In becoming resilient and adaptive, nobody can tell you where to start, and what to do. But all the same, where do I start, and what should I do?
by Andy Wildman
Adaptation and resilience are big topics, encompassing a huge realm of possibility, information and awareness. Thinking and working in these areas is still a fringe activity, a bit out there. Sure, this set of aspirations and life directions is steadily gaining traction, but there’s no strong cultural language that indicates exactly what people mean when they talk about it. So, it’s not likely we all think of those words in the same way.
It does seem likely, however, that compared to the beginning of this year, many more people are contemplating their own resilience and adaptive capacity. I’m writing in April of 2020, and of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has shocked and destabilised us in many ways. Viscerally, many of us simply have a gut-level feeling that we have to get serious about shoring up our basic responsibilities—making sure we, and our families, can continue to meet our needs.
This can feel, depending on who you are and how you react, a bit ugly and threatening. But it can also feel exciting and beautiful. And I would gently suggest, although many people will feel this already, that there is potential for enormous joy and freedom in this emotional direction.
So, what do I mean when I talk about adaptation and resilience? For me, the two words have strongly overlapping meanings but also quite separate ones. I think of adaptation as all the things we do to change our lives in direct response to changes in the world. It means studying the changes happening in the larger context and responding quite precisely by making changes to our lives.
A fairly obvious example comes from where I live in Australia. Here, climate change means intensified bushfire seasons, with serious bushfires of greater frequency and duration. This means I need to think about fire on quite a few levels. These days, I always have a written bushfire plan ready, and a bushfire kit nearby, with stuff in it for responding to a fast-moving fire—this feels like the basics. And from here the level of fire preparedness moves up in expense and complexity: pumps, water tanks, generators and so forth.
A little more subtly, it’s entered into my parenting. I gently train my eight-year-old daughter to see emergencies as part of life, to experience planning for them as normal and, aspirationally speaking, feel that reacting well is part of being a healthy, strong adult. We light campfires together a lot, talk about fire and how to handle it, where it’s dangerous and where its lovely, and we toast quite a few marshmallows along the way.
More subtle again is an ongoing spiritual acceptance of fire as something that could come and take away much that is important to me. I feel that I have to accept this, without reactive terror, or victimhood, or anxiety, or hardening of the heart, or narrowing of focus down to self-preservation. I have yet to fight a fire, but I’ve been evacuated and temporarily displaced from my home—even this is a disturbing experience. If you’re not careful, you can feel strangely persecuted and anxious on a deep level. But I know I will have to fight a fire at some point in the years ahead. I would hope to feel it as an intense exchange with nature, and remain in love with nature, understanding that its forces are becoming fiercer, and perhaps feel a rational fear, but not oppression or victimhood. It’s a subtle distinction, but a point of spiritual resilience that matters.
You can see, by this example, where the overlap of adaptation with resilience is very strong. All those changes in the way I live, in regard to fire, help make me and my family more resilient to fire events. Adapting makes you resilient—that’s the point. I use the word resilience because, like a lot of people, I feel its accurate. Resilience is about bounce-back, about coping, responding, reacting well to change. In this sense, your adaptive actions don’t make you invulnerable, guarantee survival or let you avoid hardship, but they do make you better able to respond, regroup, and come back stronger than before.
Adaptation is the work, the thinking, the understanding, and resilience is the result. Though, if it’s done really well, the work of adaptation can be so successful that the result is better than resilience. Resilience is bouncing back from the shock of loss or damage. But people have planned so well that nothing is lost in a serious bushfire, nothing irreparably damaged. It appears that Taiwan’s government prepared so well for a pandemic, after their experience with SARS in 2003, that they simply weren’t at all crippled by an outbreak of SARS-CoV2, aka corona-virus, despite it coming very early in the trajectory of the global pandemic spread.
The work of Nassim Nicholas Taleb brought us the insight that some complex systems are much more than robust or resilient—they are anti-fragile, meaning they become stronger when subjected to stress (1). While it’s not realistic to think that our preparations, like having bushfire gear and knowing what to do with it, can be anti-fragile, there are parts of our lives that do qualify for that description. Relationships can be that way. Spiritual understanding can be that way. Community cohesion can, with the right mindsets at play, be that way.
