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What is essential? Reflections on my 40th birthday

With the world starting into 2021, I personally have also started into the 5th decade of my life. While I can’t say I am going through a midlife crisis, one obviously does reflect on what has been and what is still to come. One question I have asked myself is if we, who are in the midst of their lives now, are a lost generation. Grown up and educated in the system that is now unravelling and falling apart but tied to it an unable to change. Many of us recognise that things are unravelling; we understand that our way of life is the problem. Yet at the same time we are so strongly entangled into this current paradigm that we feel incapable to escape from its scripts, behavioural norms and measures of success. Indeed, we often don’t even see how our daily behaviours contribute to the perpetuation of the existing but failing paradigm. What does this mean? What can we still do?

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Donella Meadows defined changing the mindset or paradigm (the technical terms for what I called ‘way of life’ above) out of which a system arises as one of the strongest levers to change a social system. I don’t know whether many people have this kind of power to intentionally change paradigms (actually, I doubt it). But Meadows goes on and describes a lever that is even more powerful than the paradigm itself: the power to transcend paradigms.

There is yet one leverage point that is even higher than changing a paradigm. That is to keep oneself unattached in the arena of paradigms, to stay flexible, to realize that no paradigm is “true,” that every one, including the one that sweetly shapes your own worldview, is a tremendously limited understanding of an immense and amazing universe that is far beyond human comprehension. It is to “get” at a gut level the paradigm that there are paradigms, and to see that that itself is a paradigm, and to regard that whole realization as devastatingly funny. It is to let go into Not Knowing, into what the Buddhists call enlightenment. 

Donella Meadows, Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System.

I wrote about the importance of putting oneself into a place of not knowing in my last blog post. What stands out for me from this quote is that I am not sure realising that there is a paradigm that shapes our society’s way of being and doing is automatically leading to being able to do something about it. That is, I guess, the struggle I describe above. Still, ‘observing the observer’ and understanding that we all have blind spots and we are all reliving the habits and ways of the paradigm we have grown up in is critically important.

I realise that I am writing from a point of privilege – I do actually have options and can make choices about my life. Nora Bateson (who developed the concept of Warm Data) often shares the observation that people from the most vulnerable, marginalised and poor communities seem to be getting the idea of Warm Data and the necessity to shift our perception to see the world in a more interdependent and transcontextual way much easier. That makes sense, because they are not as vested in this current paradigm – it hasn’t served them well. In contrast, people like me who are immensely profiting from the current paradigm, we are struggling to firstly admit that our privilege was earned on the back of others who have been suffering for it and secondly that we are so strongly entangled in this way of thinking that most of the things we come up with to change the situation will voluntarily or involuntarily perpetuate the current way of thinking. Maybe it is because the realisation that something is fundamentally wrong is for us mostly an intellectual one and not yet that much a felt one (although this might change very quickly and has already with the pandemic). And thinking of it, it isn’t really that we, the ones who profit, cannot get it at all that the paradigm is broken, many do (and I would count myself to that group). But it is harder to act on this realisation in ways that are different enough to make a difference.

We (and I mean white Westerners in particular) need to ask ourselves the question for everything we do if this will perpetuate the current paradigm. And, I think, 90% of the time we will end up answering the question with ‘yes’ if we are honest with ourselves.

This is all very sobering. Sometimes I feel the best thing I can do is to get out of the way. Buy a little house somewhere in the Swiss countryside, grow some vegetables, have some chicken and do work that is locally meaningful while keeping my planetary footprint as small as possible but certainly at or below 1.

The prospect of living a simple life in the Swiss mountains is certainly enticing. Yet, I think I can still make some meaningful contributions to a shift of society towards an evolutionary path that leads more in the direction of sustainability.

When I reflected on what is needed now from my point of view and what I want to contribute to, the following five points come to mind:

  • Democracy: transparency, debate, trust, joint sense-making, joint decision-making.
  • Community: recognising interdependency, working together, playing together, educating together, helping each other.
  • Localism: subsidiarity, autonomy, living on the land, being a part of nature, caring for the place and its ecosystem.
  • Global solidarity: spaceship earth, global interdependencies, global ecosystem, global cycles.
  • Education: shift the perception of people of how complex living systems work, how we all depend on each other and on a functioning ecosystem, so humanity can have a more accurate map of our realities that helps us better, more critically, and more reflexively navigate our lives and relationships.

Turning this into a day job is not easy. To be honest, I’m struggling with that. There is the path dependence on the one hand – potential clients want to see your CV before hiring you to see that you have done before what you tell them you will offer to them. On the other hand, there aren’t many potential clients who are willing to pay for work that is not directly correcting a perceived ill – like poverty or pollution or CO2 emissions – in a measurable way. The work to achieve the points in the list above, however, needs to focus on second, third, fourth and even fifth order change that isn’t measurable or attributable. Everything else will just lead to more solutions that perpetuate our problems.

Yet there isn’t much we can do but to keep trying. And, who knows, maybe there is even a scenario where I can get my house, home-grown vegetables and chicken while at the same time still contribute to something bigger.

11 thoughts on “What is essential? Reflections on my 40th birthday

  1. Dr. Ulrich Harmes-Liedtke

    Dear Marcus, I enjoyed reading the reflection on you and your generation. Questioning yourself and your lifestyle is an important step towards changing the world. Knowing you, I know that you make many valuable contributions to a better world and inspire those around you. Happy Forties!!!

    Reply
  2. Dr. Ulrich Harmes-Liedtke

    Dear Marcus, I enjoyed reading the reflection on you and your generation. Questioning yourself and your lifestyle is already step towards changing the world. Knowing you, I know that you make many valuable contributions to a better world and inspire those around you. Happy Forties!!!

    Reply
  3. Peter Gray

    Happy forties indeed! As someone who has taken a long time to find the right place in life, I highly recommend ageing! But your point about paradigms and escaping them is well made. Covid hasn’t changed the paradigm that we live by, but it has opened the door to the chaos outside. It has also shown us that we can, if we want, switch things off. The question is what and how much. I have switched off flights, I used to travel regularly for work. Now I am doing better work and have more money by staying at home. Some other things might be harder. At least we can now consider what it would look like if we switched off things, like flying, or professional sport, or military activity, or organised religion. And we can also see that combined effort from science and government, when people get out of their local paradigms (or silos), can do amazing things (vaccines).
    Thanks for your inspiration!

    Reply
    1. Marcus Post author

      Thanks Peter. Your comment is much appreciated. Just tell me the secret to make better money without traveling! 😉

      Reply
  4. Martin Lennartz

    Lieber Markus, erst mal Glückwünsche zu Deinem Geburtstag, falls ich das nicht schon gesagt habe. Dein Beitrag hat mich sehr bewegt, danke dafür. Ein lesens- und nachdenkenswerter Beitrag. Danke dafür.
    Herzliche Grüße
    Martin

    Reply
  5. Liza

    Congratulations Marcus
    The quality of your reflections testify of the depth of your contribution and the yearning for more. You are an inspiration. I enjoy that list of what matters. I am looking forward to see how your journey unfold.
    Regards
    Liza

    Reply

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