Leadership in the End Times: Feminine Rising

“Oh, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt/Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew/Or that the Everlasting had not fixed/His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God, God!/How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable/Seem to me all the uses of this world!/Fie on ’t, ah fie! ‘Tis an unweeded garden/That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature/Possess it merely. That it should come to this./But two months dead—nay, not so much, not two./So excellent a king, that was to this/Hyperion to a satyr.”

Hamlet, Act I, Scene 2”

You may remember Hamlet’s anguished soliloquy as he contemplates the death of his noble father, the rapid remarriage of his mother to his lecherous uncle, and the fact that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

In this male-dominated kingdom, an “unweeded garden,” young Ophelia goes mad and drowns (a possible suicide), the Queen shares a bed with her husband’s brother-turned-killer, murder plots abound and no one is safe, not even the idealistic, intelligent young Hamlet, who cannot unravel the mess of his kingdom without becoming unraveled himself.

Does this sound familiar?

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Margaret J. Wheatley

It would not be too much of a stretch to compare our own sorry political landscape in the U.S. to the “rank and gross” garden of ancient Denmark. And thus it did not surprise me to find Meg Wheatley, in her latest book on leadership, turning to history to explain our current moment: what she calls, following British historian Sir John Glubb, “The Age of Decadence.”

Here is Wheatley summarizing Glubb:

“Glubb studied thirteen empires in the Middle East, Asia and Europe…from Assyria in 859 BCE to modern Britain in 1950. The pattern of the decline and fall of these superpowers was startlingly clear. It didn’t matter where they were or what technology they had or how they exercised power. They all declined in the same stages and it always took ten generations, about 250 years.

“The logic of this is very clear: each generation matures in better socioeconomic circumstances created by the preceding generation; thus, there is always a march to increasing materialism. In every generation, youth will have higher expectations for comfort than their parents. Improved material conditions create attitudinal changes that insist on still more material changes; and predictably, because of its wealth and erosion of morality, the civilization declines into decadence.” (Who Do We Choose to Be? 34).

The United States is nine years shy of its 250th anniversary. We are deep into our Age of Decadence, which Wheatley (following Glubb) describes as a time when “wealth and power have led to petty and negative behaviors, including narcissism, consumerism, materialism, nihilism, fanaticism and high levels of frivolity” (35).

The pattern is clear; the writing is on the wall–even without the added wrench of climate change and environmental destruction, which Glubb, writing in the 1970s, could not foresee.

Wheatley’s questions for our time are essential. Given the stark reality of our epoch, what should we do as leaders? How can we stay centered and grounded in the midst of social turmoil and environmental catastrophe, and work in our own spheres to create “islands of sanity” in our communities?

As I’ve become more acutely aware of the transition times (end times?) we are living through in the 21st century, it’s become important to me to reach out and try to find others who are also aware of what’s happening—those who are not giving in to despair, but who are continuing to work for positive change.

All kinds of resistance and action are needed, from protesting the unholy trinity of Fossil Fuels, Big Pharma and Big Ag; to holding elected officials accountable; to protecting our dwindling wild places and wild creatures; and working to improve quality of life for people with few resources.

It’s all urgent and important, and taken together, it’s overwhelming, which is why, as co-founder Kenny Ausubel said at the Bioneers conference last month, it’s important for activists to come together to imbibe the “good medicine” of sharing our stories and knitting together our hopes and dreams for a better future. It was great to get a strong dose of that good medicine myself at this year’s Bioneers.

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Nina Simons addresses the Bioneers 2017.

At the Bioneers, it was the women leaders who especially inspired me. It was heartbreaking but galvanizing to listen to Kandi Mosset, of the Indigenous Environmental Network, talk about the horrendous impact of the fossil fuel industry in her home state of North Dakota.

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Clare Dubois at the Bioneers 2017.

Kandi’s litany of destruction was balanced by the visionary, participatory ritual created by Treesisters founder Clare Dubois, invoking a rise of feminine consciousness to balance each of us as individuals (men as well as women) and enable us to bring our planet back into balance.

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Nina Simons awakening women leaders. 

Starhawk’s regeneration workshop echoed a theme raised by Bioneers co-founder Nina Simons in her women’s leadership session: the idea of composting what we don’t want, and focusing on generating more of what we do want and need.

But what if it’s not clear what we should compost in our lives, and what we should be growing? The way forward is murky in our times. I was reassured in my uncertainty by Joanna Macy, who ended her Bioneers session with simple but potent advice: “Cherish the questions.”

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Joanna Macy, wise elder at the Bioneers 2017.

I was also invigorated in my own work of purposeful memoir to find Meg Wheatley ending her new leadership book with a turn to the personal. From the wide historical sweep of her opening sections, she eventually narrows down to the particular center from which each of us operate: the self.

