What do you call a year that includes a global pandemic, a global uprising against racial injustice and an extra divisive US presidential election?
I call it the Great Unsettling.
The rumbles and signs of this unsettling started many years ago and were propelled forward by much broader access to information, smartphones, the proliferation of content, social media — and other internet-related phenomena. Sadly, all of this technology created a kind of unsustainable busy-ness that covered up issues and injustices.
At Root + River, we refer to the old world as the World of Convention. This world was all about production, expansion, hierarchy, order. In this world, we put up with a lot of bullshit in the name of security and stability. In this world, tradition and heritage were valued — as long as it was the tradition and heritage of a majority. The World of Convention ran on institutional trust. And when that trust began to finally erode, this world came crashing down in the Great Unsettling.
Humanity goes through these great unsettlings every 50–150 years. They are painful, but necessary times — a part of what Martin Luther King, Jr. was referring to when he said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” In each unsettling, institutions crumble or evolve, old ways die, new ways emerge. And we highly adaptable creatures called humans, learn its lessons and create new structures. And we also return to ancient ways as a reminder that we’ve been here before — and that things like love, truth, justice, freedom are shaken but unbreakable.
This particular Great Unsettling has already taught us many things …
The pandemic made us look at death and loss — two topics many Americans will avoid thinking about at all costs. It removed or reduced the insulation between us and the rest of the world.
It broke the grip of chronos time and re-introduced us to the natural world of kairos time. I, for one, am not going back to the kind of busy I was pre-COVID.
It helped us see what was truly important and not important at all. It helped us realize what we had been putting up with a lot for the sake of job security and career advancement. As a friend put it, “I learned that to be productive I don’t need an office or a bra.”
It produced a renewed appreciation for front-line workers, especially healthcare workers, cashiers, servers, delivery drivers and truck drivers, farmers and ranchers. All jobs that can easily fade into the backdrop in “settled” times.
Many of us got to know our partners and families and roommates and neighbors better. We learned we can communicate on Zoom but IRL is more fun. We learned or re-learned crafts like cooking, gardening, puzzle-solving, baking, sewing. All non-tech related things that brought the comfort of tangibility.
The racial injustice uprising made us (especially white people) look at death and loss as well. People of color have dealt with this for centuries. Now, it was so blatantly and horrifically obvious we were faced with a choice: do we go back to pretending like there’s not a problem or do we own it and seize it as an opportunity to change things for the better? Sadly, many people that look like me chose the former. But enough of us of all races and backgrounds are choosing the latter. It appears a new era of justice is emerging.
It caused a great re-examining of our own hearts and intentions. It made us look again at our own biases. Again, many did not do either — to the point that they doubled-down on taking an opposing side. But also again, there was a collective raising of consciousness that we likely have not seen in my lifetime.
It caused us to re-look at history and begin to reconcile some of the wrongs — even if some of that reconciliation was symbolic.
Which leads us to this …
One of the markers of Great Unsettlings is the removal and shifting of symbols. This has been going on ever since the people got tired of Ozymandias’ shit and either tore down his statue or let it become a relic of history. It appears to be a rite of passage; the tangible evidence of revolution.
This Great Unsettling has its own share of symbols that mean very different things depending on your world view.
- A face mask is either a symbol of prudence and good citizenry — or a symbol of government overreach.
- A police car is either a symbol of public service or a reminder of injustice.
- Taking a knee is either a symbol of protest or a sign of disrespect.
- A Trump sign or MAGA hat is either a symbol of divisiveness or a symbol of pride. Note: this weekend, out in the Hill Country, I saw a Trump 2020 flag that said “Stop the Bullshit”. It made me chuckle with irony. How you relate to that flag is how you relate a lot of things.
- Symbols of the Confederacy are either a reminder of racism, treason and tone-deafness — or symbols of heritage and defiance.
A common phrase is “being on the wrong side of history”. This most definitely happens in a great unsettling. You can see it in the symbols I mentioned above. This is because unsettlings force us to take a side. And one side generally advances and the other does not. I wish it wasn’t so binary — but history tells us that it is. And that after we decide, it gives room for nuance and for a third way to emerge.
In another ironic twist, a new symbol has emerged that represents one of these sides: Karens (or the dude version, which I refer to as Darens).
Out of all this, a new world is emerging. We call it the World of Integration — because we integrating our inner world and our outer world. We predicted this world would emerge in the next 15–20 years. But the Great Unsettling has propelled us into it now. We are closing old divides and opening up new possibilities. The World of Integration requires active citizenry. It requires leaders with humility, compassion and moderation. It requires thinkers and truth-tellers and artists. It requires healers, warriors, messengers. The great threats to this new world are tribalism, moralism and authoritarianism. Societies simply can not advance beyond an unsettling if these powers are allowed to rule us.
For me, this Great Unsettling has been part of a decade-long personal unsettling where my own symbols have crumbled or shifted. My priorities, what I give my attention to, what I’m pursuing have changed. In particular, this Great Unsettling has made me sensitive to others. I feel more connected to people — even those I don’t understand. I can feel the odd mixture of grief and denial. Those grieving the loss of life, the changing of plans — and those in denial of these seismic shifts.
Other than as important history lessons, I have no interest or ties to the old world of Convention. I have no symbols that I’m defending. No old, stagnant ways that I’m apologizing for. In all of this, I feel more grateful. I am more committed to listening — but also more committed to giving voice to my own knowings. And more determined than ever to live a life that is based on connection, art and meaning. More determined to take this Great Unsettling and become a better leader in this new world.