“My guess is the forms of rebellion that will end up changing anything meaningfully here will be very quiet and very individual. And probably not all that interesting to look at from the outside.” (David Foster Wallace)
As a young boy, Richard Feynman would join his father on birdwatching adventures. They would marvel at each new species. But later when other young boys would boast their knowledge of the names of this and that bird, Feynman pushed back:
“You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatsoever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing—that’s what counts.”
Feynman’s Warbler parable, as I’m going to call it, is about knowing and learning. And it’s about contemplation and, most of all, about slowing down. It tells us that for better human understanding and communication of all things, we need to slow down, get beyond the label, and really get a feeling for a thing, a being, or a place.
In fundamental and widespread ways, 2020 is the year of the slow-down. For obvious covid reasons, and for many others, not the least of which is that the economy and society have ground to a roiling murmur in ways unseen in our history. It’s an unprecedented time.
But even without covid, we are on unprecedented ground. On so many fronts, we are feeling the fragility of our systems: from the climate and the information ecosystem to the foundational mechanisms of our society, particularly here in the states, we are in the midst of a meta-crisis. We all have a sense that the times are fraught. And we’re doom-scrolling our way through the morass, looking for stable ground.
And we are all for making life better. This famous quote from Dr. Bayo Akomolafe rings in my ear:
“The times are urgent; we must slow down.”
It’s a paradox of inimitable wisdom, this. We are so fastened to a frenzied pace of living and iterating. We are all for making life better, but our culture prizes the patriarchal problem-solving mode. We are biased towards the fix.
This global slow-down invitation that is 2020 has us orienting differently to ourselves and to our contexts. It has for me. After living till age 25 in New York City, and then over 15 years in Los Angeles, this year I felt a visceral invitation from the universe to get out of the city-living mode. I’m grateful to be in a position in life that allows me and my partner to uproot three kids and a dog to forge a slower pace in natural surroundings.
Collectively, we are making changes - or are being forced into changes - that are dramatic and unforeseen. We won’t be the same, and with hope and grace, perhaps our broken systems and institutions won’t ever be the same.
But as we course-correct in this slow-down moment, let’s pay attention to Bayo’s note. So many of our global and personal crises feel urgent down to our bones. But this is no time for the knee-jerk. As Charles Eisenstein so aptly wrote:
"Beware of the go-to solutions that your pressure and your urgency invite. Some of them may be solutions that exacerbate the problem, solutions that are acceptable to established power because they bear no threat to its foundations."
On whatever scale we seek to change, the slow-down beckons. Be it personal, relational, organizational, political, or spiritual, we’ve been caught too often spinning plates. Rearranging deck chairs. Or worse, piling unintended consequences on the fire of our disrepair.
And yet, we are all for making life better. I’m convinced of it.
Bless the grassroots movements organizing towards building power and voice for those shut out by our institutions and systems. Bless the vote. Bless the visionaries on the frontlines of action.
And. Bless those taking a quiet pause, in whatever way. It’s meaningful to extricate from the metrics, mania and money traps that the pre-covid system flaunted and rewarded. It’s meaningful to spotlight your own self-care. And what’s more, it’s meaningful to step forth into the right relationship with those aspects that are outside our broken systems and habitual, surface identities.
In December 2019, I brought up an outstanding successor to my role as COO of a food startup and began transitioning out of a decade-long undertaking that no longer aligned for me. At the same time, I read a profound book, entitled Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm. It propelled me with hope and grace into this next chapter of my life. And to learning, from nature, outside of the bounds of my own limited worldview. A brief excerpt:
“It is possible then, if you reclaim your capacity to feel, to make intelligent contact with the intelligence of any ecorange in which you are embedded, to establish rapport and deep friendship and to learn from that relationship, to, in fact, learn to "think like a mountain" from the mountain itself.”
This is, to me, the operating system of the slow-down moment. It’s simple and maybe even trite. But I’m convinced that if I take this moment to slow down and get on nodding terms at least with the intelligence of the trees and the breath and the pause, I will be better for it. And I think that is what this moment calls for, collectively.
I’m biased here, I’ll admit. I’m at a stage in my life that’s pregnant with this type of pause, separate from the repercussions of covid. I’m in a career transition, embarking on this adventure you’re reading right now. And altogether doubling down on the Warbler principle: really feeling into this moment, aiming to make sense of what is emerging, personally, collectively.
And as such, I’m with Indy Johar, who calls “the movement we need ‘the Boring Revolution,' referring to the unglamorous job of transforming society by small unsexy acts of research and reflection.”
So, who’s with me? Shall we slow down and get boring together?
In a followup post, I will share some simple, tactical guidance for how I help myself slow down when the going gets fast and fraught.