Patterns and Structures

If we back up, we can see patterns fairly clearly. However, most of us are too close to see the patterns we are in. It is hard to see a pattern when you are in the pattern.

If you think about your own history, you will notice that many episodes in your life seem awfully familiar, almost as if it’s happened before. And, in fact, it has. Patterns have a beginning, a development, an ending, all typical of how things happen in your life. Sometimes, the pattern move very quickly, in a matter of days or weeks. But sometimes, a pattern can move very slowly, so slowly that it is hard to see that you are in a pattern. Perhaps one of the steps takes three years to move to the next step. The pattern has an inevitable sequence, but it is practically invisible.

In our lives and organizations, there are two basic types of patterns, oscillating and advancing. Too often, the oscillating patterns are more common than the advancing one. In this pattern, movement forward, toward what you want, has a turning point, an event that is a reversal. You no longer are able to sustain the success you wanted. You now move away from what you wanted.

Since most people think situationally, they have plenty of explanations of why things went wrong. These explanations follow the form of one event caused because of a previous event. The business failed because we were in the wrong location. The relationship failed because I was a Leo and he was a Capricorn. I didn’t get the job because they were looking for someone younger. The project didn’t last because some of the key players got transferred.

There is no doubt that these events happened as described. But, if we back up, we can see that the actual event is consistent with the types of events that always happen at that part of the story.

These types of patterns, what I have termed macrostructural patterns, may take place over short or long periods of time, but they always have the same sequence. The same way you usually get out of bed and go through your morning routine in the same order of steps, so too the patterns in your life go through the same set of steps in the same order. They are hard to see because the actual events may look very different from similar other events. If you back up, you may be able to see that, while the details are different, the type of step it is, is the same.

We can see the patterns we are in, and yet not be able to change them. When I first began to work with pattern many decades ago, I thought by knowing the pattern, people could avoid living through it yet again. But, as it turned out, even if some of the types of steps were deliberately changed by doing something that was not typical at that point in the pattern, somehow, the missing steps eventually routed back to the pattern.

This is why it is important to understand the underlying structures that generate the pattern. Structure gives rise to the pattern, which gives rise to the events of the pattern.

If you are a coach, consultant, manager, or someone in the helping professions, your clients or colleagues will be in their own patterns. Without knowing how the underlying structure works, your best efforts will be temporary. Without a change of underlying structure, the person or organization will revert back to the same patterns you’ve been trying to help them to change. That is why training in structural dynamics is one of the most important tools in your tool box.


Nelson and Robinson

Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson were just sitting there, like so many people do at a Starbucks. They were waiting for another person to arrive for a business meeting. They didn’t order anything. And that, as we all know by now, set off a chain of events in which they were led away in handcuffs.

We can blame the store manager, since fired. We can blame the police who actually arrested them for not leaving the premises when ordered to. (Why were they ordered to leave when white people in the same situation would not be?) We can blame society. So many targets to blame. This case is not a symbol but, more importantly, an illustration of the issue of identity. Of course, this example is a particularly American one. But the issue is the basis of much of the world’s history throughout the centuries. Prejudice.

In our book IDENTITY, Dr. Wayne Andersen and I wrote:

In 1954, psychologist Gordon Allport related prejudice to categorical thinking. Because we think in terms of generalized categories, Allport suggested that prejudice is a natural and normal process for humans. He wrote: “The human mind must think with the aid of categories. Once formed, categories are the basis for normal prejudgment. We cannot possibility avoid this process. Orderly living depends upon it.”

While the mind runs on automatic, we have the added control of observation and reason. Here is the mix. There are three forces at play: automatic categorization, observation, and reason. In a way, sometimes they are in competition, especially when observation and reason contradict the attributes of some category the mind has generated.

It is easier to give in to the assumptions of the category than to observe more closely; and from that vantage point, use reason to come to a conclusion. It is easier to be prejudiced than not. Prejudice means you have come to conclusions BEFORE you have observed, which is completely different from true judgment, in which you reach a conclusion AFTER you have looked at facts and evidence.
We can understand the underlying structure of prejudice. That doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking. We can see in this Starbucks example the indignation of injustice. Two innocent guys doing what others have done from the inception of that company, sitting at a table minding their own business. And because of two facts alone, they were black and the store manager was white, the episode was able to take place. If the facts went like this: The men were white and the store manager was black, we can imagine a vastly different outcome.

