its connectivity, it would also be denying the very root that sustains it. The consequences of acting independently can seriously affect our personal lives, resulting in issues of wellbeing, debt, relational & professional network erosion, as well as stretching to our societal lives with issues of inequality, prejudice, and system failure.
I am not dismissing independence. Autonomy is an essential part of personal growth, ensuring we are able to operate as our own advocates in society. When this is not possible for whatever reason, the role of advocacy is provided for those who do not have a voice (yet) or the agency to amplify their needs or thoughts. Independence is essential, but only within the knowledge that we are connected.
We need to create the space to be reminded of our interdependence regularly. The Pando in Utah may need to see its solitary root every now and then, just to remember that a deep connection is always at work regardless of how separate things may appear on the surface.
Refraction has always fascinated me; the process of light slowing down as it travels through a medium like glass to reveal a myriad of colours. In the wider narrative of interdependence, “lockdown" hasn’t made us anymore disconnected than we were before, but “lockdown” has inadvertently provided us with a medium by which to “refract” our own lives.
Thinking separately causes additional flux. More chaos.
In the shadow of COVID-19, we find ourselves figuring out how to be a contactless society.
The same shadow has also unconsciously served to highlight how we have been thinking separately for far too long.
Three years ago, I was privileged to have founded a rehabilitative record label called InHouse Records, co-created with ten prisoners from within Her Majesty’s Prison Service in the UK.
Today, that initiative has impacted thousands of men, exponentially increasing positive behaviour and making an incredible contribution to the reduction of the reoffending rate. As we explored the topology of the problem space by hearing from all who occupy it, we began to see a familiar pattern. Many had been thinking separately. They found themselves part of a system built on the promise of delivering certainty but struggling to provide any. What if the antidote to uncertainty isn’t always certainty?
The community in Chennai had almost no mental health issues because they relied on one another and supported each other; their network of relationships created harmony. My time in Chennai left a deep impression on my practice. Indeed, throughout the last fifteen years working in the homelessness sector and in the criminal justice system, I still pursue the kind of harmony I witnessed in that slum community.
Harmony is the combination of separate, but mutually dependent parts, formed in a manner that uses their similarities and differences to bring unity through complexity.
How do we create harmony? At InHouse we focused on what’s strong, not what’s wrong. Believing we are connected helped us to act connected. We stopped seeing officers, prisoners, and uniforms and began seeing people. Just people, all keen to change their circumstances.
Harmony is not a dream needing to be fulfilled, it is a reality that needs to be recalled.
The ghost of Jacob Marley in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, cautioned Scrooge that, “Mankind should be his business.” Visited by three phantoms during the night, Scrooge realised who he needed to be, who he had always been. Who we have always been. Interdependent. Connected to one another, responsible for each other, and compassionate to each other.
Dickens’ genius was to illustrate that kindness, forbearance, and charity didn’t need to be acquired by Scrooge because they were already there. Like the single root of the Pando that is already there underneath the surface, Dickens urges us to lose our ‘separate thinking’ and in doing so, uncover our buried interdependence. Life…will find a way.
We desperately need to find better ways of being human, in light of those dark events in Minneapolis recently. If as a society we can work interdependently to lockdown something as small and invisible as a microbe, then surely we can work interdependently to lockdown something as ugly and visible as racism.
Everything is in flux, yes, but with a deepening interdependence the flux can sound more like harmony and less like uncertainty.
At InHouse, we focus on creating safe & enabling environments to foster interdependence. Our success is in-spite of operating in a challenging and changing environment like prison. In fact, we turned a prison into a safe space: not by altering the bricks and mortar, but by understanding and not judging the people. Ultimately, InHouse is about developing the skills to do relationships better, and subsequently build those relationships into healthy networks, ones that spiral elegantly skywards toward mobility and equality.
Healthy relationships naturally draw us to greater interdependence, and away from separate thinking. Healthy relationships grow into healthier networks and foster harmony. I am sharing three simple actions, learnt from our work with InHouse, that we can all do right now in order to cultivate better relationships, build healthier networks, and remind ourselves of our interdependence through harmony.
