Paradigm Revisited

The Road to Resilience


Over the years, I have thrown around the word “paradigm” so much that even I am no longer impressed by it. I’d like to freshen that word up a bit, as well as a few others, because we need to think large when we see or use large concept words.

Theories about human affairs are just like religions, which are various ways that different people and cultures make sense out of the same cosmic information. In human affairs, we have different opinions about the validity of class distinctions, whether everybody gets what they deserve or are victims of circumstances, whether some groups are conspiring to control the world or it is simply chaos, and, as an extension of the “devil” theory, whether there are people or cultures that are inherently evil. The obverse of all those distinctions is that there are no distinctions: we are all the same, reacting to the circumstances that we happen to find ourselves in. We all have the same evidence to look at, but our experiences are different and our conclusions are all over the map.

Given that, there is a considerable amount of agreement about how the world works. Otherwise, it wouldn’t work at all. A paradigm, as I use it, is an overall picture we all agree on that describes the way the world works. It includes a large and all pervasive set of assumptions that we all take for granted, and it takes a considerable amount of imagination to think outside of it. If you think of a paradigm as the room we live in, when we experience dissatisfaction, we usually consider changing something in the room. When a paradigm is no longer working or another more attractive appears, we may experience a paradigm shift; that is, we either decide to move into or are forced into a new room. The problem up front is trying to even imagine a new room! Our room may have become too small, too dark, too cold or hot, and the mistake we make is trying to correct it by moving the furniture. If we do not decide to leave the room, we will eventually be forced to move, and, when that happens, it is usually attended by a considerable amount of disruption because we don’t understand what is happening and we are freaking out. On the other hand, if we recognize our situation beforehand and move knowingly and willingly into the new room that we have already conceptualized, we are much less likely to experience violence and chaos.

Another form of paradigm shift is “revolution.” I have friends that are very opposed to the idea of revolution. Bernie Sanders called for a political revolution and that resonated with some of us, and others not so much because the term invokes for them pikes, pitchforks, guillotines, and a river of blood. That is not the revolution Bernie was talking about. True, the fact that a group of people with far more power and resources than everyone else would have to relinquish their advantage is revolutionary, but not all revolutions are violent. We should respect the power of a revolution but not reject its necessity because it is a perilous step.

Consider that we are currently experiencing the digital revolution. Thirty years ago, none of us could have imagined the miraculous capabilities of a cell phone, nor horrors like identity theft, foreign interference in national elections, or hackers shutting down major systems in wealthy and powerful nations. We are finding more and more evidence of the magnitude of the implications of this paradigm shift. Still, we know that it is now the world we live in and we need to learn to manage it.

The paradigm shift we need to make now is not technological, scientific, or even intellectual: it is emotional, moral, and ethical. The technological forces we have unleashed are simply too great to be in the hands of an immature species such as ours. At the same time, those same forces promise to forestall the desperation that drives our fear and angst of mortal competition for scarce resources and our drive to dominate and control.

When we talk about “good guys” and “bad guys,” we’re talking about a paradigm where fear and mutual suspicion are rampant. “We” are always the good guys and “they” are always the bad guys. Does anybody self-identify as a “bad guy?” I don’t think so. We resort to the theory that the “end justifies the means” to convince ourselves that we are always the “good guys.” “Good guys and bad guys” is a game we played as children, and, if we are to call ourselves adults, we better give it up.

That is the exciting challenge and promise of the world we find ourselves in. We have painted ourselves into a corner environmentally, politically, and economically and are just beginning to realize that there is an open door to the next room right behind us. Does it mean everything will then be magnificent? No, there will always be challenges, but we have to grow beyond the certain calamity we face now. We can choose a new paradigm with grownups that cooperate, love, and respect the world they live in.