“We see the world through the powerful filters of self. The more we know our filters, the more we can see beyond them….The distinction between self-help and self-knowledge is important. There are thousands of self-help methods available to design a better you. But here, we aspire to high levels of self-awareness, not to help ourselves but to learn to trust ourselves in difficult situations….Our motivation is to be more in control of ourselves so that we don’t get in the way, and don’t give ourselves away, as we work in service to others” (275).

This is precisely the goal of my work of “aligning the personal, political and planetary through purposeful memoir.” In my workshops and online course, following the path I took myself in my memoir and laid out in my writer’s guide to purposeful memoir, we explore how our individual life stories have been shaped by political and environmental forces beyond our control.

As we learn about who we are in our particular time and place, as well as the ancestral baggage we carry, we can begin to “compost” what we don’t want to bring forward into the future, and envision “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible,” to quote Charles Eisenstein.

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Barbara Marx Hubbard, born the same year as Joanna Macy, 1929.

Yesterday I listened to Clare Dubois’ interview with the visionary thinker Barbara Marx Hubbard, who declared that we are living in the end times of a great evolutionary cycle. But in Nature, all death is also the opportunity for rebirth: compost leads to regeneration.

Ours is a moment of chaos and decay, but also a moment of great potential, when thanks to our enhanced powers of communication (the Internet) those whom Wheatley calls “Warriors for the Human Spirit” can find each other and work together to amplify our signal, increasing our collective ability to be a force for good on the planet.

In my lexicon, our task is to shift the destructive, aggressive Anthropocene to the balanced, harmonious Androgynocene. To do this, feminine leadership must come to the fore—in both men and women.

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Warrior for the Human Spirit AMY GOODMAN inspires young folks at the Bioneers 2017.

What would feminine leadership look like? Simply put, it is collaborative rather than competitive; nurturing rather than domineering; empathetic rather than arrogant; generous rather than stingy; putting the well-being of the entire system and all its components ahead of the individual striving of a few.

Can we achieve this before human civilization crashes and the entire planetary environment hits the reset button?

We have a ringside seat on the action, my friends. And we don’t have to stay on the sidelines! Each of us has a role to play in nudging our world towards a tipping point, for good or for ill.

If you can get clear on what you want to cultivate—in yourself, your communities, and the planet—you can then act in your own sphere to create an “island of sanity” around you. Once you feel clear, grounded and strong enough, you can reach out to likeminded others and welcome them in to your circle.

And then, let the world know what you’re doing by sending out encouraging messages in bottles (blog posts, tweets, photos) through the Internet. You never know where the ripples will spread and who your message will reach in a time of need.

It’s important that we counter the constant mainstream litany of bad news with positive stories of the better world that is regenerating through the compost of our civilization right now. It’s happening! And the more we share the news of the new shoots and beneficial micorrhizal networks we see, the more vigorously they’ll grow.

 

Being the change–beyond hope, beyond fear

Every time I write an exhortatory post like the last one, I imagine my readers getting to the end and clucking their tongues in frustration.

“OK, we get it, now the is time to act—but what does she want us to DO?  Doesn’t she have any practical suggestions on what to do in this terrible transition time?  Isn’t she going to lead by example?”

Well, yeah.  In relentlessly focusing my attention, and by extension my readers’ attention, on the frightening facts of environmental degradation–from climate change to toxic pollution to the precipitous decline of millions of species—I am doing something.  It may not be much, but at least it’s better than sticking my head in the sand and ignoring the gathering storm, or selfishly trying to live it up as long as possible—let the band play on!

There are many things I dream of doing, but right now simply cannot.

I cannot build myself an environmentally sustainable, off-the-grid house, nor can I pick myself up and move to an eco-village at this time.

I cannot spend all my time sitting in trees to protest logging or marching on Washington D.C. to protest inaction on climate change.

I cannot devote myself 100% to environmental communications work.

And I can’t wave my wand and stop the poles from melting, or make all the toxic chemicals just go away.

What I can do is take the strengths I’ve been given, in writing and communicating, and use them to try to spread awareness among others, in the hope that the little ripple I may be able to start will grow to a mighty wave of positive change.

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I need to think more about this question of hope, though.

Margaret Wheatley

Margaret Wheatley

Lately I’ve been reading and re-reading Margaret Wheatley’s latest book, So Far From Home, in which she talks, rather surprisingly, about the need for activists to move beyond hope.

The problem with hoping for change, she says, is that “fear is the constant, unavoidable companion of hope. What this simply means is that I hope for a certain outcome and I’m afraid I won’t get it. I hope for a certain result and I’m fearful it won’t happen. This is the way that hope and fear are wedded together….So, it might be that the road to fearlessness is only found by giving up hope. By giving up outcomes, by giving up goals.”

This is a challenging idea.  If we give up on goals, doesn’t it mean that we give up, period?  That we just bow our heads in resignation and accept the anthropogenic destruction of our planet as inevitable?

Not according to Wheatley.