Be Accountable to one another.
What are the mediums that can freeze frame our lives and allow us to see a refracted version of ourselves? Slowing down enables us to identify the areas of our lives that need upgrading and the relationship skills that require nurturing.
By taking responsibility for our actions, behaviour, and thoughts we are becoming aware of our connection to each other. Greater accountability doesn’t just apply to our lives, but extends to the interdependence required for healthy civic life too.
Through researching InHouse we know the significance of mayors and district attorneys, who have huge power in shaping our criminal justice system at local and state levels. These roles are elected positions.
Greater accountability means realising our civic responsibility to punch though stifling ID Laws & voter suppression tactics that make democracy difficult for all to engage with. Using our civic muscles, where atrophy has developed, to demand accountability by exercising our vote at local and state elections where historically the turnout has been low, especially amongst the youth.
Our interdependence must span deeper and wider than merely allowing the myriad of refracted colours to shape harmony within our lives. It must extend to an accountability that reminds us we have a duty to all. Freedom cannot be freedom if inequality exists. We can start by making our personal lives more accountable, and then bring those to account who assume great responsibility.
Communicate clearly to all.
The harmony created by greater interdependence develops better relationships, which in turn forms healthier networks. Healthy networks break inequality. Developing better communication skills makes us more likely to understand and less likely to judge. We have learnt through InHouse that communicating with honesty and integrity, however difficult, produces compassion.
Dickens reminds us that our interdependence may be buried beneath our separate thinking and by uncovering it we can communicate clearly in our relationships and through our networks. We can rediscover our civic literacy and experience protection from discrimination on grounds such as race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, colour, age, political affiliation, ethnicity, religion, and disability.
We are interdependent, and if we choose to act and start communicating to one another interdependently right now, then even amidst the constant flux, our lives can begin to provide the harmony that will sustain us, doing more than merely surviving, but actually thriving.
Living in an environment that constantly changes, requires us to be constantly learning.
It’s often said that failure can be the greatest teacher, although how ironic that failure is a word that brings such shame amongst us and rarely conjures up images of our favourite teacher. Failure is something society has always managed social distancing from, far more than two metres.
As children we have been warned to avoid failure, so when it does visit us, as it always does, our reaction is to hide it under the carpet. As we become older, we are less inclined to accept it (see accountability) and may even explore blaming someone else! If we can’t learn from our mistakes we will not only keep making them, but also create more chaos in the process.
Far from being avoided, we must do all we can in order for failure to become our friend. The more we are able to adapt from our mistakes the more our interdependence becomes stronger.
The greater the uncertainty, the greater the potential for interdependence and subsequently the greater the harmony. Big changes can create stronger connections amongst us, deeper relationships that lead to antifragile networks and complex harmonies. We can start right now by being brave and exploring our own failure, not critically or with judgement, but lovingly and with compassion, encouraging ourselves to adapt and in doing so, adapt together.
Living in an environment that constantly changes, requires us to be constantly learning.
Everything in its Right Place
Heraclitus noted that everything is in flux and we can respond to this by deepening our interdependence and becoming stronger in our understanding of each other. The safe and enabling environments we need to cultivate are the skills found in the fabric of our relationships: our love, tolerance, and compassion.
Slowing down our lives with a refractive process to see failure more clearly, reminding ourselves like Dickens reminded us, that what we seek we already have. (It’s just likely to be buried under a lot of separate thinking). Adapting, communicating, and being accountable to one another because we all inhabit this small planet and breathe the same air.
How can we make contact in a contactless season?
Heraclitus, Crichton and Dickens remind us that we were never disconnected in the first place.
By embracing our interdependence, like the Pando in Utah, we are able to foster harmony amidst flux. Indeed the greater the chaos, the deeper the interdependence and the more beautiful the harmony. Life always finds a way, and with it, interdependently, we can find better ways of being human.