One helpful effect of this event was the outpouring of outrage from most parts of our society. That demonstrates that people care about right over wrong, justice over injustice, and fairness as a value.

Here’s the thing: as Allport implies, the mind sorts things into generalized categories of similarities and differences. That is how we process the world. But our values are often in contradiction to our mind’s mindless groupings. This insight gives us a chance to support our values over our mind’s automatic predisposition. We could say that anyone who is a member of a group different from ours, whatever our group is, will have an automatic reaction that divides us from them. That fact does not lead to the action of discrimination.

When we add observation and reason to the mix, we are able to support our values over our instincts, and a higher social order becomes possible.

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The Underlying Structure…

Here is the principle: the underlying structure of anything will determine its behavior. The implication of the principle is usually not well understood. When people fail to understand this principle, they fall into the trap of trying to change long held behavioral patterns by adopting new behaviors. “Take risks,” or “Support your health,” or “Get on with it,” or “Inspire, innovate, ignite,” and on it goes. Most advice of this sort sounds good on paper, or even in posters hung on corporate walls, but are hard to take for long when the underlying structure you are in does not support this type of change.

If your car pulls to the right, and you want to drive straight ahead, you will position the steering wheel to the left. The underlying structure is generating the behavior. If you get advice from an expert driver that when you want to drive straight, to steer straight, but your car pulls to the right, you can’t take the expert advice for long. Almost immediately, you will be steering to the left to compensate for the car’s underlying structure. Much of the advice we get is on this level. Sounds good, but in reality, it can’t work well because of the underlying structures we are in.

Three principles I write about in The Path of Least Resistance are: energy moves along the path of least resistance (water moves where it is easiest to go;) the underlying structure determines where it is easiest to go (the riverbed determines where the water flows;) and, the critical principle that makes all of the difference – we can change the underlying structures we are in. When we change the underlying structure, that automatically leads to a change of behavior. The new structure supports the new behavior. If we take our car to a garage and the mechanic aligns our wheels, we don’t need to be told to steer straight when we want to drive straight, we just do. The change of underlying structure has generated a new pattern of behavior.

Most structures we are in are invisible. They are not obvious. But we can learn to see and understand them. Some are on the personal level impacting your life. Some are on the organizational level impacting how well a company can perform. And there are two types of behavior structures produce: oscillating and advancing.

The pattern in an oscillating structure is this: first you set out to accomplish something; at first things go well; you may even reach your goal; but then there is a reversal, pulling you back to how things were. In this type of pattern, success is NOT sustainable. This is like the movement of a rocking chair. Movement forward is followed by movement backward. In a personal life it may be the great relationship that didn’t last; the project that first looked good, but later was a disaster; the career direction that, after some degree of success, somehow went off course.

In the corporate world it is such patterns as: centralize decision making, then decentralizing decision making, and later, centralize decision making again. Or it might be to build up capacity, but then going on a downsizing exercise, only to build up capacity once again. Of course these types of patterns take several years to play themselves out, but if we back up, we can see how predictable these patterns are.
In an advancing pattern, you set out for a goal, you take the necessary steps, you accomplish the goal, and it is sustainable. There is nothing pulling you in the opposite direction, as there is in an oscillating pattern.

The difference is purely structural.

If you are a consultant, coach, manager, or work in the helping professions, you may have noticed this oscillating pattern: you do your best work, everyone is pleased with your work, it seems to make a difference for a while, but, when you come back, say a year later, it is as if it never happened. They are back to their original situations. This pattern shows the telltale sign of a lack of change of the underlying structure they have been in. Without a change of their underlying structure, they are destined to return to where they were before you worked with them.

In our workshop the Fundamentals of Structural Thinking, we teach you how to first identify the underlying structure that is in place, and then how to change it from an oscillating to an advancing structure. This enables you to produce sustainable change in which the good work you do lasts and builds upon itself.
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The Glorification of Almost Everything

Welcome to a brave new world in which nothing is itself. A rose is a fantastic rose is a magnificent, majestic, heroic, huge, momentous, excellent, brilliant, exceptional, tremendous rose. Everything in this new world is bigger, brighter, better, or, the other side of the coin, the worst, most horrible, most awful, most evil, or nastiest thing you’ve ever seen.

