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Emergence


I continue to chronicle the curious, even fascinating lessons learned in my move from Ohio to the Pacific Ocean. As I have noted before, I think moving disrupts everything. As I experience this, it is virtually impossible for me to sustain established patterns, and after the unpacking, there is for me this moment of truth: will I establish my past in this new present? Focusing on what I am doing right now, as an example, the answers vary. Sometimes the answer is clear: Yes, I plan on writing this blog. Sometimes it is murky: Will I start writing about new things and do so in new ways? Sometimes it is just a blank slate staring at me: Who knows?


I am particularly fascinated by the blank slate since it is my favorite metaphor describing our eighth developmental stage where we humans gradually draw to a close and ultimately end our life cycle, our personal story of time on the planet. A useful analog available for night time scrutiny during parts of every month is the waning moon.


The moments where I stare at the blank slate yield the most useful information, largely in their failure to yield useful information. Lots of information; I just never describe it as “useful”. This realization merges with another of my convictions about aging: it calls on us to actively embrace a life of focused emergence. Now this warrants a bit of an explanation.


A disturbing amount of human discourse and activity presupposes a shared understanding of life on planet earth, an agreement on what is real. One of our favorite tools to shape the discourse is the assumption of cause-and-effect to explain our shared experiences. We like this for many reasons. It is predictable, yielding the results we are seeking. It is tidy, without messy unexplained factors. It is reassuring, since it makes us feel like we know how everything works. Even more seductive, it makes us feel like we can control just about anything. It is just a lovely little idea and we are quite attached to it.


It has been my experience that people deeply embedded in a cause-and-effect world view gradually edge toward a fondness for control as a desired outcome…about just about everything. Living life there, we should plan our causes, we should be able to predict our effects, we should then be able to control stuff…maybe everything. We find ourselves in a space of perceived “completeness”. It is all quite tidy.


Now to be fair, cause-and-effect thinking is useful in many situations. It is also illusional much of the time, ignoring sources of variance and unacknowledged factors that shape outcomes, disregarding the potential influence of all the phenomena we neither know nor understand. And as a result, the assumption of control is also an illusion. If one is willing to acknowledge how limited human knowing really is, it is easy to see that cause-and-effect cannot possibly include in the planning phases all the unknowns.


It has been my experience that most people do not like to look at these facts. It’s like giving up a perceived advantage. It is also uncomfortable to look closely for all the sources of variance and intervening factors that alter outcomes, and have been ignored or denied. A good example of this is health care interventions for “underserved populations”, created and implemented with no real insight into the population and why it is “underserved” and how this is a central factor that will shape the outcome of the intervention. Even writing it seems creepy.


But cause-and-effect thinking shapes our lives rather persistently, so shifting from this mental map to one of emergence is a serious shift. Emergence, as I am discussing it here, refers to

“coming into being, coming into view, being revealed as if previously concealed”. It isn’t very tidy and it provides very little comfort for those in search of control. Yet emergence seems the stuff of wisdom, where the illusions of our lives viewed in the rear-view mirror do not make a case for replication but for an openness of spirit that is alert, watching for what is “coming into being, coming into view, being revealed as if previously concealed”. It is a shift from prediction and control to openness and discovery.


Now this all sounds quite lofty and excellent, but it is actually quite challenging and uncomfortable. As I survey the seemingly endless list of disruptions in my life during my move, I also find myself asking: will I really just recreate my most recent prior stop in my journey, or is something new “coming into being, coming into view, being revealed as if previously concealed?” I believe that the answer is “Yes!” Now that doesn’t make me relaxed and comfortable or comforted. It does, however, make me alert and curious. This seems wiser than tidying everything up “as it should be”, the model I used most of the time in all my previous moves.


So, for me, the initial disruptions of a cross-country move have morphed into a window of opportunity to more consciously and deliberately stand in place and space and pay attention for “emergence”, to be alert to possibility. Some days are quite spectacular, some totally quiescent. Sometimes the whole idea makes me laugh; other days I think I am not going to write about this in the blog because it will just be weird. This is not a tidy process.


Perhaps the most interesting dimension of this experience of emergence is the realization that while cause-and-effect thinking distanced me from my awareness of death, emergence shines a light on it. One way I experience this is that which emerges is more real, more grounded in the reality of my life and my situation. I am not imposing a preferred structure but one is revealing itself to me. And of course, that revelation is about the developmental stage I am actually in, the final stages of a life, my readiness to see it come to an end, the final stages of the journey that process entails.


Shining lights is perhaps the best metaphor to describe this process as I experience it. There is a space once filled with something. I disrupted it, deliberately and knowingly. Now, returning to the space, simply with awareness and curiosity, I find something new there, and it is about what is true for me, not what I would like to be true. A light is turned on, and it is bright. The difference between the past and the present is often startling.


As is perhaps apparent, this is an incomplete process, an emergent flow that simply exists as a new way of addressing disruptions and their effects. I have begun to wonder if this isn’t one of the essential tools to take on the journey of choosing to become an elder.


“Emerging from a story, a poem, the Earth, a time in history, or from the body of our mothers is sometimes explosive, chaotic, frightening, yet always awe-inspiring and humbling. We can use the energy to create fresh structures, or we can destroy or be destroyed. The energy can have power over us or empower us, and even what is destructive might clear the debris so that fresh life can emerge from embers or ashes.”

- Joy Harjo, Catching the Light -



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