Last week I kicked off a month-long series of discussions with members of New Hampshire Businesses for Social Responsibility. Our topic is “Live Free and Thrive,” a twist on the state’s strident “live free or die” motto and an exploration of the meaning of freedom in these times. After this first 90-minute call, the conversation has already generated powerful insights with relevance for all of us and for this moment in human history.

The series came about as a follow-on to my keynote speech at NHBSR’s annual conference. The association’s director had proposed a series of ongoing discussions to explore themes from my book, The Age of Thrivability. And so I gave some thought to what, in particular, might be interesting, relevant and important to explore with that group. What immediately came to mind was an exploration of freedom. The intensifying polarization in the US seems to boil down to how we understand the relationship between freedom and social responsibility. And my sense is that this must be addressed if we are to hold the union intact.

To my surprise and delight, the director and her colleagues agreed to this topic, even with the potential sensitivity and controversy it carries.

Then, in the weeks before the series began, George Floyd’s murder sparked nationwide and global protests that brought the question of freedom even more to the forefront.

To add to the potency of our exploration, the first call was held (quite unintentionally) on June 19 – Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day. This marks the anniversary of when the last enslaved people within Confederate territories were informed of their emancipation. As I opened the call last week, I noted that this came about two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. And it was followed about two years later by the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, officially abolishing slavery across the land. That, in turn, was followed 100 years later by the Civil Rights movement, which was followed 50 years later by the Black Lives Matter movement.

“What all of that tells me,” I explained to the group, “is that freedom is not something that is just declared or proclaimed. It tells me that freedom is a never-ending inquiry.” An inquiry into who are we now, as individuals and as a community, and therefore what freedom means to us at this time and how we want to support it going forward. At different points in history, we have asked: how will we structure freedom within our society now, and for whom? And our answers have evolved over time.

So, the big question is: what will our answer be in these times?

For the New Hampshire group, I offered some framing of this moment as I had described it in my book. It was at this point that the conversation went to a new level of depth and detail, stretching across all of human history and the nature of the human experience, before finding its way back to a straightforward assessment of what is needed now.

In the lead-up, I explained that my work generally focuses on the shift from seeing our organizations and communities as controllable machines to seeing them as dynamic living systems. To support this shift, I offer what I call “life’s universal design principles” – the four major attributes that we find in all living systems, whether it’s your body or a rainforest or a community. On that foundation, I invite people into the practice of stewardship – the active cultivation of those four “fertile conditions” so that life can thrive at the levels of the individual, the organization, the community and the biosphere.

What is perhaps most remarkable, I shared, is that in its evolution over the eras – from our days as Hunter-Gatherers to today – humanity seems to have concentrated on honing each of those four major attributes in succession, as if it were a single organism working to become gradually more resilient, adaptive and creative. The more we dig into this insight, the better we understand the dynamics at play in the current era, and the more clear we can be about the necessary shape of freedom for these times.

So what are those universal design principles?

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Simply put, in every thriving living system, we find (1) distinct, locally acting parts in (2) interwoven relationships that together make up (3) a coherent whole. And this generative – and regenerative – process is set in motion and sustained by (4) a self-integrating property that may be thought of as the spark and spirit of life itself. In other words, every living system integrates divergent parts into a convergent whole characterized by dynamic relationship internally and externally in a continuous process of self-organization and self-creation.

As astonishing as it may seem, all of human civilization seems to have developed those capabilities in turn over the course of the four major eras of our existence. To see this, we first have to recognize that the transition from one era to the next was about more than swapping out a set of tools. As I wrote in my book:

Each era of human civilization has had distinct patterns of thought, particular ways in which meanings and truths were constructed, and a fundamentally different consciousness of the world. At each stage, there has been a collective and distinguishing “mental model.” Within this defining view of the ages, then, each era’s tools and methods have merely been artifacts characteristic of that period’s dominant paradigm.

With this understanding, we can see that:

  • Our perceptions and interactions were convergent during the Hunter-Gatherer era, with only present moment awareness and no perception of separateness from others or from the world. In other words, Hunter-Gatherers experienced the world as an unbroken whole.
  • We focused on developing the capability of relationship during the Agrarian era, spurring the advancement of agriculture, mathematics, government and religion – all artifacts of our ability to be in dynamic relationship with each other and the world around us.
  • The Industrial Era and the centuries just preceding it were humanity’s call to diverge en masse, with the advent of individual rights and democracy; and of the scientific method and its approach to understanding things by breaking them down into their component parts.
  • Finally, if we make it through the crises and challenges of our times, the early indications are that the emerging era will find humanity honing the skill of integration, in a deepening alignment with life. Not only are our diverse cultures and lifestyles becoming more integrated across the planet, we’re increasingly able to integrate the wisdom and perspectives of all previous eras – to reconcile the paradox of being a distinct, expressive part within an unbroken whole. In other words, we’re increasingly able to sense and respond to what is both needed of us and nourishing to us.

In progressively developing these different capabilities, humanity has, indeed, become more resilient, adaptive and creative. In other words, we’ve gotten more thrivable.