But here’s the hitch. Whenever we glorify anything, we deny the true value of that which we are glorifying. This principle is always true. And there is a built in dynamic that comes with the act of glorification. What once had impact loses its impact over time. “Awesome” becomes “super awesome” becomes “super-duper awesome” becomes “astoundingly super-duper awesome.” “Awesome” takes on the connotation of just okay, nothing really special. If everything is awesome, nothing is awesome. Here is the original definition:

extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear: synonyms: breathtaking, awe-inspiring, magnificent, wonderful, amazing, stunning, staggering, imposing, stirring, impressive, formidable, fearsome, dreaded, mind-boggling, mind-blowing, jaw-dropping, excellent, marvelous, wondrous

The antonym of awesome is unimpressive. The irony of chronic glorification of almost everything eventually translates to its opposite. Awesome means unimpressive. “You look fantastic!” translates to “You look sort of just okay.” “This is the worst offense we’ve ever had to endure,” translates to, “I don’t like this thing you just did.”

The casualty of chronic glorification is the appreciation of reality as it is: real. The mind becomes desensitized to the richness of reality. A rose is a rose, and that’s simply true. But think about what a rose actually is. There is so much to a rose. If you experienced a rose as it is, it would be better than glorifying it. You would not have the habit of having to exalt the rose, because you would be clear about its virtues. As I have said many times, reality is an acquired taste. But once acquired, hard to give up.

The more we live in the orientation of the creative process, the less our tendency to glorify. This is not a value judgment, but a practical matter. You can’t make strategic adjustments if you do not have an accurate fix on reality. You can’t learn, develop, grow, and become proficient in creating those things that matter to you if you distort reality. Reality includes the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful and everything in-between. Best to see it exactly as it is. This skill develops through well-developed observation, not adhering to concepts, beliefs, theories, past experience, other people’s opinions, or the brave new world of glorification.

The Fundamentals

The key to discipline is the relationship between the primary and the secondary choice. Once we know what is primary (first), we may need to make strategic secondary choices in support of our primary choice. If we want to create health, we may need to make a series of secondary choices such as eat a healthy diet and exercise. We might not make these secondary choices if we didn’t have health as a primary choice, but we gladly do them when we know our higher order organizing principle: in this case health.

But there is another type of choice upon which all other choices rest, and that is the fundamental choice.

Fundamental means:
1. Relating to or affecting the underlying principles or structure of something
2. Serving as an essential part of something

1. A basic and necessary component of something, especially an underlying rule or principle

A real choice means we can do it (whatever the it is) or not. If you must do it, you have no choice. Some people use the word “choice,” but they don’t really mean you can do it or not. Sometimes they think that a choice is forced upon you, and if you don’t do whatever the it is, you will pay a price until you wise up, and finally make “the right choice.” The thought here is “yes, you have a choice to get it wrong, pay the consequences, and finally come to your senses and do the right thing.” But this is not in the spirit of a true choice. It is just a life-manipulation which presumes there is a “right” path and you must take it – this notion of choice is held by those who have some dogmatic belief system that they feel is the only truth. They think anyone with a different view will eventually be forced to adopt their worldview.

But in life we do have many choices we can make. Some of these choices can make all the difference. If you haven’t made the fundamental choice to be a non-smoker, any method you choose will eventually fail. If you have made the fundamental choice to be a non-smoker, just about any method you choose will work, and you will be attracted to those methods that work especially well for you.

Fundamental choices are about orientation, states of being, the ground you stand on. There are four major fundamental choices we recommend to people. They are:

The choice to be healthy
The choice to be free
The choice to be true to yourself
The choice to be the predominant creative force in your own life

The choice to be healthy

When it comes to health, we are not all created equally. Some of us are, by nature, healthier than others. Our starting point is whatever it is. But, that having been said, all of us can still make the fundamental choice to be healthy. What exactly does that mean? It means that we take on the job of creating health for ourselves. Most of us do not do that. I didn’t do that until I was in my late thirties. I, like most of us, somehow had the notion that my body was kind of like a car. If I got sick, I would bring my body to the doctor in the same way we bring our cars to the mechanic. It is the mechanic’s job to fix the car, and it was the doctor’s job to fix the body. I was just a passive consumer. Once I had made the fundamental choice to be healthy, I was the one, and the only one, whose job it was to see to it that I created health for myself. Others could help by their advice, their medical service, their research, and their support. But, truth was, it simply wasn’t their job, or responsibility, to see to it that I was healthy.

