Monsters at the Gates: Enabling Agency

Why isn’t anything going on in the senate?
Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?
      Because the barbarians are coming today.
      What’s the point of senators making laws now?
      Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.
– CP Cavafy ‘Waiting for the Barbarians
There are monsters at the gates. There always are. The answer is not fear. The answer is for us to take our agency, find our hope and make change.

Monsters at the Gates

We do not need to look far to see the barbarians. Threats abound. Digital disruption, viral epidemics, climate change, racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice dominate our attention and generate personal and community fear.
The fear is real and very human. Since the birth of humanity in the savannah our finely tuned sense of fear has been a key part of our survival as a species. The amygdala hijack of fear is deep in our animal brain. We are rushing towards freeze, fight or flight before we even have time to rationalise the alternatives.
The threats are real and manifold. We must not diminish or amplify fear to our ends. That’s not realistic, productive or sustainable.
We need to remember that freeze, fight or flight are responses, designed to foster safety for animals in the face of a threat. Our amygdala is giving our brains a head start and the tools to exercise agency in the face of our fears.
The danger we face is that our response stops at freeze. We cannot be like Cavafy’s Romans and Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon ever rationalising our waiting. We need work to give people agency, information and degrees of freedom to mitigate the negatives and work through their fears towards hope and change.

Enabling Agency

Every threat is as bad as it is. What matters is not how bad as it is, but what we can do about it. We need not focus on the threat. We need to focus on the hope and the agency that we have. We have to move beyond freeze and into action.
We need to recognise that at the heart of all these threats is an invitation to change from business as usual. Nothing changes until we shift mindset from ‘Someone should make it go away’ to ‘We have to do something.’ Not all of us can contribute due to power, privilege, economic or other circumstances, but we can each do what we can. Power is rarely surrendered. It must be made.
We have agency to tackle our monsters, once we acknowledge that they won’t solve themselves:
  • Digital Disruption: No external force is going to transform our organisations to equip them to survive and thrive in a digital economy, not even the fancy consultants. We need to manage the transitions for our role, team and organisation ourselves. Change agents are critical and can start now (They will have. Go find them). Start small, share information, build collaborations, experiment and you are more likely to have success than some enormous transformation project. Do it not for your glory, but to help others. Meanwhile increase the transparency and discussion of the need for change to prompt and enable others to do the same.
  • Viral epidemics: There’s no magic vaccine (for at least 18 months). Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. Work from home, if you can. Don’t gather with others when you are ill. Increase distance for a while. Avoid panic buying. Recognise you do this not for yourself, but for others. The herd needs protecting. Spread practical messages and support others to take action to protect themselves and others. We can take particular care of those at most risk, both in health and economically.
  • Climate change: There is no imminent global solution to be implemented independently of our actions. We can each make decisions now to reduce our footprints and improve the impact of rising global temperatures. It will be inconvenient, but we don’t do it for ourselves. We do it for others. We can come together to advocate for larger societal and global changes. We can ensure that we consider not just the changes, but their costs.
  • Racism, sexism and other prejudice: No magic wand is going to remove prejudice from the human psyche. At times the threat can feel overwhelming. Remember these experiences are start individual and roll-up to the collective. Practice empathy. Challenge and hold to account those expressing, reinforcing and practising biases. You are acting for others and may experience inconvenience. Act where you can to foster change. Give those experiencing prejudice the freedom to show others a better way. Be an ally. Join in actions of change against collective and institutional prejudice.

Will these steps change the world and remove all fear. No. What they will do is start the process of change in the face of fear. They are ways that we can start now.


We need to remember that we should not minimise fear.  These threats are real. The antidote to fear is not fearlessness. Foolhardy change agents fail, bear great costs and hurt others.
The antidote to fear is hope. We must confront fear by owning our own agency and kindling our own hope. The human spirit can hold both fear and hope at the same time. The human spirit may even require both. Now is the time to imagine and discuss how we can be better. Our best performance as a species is when we respond to our fears by holding on to our hope and pursuing our better actions.
“Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed. Others would meet the case equally well, if not better. To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late! Let us represent worthily for one the foul brood to which a cruel fate consigned us! What do you say? It is true that when with folded arms we weigh the pros and cons we are no less a credit to our species. The tiger bounds to the help of his congeners without the least reflexion, or else he slinks away into the depths of the thickets. But that is not the question. What are we doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in the immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come — ”
Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.
-CP Cavafy ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’

Postscript: Thanks also to Richard Martin for reminding me of Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark. A book I loved and which is a much richer exploration of our need to act and sustain hope. Read it.

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