we were here

BLOG We Were Here

anthropikYesterday I spent a delightful morning with old friend Andrew Campbell and his business colleague Amy Leung, who were visiting from the UK. We talked a lot about art, and presence, and the diseconomies of scale in complex systems, and hence of the necessity of working in commmunities with people you love, to make the world better through conversation, presence, story, appreciation, learning and co-creating.

The part of our discussion that blew me away stemmed from Amy’s description of a session at a retreat Andrew and Amy co-facilitated with a group of young people. I’m going to get her to write up the story and I’ll republish this when she does, but in essence what emerged from this retreat was a sense of disconnection between what we know and what we do. I’ve referred to this before in the narrow context of procrastination (we know what we should do, but something keeps us doing other, more urgent, less important things). Otto Scharmer of Presencing fame, who Andrew and Amy have worked with, refers to this as a temporal disconnect: “the heart feels the future, while the head reflects the past”.

But what Amy was talking about was something even deeper, more present, and more visceral.

When we are disconnected from our feelings, our senses, and our instincts, and live in our heads, we act (intellectually) as if everything is all right, while we know (emotionally, viscerally) that something is terribly wrong. It is as if there are two highly dissonant people inside us: an active one that goes about our daily work, engaging in normal relationships; and a passive one that suffers silently from a profound, unnamed and unexpressed grief and a deep but unexplored sense of anxiety.

My first direct sense of this came from a couple of recent face-to-face conversations with climate scientists and conservationists. They were attempting to talk rationally about what needed to be done in light of the constant barrage of new and startling information about the pace of events precipitating climate change and what would be required to mitigate it and adapt to it. But what was clear from the undertone of their discussions, their expressions, and the anxiety present in their answers to questions, was that they are absolutely terrified. They know it’s too late, that we have almost certainly passed the tipping point and they have a terrible sense of guilt and sadness and dread about what we may have unleashed on the world. But if they lose their composure and outward hopefulness, they know they will lose credibility and their chance to at least get people to do something.

They (and perhaps all of us) are afflicted with a new kind of endemic dissociative mental illness. The dissonance between what we ‘know’, in some primeval way (like the wild animals who sense an impending storm or earthquake or ‘hear’ noises outside conscious perception), and what we ‘think’ based on the day’s news and on the conversations we have about the needs and events of the moment, is utterly inconsolable, irreconcilable. So we try to ignore that dissonance. We pretend it isn’t real.

But when we start to study and learn how the world really works, and what is really going on, that passive, anxious, visceral persona inside us starts to come out. When we spend time in nature, away from the noise and distraction, that profound dis-ease resurfaces, because we resonate then with all-life-on-Earth, and the rest of the species know what is happening, just as we do. And when we try to quiet our minds to learn to be present, to resonate with each other in a direct and visceral way, unmuted by the cultural veil between ourselves and what is real, here, now, the same thing happens. The young people who connected at Andrew and Amy’s retreat felt it, and like the climate scientists, they were overwhelmed by their realizations, by their recognition of what conservationist Terry Glavin calls “the dark and gathering sameness of the world.” They were compelled, as they explored this, to cry out, as one, we were here! as if this message had to be expressed before it was lost — back, perhaps, into the quiet desperate dissonance, or forward to the world where the actions and words of humanity will, once again, no longer be seen or heard.

This is what I have sensed, recognized in the works that have most affected me since I began researching how the world really works and how we might make the world a better place, eight years ago. And I suspect that most of the readers of this blog recognize it, too, sense it, know it in your bones, in your heart of hearts. I have described it, thanks to an article by Richard Bruce Anderson that my friend Dave Smith drew to my attention, as feeling unbearable grief for gaia.

Most of the world, I suspect, does not want to listen to, or recognize, that dissonant other inside them. There is enough suffering, for most, in the immediate moment, and a lack of imagination, curiosity and capacity to really know, anyway.

For those who do have the courage to face that dissonant grief-filled other, perhaps Nancy White’s urging of us all to “build bridges” is what is needed. We can recognize that terrified voice inside us, and see it in some others, young and old, especially the artists and the scientists, those who don’t suffer from our society’s endemic imaginative poverty and who I’ve (probably arrogantly) described as “too far ahead“, and we can sense it in all-life-on-Earth. Perhaps it’s time, in building bridges between our disconnected selves and between ourselves and others, to put the grief into words and pictures, to inform it, to recognize it out loud, to realize it in what we say and in what we do.


This blog has been, mostly, my way of saying, “I am here”, in an attempt to recognize my grief and look for resonance with others’, and ways of coping with it, realizing it.

If enough of us say it, and begin to act on it, then at least our collective realizations might move forward from exclamations of “we were here” to proclamations of “we are here”.

Andrew and Amy’s collaborative website is here.

(image: the anthropik network logo from jason godesky; photos taken yesterday by andrew and amy)

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3 Responses to we were here

  1. Thanks, Dave. This is one of the most simple,eloquent statements of our state of being that I’ve come across. I’m going to tweet it, but wanted to say publicly, thank you. Those young people, ain’t they something?

  2. Brutus says:

    I suspect we each respond differently to the issues you present here. For me, I don’t experience quite the disassociative state between, on the one hand, the visceral, empathetic sense of grief over the ruin of the world, and on the other hand, the day-to-day activities of life and my rational response to things. It’s as if we’re being asked “how can you eat, sleep, and live when the world is circling the drain?” to which I respond “how can I not continue to do those most basic human things?” My long-term dilemma has been to formulate an ethical response to the awful understanding I, like you, have developed over the past few years. Whereas you bemoan our learned helplessness, I’m far more content about it and recognize that, in addition to being a product of an insane culture that continuously diminishes people in too many ways to contemplate, I’m powerless to mount more than the tiniest, personal resistance to the dominant culture, which more or less amounts to principled resistance to participating in most of its imperatives. That probably doesn’t earn me salvation or peace, but it’s enough for me.

  3. John Graham says:

    “We were here”, what a remarkable and moving exclamation, if I’m reading it right. “I am here” can easily be about impression, but “we were here” is pure expression ( http://tinyurl.com/m6bzm7 ). It parallels the archetypal writing of “I was here” somewhere in the physical world, for “the future” to find. These young people have decided to write directly on eternity, an eternity that has nothing to do with the future or the past. Now that’s *getting* it!”Every day I write the book” – Elvis Costello

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