Once a fundamental choice like this is made, our orientation changes. We cannot play the passive victim of circumstances. We have the critical role in how we live our lives, on the primary and secondary choices we make, on changing habits that do not support our health, and on adopting habits that do. No one else is pulling the strings. Life may deal us a different situation than others, but it is our job to see to it personally that we make the most of the raw material we are given.

Choice versus Commitment

We need to point out that a fundamental choice is very different from “making a commitment.” People who talk about “commitment” often are not really making a fundamental choice, but rather trying to manipulate themselves to do what is good for them by entrapment. Once you “commit” you are pledged to follow through with whatever you committed to: i.e. now you have no CHOICE! You are stuck. But a true fundamental choice is still a choice: you can do it or not. The power comes from this simple reality. You do not force yourself to be healthy.

You look more deeply at reality and see that health is one of your deepest values. You could turn away from it at any time. What would lead to consistency is being in touch with the truth that it is a choice, and that you want health. No trick, just truth. Commitment is something that describes what it looks like from the outside looking in, not the inside looking out. Those who have made a real fundamental choice do not talk or think about commitment, they think about their deepest values and highest desires. Those looking on, but not privy to the inner workings of their heart, misunderstand, and think these people are highly “committed.”

Playing the piano is one thing from the point of view of the pianist, another from the audience. To the audience, the pianist is pushing down black and white keys. If they gave advice based on what they can observe from the outside looking in, they would say, to play the piano, push down black and white keys. Their advice would not lead many to become virtuoso pianists. Likewise, just because from the outside looking in, some effective people can look like they are pillars of “commitment,” the advice to “become committed” will end up as self-manipulation that structurally will lead to oscillating patterns. First the person seems capable of more productive behavior, but then they backslide. Commitment is not sustainable. The fundamental choice is. While superficially they can look alike, they are miles apart functionally.

The choice to be free and the choice to be true to yourself are pretty clear. The choice to be the predominant creative force in your own life could use a little explanation.

Once a fundamental choice is made, anything that is inconsistent with that choice sticks out like a sore thumb. You cannot live with the discrepancy. The fundamental choice is an organizing force, creating hierarchy of what’s essential and basic and what is not. If you were to make the fundamental choice to be the predominant creative force in your own life, you would no longer be able to play the victim of circumstances.

That’s not to say that no one is ever victimized by their circumstances or other people. Sometimes they are. It is to say that whatever cards you are dealt, you are taking on the job of making the best of it in favor of your life-building process. For some people, once they make the fundamental choice to be the predominant creative force in their own life, they have to give up complaining about their lot in life. They may have to abandon an “entitlement mentality” – thinking they are owed a good life. They might need to develop certain skills they need, but don’t have. They cannot afford themselves the luxury of feeling sorry for themselves, something human beings love to do. They reposition themselves, and place themselves in the center of their lives.

They are open and happy to learn from their mistakes, and they also learn from their successes. Like all fundamental choices, once made, any processes they choose can be made to work, and they are especially attracted to those methods that work particularly well for them. Other may think of them as committed, but they are conscious that they are organizing their lives around their deepest values and highest aspirations.

Once you make a fundamental choice, everything changes, even if everything looks the same. You are on solid ground and you no longer are subject to the changing circumstances that life brings. Your creative process is driven by the generative love of the outcomes you desire to bring into the world, and the situations you find yourself in are simply the raw material you begin with.

Why Your New Year’s Resolutions Won’t Last

Okay, it’s the New Year and you’ve made your commitment to change. And, as you suspect, even though you are sincere and really mean it this time, it will be over by February. Why? Is it that you are weak-willed, lacking basic discipline, unable to fulfill your promises to yourself?

No, it is the structure you are in. The point we’ve been making for years now is the profound insight that the underlying structure of anything will determine its behavior. And there are two typical types of behavior that structure generates: Oscillating and advancing. So why do most New Year’s resolutions fall into the oscillating camp?

Motivation tells the story and sets up the structural dynamics. Most resolutions come from remorse. There’s something you think you did wrong – a bad habit, a weakness for junk food, driving too fast, not being in touch with friends as much as you thought you should be – there are millions of items to put on your guilt-trip list.

