Convergent Conversations – Transformational Grief, “The Infinite Game” and Love

I spent the past week in Auckland on off-site academic duty commissioned by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) to evaluate two interconnected degree programs on game development. I also gave a public lecture on Visions and Pathways 2040 project at Transforming Cities Research Cluster of University of Auckland. NZQA duty was full-on yet straightforward; a great first experience which gave me insights on how the big machine of academic institution works from an evaluator’s perspective. Around thirty people attended the public lecture from universities and the Auckland Council. Besides being a fruitful exercise of academic networking, it did not yield to anything spectacular worthy to report apart from an observation that systemic research approaches like VP2040 is still rare and disciplinary conservatism mostly prevails across the board.

Besides these “business”, I also had a chance to catch-up and have conversations with several people who are both parts of my professional network but also friends and inspirers of my work on the general topic of sustainability transitions. What made my trip worthwhile were these one-to-one, over-the-coffee/food/beer conversations which touched upon several themes that I’ve been mulling over for a while. Some of the conversations were continuation of previous conversations I had with these people both online and offline over the past few years. Some also echoed conversations I’ve been independently having with people I recently met here in Melbourne as well as with members of my international network indicating an increasingly converging grand narrative underlying the emerging sustainability transitions.

Following the news by NASA a few weeks ago which confirmed the decline of the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet as irreversible, my friend Maya posted a Facebook status update stating her desire to weep accompanied by other signs of despair and asked her friends “how will we live on this world?”. I met Maya through a common friend seven years ago. She has a consultancy called Mind Balance where she offers, among other services, workshops on mindfulness meditation. During my PhD years Maya and I used to catch up over coffee and have long, fascinating conversations about what’s happening to the world and what should be done to create change. My head-heavy contributions about system innovation at technological, organisational, institutional and socio-cultural levels were complemented by her insights and knowledge on becoming and staying present, being self-aware and mindful and how spirituality connects with systemic transformations. I always found conversing with her very refreshing; they unlocked the shackle of my analytical brain. Maya has always represented calmness and groundedness for me, therefore, seeing her in such despair was very unusual. For that reason, my contribution to responses given to her was a call to overcome grief and despair to be able to think and strategise: “Although I fully understand the need for grief, we cannot let ourselves get lost in despair. This is a time for big change and the question is how we will prepare for what’s likely to unfold from now. Adaptation comes with a whole new set of questions on “how” which needs to be articulated in all of its dimensions; ethical, political, spiritual, technological and organisational.” In retrospect, I realised my response on that day to Maya wasn’t empathic enough.

Not long after this interaction with Maya, Gary, one of the executives of the Auckland Permaculture Workshop sent the other APW executives and collaborators including me an email asking our opinions on including models of the grieving process in APW course material with references to dealing with the idea of and getting prepared for potential unavoidable collapse. He particularly referred to the Kübler-Ross model which explains grief as a five stage process of passing through phases of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Gary and I, as well as another APW executive Finn met in Auckland last Friday. Among other topics of common interest –Gary is now teaching the Design and Innovation for Sustainability paper I used to teach at AUT- we touched upon the topic of grief. I expressed my concern with Kübler-Ross model based on its linear conception of grief and lack of a transformational element following “acceptance” phase, which, in my opinion, is necessary for linking grief to empowering oneself as well mobilizing action. Kübler-Ross model is developed for terminally ill people or for people who lost something dear to them such as a loved one; therefore it is understandable that “acceptance” is the final phase as such a loss cannot be remedied. Other models complement this model by offering models for “healing” which is relevant to dealing with societal collapse, nevertheless insufficient as they focus on the individual while we need to work with models focusing on groups of people. We concluded that our search for appropriate models of transformational grief would continue. I told Gary and Finn that I didn’t find the task uplifting and I wasn’t sure if my best fit was facilitating grief as my work focused on transformation of an undesirable unsustainable state. I told them that I saw collapse as only one possible –yet increasingly more probable- mechanism and that I chose, for the time being, to remain somewhat hopeful that we might find the creative resources within ourselves to avoid a complete collapse.

