Moving Beyond Empathy…. (the greatest challenge of our modern world)

TL;DR – Together we are creating a global culture. The one thing you cannot say is ‘this does not concern me’ (skip to summary)

Background and context

Recent events in Ukraine have sparked a global outpouring of empathy, with powerful communal displays of anger and sadness. It is only natural, some may even say beautiful, to be swept up in the human drama, the violence and upheaval, the devastating personal tragedies of those directly affected, and the immediate humanitarian need. Yet over and above all this, there are many crucially important questions that stretch far beyond the current situation.

This article focuses on the larger and longer lasting global significance, which is perhaps best understood in the context of possibly the most ambitious undertaking of human history – learning to get along. Russia can argue whatever they want to justify their actions. What they cannot say is “this does not concern you”.

Our Greatest Challenge (and opportunity)

I would argue that the greatest challenge, and opportunity, facing our modern world is the age-old task of ‘learning to get along’. If the climate crisis were magically fixed tomorrow; if we had a cure for all diseases; if new technology made literally anything possible… we would still be no closer to learning how to live together and share our resources sustainably. On the other hand, as the recent pandemic has shown, our success (or failure) in dealing with global crises depends on our ability to co-operate and work together.

This is one of my favourite comparisons to emphasise the fact that technology alone is not enough:
When did science find a cure for hunger? Yet how many still die today from lack of food and fresh water?

“Knowing is not enough, we must apply”
Note: various sources attribute this quote to Da Vinci, Goethe, and Bruce Lee…. Lol

Why is it so hard to get along?

As anyone who’s ever lived in a family or community knows… ‘getting along’ is not so straightforward. Yet it’s easy to talk as if it is simple. I’m reminded of a John Butler song where he says…“All we need to do now, is to get along! Not fight!”

It’s hard enough to work out conflicting needs and priorities within ourselves, let alone with other people, let alone big communities, let alone entire nations on the global stage. In fact, as many religions claim (and Michael Jackson seems to agree), if you want to change the world, you should start by changing yourself.

Yet, this is not always so obvious. If you’re the one with the power and the resources, who’s being asked to give up your money, comfort, luxury, lifestyle to help someone you’ve never met, suddenly the decision to be compassionate and generous becomes much harder to make. It’s a natural, selfish decision to look after our own needs first before tending to anyone else’s. And when these needs conflict, those with more power inevitably fair better. So again, it’s only natural that power is desirable. Who wants to be at the fickle mercy of the voluntary, unpredictable charity of others? In this sense, war, the struggle for power, for surviving and thriving, is the natural way of things. We are born selfish, and we must learn how to live and work together. Some call this ‘rising above our nature’ (and actually the neuroscience of this is fascinating! But that would be far too great a tangent! – this 1-min clip gives a brief summary)

The rich lose out too

While it’s true that in any power struggle, or fight for resources, the poor, weak, and vulnerable inevitably lose out. It’s also true that the rich and powerful lose out too. In Australia typically we take safety for granted. The ability to leave your house, and go to the local shopping centre, by yourself, in the middle of the day, and expect to make it home unmolested. I have visited countries, and heard stories from friends about others, where this level of basic safety does not exist. Where the rich live in gated communities with armed security guards patrolling 24/7, and it is not advisable for anyone to go out by themselves, at any time, for any reason (without a chauffeur/bodyguard). It’s not freedom if our own gates become our prison. Most places in the world, fall somewhere between these two extremes.

If the problem is outside, some extremists may take this idea one step further. Can we eliminate all external threats? A ‘final solution’ (usually referring to genocide)? Even if ‘successful’, those remaining are still no closer to learning to get along.

Recent events in Ukraine

It’s easy to quibble over exact details. Here are the most important factors for this discussion:

Russia knew its actions would be strongly opposed by the international community, and it did them anyway.

In other words, it deliberately went against the wishes of the community. Neither asking permission, nor forgiveness. Hoping, presumably, to get away with it. Hoping to have no significant consequences. Hoping that while the international community would protest initially, even voice its disapproval, they would eventually ‘let it slide’.

Doing your own thing, regardless of its impact on others, because you can, and because no-one can easily stop you, does not build community. It tears it apart. It is the opposite of learning to live together, reinforcing instead the paradigm of using power (over others) to get what you want, at someone else’s expense. We are all poorer when this happens. This is just as true in a family, as it is on the global stage.

I once had a mentor who frequently used the phrase, ‘worse than a thief’. The context was that if a pickpocket steals $10 out of your wallet while you’re not looking, you’ve lost $10. If someone throws a brick through your window, to steal $10, you’re out of pocket a lot more than what was stolen (due to the cost of repairing the damage – worse than a thief!). This is why we are all poorer. When we steal from each other it’s not a zero sum game. Wealth and power may be redistributed (in a favourable way for some), but we all lose out in the end.

How to handle unacceptable behaviour (facilitating the creation of group culture)

Now we get into my area of professional expertise. A big focus of my formal studies in Group Facilitation, was the forming of a group and its culture. I like Brené Brown’s definition of culture (I don’t think she wrote it but just has come to use it). Culture is… “how we do things around here”. When it comes to building culture small things matter.

What happens when a group member says or does something that is inappropriate? In every situation group members are looking to each other as if to say… “was that behaviour ok? Is that how we do things around here?” In this regard, staying silent is not a neutral act. If no-one speaks out, each individual in the group is likely to assume (regardless of if they would personally condone or condemn the behaviour) that ‘the group’ thinks it’s ok. The only way to counter this is for ‘the group’, as a whole, to declare that the behaviour is undesirable and will not be tolerated.

This can be done kindly, even without any punitive measures, but it must be firm, swift, and clear in the message – “That is not how we do things around here. This (insert desired behaviour) is how we do things around here”.

In fact, it is important not to ‘fight fire with fire’, not to alienate any group members who may not agree with the decision. Do not take sides… unless you want a war.

Instead, if handled well these types of situations greatly strengthen the group culture. Everyone knows, that everyone knows “the way we do things around here.”

If we want a world where we live together without constant infighting and abuse of power, we need to actively develop a culture of cooperation and respect. We get to decide ‘how we do things around here’ (as a global community).

In summary:

The greatest challenge/opportunity for our global culture today is learning how to get along. How we respond to global events will determine – directly – the culture we set up. With this in mind, the significance of recent events in Ukraine cannot be overstated. Are these actions in line with the global culture we’re trying to create? If not, act now, as a group, to say so. Declare what is acceptable. It is completely irrelevant whether previous actions were ‘legal’ or ‘justifiable’. That’s in the past. Today we have a choice to make. What kind of culture will we create?

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