Most New Year’s resolutions are oriented around problem solving. The problem is you weigh too much, go on a diet. The problem is you don’t exercise enough, go to the gym. The problem is you still smoke, give up smoking. The problem is you don’t spend enough time in your personal development, dedicate yourself this year (as you said you would do last year.) Problem solving is among the worst ways to try to accomplish anything of significance. The intensity of the problem leads to actions to have the problem go away. These actions, though, reduce the intensity of the problem, so you are less motivated to act in the future.

Now it’s February and you’ve done a good job so far of sticking to your resolution, and to celebrate, you fall right off the wagon. Over time, your motivation weakens, and the underlying structure, the path of least resistance that the structure is generating, is to drift back into old habits.
You blame yourself, not the structure you are in. You may try again, this time with a lot more guilt tripping and pep talks. But you are up against the structure you are in. You are in a rocking chair structurally, and movement forward MUST lead to movement backwards.

That’s not to say that there are not things you’d like to do this year that are different from last year. However, the moment you are trying to solve yourself, you are in a rocking chair. Success is not sustainable, and so it cannot last.

What can last is the creative process. The true creative process. And that’s not problem solving. Creating is taking action to have something come into being, the outcome you want. Problem solving is taking action to have something go away, the conditions you don’t like.

Change your orientation, and you will change your chances of sustainable success.

Think in terms of outcomes you want to create. And realize that the absence of the problem is not the same as a real outcome you want to create.

Create structural tension by these simple steps: identifying the outcome you want to create, defining the current reality you have in relationship to this outcome. These two data points generate structural tension, like an archer’s bow stretched aiming the arrow at the target.

The structure evokes the minds ability to invent a way to accomplish the goal. Then, when you take actions on behalf of this outcome, you build momentum. You are not in a rocking chair, you are in a sports car ready, willing, and able to drive you where you want to you.

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Be in the moment AND in the future!

For years, New Age axioms include “Be in the present.” Are they wrong about that? No. They are just incomplete. The misunderstanding comes from the notion that being focused on the “now” will lead to enlightenment and everlasting well-being.

First, we must observe, that it is hard to be in the “now.” Our minds love to drift, free associate, speculate, worry, daydream, or just take a siesta. Our minds are lazy. Our minds run on automatic if left to their own devices. So, to counter that tendency, the very good discipline is to pay attention to what is happening right now before your eyes, ears, and awareness.

Once you do that, your mind has a job, to focus on the present. This takes training for sure. The mind rebels, and just wants to run on automatic. All disciplines are unnatural of course, so the most natural thing to do is nothing. The true discipline is to sharpen your focus and pay attention to what is right there, in the –shall we say it – “now.”

Those who have spent many years following this advice become very good at being “in the moment.” But, for them, whether they know it or not, something is missing that is built into the human condition, and that is a sense of future. In fact, the psychiatrist William Glasser, the man who developed Reality Therapy, argued that people are unhappy without a sense of future.

Therefore, to be in the “now” denies one a sense of future if that’s all you do.

But, we could create a parallel observation to that; to be in the future denies one a sense of present, if that’s all you do.

Living in the future or living in the “now” is as incomplete as a chair with a leg missing. Some say there is power in living in the “now.” Power for what? Yes, your mind may no longer be running in several directions at once, but that’s about it. It’s true you can stay in the “now” for long periods of time. But, quite frankly, so what? Things change in the “now” and you can observe them change, but you have very little causal relationship to these changes.

Partly this notion of being in the “now” is from Eastern spiritual traditions in which suffering is the biggest sin to avoid. The mind, it is thought, needs to be disciplined so it does not obsess with distractions. Peace of mind is seen as one of the higher virtues that human beings can achieve. Read that as two things: suspension of conflict; and “detachment” from desire. Naturally, if you convince yourself that desire is bad, you’d better not have any. From this vantage point, you may be able to reach a point that many describe as “pure consciousness.”

You become mindful of mindlessness. Aware of nothing, or that everything is illusion. Okay, and then what? Why is that a good thing? Is that the height of the human spirit?

