Margaret Wheatley © 2003
My nation now knows
more about waging war than it does about anything else. We know what
can be done with different guns, missiles, fighter planes, even the
nicknames given to aircraft carriers. Retired military officers, now
TV stars, have explained the details of battle strategy, demonstrated
every weapon in America's arsenal, paraded soldiers on morning TV wearing
the newest battle technology.
I remember listening to a pilot excitedly describe his night vision
goggles, how he could see where his bombs landed. When the bombs hit,
we saw only plumes of fire and shattered buildings floating eerily in
the air, but this pilot saw the destruction in detail. I remember using
those same night vision goggles. I was working for the Army Chief of
Staff in 1993-94, supporting his efforts to create a military that could
respond to this troubled world. It was dark night, and I was riding
in a Hummer through the Army's desert center for tank training. We rode
in total blackout, not a light anywhere, goggles on. At one point, I
thoughtlessly raised my head and looked up. Instantly, the stars we
can't see were glowing in my eyes. (Astronomers estimate that there
are at least 50 million stars behind each one we can see.) I have never
forgotten that rapturous glimpse into the universe provided by military
technology. Nor the paradox.
I experience this as a dark time for America, where we have lost our
way. I search to find the means for us to see clearly through the darkness.
I want us to be able to see both the destruction, and the stars. I felt
this even before we chose war, for more fundamental reasons. In the
past several years, America has embraced values that cannot create a
sustainable society and world. Presently, we organize our activities
around beliefs that are inherently life-destroying. We believe that
growth can be endless, that competition creates healthy relationships,
that consumption need have no limits, that meaning is found in things,
that aggression brings peace. Societies that use these values end up,
as do all voracious predators in nature, dead.
I know that most Americans would be shocked at this list of national
values, but I see them clearly in our behaviors and the choices we make.
I also know that this is not who we want to be, so how did we get here?
What happened to our ideals about life, liberty, democracy, independence,
This devolution frequently happens to individuals, organizations,
and nations. It's a gradual and nearly invisible process where values
quite contrary to those we treasure seep in and grow in power. As these
contrary values are used in more and more decisions, higher principles
recede into the background and have little influence. We may still think
they matter, but they aren't guiding our behavior. Usually, it takes
a crisis and deep distress for us to look honestly at ourselves and
notice who we've become.
I feel that America is standing on the edge of an abyss, a dark night
of the soul. In a dark night, meaning is lost, identity disintegrates,
and we move into that most creative of spaces, chaos. W.B.Yeats powerfully
describes a dark night in "The Second Coming."
fall apart, the center cannot hold;
is loosed upon the world;
tide is loosed, and everywhere
of innocence is drowned;
lack all conviction, while the worst
of passionate intensity.
There is only one way through a dark night, and that is by illuminating
the truth of who we are, surfacing the grief and regret we feel, and
then reclaiming those values and principles that would bring us back
to life. We need to walk willingly into the abyss, peering through the
darkness to find those values, that identity, that holds its own luminosity.
As we reclaim our ideals, we find the way forward, the path illuminated
by our refound clarity about who we want to be.
I want to see Americans, and those who care about America, in conversation
about the values and behaviors that would restore America to her intended
character and original founding principles. I regard the recent spate
of books about the Founding Fathers, John Adams, the Constitutional
Congress and the American Revolution, as evidence that America wants
to be in this exploration. Even as I've been writing this, PBS is airing
"Freedom: A History of US," while also advertising Walter Cronkite's
upcoming series "Avoiding Armageddon." How much longer will we wait
to talk about these deep and troubling issues?
I've begun to invite the people I meet into conversation by asking:
"What is it that you love about America? What things must be protected
at all costs?" This question leads to wonderful explorations. People
are energized to talk about what they love, what it means to live here
as an immigrant, what they've learned about freedom, imagination, the
human spirit, creativity, democracy. Even if these ideals are receding
from our day-to-day experience, we realize how important it is to claim
them as our own.
However, I'm also learning that it's very difficult to look truthfully
at these times. It's painful to acknowledge that these ideals are no
longer vibrant, that, in fact, they are disappearing. It's even more
difficult to acknowledge that we must stand up and do something if we
are to prevent further deterioration. It takes patience and trust in
one another before we dare venture into the darkness.
I have no idea if America will acknowledge this dark night that feels
so obvious to me. I can only hope some of us will be brave enough to
ask, "What do I love about America that I want to preserve at all costs?"
This question takes us into deep territory, revealing the qualities
of life and human community that truly inspire us. And our connection
to each other strengthens as we dwell in this life-affirming space.
I always leave these conversations reenergized, stronger, bolder.
At a personal level, I fear waking one morning from this awful trance
that has dulled my imagination and heart, and wonder what happened to
the energy and ideals I once had as an American. In his poem, "The Truly
Great," British poet Stephen Spender warned that we must: "Never to
allow gradually the traffic to smother with noise and fog, the flowering
of the spirit." Sacred values erode so slowly, lost to our awareness
through subtle, darkening forces. I hope we can find the means to see
through this dark night.
Margaret Wheatley is a well-respected writer, speaker, and teacher for how we can accomplish our work, sustain our relationships, and willingly step forward to serve in this troubling time. She has written six books: Walk Out Walk On (with Deborah Frieze, 2011); Perseverance (2010); Leadership and the New Science; Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future; A Simpler Way (with Myron Rogers); and Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time. Each of her books has been translated into several languages; Leadership and the New Science appears in 18 languages. She is co-founder and President emerita of The Berkana Institute, which works in partnership with a rich diversity of people and communities around the world, especially in the Global South. These communities find their health and resilience by discovering the wisdom and wealth already present in their people, traditions and environment (www.berkana.org). Wheatley received her doctorate in Organizational Behavior and Change from Harvard University, and a Masters in Media Ecology from New York University. She's been an organizational consultant since 1973, a global citizen since her youth, a professor in two graduate business programs, a prolific writer, and a happy mother and grandmother. She has received numerous awards and honorary doctorates. You may read her complete bio at http://margaretwheatley.com/bio.html, and may download any of her many articles (free) at http://margaretwheatley.com/writing.html.
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