Crisis Fatigue and the Co-Creation
of Positive Possibilities
A letter to a community organizer and networker overwhelmed by
the potential impact of global crises on his community
You might consider something I'm thinking of calling crisis-fatigue.
Like battle fatigue or compassion fatigue. I think its main ingredient
is ambiguity-fatigue. It is exhausting to continually contemplate
potentially massive threats from a place of radical uncertainty
littered with certainties that blink on and off...
How does one respond to this in anything approaching a sane way?
I struggle with this all the time. At least a few things have
become obvious to me. These strategies are remarkably consistent
with what you'd expect the requisites would be for living in a
complex, chaotic, unpredictable system:
1) Let go of outcome. Since we're not in charge (and never
really were), admit that what happens is much bigger than any
of us. It seems we need to be willing to die, willing for everyone
around us to suffer, willing to fail at every attempt to make
the world better or to understand or to be understood, or to even
grow and learn from all this. Let it all go. (I do not mean that
we should expect, encourage or welcome such undesirable outcomes.
I mean we can want or envision positive outcomes even as we appreciate
the fullness of life with or without them. Honoring our desires
without being controlled by them clarifies our minds and frees
us to be fully present. I know of few forces more powerfully benign
than passionate engagement without attachment.)
2) Come to terms with our own intrinsic participation
in Whatever Happens. Not only are we not in control, we're
not un-involved. Our role in Whatever Happens isn't something
we can escape. (One consolation is we aren't alone. Everyone
and everything is co-creating Whatever Happens.) This
is hard for us to come to terms with because it looks so much
like the guilt-based responsibility upon which our society is
based ("Everything is not my fault!"); but
it is a totally different thing.
Guilt-based responsibility is part of the linear cause-and-effect
worldview. ("Who's responsible/ guilty/ blameworthy?"
is the social equivalent of the scientists' question, "What's
the cause?") But blame can't fathom the complexity of What
Happens in a living/chaotic system. Phenomena arise from the whole,
from the system itself. Those who stand by when events happen
are creating a context for those events to unfold in the way they
do -- even when they are miles away obliviously watching a sitcom.
Even inanimate objects are participants: Roads are participating
in the death of pollinators (by replacing trees and meadows, by
enabling the transport of pesticides, by contributing to ozone
depletion). Everything participates. It is pointless to point.
The route to better conditions is through increased awareness
of the whole, and a more radically expansive sense of all our
roles. This includes the previous item -- letting go -- because
co-creation means we're not in charge of outcomes, we're just
vitally important participants in influencing them.
3) Look for positive possibilities and ways to partner them
into greater probability. Meg Wheatley and David Spangler
taught me about living in a world of possibilities. We could say,
inspired by the poet Muriel Rukeyser, that the universe is made
of possibilities, not atoms. They are everywhere. They are everything.
Some say God (or the devil) is in the details. I say God (and
the devil) are in the possibilities. Every moment is filled with
them. Although we don't get to control how they turn out, they
are very responsive to our actions, our beliefs, our
caring. That is the edge of co-creativity where Life resides most
Some say it is narcissistic to think we are playing a role in
everything. This is true if we're talking about a linear world
of cause-and-effect responsibility. But I see reality as bigger
than linear. I see it as an infinite, infinitesimally dense web
of co-creation, a sea of mutual participation. Spangler has called
this "a co-incarnational universe" -- everything is
bringing everything else into existence.
So we join with everyone and everything -- past, present and future
-- in sharing influence on what happens. We are neither guilty
nor innocent. Rather, we are consciously or unconsciously involved.
In everything. Our actions matter. Our awareness matters. Right
here and right now. Because we are a factor in the Life of Everything.
This ultimate application of the admonition "Think Globally,
Act Locally" points towards what we might call "participatory
responsibility." Are we playing the best role we can imagine,
given the limits of (our infinitely expandable) awareness?
I think this is what I am asked to do: To care about the larger
whole and all the Life within it, and to act in my own life with
the purest awareness and intention that I can muster towards being
a worthy participant in the unfolding of positive possibilities
for all, for the whole. Of course, I fail at this, over and over.
And within those failures are more positive possiblities for me
to find and engage...
So I look for the positive possibilities in the crises we face.
On the one hand, I sometimes feel that our chances are slim and
that ultimately it is only by the grace of God that "we will
make it" (whatever that means to each of us). On the other
hand, I realize how much we often undermine our chances by losing
touch with our intrinsically co-creative role in the unfolding
of every one of these potential crises, in the fate of the possibilities
that are there. That role includes inspiring each other,
evoking our best selves, calling forth the best possibilities
no matter how small That is the essence of participatory
leadership. We can each do that -- for ourselves, for each other,
for the world.
Faced with a wall, a man said to his comrade,
"We can go no further." His comrade said,
"But there is a crack in the wall." The man
said, "But the wall is so large and the crack
is so small." To which his comrade said, "A
crowbar in the crack, and we'll be on our way.
Or set a few seeds in it, and they'll take that
wall down for us in God's good time. Which
shall it be?" They were soon on their way.
We are the faces and fingers and feet of the God of Possibility.
