Tuesday was the presidential election. On Wednesday morning I went to the gym. There were two women there who are in their seventies. One was wearing an Obama shirt and looked very happy. The other said to me, “I grew up in WWII and I have always believed that God watched over America. Today I no longer believe that.” It made me think of the points made on election night by analysts who pointed out that this is a rapidly changing and deeply divided country.
While it is normal to be concerned about that conflict and the gridlock that is likely to follow the election, my attention is drawn to something else.
I believe that a major event like an election is important because of it generates new data. It more sharply exposes the emerging reality. In encountering new data, nature offers us two choices, fight or flight. Today, for example, I heard one person calling for total resistance to the administration. That is the fight response. I read another statement by person who claimed he or she was going to move to another country. That is the flight response. While these are natural responses, they are not very productive responses. The first will increase the conflict. The second will preserve the existing conflict. Both are self-interested and neither pursues the collective good.
Beyond the natural choice of fight or flight is the third path. The third path is the way of creative contribution. It reflects a proactive choice to transcend the naturally structured either/or logic of the left brain.
The third path is the way of learning and self-transcendence. The losing party, for example, must ask questions and examine feedback it normally does not want to engage. It must recognize the evolving nature of the country and rethink strategic assumptions. It must then do something very difficult. It must move forward, learning in real-time. Human collectives almost always resist this transformative learning process. It requires faith in our own ability to change.
To not engage and adapt is to move towards collective disintegration.
The winning party is perhaps even more vulnerable. If the next few months are a time of economic decline, the public will feel betrayed and the mood will turn from celebration to vicious recrimination. Over time the winners have the same challenge as the losers. They have to learn and adapt. In the face of victory, they must maintain enough humility to read those aspects of the new reality to which they are not responsive and they have to expand their commitment to the collective good. If they do not, they also risk their own future.
In short both parties must learn or die. If they were to die America would not go away. It would reemerge with a new political structure. What gives me hope is that the adaptive process works best in a system based on free choice and free speech. These values do not guarantee successful adaptation but they greatly increase the probabilities. To succeed, what must be added is leadership focused on the collective good.
While everything we encounter tells us that America is run from the top down, it is important to realize that it is also run from the bottom-up. Every day people are self-organizing and new forces are emerging. Leaders have respond to these emergent realities.
Today, like every day, is the start of an era of great potential. It invites each of us to transcend fight or flight. It invites us to examine the emergent reality, to examine our own most central values, and then to find some aspect of the collective good to which we can contribute. As we do that, the system will continue to self-organize. The new emergent reality can be better than the old.
What we each need to do is set that example for the people around us. The process would be accelerated if we also received such examples from above, but if we do not get them, we can still act on our own. That is the beauty of the third path. While the top-down system may not encourage it, in all countries, there are people like Mother Theresa or a hard-nosed entrepreneur or a spectacular school teacher popping up.
The potential of this country will be best realized by those who are most open to the engagement of emergent reality and those most prepared to shape it in a positive way. I am grateful for core American values and I am grateful for a system in which everyone must continually adapt. I am optimistic about the future we can choose to create.