Debbie Frieze (Berkana Exchange)
The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?
- Henry David Thoreau, Walden
I am not an activist.
In the early 90s, I was a student at Amherst College. Amherst has long been considered a “bastion of liberalism” on the East Coast, and it was no different then. Our small community was immersed in post-modernism, occupying ourselves with deconstructing every piece of identity we could wrap our minds around — politics, race, gender, class and nation.
Sure, we did the usual campus activism thing. We held rallies. We waved our fists at the Chinese government over Tienanmen Square. We dutifully showed up each year for Take Back the Night. Someone even immolated himself on the town common my junior year to protest the Gulf War.
But for most of us, I don’t think our hearts were in it. Mine wasn’t, anyway. After all, everything we’d been studying told us that there wasn’t really a right and wrong, there was no shared story, and there certainly wasn’t any such thing as absolute truth. We went to rallies because that’s just what politically and socially aware students do. We’d chant the chants and write the slogans and wave the posters. But I don’t know if I ever really believed in the cause. I certainly never considered myself an activist.
Intellectually, I was curious about just how much I was willing to let go of. I chose philosophy as my platform, and gravitated toward skepticism and nihilism. I discovered you could really believe in absolutely nothing, and the world would hang together just fine. I had a practice in those days, too. My practice was to periodically check in with myself to ask whether this moment, this now, was exactly where I wanted to be. If the answer was no, then wherever I was — in the middle of a class, at a party, on the phone — I would ask myself what was required of me to create the environment I sought. Often, that meant having to leave.
After graduation, I moved to Colorado to ski — in part because there was no reason not to. That led to working at a ski magazine. And from there, I went to business school. What made that odd transition possible was the idea that, given my lack of belief or purpose around any particular thing, why not throw myself into an unlikely environment to see what would happen next?
I am grateful for that opening, because what happened next awakened my awareness about the path I was treading. My post-business school experience running a dot-com company was my first ugly encounter with the limits of a deconstructed world. How obvious it seems to me now: If you refuse to stand for your own beliefs, then someone else’s beliefs will slide in to fill that vacuum. For the first time, I had discovered a system that I felt deep in my soul to be wrong — to be constructed in a way that did not serve humanity. What that looked like was a world in which short-term performance mattered more than long-term relationships. Incentive plans and bonuses were meant to motivate us — because our personal passions weren’t in alignment with organizational goals. The work culture was designed to maximize control and predictability. We streamlined our thinking into repeatable processes and reusable components. We created long-term plans and measured the gap with our performance — as if our purpose were to excel in forecasting the future and eliminating deviation.
So I walked out of that world, completely adrift. In college, we practiced peeling away, layer by layer, the many systems of meaning and belief that gave us identity. What was left seemed to be little more than my commitment to deconstruction. And now that no longer served me either. I could no longer sustain a belief in a world of no absolute truth when I had become certain about what wasn’t working.
What did serve me was the practice I had sustained over the years of checking in with myself to discover what I was being called to create. I didn’t have any language for it at the time. Mostly, I referred to it as my “gut,” because that was the term we entrepreneurs felt comfortable with. ‘Intuition’ was also an acceptable word. ‘Guidance’ and ‘spirituality’ were not… And then Berkana showed up in my life and offered me language and new ways of seeing myself in relation to the systems and beliefs that I had spent my adulthood abandoning.
For instance, I learned that systems rarely change as a result of plans and strategies. In only 18 months, I saw my dot-com company go through massive change, from an innovative and intimate community of 25 to an impersonal web of 900 people that had become oriented around self-interest. But no one planned that change. It emerged as a result of a complex set of conditions that were constantly changing as we grew. I learned that emergence is the process by which large-scale change does happen. As separate, local efforts connect and strengthen their interactions and interdependencies, a system of influence develops — a powerful cultural shift that influences behaviors and defines accepted practices.
Systems of influence are emerging all the time. They possess qualities and capacities that were unknown in the individuals. It isn’t that they were hidden; they simply don’t exist until the system emerges. They are properties of the system, not the individual, but once there, individuals possess them. And the system that emerges always possesses greater power and influence than is possible through planned, incremental change.
So what happens when the systems of influence that emerge don’t serve humanity? I believe that’s the situation we find ourselves in today—from systems of corporate greed to political corruption and environmental exploitation. And I believe we can’t break these systems down by protesting against them, tweaking them or trying to repair them. They are far too complex. Even if we could change each discrete element, we could never replicate and change the dynamics how they converged.
The only thing we can do is work to
support the emergence of an alternative system, one that represents the good
intentions that we create in the world. To do that, we have to stand for
something. We have to create, not deconstruct—because life is
relentlessly creating new things all around us anyway. In the past few years in
My story of the Now Activism is just beginning. As I sit and write these thoughts, I’m amazed at how my intellectual journey has brought me to this place. During college, we always wondered what would come after post-modernism. Perhaps it is the Now Activism.