But, once we link a sense of the present with a sense of future, the human spirit is unleashed. This is the essence of the creative process, to bring something into being that has not yet existed. When we create, we are in two places at once: now and in the future. But that sets up a structural tension, which strives for resolution. This is not a steady state but a dynamic. Something that has, build into it, the tendency to change and move. And there is an end point. This is in the universe of the temporal, where time and space exist. The story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, just like Aristotle described in his Poetics.

We need to be able to focus in the present, and that means training the mind to do something it is not used to doing. But we also need to be able to focus on the now and future simultaneously. From that vantage point, new worlds open, and the human spirit is engaged in one of its highest purposes.

Elephant Walk Back

In the last 10 years, over one million elephants are gone, leaving only a little over 300,000 left in Africa. They are, indeed, an endangered species. That’s why it was particular appalling to hear that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had lifted the ban on the import of elephant tusks from Zambia and Zimbabwe that has been in place since 2014. Under pressure from conservation groups, Trump has put the change of policy on hold.

There are so many issues here that it is hard to know where to begin. Perhaps, the sheer stupidity, ignorance, and arrogance of the move. It is obvious that anything that President Obama put in place the new administration is trying to reverse as fast as they can, no matter how sensible the regulations are. But what is hard to take is the image of some rich white guys in Africa killing elephants to bring home something to hang on their walls and a picture to post on their Facebook page while doing such damage to an endangered species.

This is not hunting for survival or even sport. How much sport is there in killing the largest land animal on Earth anyway? It is ego exploitation, maybe to feel more like a “man”.

What is Zinke thinking? The claim was made that this will help finance the cost of maintaining the elephant herds. But, the majority of tourists who travel to view elephants are photographers, not pseudo-big game hunters. The claim is just an excuse to prove the point that anything noble will now be trampled on.

There is the direct impact of an individual elephant killed. But, not commonly known, the elephant’s family members go into grief about the lost of their loved one. Elephants are among the smartest animals in the world. They feel lost, grief, and trauma.

Sometimes it feels that any well-intentioned, humanistic, altruistic gesture is, by its nature of trying to do good in the world, needs to be shot down by a mentality that says, “how dare you try to be caring, sensitive, and of good will?” The flimsy image of hanging tough is as superficial as a tobacco company trying to claim the health benefits of smoking cigarettes.

Another example of this is what Zinke did on his very first day in office. He lifted the Obama administration’s ban on the use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle used on federal lands and waters. The ban was put in place to protect birds and fish from lead poisoning. Birds such as the bald eagle, the American national bird. Does ammunition that contains lead kill animals any better than ammunition that doesn’t contain lead? The lead gets into the ecosystem of the forest and harms other animals. What is the point of using lead bullets when non-lead bullets are just as effective?

Frankly, I just don’t get the thinking of such people as Zinke. Was there something in his childhood? Does he have an identity problem? Is he insecure as a man? Or is he just dedicated to being a jerk?


Watching the news every morning, as many of us do, can be depressing. So many sad stories, so many disasters, so many heartbreaking pieces. Every day, more and more of the same.

We can become overwhelmed with it all. And yet, most of us have a survival instinct that enables us to go on with our lives. It is the ability to compartmentalize –– that is to say, to put the news in one mental compartment, and then, to be able to change the mental channel. If we didn’t do this, many of us would spend our entire lives living vicariously in the pain and suffering of humanity, unable to act, paralyzed, confused, and defeated.

There are those who want us to be “reminded” of “what is happening in the world.” What they mean is they want us to react to injustice, grief, suffering, pain, danger, disaster. How can we stand by and witness the AIDS crisis, terrorism, famine, weather-related and environmental disasters, without the instinct to take action? Yet, if we did react and react and react, we would get sucked into an abyss.

Now, this article is not taking the position that we should ignore the world situation. Rather it is about how we can understand the situation, but still have room for leading our lives as best we can. If we aren’t able to make a place for both the news and our lives, we become lost, unable to function, even on behalf of important causes.

One of the oldest motivations in history is trying to get people to change their ways by conflict manipulation. The first step in the pattern is to create a high sense of conflict. The second step is taking corrective action evoked by the conflict. We feel pressure to get our car inspected on time, or fill out our tax form before April 15th, and we manipulate ourselves into action by thinking about the bad things that will happen to us if we don’t get them done. When the situation is short-term, it can seem to work.

But if we are talking about long-term change, this structure leads to an oscillating pattern. Here’s what happens over a more extended time:

Conflict drives action designed to reduce the conflict.

