Margaret Wheatley

700 Years to Go


Several years ago a group of my colleagues were in a dialogue with the Dalai Lama.  As they were speaking of the relentless problems of this time and their efforts to change things, as they sank into the frustration and despair that characterizes these kinds of conversations, the Dalai Lama gently counseled them: “Do not despair.  Your work will see results in 700 years.”


This advice was very difficult to appreciate (of course) but, over the years, I’ve experienced the wisdom of his counsel.  I believe that the essential paradox of being a NOW activist is that we need to be very present to what’s going on, to see things clearly and honestly in the present, to bear witness to the outrages and injustices of this time. Yet we also need to understand that the real fruition of our work will be in the future. This paradox has a deeper dimension.  What’s occurring now invokes our attention, our anger, our sense of urgency.  The more aware we are, the more we feel called to act, to do something to alleviate the terrible suffering we see and, perhaps, experience directly ourselves.  Yet the very issues that call us into action, that motivate us to keep going, are inherently unsolvable, now.  They will only be resolved at some distant time which we personally will not live to see.


Can we wait that long? Can we accept a far off time horizon before real progress will be visible? 


It’s a fearful prospect, having to be this patient.  But we need to expand our notions of time, both future and past.  The problems we so urgently need to solve are taking place in the present, but they were set in motion hundreds or thousands of years ago.   We are struggling with the conclusion of beliefs and behaviors that are very old.  In my own work, I’ve noticed that when an old world view is dying, its proponents hold onto it more frantically.  As they meet with increasing failure, they try desperately to make outmoded beliefs and practices work.  They become louder, more insistent and even vicious as their methods continue to fail.


If we understand this time frame and these dynamics, we realize that there is no way to stop a culminating crescendo.  Immediate interventions are necessary to provide some alleviation of suffering, but we cannot expect to find in the present any lasting solutions to the problems that have called us into action. 


In the absence of immediate results, what is the value of our work?  I’d suggest that we think of our work as setting in motion the future, now.  What are the new conditions, new ways of being together, new beliefs, new world views that we want to reach fruition in the future?


You might be reading this and hoping I’m wrong, that much more is possible from our work right now.  I’m only assuming this is your experience because it was mine.  Being asked to wait hundreds of years for results, to do our work without any hope of seeing the benefits, is terribly demotivating.  And it also seems irresponsible.  Today’s problems must be solved now.  Too many people will continue to suffer if we don’t find the right interventions.  My own personal irony is that I don’t even believe we’ll be around as a species in 700 years if we don’t fix things now.


But as I’ve grown to accept this long view, I have experienced far more energy and dedication to my work.  Now that I don’t expect it to bear fruit right away,  I feel liberated from the accumulating disappointments and frustrations that mark the activist’s path.  This long view has led to a greater commitment to stay involved with this present world’s dilemmas and horrors, but freed from the urgency and anger that had marked my earlier work.  I understand (I think) why Nelson Mandela entitled his autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom”.  Patience offers a quality of pacing that provides perseverance and dedication in ways I had not experienced before.


What does it mean to be setting in motion the conditions for a distant time, when people can experience a more humane and healthy world?  I believe we do this by consciously behaving now as we hope people will behave in the future.  As we go about trying to alleviate present dilemmas, we must be very mindful of how we do our work, paying close attention to the behaviors, processes and methods we use.   We need to realize that everything we do day-to-day holds the possibility of setting in motion patterns for the future.   To do this well, we must be clear about the future we’re hoping to create.  What are our mental models, world views, assumptions and beliefs about the way humans should live and work together?


We also must be very mindful to notice when the mental models, tools and methods of the present appear in our own work.  The prevailing assumptions of this time are dehumanizing and degrading.  They include such beliefs as: people are motivated by extrinsic rewards; people are not to be trusted; competition works; community doesn’t matter; people can be told what to do; leaders are in charge; cause and effect are straightforward; planning and control lead to successful implementation.   These beliefs, and other similar falsehoods, are the ones most valued in the world today, touted as “modern management methods.”  It takes focus and conviction not to subscribe to them.  Those of us who were professionally trained might feel more confident in these methods without being aware of their underlying assumptions.  And most funders and formal leaders insist that we demonstrate our competence by using such methods.  Yet to continue them in our activist work is to perpetuate the very conditions that created the messes we’re now trying to change.


There are other worldviews available to us.  The one I favor and use comes from our understanding of how the planet works.  Some key concepts are: nothing manifests independent of a relationship; cooperation increases over time and symbiosis is to be expected; order is available without control; living systems don’t use hierarchy and leadership is widely distributed; we live in a network of interdependencies.   It is these and other principles that I want to set in motion now, for that far-distant time when it will be normal to think and organize this way.


Whenever we use new approaches and methods that contradict the current worldview, people want us to fail.  We can expect to be criticized, ostracized or invisible.   Others will only notice our mistakes  and advise us to return to the old ways.  At this point, it’s important not to lose our way.  Not only should we expect the criticism, we also should expect failure. Of course our new approaches won’t solve problems of this current time. Because these problems are the conclusion of conditions set in motion long ago, they are inherently unsolvable until we truly accept a new world view. If we truly believe this, we won’t get lost. We won’t deny or abandon these new patterns, even when confronted with their failures. We must value the integrity of how we do the work of change rather than focus on the current efficacy of these approaches. We need to draw our confidence from the nature of the behaviors themselves, not from their capacity to solve today’s problems.


This statement doesn’t deny the need for us to hold each other accountable or to act responsibly. We’re responsible for setting the future in motion, for putting new beliefs into practice. We must stay clear and maintain focus on what those beliefs are.  First we have to clarify these with our colleagues so that we’re all working from the same set of assumptions and values.  Then we need to focus on learning together how to embody these beliefs in what we do.  We need to keep asking ourselves: Are they visible in our practices?  Can we recognize ourselves and who we want to be in the practices we’re using to do our work?


It’s especially important that we hold ourselves accountable for the quality of our relationships.  We do our work in a world suffocating in values of greed, self-interest, competition, consumption and aggression.  It is very difficult to avoid being caught up in their powerful undertow.  We often become competitive and critical of one another.  Or we become frustrated and choose more aggressive tactics.  We need to agree that we can call each other on these behaviors, that we will notice when we’ve been pulled down by these dynamics.   Embodying the behaviors of the future — which I want to include cooperation, compassion, community and generosity — is difficult work.  We need each other to help us strengthen these new behaviors.  We need relationships that we can rely on, where trust is growing among us.


Our work is to give birth to the new in the midst of the collapse of the old.  We are brave experimenters, learning as we go, fearless, liberated from our hope for immediate results.  Yet we are only at the beginning and, as the Spanish poet Machado said, “We make the road by walking.”   It is not our present successes that matter, but the way we walk together as we create this new road, setting in motion the future.  The radical, truth-telling American historian Howard Zinn described this beautifully:

“We don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”