On transitions and loss (part I)

Covid-19 is precipitating change the likes of which we haven’t seen for generations and the extent to which we can only currently guess.

Out of necessity, and against the odds, we have seen communities, the wider public sector and civil society step up and work together to respond to local needs, largely in the absence of clear and effective direction, investment or co-ordination from national government. What would it take to learn from this endeavour and start to put in place some firm foundations for the future? 

Finding ways of recognising and honouring the passage of time and events is part of the human condition. All cultures have well established rituals to march such occasions, from funerals and other life events to rites of passage ceremonies. It enables us to recognise the loss that is inherent in all change. We have to leave something behind – behaviours, houses, processes, a single life, jobs, perspectives, people, norms – in order to move forward. Marking transitions is a vital step in this process, to add to our collective story and heritage. Even in a commercial context, it is no accident that visitors to the Ben and Jerry’s factory in Waterford, Vermont can walk around the Flavour Graveyard and pay homage to those old favourites no longer in production. 

Mark Twain records how, in developing the technical skills to safely navigate the Mississippi, he started to see the river more analytically and so lost a sense of its intrinsic natural beauty. This is a feeling well known to anyone seeking proficiency in a sporting or artistic endeavour, that progression from the initial unconscious incompetence to conscious competence (cumulating, in the zen tradition, with mastery – an unconscious competence). At all stages there is something to be lost, let go of.

Without consciously letting go of the old or the obsolete, and marking their passing, we won’t have the capacity and resource and collective desire to allow the new to emerge in its place. We run the risk of clinging ever more tightly onto old patterns and paradigms, of harking back for a world now long gone and lost forever. So it is that communities will benefit from a process of recognising this loss, in all its forms, if we are to move coherently and transformatively towards a post-Covid world. 

Local community conversations, designed in such a way that fosters collective sensemaking based on reconciliation, healing and growth, are a crucial part of this process. These difficult conversations will help us learn from the crisis, revealing underlying tensions and synergies, helping build community wisdom and the information with which to make collective decisions about the future. Such a process is about creating the space for people to come together and to share their stories, experiences and perspectives in an effort to surface truthfulness and knowing. As a participant in a workshop earlier in the year reflected, “I think that transition phase is going to be really difficult. Especially for individuals – we need to acknowledge loss, of people, of jobs, of dreams. A lot of people need a period of grief and mourning. There might be a conflict between what the economy needs and what people can give”.

A reconciliatory approach would enable citizens to collectively acknowledge the past whilst creatively envisioning the kind of post-Covid future that makes most sense to their community, its circumstances, needs and aspirations. So let’s not simply and mechanistically talk of ‘snapping back’ or ‘building back’, for to go ‘back’ is in this sense regressive. A process which enables us to move forwards, through myriad community conversations, could provide the lifeblood for better policy and practice and the redistribution of our excessively centralised power. 

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