It is through our participation -- although not only through
our participation -- that God (or the Goddess, or the Tao, or
Life) works wonders.
This is easy to visualize if we remember
that it is through our hands, but not only through our
hands, that we work our own wonders.
Our efforts and caring -- even when we "fail"
-- provide a changed context for the efforts and caring of others
elsewhere, tomorrow. The Whole evolves through our roles, through
the active Being of each and every one of us.
- bigger than taking personal responsibility,
- bigger than letting others take care of
- bigger than taking care of each other,
- bigger than setting up institutions to
care for people,
- bigger than realizing the role of history
and environment and culture in how we all behave,
- bigger than knowing that inaction and
action are both forms of participation,
- bigger than being aware of the upside
and downside of every form of participation (and taking action
It is each and every one of these things,
and more. It is all true. It is all real. But it is only possible
to enter this Reality to the extent we let go of outcome and become
more compassionate, eager, aware agents of Positive Possibility.
So what is possible here in in these emerging crises for us, for
those we love, for our communities, our societies, our world?
Do the chances look slim? Do the outcomes seem impossible to grasp?
Often they do. But isn't that what makes life an adventure?
Some people say that's why we stay alive,
from day to day: to find out what happens next. All games and
adventures are built out of uncertainty (if we knew what would
happen, we'd soon lose interest). Humans thrive on challenge,
on the unknown.
True, we can have too much challenge, too
much uncertainty. However, if we look closely, we'll find that
that only happens when we've become too attached to outcomes.
In the moment of that realization, our challenge becomes "How
well can we learn to let go and stay engaged?" That's
a real trick. The real trick.
To be alive is to find out what's possible, to see how far we
can push/cajole/invite the flow of reality into the channels of
Which is often hard. I want to see a better, more sustainable,
more humane, more meaningful culture. I have often felt that we
don't have much of a chance of getting it. Too often, the more
I learned, the more the social and psychological dynamics seemed
stacked against us. And then I'd encounter a new innovation, some
unexpected allies, or a sudden turn of events that opened doors
I didn't even know existed.
I've come to believe that things
are getting better and better and worse and worse, faster and
And so I've found myself bouncing back and
forth between optimism and pessimism. "Things are going to
work out well." Or: "There's going to be real disaster!"
It's been really exhausting.
But lately something's changing about all this. I've begun to
notice how the whole optimism/pessimism dichotomy is a death trap
for my aliveness and attention. I watch myself acting as if my
sense of what might happen is a description of reality.
And what I notice is this: whether I expect the best or the worst,
my expectations interfere with my will to act.
That's so important I'm going to repeat
it. Whether I expect the best or the worst, my expectations
interfere with my will to act.
I've started viewing both optimism and pessimism
as spectator sports, as forms of disengagement masquerading as
involvement. Both optimism and pessimism trick me into judging
life and betting on the odds, rather than diving into life with
my whole self, with my full co-creative energy. I think the emerging
crises call us to transcend such false end-games like optimism
and pessimism. I think they call us to act like a spiritually
healthy person who has just learned they have heart disease: We
can use each dire prognosis as a stimulant for reaching more deeply
into life and co-creating positive change.
And so I've come to conclude that all the predictions -- both good and
bad -- tell us absolutely nothing about what is possible. Trends
and events only relate to what is probable. Probabilities are
abstractions. Possibilities are the stuff of life, visions to act upon,
doors to walk through. Pessimism and optimism are both distractions from
living life fully.
More and more, I'm seeing myself as an ally or midwife of positive
possibilities. Those possibilities need me to help them move towards
becoming real. True, we often need miracles, but miracles can
only go so far. Miracles need us to meet them halfway. I'm trying
to move as far towards the miracles as I can, and draw them out.
I'll probably never know if I've moved far enough, if we
have moved far enough. But the movement, itself, is so alive I
can hardly stand it. And I keep meeting incredible companions
like you (whose value to me evoked this response), and doing unbelievable
things together. The world could not be more filled with possibilities
than it is now. On the wind I smell good food cooking out there
somewhere. My appetite for what could be lifts me to the road
again, over and over, where I get covered with dust, tired, sore
and discouraged. And then I smell it again, and the sun rises.
PS: A note on wisdom, related to this, which I just found in papers
I was cleaning up (heaven knows when I wrote it, among all these
stacks of paper)... "I see God in the infinitely complex
and co-creative power of nature. When Jesus said we should be
like the lilies of the field, he was surely inviting us to sit
there and gaze at the clouds. But perhaps he meant more, as well.
Perhaps he was inviting us to participate in the wholesome patterns
of nature woven from strands of wisdom laid by the hands of a
wise God and/or by the trials of four billion years of evolution.
We people can never hope to replace this wisdom with some substitute
derived from our own intrinsically small-picture intelligence.
But we can learn and follow this natural wisdom. This insight
informs permaculture and aikido, as well as meditators."
PPS: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to clarify my own
thinking here. I hope it is of some use to you, for it arose from
my caring about you. We have a very long and amazing road to go
For a poem about the sorts of crises referred to here, see
Extra Ordinary Days - A poem about our predicament