So, in this sense, I don’t like to wrap the twin ideas of adaptation and resilience into one thing. Resilience is the general aim but not the highest aspiration, and adaptation is the work, but it can go places beyond resilience. In fact, both concepts, separable or otherwise, are fairly mundane compared to some of the rewards that following this path can elicit. These can be extraordinary. We’ll get to that further along.
Holding together a good start
In the meantime, there are so many ways to talk about adaptation and resilience, but when you read on this topic and listen to people talk and respond, there’s a basic question you hear many times: ‘where do I start?’
You often hear it asked of various experts and contributors, and it’s tightly related to the other much-asked question: ‘what should I do?’
Of course, no-one can answer the second question, except in a non-satisfying way. Because when we ask it, we are looking for actual paths of action that will lead to fruitful results. And when you think about it, it’s not really possible for anyone to give you that, no matter how thoroughly they understand the realm of problems and possibilities, because they don’t know or understand you. In order to make really practical, sensible suggestions of what you could do, and where you might start, they would need your context, in its deepest sense, laid out to read and examine.
Perhaps if someone already knew you very well, and had a broad knowledge of the realm of problems and possibilities, and was able to sit down with you every week with butchers’ paper and pens and notebooks and the internet on hand, you might get somewhere with the question. Why should the question be so limited? Because it’s knowledge of outer possibility, combined with knowledge of self—inner possibility—that bears the fruits of good decisions.
That’s why, I think, so many of the thoughtful contributors you read, or listen to, faced with that question, suggest you educate yourself as best as possible. It sounds like a form of inaction to many people. ‘What, more reading? More podcasts, videos, TED talks?’, you might ask. But the thoughtful contributor is stuck with the sense that outer knowledge needs to be accumulated before you can start matching it with inner knowledge and making decisions.
They’re also suggesting a journey, something more like a process of discovery than a set of decisions. They know that their own contribution evolved in that way, and probably could not have arisen in any other fashion. We all have to take a journey, if we’re serious about the destination, and it won’t be like anyone else’s. The saying, ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’, may have become clichéd, but only because of how much truth it holds. And not only does it begin with one step but is one of a thousand different journeys you could take. Thankfully, you don’t decide between journeys, you decide between steps.
So, this essay is my attempt to acknowledge this truth, but also to engage with deep sympathy the questions of what to do and where to start. Because, if you are really feeling the impending crises (crises in the plural), and perhaps also feeling the crises that have been unfolding for some time, these questions can burn quite hot. Though I can’t answer the questions any more than can other people, I want to stay with them all the same, to see if I can generate a feel for how you might navigate your way.
For a start, let’s acknowledge that there’s logic to these questions. And logic tells you that you need to answer the question, ‘what do I do?’ before you can know where to start. That is, what am I starting on? But that’s not how it works, generally. The other way around is much more productive, in my experience.
Without knowing what you’re doing exactly, you start. And I’d like to suggest you keep going that way for as long as possible. Because the decision of what to put your precious life energy into is too important to make in a rushed way.
But here I know I’m walking into a fundamental objection. I’m going down that path, aren’t I, where I suggest that you read, think, listen to podcasts perhaps, educate yourself, meditate maybe, read some more, think some more. And believe me, I fully understand the objection. We don’t have time for all this luxurious self-enlightenment. We need to act. Now.
There’s so much truth in this urgency, that it can be distorting. And there’s also much truth in the instinct that our troubles reside in our actions, that we are physically, systemically breaking the world which we love and depend on, with the way we live, work, move, consume, do. That, we feel, is what needs changing.
I’m not alone in saying, though, that nature doesn’t quite work like that. Forgive me if you already have a handle on this stuff, but I hear this objection so often, and can feel its origin in our cultural conditioning so strongly, that I think it’s worth addressing. And it feels so important to try to break this conditioning, precisely because of the urgency of the situation.
What do I mean by ‘nature doesn’t work like that’? Biological organisms, across the world, evolved to process information before anything else, and to keep doing it, first before performing actions, in an endless loop.
Take as an example, a human scenario most of us would think of as an all-action situation: rescuing a child from a burning house. I’m going to take a moment to tell a story:
A young, fit woman in her thirties is walking in her neighbourhood on a warm spring day. She’s been trained as a paramedic, so her response to emergency will be fairly high-quality. She’s breathing fresh air, enjoying her day off, when there’s a loud explosion.
