Walls have been in the news a great deal over the last couple of years. Walls have been a fundamental part of human activity since the dawning of civilisation. David Frye has written a great deal about walls. About how walls define civilisation, about brick walls, stone walls, walls going up, walls coming down, metaphorical walls but one of the observations he makes is, “No invention has played a greater role in shaping our societies” (Frye 2018). He goes on to observe that walls are rarely ever mentioned in our histories, yet more than ever walls, particularly metaphorical ones, are defining today’s world. Whether they are firewalls, security walls or the walls of siloes they are used to attempt to define limits and boundaries in a way that our primitive ancestors building walls around their settlements could have never imagined.
Walls are built because of fear. Fear of invasion, fear of insecurity, fear of loss of face, fear of loss of control. Powerful people talk of building walls to keep immigrants out; corporations build firewalls in order to prevent information loss and subsequent commercial disadvantage; professions build walls to prevent others encroaching upon their territory.
It is ironic that there are so many people in the world who now seek to break down these walls. Whether it is politicians, professionals or just ordinary people fear an incursion by the “other”. It seems everyone is fearful of change, and thus build walls of one sort or another in order to prevent change.
In Cavafy’s poem, waiting for the Barbarians, the Emperor sits by the gate enthroned, waiting for the Barbarians to come. They have opened the gates (so the Barbarians don’t need to breach the walls) to allow the Barbarians in because they “are kind of a solution”. It seems to me that the world fears radical solutions, political leaders hide behind the walls of rhetoric hoping that no one will notice the lies that they tell. They build walls that obscure the truth. Walls built of lies that temporarily make people feel safer until the walls begin to collapse and cannot longer be sustained in the face of truth and reality. Yet we need radical solutions to help us manage the problems of the world and our seemingly self-destructive species.
Fear is a powerful driver. Harari (2016) “Subjective experiences are essential for our survival, because if we didn’t feel hunger or fear we would not have bothered to chase rabbits and flee lions.” Fear has shaped our evolution; fear enabled us to survive; fear drove us to build walls to protect ourselves and fear continues to drive our behaviour today. Yet if we listen to people like Pinker, Harari and others they claim that the world is now safer than it has ever been!
The point I am working my way towards is that in order to move on as a species we cannot just go on solving problems. Problems are based on fear, problems drive us to avoid, problems cause us to procrastinate, problems drive perfectionism, problems drive obsessions and compulsions. But we need to solve our problems before we can move forward – or do we?
Einstein once said, “we can’t solve our problems with the same kind of thinking that created them”. There is a profoundly mistaken assumption that we have to solve problems before we can move forward. However, solving problems does not lead to new solutions. Solving problems merely solves problems! This conundrum is clearly illustrated by a recent article written by Douglas Rushkoff called “survival of the richest”. In it he was describing how he was asked to speak to a small number of the ultra rich elite about how they might survive what can only be called a dystopian future that they believe will happen. Their questions to Rushkoff were about problems. Questions like “How would we pay our security guards when money is worthless?” “How do we guarantee loyalty of those who work for us?” “How do we avoid the carnage that is to come when the world economic systems fail?”
These ultrarich men (for they were all men) saw only problems in their future and were asking a futurologist about how to solve them. He provided them with an answer but according to his narrative they smiled gently and dismissed his suggestion. That suggestion was a solution not to solve the problem but to actually think what a better world would look like and how these ultrarich elite could achieve that before the problem even developed.
Rushkoff suggested that perhaps these men should be good to their employees now, create security for those who work for them, provide them with a view of the future that they could subscribe to and look forward to.
These men were thinking with their fear, a way of thinking has been with us for millions of years and is deep in our DNA. There is no doubt that most of the world’s leaders are currently using fear as the lens through which they do their thinking. As a result, they spend their time attempting to avoid a disaster which, as a result of their avoidant behaviour, brings the very result they are trying to avoid.
William Ophuls makes the point very clearly,
“Moreover, even if people sense that something is not quite right—civilization has gotten too big, too complex, too hard to manage—they may still not see that the problems are caused in large part by exponential growth and that the solution therefore lies in controlling that growth, not in programs or technologies designed to allow it to continue. For if you remove one constraint, renewed growth quickly pushes the civilization up against the next one, and so on, until it buckles under the strain.”
If human beings and to seriously begin to consider our long-term survival it is not problems that we need to solve but a view of the future that is a solution in itself. That view of the future has to be cooperative not competitive or combative; that view of the future has to be sustainable on so many levels, whether economic or ecological. That view of the future will not be achieved by solving problems but by creating a vision and taking small steps towards that futuire then we will be moving towards safety rather than running away from danger. That change in thinking, small and insignificant as it may seem, is the paradigm shift that people are seeking.
In my work with people in distress and in my community work I apply this “simple but not easy” approach and it achieves good results quickly and sustainably. We don’t teach, the people we work with, learn. They learn through their own small steps, their own changes in behaviour and discover what works for them. I need to know nothing about them, to help them make changes. Indeed, knowing their history can slow the process down for it gets in the way of their future.
History mostly teaches us what not to do next time. Edison once famously said, “I have found 599 ways how not to make a lightbulb”. His solution was not based upon 599 failures but a new vision of what might work.
The current world situation is a product of people attempting to solve problems in the same way that we did in the past, rather than trying to create a new common vision through cooperation, consensus, sustainability and community. This will not come easily for a creature that is fearful and constantly others those that are not known to it.
While we continue to build walls, whether they be literal or metaphorical between different groups, whether they be professional, societal or national and international we will continue to make the same mistakes, review the same problems and recycle the same behaviours. It is not so much that we need to solve problems but that we need to think about what the world would look like when it is more like the way we would like it to be. And therein starts a whole new philosophical argument about whose vision it should be. Or perhaps if we begin to think about a solution to that question now and begin to consider those aspects of the future that we can all sign up to!
I will leave the last word to Matthew Syed, extracted from his book Black Box Thinking, “When we are confronted with evidence that challenges our deeply held beliefs we are more likely to reframe the evidence than we are to alter our beliefs. We simply invent new reasons, new justifications, new explanations. Sometimes we ignore the evidence altogether.”
C. P. Cavafy, Waiting for the Barbarians, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/51294/waiting-for-the-barbarians
David Frye, (2018), Walls, a history of civilisation in blood and brick, Simon & Schuster, New York https://medium.com/s/greatescape/the-history-of-civilization-is-a-history-of-border-walls-24e837246fb8
Harari, Yuval Noah. (2016) Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (p. 129). Random House. Kindle Edition.
Ophuls, William (2012). Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail (pp. 18-20). CreateSpace. Kindle Edition.
Rushkoff, D. (2018) https://medium.com/s/futurehuman/survival-of-the-richest-9ef6cddd0cc1
Syed, Matthew (2015). Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth About Success (Kindle Locations 1437-1440). Hodder & Stoughton. Kindle Edition.