Some people seem oblivious to the needs of others around them. Twice in the last 20 minutes I’ve had the same bag, slung over a shoulder, knock into me as its carrier tried to weave his way to where he wanted to be. It wasn’t so much that his bag hit me … it was his complete disregard for the impact he was having on those around him that stunned me. Beyond that level of dysfunction, most people operate with at least a consciousness of the perspective of ‘the other’. But a normal appreciation of the needs of others will not be enough.
I have been pondering what it takes to go beyond empathy, to identify deeply with ‘the other’. In my last post I eluded to the realisation of prejudices I didn’t know I had. I am increasingly convinced that the capacity to identify with ‘the other’ is a fundamental competency for dealing with the major challenges in the decades ahead; human pressures on the ecosystem and climate, population, extreme poverty for 1/6th of the world’s people, and globalisation.
A few weeks ago, Maria and I watched Thirteen Days, the story of how close we came to nuclear war. In the wake of his extraordinary leadership through that crisis, President Kennedy delivered a speech that so impressed then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, that it paved the way for a nuclear test ban. In that speech he said, “So, let us not be blind to our differences – but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. We are all mortal.”
On the eve of the collapse of the Cold War Sting released a song that ‘reached’ me in my relative naivety, ‘I hope the Russians love their children too.’ The words still penetrate my Anglo centric propaganda-ed view of the world. Or more close to my current context, Saudi women with only their eyes exposed also play aeroplane games with fluffy toys on planes to occupy their fidgety children.
We are facing enormous challenges. Our world has evolved so quickly that none of us are prepared. No-one has been here before. (…as Peter Senge reminded us at the SoL Forum) Our institutions are not ready to change as rapidly as is needed. Our collective and individual behaviour lags our consciousness by way to much. Our lifestyle inertia holds us back from action to bridge social and ethnic divides, from adopting the environmental practices we know are necessary, from curbing our personal preferences for the common good. And there are not only global problems, we are every week confronted with local community and personal ones too; work / life balance, young binge drinking and violence, rampant consumerism, loss of meaning …
Adam Kahane helps us understand the nature of these complex problems.
- They have dynamic complexity. Cause and effect are not closely related in space and time. We need systemic solutions.
- They have generative complexity. The future is unfamiliar and undetermined. It is not a matter of applying solutions that have worked in the past. As it is said, today’s solutions create tomorrow’s problems.
- They have social complexity. No single entity own the problem of has the capacity or wherewithal to create a solution independently of all the stakeholders.
However, in order to bring the different stakeholders around the table, whether it be in the context of the Arab – Israeli conflict or a family roundtable about domestic expectations, we have to become better at suspending our own judgements and seeing the world through the eyes of another.
The rewards will be staggeringly significant.