Slow this down. What’s the first thing she does? She may instinctively duck her head a little and look around, until she finds a source of information that begins to explain the noise, the felt disruption. Does she, the very first fractional second that a source is found, start moving in co-ordinated action? Not at all likely. That would be dangerous. A human, the animal that we are, instinctually spends all the time necessary to process the information before making a decision. We stare. Stare at the house of which windows have smashed and from which smoke and dust has erupted through the opening. Not for long, though—this is fractions of seconds and yet there’s a distinct delay. Yes, the time is used to orientate the body and displace shock, but its simultaneously used to process information.
The woman may be slightly crouched and staring, and she likely looks around for other people, other context, other information. This hardly takes us any time at all, but please notice that it does actually take time.
Without noticing that she’s processed the information, she decides that she’s not yet in physical danger and she starts moving toward the house. Is she running? Not likely, not if she’s trained. She’s walking purposefully, maybe even quite swiftly, but slowly enough that she can keep processing information effectively. Houses contain gas bottles, cans of toxic paint, other dangerous gear—this knowledge is present somewhere in her awareness. Smoke is pouring from the windows now.
What is she doing? What intention is driving her action? Self-preservation is controlling the speed of her approach, but the intention that’s propelling her toward the house is concern for someone who might be inside. Her hand has brought her phone out of her pocket but she wants to know what she’s reporting before she dials numbers. That might not be protocol, but it’s very human, isn’t it?
She pauses at the open door and looks inside, but she can only see smoke. Her brain, even if it’s quite silent of thoughts, is wide open for information, like a pupil expanded maximally for light. She calls out. Nothing. She puts her shirt over her mouth and nose and goes in: a potentially consequential decision.
Moving slowly, she arrives in a kitchen and open plan living room. A man is on the floor by a table. An oven door is twisted off its hinges. A fire is building across the benchtops. Another moment, for the hero of the story, of staring.
Don’t default to movies to imagine this. Imagine with your own experience. She’ll stop and stare, won’t she? It will be brief, but significant. She sees all these things that tell a likely story but she doesn’t bother putting it together much. She sees that the man is likely dead, because his head lies at an unnatural angle, but she doesn’t speculate.
In that moment, which for her is stretched open and long but in measured time is only fractional, she decides that she needs to get out as soon as possible, but that she also needs to know, for certain, if the man is dead. She crosses the floor and kneels, putting fingers to his neck. She hears a whimper and raises her head, looking through the smoke until she sees a small child moving tentatively out from the loungeroom. Their eyes meet and her assessment rapidly changes, the urgency for escape spiralling stronger.
Remember that we’re telling a story here about a high-quality human response. The woman senses that not only does she need to know that the man is dead, before she can leave him there, but that this child, a small boy, will always need to know that the man, presumably his father, could not be saved. So she resists moving. She keeps her eyes on the child’s and she bends lower listening for breathing, concentrating hard on the sensation in her fingers to feel a pulse. A flicker of pulse will change the plan.
She gets nothing. She tries again. She needs certainty. Still nothing—no breath, no rising chest. Fire crackles behind and she is coughing now. Eyes on the child, she sees that he understands what she’s doing. She shakes her head and she sees that he understands what that means, with his expression changing in response to hers. This is all information exchange, in stretched-out clarity.
And now its complete. She’s up off her knees, fast, and has the child under the armpits and up onto her chest. She is moving toward the door with her breath held against the smoke. Still without running, she bursts across the verandah and onto the lawn.
My point with this story is that, no matter how urgent you think a situation is, action simply has to be qualified with information gathering and assessment, and that takes time. We can’t fight with that.
And a high-quality response to an urgent situation is characterised by resistance to action. Not in general, but for a specific purpose. Did she start running in a random direction at the sound of an explosion? Did she dash through the house filling her lungs with toxic particles? Did she grab the man by the arm and drag him out the door?
My story could probably be pulled apart by trained first-responders, telling me what a better response would be. Maybe in some ways it’s not realistic. That’s fine. The point is still there.
For the much slower global emergencies we find ourselves in today, those fractional seconds of information-gathering in the story probably translate to months of thought and enquiry, with small bursts of action following. Action of any quality depends on understanding.
But if you are an action-oriented person, rest assured that the story also illustrates, conversely, that understanding also needs action to follow, to test and qualify it. We don’t really learn fully until we take our understandings to task. There’s a feedback loop that happens, and in that loop there’s an instinct we have that tells us when enough understanding has been achieved to take another small action, a decision, a fork in the path.
Trust that instinct. And trust the loop. Put aside the conditioning that says that action is all that matters.
