On Having the Courage to Fall Apart (again)
Political shenanigans in the UK, particularly in my home country, Scotland, are making for interesting times. The fall-out of 2014’s “indy-ref” (where 55.3% of the population voted no to independence from the UK) was followed in 2015 by a landslide victory for the Conservative party, a result that none of the pollsters predicted. The traditionally socialist Labour party was left shattered as they lost 26 electoral seats.
The most thought-provoking blog I read at the time, was from Dougald Hine (author, social entrepreneur and one of Britain’s top 50 radicals as judged by innovation charity NESTA).
Being a student of Nancy Kline’s Thinking Environment, and her approach of “listening to ignite the human mind”, the assertion that “Labour talked to five million people but didn’t know how to listen” particularly resonated. The piece also suggested Labour could take cold comfort in the fact that such a brutal confrontation with reality would force some necessary soul searching: now “the only way is down”.
There is a lot to be said for the power of reaching rock bottom; bookshelves are filled with the incredible life lessons that challenging experiences such as losing our home, a loved one, our minds, (votes) provide. J K Rowling described her rock bottom as “the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life”, and what a remarkable life she has built.
However, the inherent assumption within all such tales is that the natural order of things is balance, fulfillment and happiness and we should fear the bottom. The bottom is a place we unwillingly fall into. There then follows a journey: a period of soul searching, an epiphany, after which we claw our way up (sometimes to slip back down again) until we emerge a better person, for the experience we hope to God we never repeat.
However, what if the turbulence, chaos and disequilibrium of the “bottom” is a necessary state for growth to occur?
American writer and student of organisational behaviour, Margaret (Meg) Wheatley has been working for almost 40 years “seeking to understand ways of perceiving and working that gives us the capacity to deal well and sanely with this troubling time”.
In her book Leadership and the New Science, Wheatley draws from the science of chemical reactions and the laws of thermodynamics to explore how systems in all of life change and grow through being both self-referenced and connected to their environments. Organisations are living systems, not machines, that possess the innate ability to re-organise themselves over time to deal with new information and changes in the environment – this is called self-organisation.
Paradoxically, disorder and disequilibrium are necessary conditions for growth: organisations that are too rigid to react appropriately to changes in the environment will decline. Ones that have more fluid structures, such that information can flow freely, develop a greater freedom from their environment, and are consequently more successful.
Psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration describes a theory of personality development, in which disintegration is a vital developmental process. A key component of Dabrowski’s theory, is that of the “personality ideal”, that is a vision of the sort of person we wish to become. In making life choices, failing to choose the path that realizes our idealised self, results in feelings of guilt, disappointment, self-doubt, failure and shame, leading to internal conflicts, anxiety and stress. These internal conflicts slowly subside as the idealised personality is slowly realised through the ongoing choices one makes.
My own “bottoms” were driven by fear. Fear of failure, yes, but fear of uncertainty mostly. As I became more fearful I strived to control all aspects of my life – my days became very regimented (if I caught the 0806 train everyday I would maintain order), my diet was very specific. My naturally curly hair was blow-dried into line weekly. I argued the toss about everything because I needed to be right, and if I was right I was maintaining control.
Meg Wheatley writes that “change always involves a dark night when everything falls apart”, but when chaos erupts it not only disintegrates the current structure, it creates the conditions for a new order to emerge.
It took many, many dark nights and close reading of the writing of a woman I came across when I googled “why can I not handle uncertainty”, for order to emerge chez Ferrier. American Pema Chodron was a schoolteacher (born Deirdre Blomfield-Brown) in California and Mexico, before encountering Tibetan Buddhist, Chime Rinpoche (notable students include David Bowie). Ordained as a nun in 1974, Chodron is a prolific author, whose central teaching is around the notion of attachment and the cycle of habitual negative or self-destructive actions and thoughts it can drive.
Chodron suggests that feelings like disappointment and fear are messengers that tell us with “terrifying clarity” where we’re stuck. And “rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we should acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look.”
“We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together and they fall apart again. It’s just like that”
This appreciation of disintegration is uncommon is the West: we don’t want to listen to the message inherent within the experience. Members of the Labour party call for the swift election of a new leader. Doctors prescribe pills to women who’ve had one too many dark nights. Our jobs cause us stress and make us ill, but “I’ve got 6 more years then the kids will be through uni, after that I’ll consider doing something I love”.