Once the action is taken, the conflict is reduced, even if the situation hasn’t changed.
You see a news item on CNN about the diabetes epidemic, and you decide to reduce your intake of carbs. After about a week, you feel better about it all. You are no longer experiencing the conflict you had. The next thing you know, you are eating exactly the same diet you had before you saw the program on diabetes. This pattern always leads you back to the situation you were trying to change.

Here’s another description of the pattern:

More conflict –– leads to –– more action which leads to –– less conflict which leads to –– less motivation to continue the corrective action we took at first, and therefore, a return to the original behavior.

Many important causes are burdened by attempting to foster productive action through conflict manipulation. The founders of these causes don’t realize that they are up against a structure that will first lead to support, but then lead to indifference. Conflict cannot be the driver for long-term change. If you are in an oscillating structure, once movement in one direction is achieved, the structural tendency for behavior is to move in the opposite direction.

So, even if you spent your life in a constant state of reaction to world events, whatever productive action you took on behalf of a better world would eventually be neutralized. This structure is self-defeating. That’s the physics of it.

But, we are not left with two untenable choices: to react or to ignore. We can understand what’s going on as reported by the news, and we can get on with our lives. Our awareness of some of the world’s problems does not call for reaction, even though we do authentically feel compassion.

Some people dedicate their lives to making a better world. I applaud those people. Some think that everyone has the responsibility to be one of those people. This notion discounts freedom of the individual, and paints everyone with the same brush. Why can’t those who choose to act on behalf of world causes take that role, and those who choose to pursue other aspirations live their lives accordingly? This is not a trivial question, because it gets at freedom of choice. Who among us has the authority to tell us how we should live our lives?
Conflict manipulation may enroll many to various causes through visions of threat, guilt, pressure, and fear, but these people will disenroll within a short period of time. So, even in a good and worthy cause, motivation is everything. If we do what we do out of reaction, not much can change. Support is fleeting, and organizers claim that the public has the attention span of a gnat. It is hard to hold the public’s attention when the underlying structure is based on conflict. This is not about attention span, but about human motivation.

Many people join the great causes, not out of reaction, but out of aspiration for a better world and a better chance for others. These people have a vastly different motivation than simply reaction to conflict. They are for the outcomes they envision rather than against the dangers they fear.

For these people to be effective, they must compartmentalize. They must not let the sadness of the world’s condition overwhelm them, for if that happened, they would not be able to act effectively. There are many cases of well-meaning people who have failed to understand the wisdom of compartmentalizing their interests, only to burn out after a few years. Intent, even good intent, never can survive a faulty structure.

It is a big world, bigger than mostly we consider. The world is larger than the news of the day, which focuses mostly on the worst events. Every day, even as the saddest news pours out of networks around the globe, unreported and unknown stories of people building their lives, building their communities, building their families, supporting the heath and well-being of their neighbors, going to work for organizations that invent new technologies or provide vital services, invent new cures for diseases, save people’s lives, enrich civilization by creating art, music, literature, and poetry, take place billions of times. The vast majority of the world’s endeavors go unnoticed by the news departments, as well they should. They are not unusual. They are an example of a world getting on with the business of living. Nothing dramatic here.
Life is big, vast, and varied. None of us live in one simple universe. Instead we live in many universes.

For those who look for unified field theories that tie everything into a homogenized whole, they cannot compartmentalize the many universes in which they live. Eventually, these people will experience overwhelm, burn out, and a general lack of appreciation of the many faceted world in which they live. They will try to make everything fit together, rather than see how unique and varied life is as it manifests itself in its tapestry of experiences.

We don’t need to pretend all music is the same. Rock is not classical. Folk music from Asia is not the same as folk music from Africa. And yet, we live in a world in which many types of music can exist. We don’t feel the need to play them all at once. In fact, to be able to truly appreciate each piece of music, we need to hear it separately from the others. It is only from this act of compartmentalizing our experience that we can make sense of the music. The very same principle is true in our lives. If everything is taken as a whole, all at once, without the ability to make distinction, we would not be able to cope with the cacophony of input. We could not understand relationship, difference, uniqueness, or range. We could not appreciate the smallest moments of quiet joys, or the largest moments of ringing triumphs.

