My friend hates the phrase “paradigm shift.” She’s right, of course, that it is overused to the point of exhaustion. (And people like myself are the culprits, hoarding scraps of hope lo these many years to shore up our belief that positive change is around the corner.) But still, right now, I can’t think of anything that says it better: events have caused a large number of people to reconsider their internalized models of how the world works, to notice and begin to root out retrograde tendencies lodged in the corners of their own minds.
In fact, right before I spoke the dreaded phrase, my friend (she and I are of an age, sixties veterans) told me that the election had caused her to see how much the disappointments and degradations of recent decades had resulted in a kind of turning down of the flame on her own sense of possibility. Now a new warmth was rising from a place that had felt frozen for a long time.
It interests me greatly now how much we are now being shown the same lessons from radically different angles. The election teaches that it is possible to confound conventional expectations—to help awaken a sense of agency in those who seemed terminally discouraged, to show how terrible prejudice, even when deeply institutionalized, does not have to rule the day—that inspired individuals can make a huge difference, that in the end, it comes down to whether people believe in a possibility enough to act on it. The financial meltdown teaches that even in realms where rationality ostensibly rules, feelings are determinative. If “the market” is fearful, the numbers will plummet, such that the high chiefs of high finance find themselves in the position of clueless parents facing a tantrum, trying every kind of bedtime story and every variety of bribery in the hope of altering a distressed child’s mood.
It seems the world is reminding us that how we see and feel about things is at least as important as anything that can be conveyed with numbers, charts and graphs. I don’t know what to call it other than a paradigm shift.
The term originated with Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, where he proposed it specifically to cover the type of radical change in scientific understanding that necessitates a shift in in thinking: like the shift from Ptolemy’s cosmology with the Earth at its center to Copernicus’s realization that we all revolve around the Sun; or the relativistic view introduced by Einstein, which completely dislodged the old mechanical model of Newtonian physics. Since then the term has been applied to just about everything (hence my friend’s fatigue). But even a broken clock is right twice a day (though I don’t really think this one is broken).
So what is the paradigm shift? Well, I’ve been writing about it a lot lately as “Datastan Meets Storyland,” which I described this way in a talk I recently gave at the International Centre for Art and Social Change in Vancouver:
I am so grateful to be alive to see this moment in which more and more people are leaving Datastan—that flatland nightmare of an old paradigm that worships hyper-efficiency, hyper-rationality, hyper-materialism and domination—and heading for Storyland, a multi-dimensional, numinous landscape infused with multiple types of knowledge deriving from body, mind, emotion and spirit.
As this shift ripens, more and more opportunities are emerging to help it along. One, as I wrote last week, is to look at our own roles in cultivating the epidemic fear that surged through our society in the lead-up to the election, and thus to learn more about how to cultivate a different crop, hope grounded in reality.
Many more are emerging. Today’s email brought notice of the Charter for Compassion, writer Karen Armstrong’s project to build a document that will “speak to the core ideas of compassion [and] will also address the actions all segments of society can take to bring these ideas into the world more fully.”
I like the way she expresses the essence of the new paradigm as it pertains to religion: “I say that religion isn’t about believing things. It’s ethical alchemy. It’s about behaving in a way that changes you, that gives you intimations of holiness and sacredness.” Religious or not, that’s how a lot of us are feeling these days. Whatever happens, that feeling need not change. Whatever happens, its power can move mountains. I’m going to contribute to the Charter, and I urge you to do likewise.
On an altogether more prosaic note, I’m planning to move my paradigm and other baggage to Kansas City a week from today. My immediate horizons reveal a sea of cardboard boxes and me in the middle, trying to keep my anxiety in check. I am looking eagerly forward to a new beginning in so many ways, and to bringing you along. In the meantime, if you know anyone there I should meet, all suggestions will be gratefully received. Blessings to us all on our collective journey and individual forays!