Quoting from Thomas Merton, who says that we need to “concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself,” Wheatley gently asks:

“What if we could offer our work as a gift so lightly, and with so much love, that that’s really the source of fearlessness? We don’t need it to be accepted in any one way. We don’t need it to create any certain outcome. We don’t need it to be any one thing. It is in the way we offer it, that the work transforms us. It is in the way we offer our work as a gift to those we love, to those we care about, to the issues we care about. It is in the way we offer the work that we find fearlessness. Beyond hope and fear, I think, is the possibility of love.”

Could this be a kind of answer to those skeptics who would take me to task for writing about environmental issues without doing enough to be the change I want to see?

By giving myself to this work of raising the alarm, motivated by my deep love for the planet and my awareness of the inter-being of all her denizens, am I doing the work I came here to do in this lifetime?

The truth is that I don’t have much hope, anymore, that we will be able to “save the world.”  Nevertheless, I keep on writing, because writing is my way of working through and releasing myself from fear.

Having spent a lot of my life in fear, and having come to know it intimately, I can say with some authority that fear is a useless, paralyzing emotion.  Fear holds us back, it pinions our wings, it pushes us to do things we will later regret.

What we need, Wheatley says, is the clarity that resides beyond fear and its twin sister, hope.  The clarity that comes with knowing that since our time is going to come sooner or later, what’s important is how we spend each one of our days.

We need to do the work we came here to do, as well as we can, without expecting reward or recognition, without depending on external acclaim or tangible, material successes.

Beyond hope, beyond fear, I will keep going on, day to day, raising my children, doing my teaching and writing, enjoying beauty, pleasure and loving-kindness as they cross my path, and conjuring them myself in the way I live my life.  In that sense, yes, I will be the change.

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Activist strategies for the times we live in: Flying under the radar

Josh Haner/The New York Times)

Some good old-fashioned protesting went on in lower Manhattan today, with folks coming out to tell the Wall Street tycoons and corporate elite that they do not rule unopposed.

Protests like these are a good thing, like online petitions and letters to Congressmen or to the editor.  But they’d have to get a lot bigger and fiercer to really create change–as they did in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East in the past year.  Things have to get ugly.  People have to get hurt.  It’s so much easier to just stay home and try to make the best of it.

I am really doing a lot of puzzling lately over what kind of protest movement would be most effective for the times we live in.  On a spectrum from the riots in London to the dignified sitdowns in front of the White House this fall, it seems like something inbetween is likely to get the most attention.

But it has to be a BIG movement.  The powers that be will not listen to a few hundred protesters, or even a few thousand.  It has to be big and national and coordinated, like the Civil Rights protests were.  Although there are a few movements going on now that are national, or even international–for example, Moving Planet, scheduled for next Saturday–there’s still nothing on the horizon that has anywhere near the draw power of, say, Monday night football.

So maybe protests are not the way to go, at least not until people are really hungry and desperate, at which point it might be much too late for any kind of harmonious transition to a new planetary paradigm.

Margaret Wheatley, whose work with the Berkana Institute I admire greatly, thinks that we need to think about leadership in a different way than we’re used to.  Instead of waiting for a charismatic leader–say, the next Martin Luther King Jr.–to step up and lead us all to sweeping changes, we need to think smaller and more locally, focusing on what we ourselves can accomplish within our own spheres.

“The process that creates change in the world is quite straightforward,” she says. “We notice something that needs to be changed. We keep noticing it. The problem keeps getting our attention, even though most people don’t notice that there’s even a problem. We start to act, we try something. If that doesn’t work, we try a different approach. We learn as we go. We become very engaged with the issue, spending more and more time on it. We become exhausted by our efforts, but still we keep going. The issue keeps calling to us. Any time we succeed, no matter how small the success, we gain new energy and resolve. We become smarter as we learn more about the issue and understand it better. We become more skillful at tactics and strategies. As we persevere, and if we are successful, more people join us. Sometimes we remain as just a small group, sometimes we give birth to a movement that involves tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of people.

“This is how the world always changes. Even great and famous change initiatives begin this way, with the actions of just a few people, when “some friends and I started talking.” Including those efforts that win the Nobel Peace Prize.”

So maybe each of the few hundred protesters gathered in New York City should go home to their own communities and continue to agitate locally against corporate monopolies and the stranglehold of Wall Street on Main Street.

Maybe someone decides to find out more about local currencies like BerkShares, and starts a movement to create a local currency or a time bank in her town.

Someone else decides to work with young people in his town to create a community garden that will bring fresh produce into the elementary school cafeteria.  Another group goes home and decides to file for a license for a low-power radio station, like WBCR-LP here in the Berkshires.

What we need now are a million local actions, all animated by the desire for community resilience, collaboration and service to the common good.  Put together, they’d make up a mighty movement for change.  But for now, I think they’ll be more effective staying small, local and under the radar.

Who needs those riot police coming around anyway?

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