So, what’s there to guide you if you don’t know what exactly you should do, but have to keep going anyway? I would say that its simply intention. Like the woman in the story, you move toward a situation out of an urgent intention, not because you have clarity of what to do.
We’re not really asking ‘what should I do’ in order to be given any old answer, any roughly appropriate action. We want to know the right thing to do. And the truth is you don’t know, until you get deeper into the situation. And that loop never ends, either, but it improves the quality of your understanding over and over.
You can’t know the exact right thing to do, but you can work on the quality of your intention. As an extreme example, if you’re doing adaptive work and thinking about resilience so you can look cool to your mates and get respect, there’s obviously work to be done on intention. What does it matter if it has the same result? It won’t have the same result. The intention changes small decisions all along the way. You simply will not arrive at the same place.
That might seem obvious, but I’m often struck by how many people are uncomfortable with intention as their only guide to movement.
More subtly than the previous example, I’ve heard several people comment that they noticed the quality of their intention drop when the reality of the corona virus struck. I noticed myself do it too—I was driven for a while by a grab-resources-while-you-can, satisfy-fear mentality. It gave way fairly quickly to more community and relationship-driven desires, and slowly came back to a life-world perspective. But it seemed it had to drop down to basics first. The process didn’t seem unnatural or wrong, and in the end was life-affirming, so I suspect there’s a kind of mental health aspect associated with unbuilding and rebuilding intention.
Looking over the terrain
If we know, more or less, what we mean by adaptation and resilience, and we accept that learning and thinking aren’t indulgent or secondary to taking more concrete steps, what then should we be learning and thinking about? And if we are comfortable that intention alone can hold our direction quite well, what is that direction?
These are a cluster of inter-related life-efforts that, generally speaking, go a long way to making a human life more adaptive and resilient. In no particular order, and with my own biases present, this is the terrain of ideas and efforts that I’m referring to:
(this might be better as an infographic image.)
Clearly these efforts are closely interrelated. You may have a few more areas to add to the list, or some you’d take off the list, and that’s fine. I will likely add things too.
At a granular level, everyone will approach the terrain differently, and experience different things there, but its important not to think too relatively about this at a macro level. We are all humans, and have pretty much the same needs—there’s no reward in trying to be an individual about the macro-terrain.
And if you are just starting, and trying to organise your thoughts, there’s nothing wrong with simply exploring this terrain. Learning and reading and so forth. But of course, we get impatient and want to make decisions. When it comes to your own life and how to steer it, my feeling is that your first creative efforts should be:
- Deliberately building intention, as described a little already, but we’ll come back to this again.
- Analysing your life for what should be changed and can be changed with what consequences and logistical problems. Relax about actually solving problems, its better just to concentrate on seeing them, and seeing your life well in this new context.
- Considering your relationships and how they will likely interact with the changes you make. Your existing relationships are an important design constraint that need to be carefully respected.
- Assessing your capabilities, available time, energy and headspace. Of course, if you are operating at capacity now, you’ll have to design quite a few transitions, whereby your personal resources get shifted to new territory and leave the old behind. But suffice to say, don’t try to just add effort—you are human and have limits. Those transitions will be ongoing work that will come together over time, but understanding your capacities well makes them much easier to accomplish.
- Working out how to grow the big changes you need, rather than imposing them on your life. Strong and fruitful change is virtually never imposed, in an act of will, it has to be gently planted, nurtured, and grown.
That’s my feeling on how to best approach the terrain. But of course, at some point we have to fully engage with it and make changes and big efforts. How do you decide which efforts and when to invest your energies?
Organising our priorities
Most of us will take a look at the list above, the overall terrain of efforts, and react in one of a few ways. One is to say, ‘OK, I can’t do all that so which ones can I leave out?’ Another common reaction is simply to be drawn to a few of these areas and so gravitate there, leaving the others as future possibilities.
We all have different ways of organising our activity and motivation, but I’m going to suggest a few frames of mind that might help to hold an overall adaptive effort into a cohesive whole.
Allow for interconnectedness and synergy
All the areas of adaptation and resilience are highly interconnected. They won’t separate out easily, nor do you want them to. If you approach them as a linear, this-then-that project, you can lose the synergy of say, what micro-farming has to teach about disaster preparation, or what health and nutrition has to teach about self-sovereignty and critical thinking.
