Finding flexibility

Flourishing communities have a degree of flexibility that can scare the hell out of their members. Our attraction to things that are safe and familiar is remarkable. We like the security of our labels, our short cuts, our traditions. We like things to match or contrast in predictable ways. Still, being flexible in our response to chance or the unexpected brings strength and sustainability to community.

An ancient Christian holiday carol dating to the 15th century boasts a refrain of “comfort and joy, comfort and joy.” The unknown author distinguished between the two: comfort is not synonymous with joy. We seem to have lost that understanding in communities of all sorts. The comfort of sameness loses the joys of diversity. The comfort of rigidity is favored over the joys of flexibility. Even though the known will often get us where it has always gotten us, the fear of the unknown can keep us stuck – a big problem if we want to get to some other place as a community.

We send out surveys electronically and wonder why the response rate is so poor. We poll clients about their service experience but don’t change our service as a result. In the past 10 years I have been invited to three different planning processes to address highway construction in my neighborhood. In all cases, the plans were developed and the developers were there to explain and defend them, not modify them based on community members’ preferences. Boards of directors and congressional staffers count ballots before they are cast to decide if an proposal is ready for prime time. In short, we play to win instead of to learn. Predictable trumps flexible.

SculptureSummerI sometimes imagine us at the edge of a beautiful garden, filled with bird songs, warm breezes, fragrant air, and lush foliage. We are at the gate, vigilant, guarding against any intruders who may come. No one can get into this special place we are working to preserve, untouched for future ages. Unfortunately, we aren’t actually enjoying the garden. We are guarding it. We police the gate and overlook the flowers; we don’t feel the breeze. Were we to be less concerned about those who might invade the space, we might enjoy the garden itself, maybe finding ways to share it with our contemporaries and not only our descendants.

This past week I heard an expression in a podcast about the brain: preoccupation dimentia. The neurologist who said it does not want to coin the term, but it resonated with me nonetheless. She was referring to the phenonenon of not attending, recording, and retrieving during times when were are innundated with stimuli that calls our attention. The rigid adoration of the screen pulls us reliably from attending to those around us. I have been thinking that our brains were developing when walking was the primary mode of transportation and screens didn’t exist. But today I will fly 800 miles and receive 100 or more emails, a dozen texts, and 10 phone calls. I may input a to-do list and never look at it again. I will set alarms, buzzers, and alerts.

But will I have the flexibility to shut it all down and listen?

Thirty years ago I learned to administer intelligence tests. At the time debates were going on about the Larry P case in California. This suit observed that African American children were disproportionately placed in programs for developmentally disabled and learning disabled youth. It argued that there was no reason for this disparity in the children themselves, but it was rather in the tests that were administered, how the tests were used in decision making, and the restrictiveness of the learning environments that resulted in life-long learning disadvantages. I still recall struggling with one IQ test question that basically asked why it made more sense to give to charity than directly to a person in need. I was required to administer the question and score completely correct answers wrong, because of the flawed development process of the test itself.

We looked to a set of life-changing events for a child and her family before we looked to the test for resolution. This still happens today, though less frequently for children because of Larry P and Public Law 94-142 passed in 1975. Yet our slavish attachment to surveys, scales, and protocols challenges our actually seeing the persons involved. I have recently been involved in discussions about changing people’s behavior about using medication. The a priori decision is that the medication and its rigorous adherence requirements are not in question. People’s behaviors are viewed as the problem.

Getting to flexible responses to novel problems can be time consuming and challenging for communities in many ways. But the trip to their discovery might also be way more interesting than the rigid patterned responses that first come to mind.

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