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Making Messy Progress Together

If, somehow, you’ve managed to avoid the obvious, it’s time you know: I like butterflies. A lot. Don’t let me get started.

As much as I’d like to write this entire blog about butterflies – wouldn’t that be awesome?! – I’m thinking the metaphor would eventually get worn out. And, you’d probably stop reading...No good!

Yet, a lesson from the butterfly seems like a fitting place to launch this blog. I can think of no better inspiration than the “messy middle” of the chrysalis.

At first glance, the butterfly life cycle seems pretty clean and orderly. Egg grows to caterpillar, then caterpillar enters the chrysalis and out pops a butterfly. Voila! Input in. Output out. Like a well-oiled machine. It’s four o’clock, the world’s problems are solved, and we can go home early.

Sounds a little too ideal, doesn't it?

Taking a closer look, we can begin to appreciate the profound messiness of transformation that is endured and embodied within the chrysalis. The messy middle between what once was and what can be.

If we were to cut in mid-metamorphosis, there would be neither a caterpillar nor a butterfly in sight. Instead we’d have a soupy, goopy mess, contained by the walls of the cocoon. “Safe” within the structure of the container, the caterpillar has dissolved. It has begun to fundamentally let go of the ways of viewing and doing that have helped it along thus far but that no longer serve its best interests.

From the looks of things inside this oozing muddle, we would not assume the occurrence of progress.

Nothing inside us wants to associate progress with such a mess – some caterpillar legs here, a useless, half-developed wing there, globs of clustered cells that appear like lost children fighting each other.

Surely something that messy could not be a sign of progress! It’s horrifying, really.

You may be asking, what happened to the clean, orderly, well-oiled machine? And, what about going home early?

Please consider, for just a moment, how the butterfly symbolism – while imperfectly translated to human life and the communities and issues we face – can teach us something about the messy nature of progress.

Here’s a message to all of us who like putting things neatly in boxes with bows on top: We might need to get messy to realize the kind of radical progress we desire. I mean, let’s get real, the status quo is already messy. We can only turn our eyes and plug our noses for so long. Humans are messy, and we make messy problems.

I’d say it’s pretty oozy out here. And, VUCA, right? Volatile-Uncertain-Complex-Ambiguous. If that doesn’t spell oozy, I don’t know what does.

(It’s quite possible that your brain centers for registering literal disgust have been activated with this symbolic description of a half-caterpillar-turned-butterfly-oozing mess. In a way, I wasn’t kidding about plugging our noses.)

I imagine caterpillars who avoid the natural course of transformation run into equally messy problems attempting to live in a body that is overripe for change.

Not that any of us would avoid change...

My point is that we need to lean in to the messy that is so we begin to realize what can be. We need to increase our capacity to stay present and curious in the muck of adaptive, ambiguous challenges inside and outside of us. Let’s dare to trade status-quo-messy for another kind of messy that might mean progress. Let’s dare to be uncomfortable and a little less risk-averse.

And you thought this butterfly blog was going to be all fluff.

So, what might messy progress look like? It starts with you and me...

· Leaning into spaces where our dogmatic worldviews might be shattered and into spaces where we know we don’t have the solutions and don’t pretend we do.

· Talking across the aisle and with those who look and think differently than us. Conversing across political, racial, gender, age and socio-economic lines – to name a few. It isn’t hard to see how segregated we still are across all these lines; we tend to go to church and rallies, eat and socialize, with people who live like us.

I’m preaching to myself too.

· Calling to question our own thought lives and habits and doing some serious deep thinking about how we are contributing to our personal and the larger collective messes. Ouch. I can think of nothing harder for us and nothing more necessary. But, just think, if we all could do this a little more, we would be shifting the very part of the mess we are responsible for.

· Considering solutions that go beyond partisan swings from one side to the other. Engaging with an altogether different attitude toward “the other.” Listening to hear instead of listening to rebut.

It’s not so much about doing more work or working harder as it is about viewing and doing work differently.

No, it’s not going to be all “kumbaya” – if that’s what you think I’m saying. We aren’t ever going to be clean, orderly and well-oiled machines. It’s not in our nature. But, that doesn’t mean we can’t do a whole lot better than we are. The impossibility of perfect progress doesn’t mean we can’t make meaningful progress through meaningful engagements with one another.

And, yes. After some debate with myself, I did use the word radical back there. I mean to challenge us to consider how our deep-seated ways of viewing and doing keep us from the kind of progress we desire.

Our deep-seated beliefs about right and wrong are healthy only when held in tension with the ability to listen, to connect with, and to be influenced by those who see differently. We need to, paradoxically, hold them tightly and loosely at the same time. Otherwise, we can be “right” in all the wrong ways.

Did you know that butterflies like hot and muggy environments? Keep the heat on.

I’m not sure about you, but I naturally want to point my finger, to blame whoever’s in authority or on the other side; complaining comes easily. It’s much harder, and much more uncomfortable, to look at what I am doing or not doing that’s contributing to the problem or situation. This can be at a family, organization, neighborhood, community, state, nation, or world level.

If I can’t change myself in these spaces, if I can’t get real about my own piece of the mess and act on it, how do I presume to change others?

If I can’t learn to speak to my own loss and mobilize myself, how will I ever powerfully move others? If I can’t manage my own sense of overwhelm and uncertainty, how will I hold steady as I move boldly to make messy progress in the world?

I don’t think it’s just me.

It’s even harder to sit there in my discomfort with these questions, feeling raw and powerless, simultaneously fragile and strong in my vulnerability - and to offer myself compassion and encouragement instead of shame. I see the problems. I hear the message of “do better, do more.” I want to, but I also struggle in my body and my soul to fundamentally change myself.

No one is going to give me an accolade for sitting with this difficult, vital inner-work.

Yet, if I move into discomfort, not haphazardly, but purposefully – creating some sort of container for myself to undergo and create change – maybe I’ll begin to show up a little more human, courageously vulnerable and creative. I can be both part of the problem AND part of the solution. The change that happens within me may then be reflected in the world.

I'm not completely sure, but I think that’s a bit of what Ghandi was getting at:

“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.” – Mahatma Gandhi

I hope we all can embrace the oozing, soupy, goopy messy-middles on the way to progress. I hope we can do this both personally, in a human-systemic-embodied sort of way, and in collective-systemic-community sort of way. Both are necessary. I hope, together, we can explore the strategic paradoxes of life and be innovative and kind in the ways we co-create progress.

Then the outcomes and the journey will be sweeter.

My purpose through this blog is to evoke and intervene into the messy spaces of personal transformation and collective impact. I hope to be a catalyst for small, and perhaps sometimes jarring, shifts in viewing and doing, and even being. My aim is to develop our capacity to more strategically and humanely make messy progress together.

Thanks for tuning in. I look forward to exploring the intersection – and the consilience – of fields like neuroscience, systems theory, adaptive leadership and social change, theology, philosophy, and the arts (and more) with you.

Possibility awaits!



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