So yes, I’m suggesting you approach lots of different fields of interest at the same time. That may seem scattergun, but actually a disciplined version of this approach is far more efficient a categorised, one-thing-after-another effort, which is ultimately not sustainable.
Of course, your focus in any given moment is singular, but your overall project can be much more complex. We’re often told not to complicate things, and our culture is highly skewed toward specialisation and reductions, but I’m suggesting this is neither necessary nor particularly human.
Allow for complexity
In fact, it’s important to cultivate a tolerance for complexity. Allow yourself to be overwhelmed and then recover, refocus and go on. Many people will view that overwhelm as a failure to simplify. It’s not a failure at all. It’s simply the human condition. We are a creature that lives in a world far more complex than its capacity to comprehend, and we suffer sometimes. But we keep going, and our understanding improves with each iteration.
Your project of adaptation is more complex than your conscious brain can hold at any given moment – that’s fine. The more you work with it, the more you can hold, and the more you can move about within your own understanding of the project.
Humans, I believe, are adapted by evolution to recognise and be attracted to a certain level of complexity that is beyond our conscious mind. Go with that. Rather than trying to simplify, the more human approach is to walk a line in your overall project where you are working on enough different and interrelated stuff to create that natural complexity, but focusing down to singular tasks to keep it manageable. If you reject the constant cultural noise about simplification, you’ll recognise the beauty of that.
Clearly, you need to be careful not to attempt so many different complex tasks that you overload, or can’t complete anything, or become too inefficient. But the answer to that is usually focus on singular moments, not reduction of overall complexity.
Allow for the tidal movement of personal interest
Its normal for the human mind to get tired of singular focus and reach for something else. You obsess for a while over something and then lose interest. It’s wise to exert some discipline over that so that you can finish small projects, and I’ll talk in other essays about the beauty of nailing down systems so that they are truly in place and functional, but don’t overdo that discipline.
It seems important to say that interest has a tidal movement and fighting the tide is crazy. If you do as I suggested above and take on several interrelated projects at once, the relaxed movement back and forth from one interest to another is not counter-productive, it’s actually very efficient, but perhaps on a longer time frame than you may be focused on.
Its efficient for several reasons: it uses energy where its abundant, rather than trying to draw from a scarce source (that takes extra energy); it creates synergies of understanding and generates feedback loops of learning and physical memory; it avoids all the fighting with your own mind that traditional ‘discipline’ involves; and it avoids the anxiety that you are somehow failing if you don’t go on and on with the same thing. Anxiety is a great consumer of energy, and often happens below our conscious awareness.
But above all, the natural movement around the various parts of your adaptive project has a very important function—it creates a design understanding that you absolutely need for the long-term viability of the project.
If you don’t move about from aspect to aspect, like a bee to flowers, you tend to make design mistakes that you need to fix later, or worse, can’t fix later. The more you cross-pollinate the ecosystem of your intentions, the more you will make synergistic design moves that allow parts of the project to fit with each other. Ultimately, they become not parts, but organs and cells that feed each other and depend on each other, which is the regenerative project that we can all aspire to. This will be a theme that I come back to frequently, but for now its enough to say that it’s OK, in fact good, to move from one interest to another.
Allocating energy and focus
At this point in the discussion, there might be an elephant in the room. Maybe not for some, but I’d like to address it because if it is there, it is usually a difficult question.
It’s the question of hope, despair and powerlessness. All of the above discussion assumes you have a source of determined energy and purpose. But that meta-energy depends on having something like hope, and a sense of agency, that what you do matters.
It’s beyond the scope of this essay to try to feed into your sources of hope and agency. I’m going to assume you’re working on that and doing a decent job of it. But the question might linger about what kind of hope we can have that these adaptive projects matter, that they can have any worthwhile influence on the direction the world is going, and if not, are they selfish and individualistic endeavours with no higher purpose than survival?
To think about that, it seems appropriate to point out some natural structures of energy allocation that might help to understand the project of adaptation and where it fits in the larger scheme.
Your life is a complex natural system that has recognisable patterns
If you think of your life as a complex system—as lovely, amazing, troubling, confusing as it is—and understand it as a biological phenomenon, you can start to see that it has patterns that occur elsewhere in the biological world.
