Back to Basics 4: Possibility

possibility I come to this topic as it is critical to sustainability, but it takes a little scene-setting. Flourishing depends on living authentically (see previous post on this topic). The most direct way to think about this is to imagine owning everything you do, not everything you have. The existential consequences show up as possibility. When you come from some inner source of care, possibility is limited only by the reality of the world at hand. You can choose freely who you are and what you will do consistent with that role. It is not quite the same as free will because there are always limits. You cannot give birth to a baby as a man, unless genetic engineering surprises all of us. Except in rare circumstances, you cannot get a job as a professor at an elite school without the credentials of a PhD, but if you want to become a professor you can set out to obtain that PhD.

Authentic living comes when one accepts that he or she is rootless, that is, that there is nothing that grounds their Being or that they can call on to explain who they are in the world. This mode requires an understanding that one’s identity is a choice and can change. Not identity as ego that exists inside the body, but an identity recognizable by those observing how the person act in the world. The nature of the actions are what determine what others will say about what or who the person is. Authentic action permits an actor to respond to situations in a non-normal way, unconstrained by what “they say” is the right thing to do, and enables possibility to emerge. There is no possibility in following the crowd, the essence of inauthenticity. Inauthentic actions may be appropriate, but cannot cope with unfamiliar situations. Inauthenticity erodes reflective capabilities and limits the possibility of adjusting to new understanding and changed circumstances. If, for example, consumption of new goods and services is the standard way of coping, an inauthentic actor will go along even if the results are damaging to the world. It was not a joke when President Bush told the country to go shopping in the aftermath of 9/11.

Authenticity carries with it a background of anxiety or unsettledness because the actor can not simply reach into the bag of tricks his or her life history has provided. In general anxiety is thought to be something bad and to be avoided or treated. Perhaps when it comes from the inability to cope with the world as it is. The unsettledness coming along with authenticity is positive as long as the actor interprets it as an opening to possibility. At first, possibility may not make sense because, by its very nature, possibility means getting into a world that is new and unfamiliar where appropriate and effective action are as yet unknown. The positive result of authenticity and the opening of a space of new possibilities is that the actor serves as a clearing for new practices to become present for him- or herself and for also for those that would follow the “leader.”

Possibility is about acting differently, not following the “other,” but owning--being responsible for--what one does. Being able to act differently is critical for sustainability. It creates the possibility of flourishing for the individual actor as well as allows for new practices that do not bring the pathologies that are producing unsustainability. For the individual, authenticity brings the care of Being to the surface such that actions produce completion, perfection, and a sense of satisfaction that allow the actor to become fully alive. This doesn’t mean that everything is wonderful; there will always be areas that cannot be made perfect. What is important to flourishing is that the actor become aware that he or she is taking care or has taken care of all the domains that are important.

The authentic actor is then able to lead others along the new path. It is not automatic that this will happen, but it is, like individual action, a possibility. I may sound, in this next statement, too arrogant and dogmatic: sustainability will always be out of hand without the possibility that comes through authenticity. This follows my arguments that unsustainability is an unintended consequence of modern culture. I’ll expand on this in another blog, but what I mean is that cultures inherently produce inauthentic behavior. This is not a value statement, but one that is definitional. Cultures are constituted by the appearance and persistence of normal behaviors, meaning that societal actors do what is ‘right” or do “what one does.” Cultures work so long as the inevitable emergence of unintended consequences remain insignificant. Unsustainability shows up when observers begin to have doubts about the capability of the culture and its environmental context to continue without being overwhelmed by these emerging and growing phenomena. The challenge to those who care about the current state of the world and commit themselves to act upon their concerns is to learn how to lift themselves out of the milieu and into a new space of possibility. Acting out of such a new set of concerns is equivalent to adopting a new identity. Remember that identity is an assessment or observation made by others; it’s not some inner ego.

The act of commitment to take care of sustainability is an instantaneous event. It, like any other commitment, is not a “rational” act derived from some well constructed argument. It may and usually does make sense, but a sense based on a feeling or emotion that the new care is what Being is about. It adds to one’s sense of aliveness and contributes to flourishing. So does commitment based on care in any domain. Commitment alone is necessary but not sufficient to produce effective actions. To act authentically, to own one’s actions, demands that the actions arise from a new sense of the world, not the old and familiar practices. Key here is the idea of a new consciousness of the world that normally fades from view in the hurly burly of everyday, inauthentic living.

New possibilities arise from the world itself; there is nothing else, from a consciousness of the world that is hidden in ordinary moments. Philosophers call this world, present-at-hand to distinguish it from the transparent, non-sensed world that serves as the context for ordinary activities: cooking dinner, writing reports, skiing, and so forth. Competent skiers act in an effortless, transparent manner without thinking about what they are doing. Otto Scharmer and others call the process in which consciousness of the world arises, presencing. It’s just as the word conveys. In the normal course of action, the world recedes from view while one acts out of what I already stored in the body. The more facile one becomes in addressing the “problems” of daily life, the less are the moments when these embodied strategies fail; the capability to stop and access the world shrinks with time. An actor must design a new set of rules and tools to cope with the concerns that have risen to the surface and to the top of the do list. Presencing in our culture is a largely lost art, and must be learned anew.

In opposition to the common understanding that, in situations when we are lost and feel the need for new tools and rules, we use the theories and rules we have already acquired. Yes, these can be helpful, but only so far. When the world has changed significantly, as it has in the case of sustainability, these old tools and rules are part of the problem, not the solution. New ones are essential. Possibility is the place from which these new practices can emerge, but we must first enter the authentic mode of living. That takes a conscious commitment to stop following the crowd. Then we must learn the art of presencing. Those who believe that they can “just do it” are sorely mistaken. They can reduce the load they place on the Earth and on other people, but they cannot bring sustainability to life. The process toward sustainability starts with authentic living and the possibilities it brings.

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David M Carter said:

John,

This is a brilliant and comprehensive piece! I need to spend some time teasing out all of the concepts and ideas.

Already this work has advanced my thinking in a very important way. Specifically, I have known for some time that an over-dependence on extrinsic motivation (i.e. inauthenticity) leads to a disconnection to one's intrinsic motivations (i.e. authenticity). This "fact" has shown up in research performed under the rubrick of Self-Determination Theory. In your blog piece you state, "Inauthenticity erodes reflective capabilitites". What's new, however, is how "inauthenticity limits the possibility of adjusting to new understanding and changed circumstances". This to me is a hugely important statement because it suggests that the dominance of extrinsic motivation (powered through social norms) not only separates us eventually from authenticity, but also blinds us to the possibilities that exist toward real sustainability. This notion reinforces the overwhelming importance of collectively tempering stimuli (e.g. materialism, conspicuous consumption, idol worship) that exaccerbate extrinsic motivations. Dominating extrinsic motivations lessen authenticity, possibility, flourishing, accountability, and self-determination. Conceivably, then, dominating intrinsic motivations can increase self-determination, accountability, authenticity, possibility, and flourishing. This is important work! Thank you!!