Within this whole journey, freedom is a relatively recent invention. As I wrote in my book, “the concept of the separate individual with personal rights and freedoms did not yet exist” during the Hunter-Gatherer or Agricultural Eras. “Instead, within the worldview of these civilizations, every person existed only as a member of some community, rather than perceiving themselves as independent individuals.” This is hard for us to understand or even imagine today within our worldview of individual independence. But in his book, Freedom in the Making of Western Culture, sociologist Orlando Patterson is clear: “Personal freedom had no place in such societies.” Instead, identity was shaped solely by relationship and affiliation.

Then Patterson documents “a profound change in human thought” within the Industrial Era and the centuries leading up to it. In his own book, The Origins of European Individualism, historian Aaron Gurevich likewise tracks “the transition from earlier forms of community life, characterized by local, kinship groups and collective identity, towards a changed…society dominated by the cognitive, motivational individual.” And as author, philosopher and professor Roger Scruton observes: “The history of Western society since the Enlightenment has been a history of emancipation, as individuals have freed themselves from the constraints imposed by social conventions and traditional roles.”

“Fast forward to the present day,” I write in The Age of Thrivability,

and we can see that the wave of divergence continued and, indeed, erupted wholesale with the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Liberation movement, the sexual revolution, the Gay/Lesbian Liberation Movement, student protests, decolonization, and the free speech movement. Each of these movements questioned conformity and promoted personal expression. And in each, a common thread was evident: what author James Farrell referred to as “the belief that politics and social institutions must respect (if not enhance) the inviolable dignity of persons (what Martin Luther King, Jr. called their ‘somebodiness’).

This way of understanding ourselves and shaping our world has been a necessary evolutionary stepping stone, bringing important benefit. But it has also caused devastating harm. As I shared with the group from New Hampshire, without integration into the whole of life and without recognition of our deep inter-relatedness, this worldview becomes one of domination and extraction that acts as a consumptive cancer on our own lives and on all life. Indeed, every crisis we’re currently experiencing – from ecological collapse to the pandemic to the rise of fascism and the enduring need for the Black Lives Matter movement – all of it can be traced back to the worldview of separation and divergence that has characterized the outgoing era.

The good news is that a wiser, more compassionate and more effective worldview is emerging – one that is well equipped to carry us into an Age of Thrivability.

The bad news is that the outgoing, divergent mode thinking and acting is not giving up control without a fight. What’s worse, it can’t even conceive of the emerging worldview, as if it’s a dog whistle outside the range of its perception. Such is the nature of a worldview.

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And that’s where we find ourselves today: caught between two competing understandings of freedom:

  • One that interprets it with a petulant and even combative: “you’re not the boss of me.”
  • And one that honors, cultivates and supports our self-directed individual freedom to sense and respond to both what is needed of us and what is nourishing to us.

This second interpretation has been on the rise for decades. As the limitations of the individualistic worldview have become visible even to those most privileged by it, our understanding of freedom has expanded to include freedom from destitution because of an illness or accident. Freedom to go to school without fear of being gunned down. Freedom to contribute our gifts within a community that welcomes them, regardless of the color of our skin or the particular brand of love in our hearts. Freedom to breathe clean air and drink clean water. Freedom from the heavy chains of intergenerational trauma.

And then the pandemic offered an unapologetic shove, thrusting all of us into an experience of our planetary solidarity and interconnectedness, forcing us all to pause and reflect on what is truly needed and nourishing.

So where do we go from here?

What I proposed to the New Hampshire group is that we follow the lead of the “defund the police” movement, which doesn’t simply asking for specific reforms or tactical solutions to the problem. That would be a reductionist, mechanistic approach, and in the face of such a complex situation, it would be ineffectual. Instead, the movement asks: “What would it look like if we were to design structures and systems to support community health and safety?” This is a generative conversation, growing local, collective capacity to sense and imagine what is most needed and most nourishing. This is the practice of stewarding life.

In the same spirit, these are the kinds of questions I believe we need to be exploring in our communities:

  • What more could it mean for each of us, individually, to be able to bring the best of ourselves? To feel deeply at home in this place and in our own bodies? And what could support that?
  • What more could it mean for our infrastructure and interactions to support not only transactions, but trust, learning, playfulness and joy? For our patterns of belonging within community to be infused with a sense of dedication, earnestness, flow, perhaps even sacredness? And what could support that?
  • What is the story we’re living out together as a community, and what do we want the next chapter to be? How can we – together – be essential to this moment, uniquely capable of contributing some vital aspect of a more thrivable world?
  • What is the wisdom that is needed now? How can we be inspired, renewed and informed by nature, beauty, art, music, silence, movement and celebration as pathways to more complete ways of knowing what is needed and nourishing?

As I wrote this summary of my conversation with the group in New Hampshire, the phrase “let freedom ring” kept echoing in my head. I went in search of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. in his powerful speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. “Let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire,” he said. And also in New York, Pennsylvania, Colorado and California. And even in Georgia, Tennessee and Mississippi. But first, he named New Hampshire.

Let freedom ring.

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