Life on earth, and presumably elsewhere, arises in recurrent patterns that have profound implications for the design of living systems. Life also occurs in fractal relationship—patterns repeated at different scales—so that one tiny living system is structurally the same as a vast one, and that one is nested within the other, interdependently. For a deeper dive into this subject, check out Geoffrey West’s book, Scale. (2) And for a pictorial study of repeated natural patterns, have a look at The Power of Limits, by Gyorgy Doczi. (3) This is another subject I will come back to on this platform.
But for now, its enough to say that your life, and the leverage you can exert with your energy, occurs in a recognisable pattern, and that its nested within other systems. One pattern to notice, is that the level of your influence and power in the world likely occurs in inverse order to your concerns. That is, what matters most is the least able to affected by your choices and actions. And conversely, what you have most control over, on an intimate personal level, seems trivial to the point of meaninglessness—droplets into the ocean.
Our priorities have a natural pattern too
Many of us have been brought up to see ourselves as unique individuals with unique lives, but as humans we don’t stand outside the universe’s patterns of natural repetition. Yes, we are all unique, but in terms of recurring natural patterns, uniqueness is ubiquitous, as every iteration of a life-form has many small differences.
This holds true for our priorities as well. I’d like to suggest that, in the modern adaptive project, we all feel much the same pull of concern about the same things, even if there’s confusion about it. It might sound strange to say that our priorities are all roughly the same, but if you could isolate ten areas of concern, within the project of becoming resilient, and rank them by importance, they would look something like this:
- Ecological integrity—we are all dependent on the continued health of our ecosystems. Ecological integrity is a global phenomenon, unable to be isolated.
- Community cohesion—we are all dependent on one another, including people we don’t know, whether we like that or not. Community is dependent on ecological integrity.
- Kin group and tribe cohesion—we need the people we know, to get on and survive. Those people are in turn dependent on the larger community.
- Family cohesion—love and care for each other hold us together. Family is dependent on community, kin and ecological integrity.
- Spiritual health—spirit binds all our energy and propels our best work. Spiritual health is dependent on close love, kin & tribe, community and ecological integrity.
- Mental and physical health—essential to the work of life, dependent on all the above, in turn.
- Skills, capabilities, knowledge, learning capacity, sovereignty, agency—also essential to good work, dependent on each thing above.
- Living systems of support—this is the all the ways we harness nature to provide for ourselves, including agriculture. Needs everything from 7 to 1.
- Built systems of support, including our houses. Ditto, 8 to 1.
- Economic relationships and what they provide for us—tools, equipment, technologies, etc.
If there’s a deep concern that you can’t locate here, like climate change or human inequity, it may be that I’ve summarised it too simply. I would place a concern about climate change within the concern for ecological integrity, for example, as I feel it is an example of ecological imbalance, not an issue all of its own. Inequality and poverty, likewise, are deep imbalances within the concern of community cohesion.
You can keep going with this thought experiment, and you can tweak this and play around with it a little, but not much, without its true logic failing. And you can sense that none of these things are actually built in such orderly progression. That’s not the point. Neither is it that some people don’t carry those priorities in their heads in that order. The point is about seeing the relationships of nested dependence, and recognising that our world has truths about priority built into it.
And the point perhaps most relevant to getting started on the road to resilience is the one about powerlessness. We often feel powerless to affect change on our highest concerns, for a good reason. Many of us sense that our lives should be about feeding into the health of the land, and its eco-systemic integrity, alongside but above attending to our personal priorities. But we often don’t know how to contribute—its so hard to make change there, compared to lesser priorities. The pattern to notice here, and I’m suggesting to accept, is that your influence has a reverse pattern to your concern.
So, do you work on that with which you have greatest influence, or that for which you have greatest concern?
We all have trouble with this situation, and I’m not pretending to have the answers. But I think it helps to know that this is normal, and a natural pattern. It also helps to focus on another natural organising phenomena, and that’s the one with which life grows.
Life grows in the same direction as personal influence, with the same recurring and ever varying pattern. Vast ecosystems grow from an accumulation of small life forms. Communities grow from individuals to families to kin groups to tribes and so on. From little things, big things grow. (Acknowledgement and thanks to Paul Kelly and Tiddas for that song and those simple words.) So, just as people—we small elements of a system—depend for life on the larger whole, the larger complex depends for life on the smaller complexities.
In order to have an influence on the greater health of the ecosystem you are part of, you must inevitably grow something: grow yourself, grow your community, grow your health and spiritual capacity, etc, etc. There’s simply no way to just pitch all your efforts directly there.
