Many of the complex challenges we face today resemble existential crises rather than technical problems. So how can we act with more wisdom in these profoundly uncertain times?
We experience an existential crisis when our worldview proves incapable of handling unexpected life experiences. As individuals, we may experience an existential crisis at a turning point or extreme life event that leads us to question the meaning of our human existence. I believe we are currently living through a collective existential crisis. The signs of this crisis are everywhere – from climate change, species extinction and terrorism to loneliness and addictions. The common denominator with each of these seemingly disparate problems is the human element. Our way of thinking, being and doing has led to the complex challenges we now face.
Einstein famously said we cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them. So, our challenges present a gift – they force us to confront the diminishing returns of our current worldview and require us to transform our ways of relating to each other and our environment.
Diminishing Returns of a Mechanistic Worldview
We are living through the breakdown of a worldview that has been influential for the last 200 years. This worldview is characterized by planning, manipulating, commanding and controlling our environment. This way of thinking has yielded many benefits and has helped us put a man of the moon, eradicate smallpox, and build skyscrapers. But it is less helpful when our challenges take place in evolving, uncertain contexts. A useful metaphor is the Choluteca Bridge in Honduras. Using the best of human rational mechanistic planning abilities, this bridge was built to last. It withstood the hurricane of 1998 which caused huge loss of infrastructure and human life. But, in an unpredicted turn of events, the river it was built to cross changed its course. Today the bridge covers nothing but dry land and is in effect a bridge to nowhere.
A Collective Crisis of Meaning
Today, we are facing a gap between the nature of the complex challenges we face and our current capacities to respond wisely to those challenges. With our problem-solving mindset, we know how to build bridges that last but not how to relate to the changing course of the river. We know how to administer pain relief to the dying but not what makes life meaningful when we have lost our independence. We know how to re-design a care service but not how to foster a way of living that cares for our most vulnerable by its nature. We are witnessing the breakdown of a dying worldview before a new worldview has emerged and therein lies our shared existential crisis. These challenges are crises of meaning rather than technical problems. They relate to the way we live and what we value. They are not external to us but speak to the very depth of our humanity. They demand a form of consciousness that has not yet fully emerged on a collective scale.
Navigating Uncharted Territory
So how might we more wisely navigate the uncharted territory we face? The findings of my PhD research tentatively suggest the following:
- Learn to love being lost – it can feel disorienting to shed an obsolete worldview and leave behind our map for life without a new map to take its place. But there is great potential in having the courage to stay in that space between stories or the fertile void. It is fertile because when we admit we are no longer in control, we are ripe for transformation if we don’t box ourselves back in too quickly to something fixed and known.
- Try on a new lens – in uncertain and unpredictable times, rather than reach for a map that turns life into an abstraction, we need to learn to see through a new lens. All too often, the lens through which we view the world is so familiar it is a blindspot. An existential crisis offers the chance to question our underpinning assumptions and beliefs and see more clearly the roots of our challenges.
- Get curious – when we are curious about the challenges we face, we can respond with a spirit of inquiry. Rather than problem solve, we can treat our existential crises as quests to be pursued based on a sense of shared humanity. The problem is no longer separate from us and ‘out there’. We shift our mindset from acting on a system to acting with it.
- Make yourself accident-prone – in uncertain and evolving contexts, moments of transformation often come about by accident. We cannot force or manipulate their occurrence. But, we can make ourselves more accident-prone by doing less and being more. We can cultivate inner states of attention and intention to stay in connection to what is unfolding. By focusing on our inner state of being rather than exhausting ourselves trying to command and control the external environment, we create space for transformative responses.
A Personal Call to Action
These insights are simple and yet hard to put into practice as we tend to cling to that which we have control over. So, I invite you to try an experiment – just for one day, allow yourself to be lost. Just for one day, let go of your plans and to-do-lists and stay open to possibility. Go for a walk and ask big questions without rushing for answers – just pay attention to what is going on around you. Just for one day, let life be a mystery to be experienced, rather than a problem to be solved.