We can empathize with suffering without losing ourselves. We can watch the news, feel deeply about the stories that are reported, and yet get on with our lives. I see, in this, a profound act of affirming life. Robert Frost expressed this instinct as an almost human defiance in a poem called “Leaf Treader.” In the poem, a man is stepping on autumn leaves now that they have fallen to the ground. He says, “I see no reason why I have to go just because they have to go.” How deep is the instinct toward life, even when to go on we must put parts of our lives in compartments. Yes, everything has its place, but we must not let anything dominate to the point of distraction. Because we are aware, sensitive and caring, we must learn to compartmentalize so we can live in the best of all of our worlds.

Blowing in the Wind

Image may contain: nature and outdoorWhat I am writing will make no different in the situation I am describing. So why write it. It is like blowing in the wind. It must be said, but saying it will not impact the underlying structure that is in play in the world at this point in history. I suppose there is some value in understanding cause and effect, even if you are not in charge of cause and effect. That value includes not making things worse.

Let’s begin with the Russian strategy. In a way, it is very clear and simple, although the various tactics they use range from primitive to highly sophisticated. This is the strategy: in any democratic country, try to exploit internal conflicts with which to tear people apart. It’s a “let’s you and him fight” strategy. To do this, they must increase the emotional conflicts between groups. This became clear when they invented lies and placed them as if they were coming from Black Lives Matter, or right wing conspiracy groups. They were simply using anything in sight that would cause trouble. Most of the lies were seen for what they were, absurd and crazy reports that, by their extreme nature, had no integrity in logic or reason. From the Russian point of view, this is a shotgun approach. Rather than send out one or two lies, flood the marketplace with lies. Put them in the atmosphere to create a mood, a climate of suspicion. With enough lies going around from all sides, some of them will be taken seriously and reach critical mass. People on any side of an issue are prone to believe the lies that support their positions. And credit to the former comrades, they know their business. Rather than a debate about substance, it degenerates into an identity conflict. Hard to have a rational discussion when prejudice and tribalism are the deeper issues driving emotions and instincts.

The stages for this strategy include America, France, England, Germany, Spain, The Ukraine, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, African Countries, and on and on it goes. “Let’s you and him fight.” The more trouble, the more the Russians benefit, according to their strategy.

Why? What is so threatening to them about real democracy? And why is their favorite choice of forms of government autocratic dictatorships?

It is easy to be a troublemaker. The prototypical archetype is Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello. He is a master of feeding lies, undermining good faith, planting doubts and suspicion, knowing what buttons to push, and just how, and being the epitome of a destructive force. Often this person can appear in the guise of your best friend, just wanting to protect you from harm while, at the same time, looking for ways to stab you in the back.

This is one aspect of the human condition that we need to be aware of. We can be like Othello, hypnotized by our passions, and confused by our weaknesses. Our basic instincts are toward good will, hope, and love. Our darker angles are always easy to evoke by survival instincts fed by conflict and issues of identity.

The founders of America were some of the most gifted examples of the Age of Reason. They were not naïve to the human condition exactly as it is. They knew the dangers of mass hysteria, of authoritarian excess, of the corruption of power. Yet, they knew the other side of humanity too. Typical of the Age of Reason, they thought that the more people could be motivated by reality, facts, information, and reason, the more able they would be to come together in what they saw as enlightened self-interest. They knew that self-interest would lead people to narrow and destructive conflicts, but ENLIGHTENED self-interest would show people how their highest best interests were to join together to create the world they wanted. This principle was supported by public education, understanding that education could defeat prejudice.

This idea and distinction has been lost in modern times in which those who are educated are criticized for being “elitists.” The Age of Reason is over. Too often, we have entered into The Age of Belief, where various belief systems translate into identity issues, and vie against each other for converts or enemies. In the world of belief, objective fact doesn’t exist, or if it does, it is irrelevant. Reality, as in all cults, loses its credibility as a standard of measurement.

We can know all of this, and yet not change the world, at least right now, and at least not easily. That does not make us helpless. It can make us strategic. First of all, don’t join Iago’s team. Don’t be as easy a mark as Othello, who, in the play, ends up killing the thing he loves most, his wife Desdemona. Enlightened self-interest is a more demanding and sophisticated approach to life than looking out for “number one.”

Okay. I know I’m blowing in the wind. But sometimes, you have to blow in the wind for no other reason than some things need to be said.