Where do we find hope when it’s hard to do?

This has been such a week of such national grief about the 215 children who died at a residential school in Canada and were buried there, without records or ceremony or even notification of their families. I found it hard to be hopeful. Then, eventually, I started to reflect on where I find hope. Here are some reflections:

Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash

When I first discovered Margaret Wheatley’s ‘Leadership and the New Science’ many years ago now, I was most struck by an image that has stayed with me and that speaks to me of the way our society is changing. It is the image of old engines, abandoned on the land, with the grass growing up around them and eventually hiding them.

“We live in a time of chaos, rich in potential for new possibilities,” she said. “A new world is being born. We need new ideas, new ways of seeing, and new relationships to help us now. New science–the new discoveries in biology, chaos theory, and quantum physics that are changing our understanding of how the world works–offers this guidance. It describes a world where chaos is natural, where order exists “for free.” It displays the intricate webs of cooperation that connect us. It assures us that life seeks order, but uses messes to get there.”

Her picture of the world is a much more natural one than the factory analogies we have lived with since the Industrial Revolution. We have thought of societies, companies, even people as being like machines, with which we can tinker if need be. We have not thought of them as natural systems, where the micro is a much smaller version of the macro.

And this has implications for how we think the world works. We talk about fine-tuning things, about overhauling systems, and re-engineering societies. Our metaphors are those of the machine, not of nature.

And it is completely amazing what happens when we change those metaphors.

Think of Norman Doidge’s fascinating books about the research on the brain. That research has systematically changed our view of how our brains work – as adaptive systems rather than machines – and thus our view of how human beings live.

“Doidge is, if not the inventor, then at least the populariser of a brand new science,” the Guardian wrote in a 2015 review. “That science is called neuroplasticity, and it develops from a growing understanding that the human brain – for centuries thought a fairly fixed and unregenerative organ that, if injured or diseased, is subject to only very limited recovery – is in fact capable of much more significant self-repair and healing. Not only that, but much of the healing – for conditions that range from Parkinson’s disease, to autism, to stroke, to traumatic head injury – can be stimulated by conscious habits of thought and action, by teaching the brain to “rewire itself”.”

One of the things that amazed me about both his books, The Brain That Changes Itself, and The Brain’s Way of Healing, is how resistant the existing ‘system’ was to these discoveries and new ways of thinking. If you think of the brain as being a machine, then the idea that it grows and changes and can adapt, even to injury, must seem heretical. These researchers had trouble getting funding, carrying out their research, and getting their results published.

But results matter, and the researchers solved problems that the existing system could not address at all. The conventional wisdom, after all, was that people could not recover their full capacities after a stroke. But a researcher working with his father, who had suffered a stroke, proved that this was not true. His father recovered, via his then unconventional therapy, and went on to climb mountains til he died in his 80s, if I recall the story correctly.

Or  think about how amazing it has been to realize that trees are intelligent beings,  linked together under the soil and that they have relatives, and communicate, and generally behave much more like us than we ever thought. That there are ‘mother trees’, who care for their families like most human mothers do.

Or think about how powerful it was when Rutger Bregman discovered that Lord of the Flies was a myth, a story that didn’t reflect what happens when boys are isolated on a deserted island. And wrote a book called Humankind, which argued strongly that human beings are good by nature and presented a view that was quite different than the one most of us grew up with.

“For centuries western culture has been permeated by the idea that humans are selfish creatures,” Bregman says. “That cynical image of humanity has been proclaimed in films and novels, history books and scientific research. But in the last 20 years, something extraordinary has happened. Scientists from all over the world have switched to a more hopeful view of mankind. This development is still so young that researchers in different fields often don’t even know about each other.”

Like me, he had grown up reading William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Then he began to wonder if anyone had ever studied the question of what “real children would do if they found themselves alone on a deserted island?” He searched for a real life example, and eventually found a fascinating blog post. “One day, in 1977, six boys set out from Tonga on a fishing trip … Caught in a huge storm, the boys were shipwrecked on a deserted island. What do they do, this little tribe? They made a pact never to quarrel.” But no source was given.

Then he found the source, by accident. And off he went to Australia to talk to the man who had rescued them, and heard the story of what really happened when a group of boys found themselves marooned. “By the time we arrived, the boys had set up a small commune with food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent fire, all from handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination.”

They made a movie about the boys, but somehow, it is William Golding’s fictional version that has stuck in our minds, and even inspired the Survivor television series. 

“It’s time we told a different kind of story,” Bregman concluded. “The real Lord of the Flies is a tale of friendship and loyalty; one that illustrates how much stronger we are if we can lean on each other. After my wife took Peter’s picture, he turned to a cabinet and rummaged around for a bit, then drew out a heavy stack of papers that he laid in my hands. His memoirs, he explained, written for his children and grandchildren. I looked down at the first page. “Life has taught me a great deal,” it began, “including the lesson that you should always look for what is good and positive in people.” 

One more example. When management consultants began to seek out the things that give life to a system, rather than the things that don’t work, they gave rise to a way of thinking we now call ‘appreciative inquiry’.

It was when I began to use appreciative inquiry in analyzing projects that I began to grasp how entrenched our ‘deficit’ thinking model really is. I would draw a line down the middle of a piece of flipchart paper, with two headings – what worked, and what could be done differently. Then I would ask people to give me examples of ‘what worked’ in an event or activity – and I found that it was incredibly difficult. People were keen to offer what didn’t work – but not to start with what worked. The thing was – once people started with ‘what worked’, they became enthusiastic. And of course the ‘what could be done differently’ emerged, as we reflected on what had worked, but in a much more positive context than if we had started there.