This year I found myself reaching for language more medieval than modern; words like craven, vile, mendacious. I’m ending the year speaking of kindness. Having regressed toward meanness further than I thought possible, I’m hoping we ascend toward kindness.
Jonas Salk taught us that when the dysfunction of one era grows so profound, we must turn from fixing them, to preparing ourselves to live on the other side of the discontinuity. The dysfunctions take care of themselves in the way that we see happening in the mutual assured destruction of Roy Moore and the Mooch, not the mention the Discontinuity in Chief.
The picture is of a young walnut planted this week at our tiny place in Fancy Gap, an hour north of Winston-Salem where the Blue Ridge was pushed up by the collision with Africa a third of billion years ago. The stone ridge is a sharp and impassible discontinuity a third of a mile high, making it difficult for normal commerce to flow from Virginia to the Piedmont. What you need in discontinuity is a way from here to there—you need a gap to head for. The fog catches in the crook of the mountains, so the natives, more honest than the settlers, called it foggy gap.
Today you can blow up and over the interstate at 75 miles an hour, except when the fog catches, then you’ll be moving at 20 with eyes glued to the white lines. A couple miles east, you can still come up old US 52, once one of the most accident strewn highways in all the land. Down below it, you can still see the old rutted path the settlers carved out. They liked it so much they called it “fancy.” This kind of gap lets you rise 1,500 feet in the air.
We need to focus on finding the gap in our days and measuring our steps in light of where we are heading. Let the agents of chaos feed on themselves and their elaborate fears. Let us focus on what might come next, how we will find and then settle on the other side of the great discontinuity after this latest preposterous thing has hit with a thud and puff of dust.
Dr. Bill Foege once helped the Interfaith Health Program develop a “five gap theory of change” based on this mountain paradigm.
- Knowledge. The first gap lies between things we know and what we use. Medicine still has an average 17 year gap between discovery and wide implementation. Justice can take centuries.
- Values. The second gap occurs between commitments we already believe and their new relevance to the current possibilities. Jefferson had an ancient vision of a decentralized food and energy economy safe for democracy. We believed it; now it’s possible because of solar’s sudden and overwhelming cost-effectiveness.
- Spread. This one lies between success in one community and broad application in others. This is usually different than the knowledge gap above, as the reasons for success are usually not even understood where it happened. (Nobody has replicated the Memphis Model, yet.)
- Relationships. This one lies between people we know and those we could know, especially those we thought different and distant, now merely adjacent enough for coffee.
- Time. The last gap is between our immediate needs—often framed by fear—and the needs of those who come later. Bill said that we need to be good ancestors, which is what I think of when my fingers are in the dirt of the walnut roots. Geologic things happen fast these days, entire continents melting and flooding. The First People asked about the seventh generation. Not many modern grandparents think of two, but Charlie and Asa are likely citizens of the 22nd century when the waters are predicted to already be high.
In radical discontinuity, change can happen at hyperkinetic speed. But change born of fear is rarely adaptive. Sustained change is carried on hopes of kindness and decency. That sounds exactly as delusional as a decentralized energy economy, which now seems merely a couple of decades from being the new normal.
Expect positive discontinuities. And then live into them. Let the dead past bury the dead past, said Jesus. He left to go find his followers while leaving an angel to give a clue to those coming to the grave, “Why are you looking for the Living among the dead?”
Doug McGaughey and Jim Cochrane are citizens of the possible, driving the foundation pilings deep into philosophical bedrock as only seasoned scholars can. They have just released a book of carefully crafted depth, The Human Spirit: Groundwork (available here in Ebook form from Sun Press). They discern that our radical discontinuity is born of fantastic thinking and nihilism that currently serves the agents of chaos so well. The untethered nature of our thought can only be helped by tethering it to something durable and worthy on the other side of discontinuity. I happen to know that the book arose out of a kind of called bluff. The National Research Council of South Africa had been listening to the work around religious health assets and finally asked if that theory could be applied to the unhinged violence among younger men in impossibly difficult townships in South Africa—and for comparison, Memphis. Right away, we knew the language of religion, faith, spirituality were gossamer and gauze; we needed something tougher and common. The answer was Spirit, forged from the philosophical iron of Kant and fire of African understanding that all humans have spirit capacity more like Energy than thought. Spirit turns out to be the rock on which we can build the new.
This week I was speaking to friends involved in the latest iteration of the long-held dream about communities of health, wellness, wholeness. These are ancient dreams that have captured and carried many of us when young and still hold us now that we are….seasoned. This is true of people like Tyler Norris and me, back when we had lots of hair. Now we are grown-ups; he heads the big new Wellbeing Trust (wellbeingtrust.org) which is mobilizing even bigger foundations to converge on a dream of wellness-at-scale. Much of this is animated by the extraordinarily nuanced skill of Chris Paterson and his band of weavers at the Community Initiatives (communityinitiatives.org). They and other friends at the Rippel Foundation (“seeding innovations in health”) are testing out a model of 7 “conditions” on which such dreams might manifest.
We were talking amid the spiritual richness of the season, so starkly contrasting with the spiritual bankruptcy of the year, so it was impossible to miss missing condition: Spirit. We need none of the old cold religious plodding that gives the Saints such a bad name or the smarmy plastic kind Budweiser and Walmart peddle. But where do we expect the bold and vital to emerge, if not from the universal capacities of Spirit found in every human that ever makes a sacrifice for another? What puts things in motion? Only a community of spirit imagines a way out of no way and refuses to let the ocean rise over their children’s hopes uncontested. And we are not lost; not at all. The positive discontinuity is everywhere, abounding, infiltrating, subverting the glacial despair, mocking the powerful in their tinseled hotels. Living forward, maybe even planting some trees whose roots will go deep into ancient stone raising up hardwood branches fit for life in the 25th century.
Pay attention to the gloves in the picture; the future lies in the dirt. Plant some long-lived trees. And go to your party precinct meeting for election day is coming soon (click here for the time and date countdown).
Some ask how this kind of slender, tender hope will scale fast enough. They want “everyone on the same page”, at the “table,” “in their lane”–coordinated. It is a favorite fantasy.
Movements of Spirit are always how things scale in complex human systems. This is how Wesley and his movement ended slavery, how Gandhi and his millions ended colonialism, how Tutu and his tens of millions ended apartheid. It’s how Colin Miller and his Twin City Harm Reduction Collective are driving the harm reduction campaign out of Green Street United Methodist in Winston-Salem.
Human scale means continents and intimacy enlivened with creative imagination carried on the Spirit.
It is the only thing that works.