So, the question, ‘do you work on that with which you have greatest influence, or that for which you have greatest concern?’, is not the right question to be asking. To start with, you have no real choice. But more profoundly, the question takes you out of alignment with life itself.
A better question might be, ‘what small aspects of my life should I nurture, in what order, or pattern or rhythm, so that I can grow into the highest contribution I can make?’ This question, to my mind, has problems too—primarily that it’s not likely that you will contribute strongly as an ‘I’, but as a ‘we’. The growth that we’re talking about will inevitably involve many more people than you, which is a joyous truth. But it’s a much better question than the first one.
For the purposes of organising your priorities, this pattern recognition can make a real difference. There’s no need, as a small example, to feel anxious that working on your personal health and nutrition is a small and selfish project. It’s just a building block of the larger project, small but necessary work.
Likewise, with finding or building yourself a house—it’s necessary. There can be problems of individualism with either of these projects, but it usually comes from giving them a level of priority that’s out of step with the larger intention. If you become lost in the world of personal health, rather than using your health to greater ends, you lose that larger movement. (But helping others with their health may be just such a greater end.)
And if a person’s focus never moves away from the project of making a house, something goes missing. I once heard someone say that building a house should be like knitting a jumper —you do your very best, you finish it, inhabit it, take good care of it, but its purpose is warmth and protection and to be something you look outward from, at the world, and only occasionally to look at and appreciate. (Thanks to the person for the jumper comment, and sorry I can’t remember who you are.)
So, keeping the larger pattern in mind, and the deeper concerns at play, you can pay attention to the smaller concerns and do good work there. I see this as a spiral pattern, with small structural parts forming the larger whole, like a shell, or whirlpool. I can’t say that this is the actual pattern of the phenomena, so I hold that image lightly, but I find it helpful.
Shell-shaped or not, though, I don’t offer this as a neat trick for organising your priorities. If there’s value in this perspective, it’s that it’s actually the true pattern of life. And if so, it can be relied on and weighty decisions can be placed on its structure.
One of the reasons that it feels true to me, is that it tends to focus your attention on relationships. If the project of adaptation has many structural elements to it, seeing it like this shows that those elements are all interconnected and all in relationship to each other. It’s the integrity and health of these relationships that deserves our highest attention.
For example, if you could design a life of deep purpose, you would make sure your economic relationships, that earned you necessary currency in your economy, were conducted in service of the living systems of support we all share, build valuable skills and knowledge that fed and nurtured your family and kin groups, but were also relationships of genuine care and concern, helping to build real community cohesion, and that the work that earned you that currency and that trust was work that added to the health of your watershed and the restoration of the land.
You can see this force even in the numbered list above—they’re not really discreet, number-able priorities. They’re interconnected and intertwined. Ecological integrity, for example, can’t realistically be separated from community cohesion, for example, especially if you expand your sense of community to plants, animals and forms of consciousness other than our own. They’re gradations of concern, not categories; blurry, not cut. Some people react to such blurriness by feeling it becomes less useful. But life seems to say that blurriness and interrelation are signs of realness, and of something more useful, not less.
And in terms of Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s insight about anti-fragility, notice that the further you move up the chain of concern, toward higher purpose, the concerns highest on the list—kin group connectedness, community cohesion, ecological integrity—are the most anti-fragile of world systems. They become stronger in response to stressors (up to a point).
The large and exquisitely complex systems that behave with dynamic anti-fragility are built from smaller, more fragile, elements and systems, and it is the relationships between all these smaller systems and elements that create the dynamic, adaptive behaviour. In focusing on the health and strength of these smaller elements, you build power in the larger whole.
It might become more apparent, now, why respecting the tidal movement of interest, and why attending to the cross-pollination of different aspects of the adaptive project, are so important.
If we don’t approach adaptation and resilience as a large and interactive whole, a lovely and life-building system, then we’ll tend to miss the relationships between these aspects. And these relationships are the fundamental work, the cohesion of an adaptive life. They take care to do properly, and they will be different for everyone, each situation and context and place.
From the perspective I’ve laid out, the questions, ‘what should I do?’, and ‘where should I start?’, become ‘what can I grow?’, and ‘how do you grow that?’
Asked sincerely, and with determination, the questions get more fine-grained and practical. What wants to grow here, in this place, with these people? What do those things need for growth? How do I make that, or bring it in? Who knows about that stuff, to talk to? And away you go into productive territory.