Gary and Finn along with many sensible others have been busy for several years putting their adaptation measures in place. A couple of months ago I had a Skype conversation with two of my friends –a couple, Tuna and Pinar- from Turkey who are strategic consultants for sustainability. They’re based in Istanbul; a city in social and ecological decline of accelerating pace. Being worried for not focusing on assuring my own resilience for what is likely to unfold during my lifetime I asked Tuna and Pinar if they had any strategic direction for themselves such as moving from Istanbul and establishing a base with fertile land and reliable community. Their response was heartbreaking yet honourable: “We don’t have any hope that things will get better here but we’re not going to leave the city. We will keep on doing what we believe needs to be done until the time when we cannot anymore. We don’t have a strategy for ourselves, we don’t need one, we don’t want one. Wherever everyone else ends up, so will we end up there too. We don’t think we can allow ourselves to have privileges.” Had this relieve my anxiety about not having proofed my future? Not really. Nevertheless, it resonated with my reasoning for not being “proactive”. It also amused me by reassuring how spot on Nietzsche was in defining the concept of “Turkish fatalism”. I cannot help but wonder though if the difference between the Gary-Finn-and-alike approach and the Tuna-Pinar-Idil-and-alike approach stems from the different cultures of individualism versus community-orientedness or differences in risk perception and risk management approaches.

Before meeting with Gary and Finn on Friday, I spent close to three hours with Niki Harré who is an Associate Professor at the University of Auckland in the School of Psychology. She is the author of Psychology for a Better World: Strategies to Inspire Sustainability and she is currently busy designing a game inspired by James Carse’s book “Finite and Infinite Games”. The game aims to identify what is of finite (extrinsic) and what is of infinite (intrinsic) value for people as a means to gain insight into how we can live well together (a question echoing Maya’s cry). Another aim of the game is to help people identify the finite games they have to play to keep playing The Infinite Game. As a community psychologist Niki is interested to understand motivational approaches to facilitate sustainability transitions. This created an immediate connection between her and I a couple of years ago and I helped Niki at very early stages of the development of the game. If I didn’t end up moving to Melbourne I would be her “design coach” (an opportunity I’m deeply saddened to have missed). Since the first prototype, Niki has run several workshops throughout New Zealand with groups of individuals as well as with organisations. She told me that the consistency of people’s deepest or infinite values is what has been most obvious from these workshops. While the natural world appears in the workshops as of intrinsic value, it is weaker than human qualities and emotions. She suggests this shows that people put people first. I questioned whether this could be proved true cross-culturally. She referred to her father’s statement (he was a cultural anthropologist) that indigenous communities use the natural world for their own purposes and that “living in harmony with nature” was a myth. She has since investigated this and found, for example, that fishing prohibitions in Pacific peoples are not because they cared for the fish but because this created opportunities for others to utilize the resource. To the extent that they understood nature and how to work with it, this was not because they wanted to live in harmony with nature but because they wanted to live well together as a human society. What does this tell us? Unfortunately one can never have sufficient time with people like Niki.

On Saturday I went to Maya’s place; we had lunch together and then went out for a walk on the beach. We did not follow up on topics of collapse or grief. It was mostly a conversation on happenings of our respective lives since we last saw each other in July 2013. We articulated the changes that have taken place in our views of people, places and ourselves including what we think our work is and should be. Then we sat on a bench and remained in silence for a while admiring the Rangitoto Island right across from the beach. Maya broke the silence, “Look, we don’t know what will happen even the next minute. We don’t know when Rangitoto will erupt but we know it will sooner or later, maybe even while we’re seated here, or long after we died. Nothing is certain and everything ever changes. Don’t paralyse yourself by getting lost in detail. You need to hold onto your truth and act from a place of integrity at any given time. That’s what matters.” I wondered what prompted Maya to make these remarks but didn’t ask for they fell in their places within me.

On that evening I went to a party to celebrate the long-awaited completion of my close friend Dan’s PhD. His topic was about issues faced in a contaminated site clean-up process in Mapua, New Zealand. Initially a technical research, Dan’s discovery on why an effective clean-up could not be achieved indicated reasons less to do with technical aspects and more with appropriate community engagement. Trained as an ecologist and an environmental engineer, facing the requirement to address his research question from a social science perspective resulted in Dan embarking onto a nine years long ordeal of undoing and redoing his project. In earlier years, Dan had several conversations with the local community several members of which fell sick due to contamination. He identified with the community members and lost track of his research for a while. Although I was one of the closest witnesses to his ordeal, I’ve never seen even a small piece of writing; he never felt ready to disclose his work. He changed it a lot, restarted few times, had to take time-off to recover from emotional fatigue the project caused him. Echoing his experience of identifying with the community while acknowledging the other difficulties associated with complex contaminated site clean-ups, finally he developed a new, very sophisticated psychosocial framework. The core elements of the framework include development of presence; self-empathy and empathy with community participants; rational and systematic understanding of the contamination problem from multiple perspectives; and empowerment of community as well as environmental manager perspectives. It was great to finally witness his completion which also meant uncovering of an age long mystery for our friends circle: what is Dan’s thesis?

