In unsettling times, are you calming the waters or making waves? That simple choice shapes how effective you can be in achieving sustainable change.
And let it be noted that there is no more delicate matter to take in hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful in its success, than to set up as a leader in the introduction of changes. For he who innovates will have for his enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only the lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new. This lukewarm temper arises partly from the fear of adversaries who have the laws on their side and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who will never admit the merit of anything new, until they have seen it proved by the eventNicolo Machiavelli
Lots of forces tell us to settle for what we have, how things are and what comes easiest. These forces are mostly social, often cultural and can be legal or political. The order of things is enforced and reinforced in many complex ways. We even settle because we engage in anticipatory obedience.
All this pressure to settle, to make do, to compromise and to oblige reinforces the status quo. It benefits those who are benefited most by the systems, culture and processes in place today. The system is working perfectly and to the extent you disagree you are the problem. The unfortunate and unfair outcomes are part of the design of the system as it is today.
So many changes that people seek to bring about with caution and calm are merely temporary blips of change. The system responds and settles the change. Everything is brought back into the familiar and comfortable order. Sustainable change takes disruption, tensions and things to break before a new equilibrium is restored in a changed system.
Being Unsettled is Being
Do you preserve your place in an unfair universe or choose the existential dread of no sure place at all?
Throughout history all kinds of unfair institutions, corrupt practices, evils and other wrongs have been sustained by our willingness to settle for our place in the calm, but unfair, order of things. Peace, food on the table, a regular paycheck, the ability to keep living relatively undisturbed are all part of the incentive system that seek to discourage those who want to unsettle that order.
Yet at the same time fighting for change, an act of rebellion against the system, is a positive step towards new values. Camus noted this well
The affirmation implicit in every act of rebellion is extended to something that transcends the individual in so far as it withdraws him from his supposed solitude and provides him with a reason to act.Albert Camus, The Rebel
Rilke also noted that our process of discomfort works upon us, changing us in the process of bringing about change
Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all, you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you?Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
There also lies a wider question of whether there is any sustained comfort in a place in an unjust system. What we push away to avoid looking at injustice and its conflicts does not go away. It remains before us and continues its work. Martin Luther King Jr wrote in his famous letter from Birmingham jail:
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly…
We face many complex dichotomies as we seek to make change. The current social order is often in tension with what values we know we need to bring forth. Law and order faces off against the forces of change. The key question we must face as we go about the challenge of being in a complex world is do we focus on the change or the order? Perhaps the answer is in recognising that King’s mutuality makes them one and the same. We are agents of change because we exist in the networks of social and other relations that demand we live our values.
We are because we change for the better.