Without that growth-oriented approach, once the initial flush of excitement dies down, the work tends to pile up in a scary mental warehouse of needed, expensive, time-consuming tasks, projects and investments. What also piles up, so very discouragingly, is hard-to-correct mistakes.
I see this happen to people a lot. And it’s happened to me, many times. It tends to manifest in a sense of overwhelm, or pointlessness. People work hard on an initial flush of projects, spending money and time because they’ve clearly seen that the work is important. A lot is happening, and there’s a flush of pride and meaning and praise from outside observers.
Then they become sensitive to how long the work is taking, how many important choices there are, how their systems depend on future systems to make them work (chicken and egg problems), plus other difficult decisions, and start to extrapolate out to the bigger picture. They sense that the projects, which all have hidden depths of complexity, when added together into one big project, become just too huge. The effort starts to feel futile.
The nail in the coffin of hope often comes when people realise they have made design mistakes they can’t easily fix. Their understanding of what they need has changed in the process of doing the work, they’ve learnt so much that they see some of their initial effort was short-sighted, or simply too permanent for the shifting nature of resilience work. Their energy might collapse, or just sadly dissipate, or they continue on with a kind of psychological pain and a learned tolerance for frustration.
Conversely, a person working with a larger thought-system, on a broader and more integrated purpose, tends to look like they are moving very slowly with their adaptive project, especially in the beginning. There aren’t as many hammers flying or trips to the hardware store. There tends to be a lot of staring out of windows. Small projects get started and paused a lot, and plans re-made. Re-making of plans, in fact, is a great sign that you’re very engaged in the process. It can feel exceedingly messy.
But if you watch this person over a longer time-frame, later you will likely see things coming together in a way that has a more powerful flow. It often gets labelled as luck, by observers, because the deeper work isn’t seen. Sometimes, this person has had the patience to hold back important visible work so that disparate elements can be brought together in good relationship, and the observer might just see the final result, not knowing how it came about. It can take a bit of social courage to do things this way.
As already suggested, perhaps the main difference between these approaches is that the second path is more akin to life. It may seem more daunting to start with. A whole, integrated system to get your head around is a possibly daunting idea. But it’s the first approach that is genuinely overwhelming.
You don’t actually need to get your head around a huge, integrated system called ‘life resilience’, because you are growing that system from something small. It’s the small beginning that is your task to understand. This can take a leap of faith, and some cultural shift away from the idea of master planning, and ‘design’ as its most often practiced. Yes, I’m suggesting you design your life and its resilience as a whole, but no master plan is needed. Master plans are, in fact, very often misleading, and the whole process of such controlled planning is inefficient.
I’ll be presenting this approach to design in more detail on this site, an approach I generally refer to as ‘living design’. That’s not my term – it comes from a community of people working on these issues, of which I’m just one follower. You can find links to this field of interest in the Recommended section of this website.
But for now, I’m suggesting that, if this idea is new to you, spend some time digesting the idea that the work of adaptation is to grow something, as from seed to tree. The seed ‘knows’ where it is going, because it has DNA, but it is blindly patient and focused on the here and now, on nutrients and water and so forth. Its actual growth can’t be planned, but the intention exists ahead of time in a strongly formed pattern, which evolved over time.
This metaphor works also in the sense that, while this is a pattern of small to large, and increasing in complexity, this isn’t a pattern of simple to complex. A seed is not simple. It’s a highly organised, whole entity. So, don’t fall into the trap of believing your start must be simple—it never is. But as a human, you are supremely adapted to work with that, on a deep level. Humans are innate living-systems designers. Trust your humanity.
I hope this has gone some way to working with the questions of what to do and where to start.
If you have taken interest in this essay, and read this far, in reality you have already started, and you are doing the work. Your intention is there, and can be built upon. You are likely thinking hard about your approach, and there’s help to guide you.
Like the woman in the story of the burning house, you are in action, and each pause to assess and learn and soak up information, however long it takes, is crucial to quality movement.
The work of adaptation and resilience is fundamentally life-affirming, and is what is needed for the healing of the world’s ailing life-shed. You are on a good path, and its good to have you on it with us.
- Taleb, N. N. (2012) Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder. New York: Random House.
- West, G. B. (2017) Scale: The universal laws of life, growth, and death in organisms, cities, and companies. New York: Penguin Books.
- Doczi, G. (1981) The power of limits: Proportional harmonies in nature, art, and architecture. Boulder, Colo., [New York]: Shambhala Publications