To celebrate his completion and catch up on a one-to-one basis, I took him out for dinner a few evenings before the party. We talked about many topics as we have several common professional interests as well as a long personal relationship. While we were waiting for our desserts the conversation found its way to the topic of “love” with references to the “empathy” theme in his thesis. This reminded of my recent revisit of Dennis Meadows’ chapter on tools for transitions to sustainability in the book entitled “The Future of Sustainability”. Meadows counts love as one of the tools; the others are visioning, networking, truth telling, and learning. I recently had a brief interaction about this with a colleague in Melbourne who argued that love is not a tool but the fundamental basis. I disagreed although didn’t get a chance to voice and articulate this disagreement. I understood why he thought love was the fundamental basis, but for me there is one thing more fundamental than love which is fearlessness (distinct from courage) as it enables love; fear is a constant disabler for love to emerge. Also fundamental doesn’t mean absolute or self-manifesting. One has to work continuously to become fearless, or to act from a position of love. On top of this, love is an elusive concept and English language is not helpful either because of its “poverty” having only one word for love. This has always caused me a lot of struggle as I could never articulate the differences of several concepts that exist in my language all of which can only be translated as “love” as a result of this poverty. Therefore I always found the English word love iffy and unsatisfactory for explaining such a grand and rich human feeling. While I was reciting these thoughts to Dan he stopped me and said: “Don’t refer to love as a feeling, it is not”. I became perplexed and thought we were maybe having a language problem and asked “then what is it?”. He said “It is a state of existence when there is nothing else, I mean nothing else getting in the way”. I responded: “Oh, I loooove this dessert, don’t get in the way please” as a way of hiding a huge defeat, a lightning strike kind of check-mate behind my spoiled nature. Dan, knowing me very well that I revert to demagogy when I accept that I lost an argument, chuckled.

Before I caught my plane back to Melbourne, I popped into the newsagent at the airport. Among a poor selection of magazines (more magazines on “men’s interest” than “current affairs”), I picked New Zealand Geographic’s May-June issue because it had a special feature on climate. The piece must have been written before the breaking news on West Antarctic Ice Sheet as one article stated “there are signs of instability” rather than mentioning irreversible decline. The feature covered articles on findings of ANDRILL (which looked at ice cores to understand past climate and implications of current projections on stability of ice sheets and concluded that previous projections were conservative) and retreat of New Zealand glaciers especially of Franz Josef. From what I read I realized that Franz Josef, which, when I visited in 2008, left me in awe with its mass, beauty and vulnerability, retracted steadily that now tourists have to walk three kilometres to reach the terminal face and it is not safe anymore to climb the glacier as its front is very unstable so you have to be dropped from a helicopter to the top if you desire to do a walking tour. I obviously was being slack in practicing my “spiritual aikido” which I use to deal with the type of information I’m exposed to on a daily basis; a self-desensitisation routine. All of a sudden I felt like stabbed in the heart by the fact that no piece of land or place I felt connected to, developed a deep love towards, or dared to call home, would remain unaffected, that we single-handedly managed to alter the surface of the world to a point of no return. The child in me wept with full tears for several minutes while my adult self felt lucky for not having anyone seated next to me.

Right after I arrived in Melbourne on Sunday, I went to the closing night of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival to listen to Chick Corea and Gary Burton. It was full house; several hundred people had come to enjoy what I (metaphorically ?) think to be an emergent property of the slavery system. I wondered if any beauty would eventually emerge from the corrupt systems of our society too, nevertheless, neither the jazz nor this thought helped me yet to recover from the shadowland I sank into. Maybe it’s time to add grieving to Meadows’ list; if we’re going to experience it increasingly more, it makes sense to at least frame it in an empowering way, i.e. as a tool.

 

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