Among the issues raised in the series of posts on the Cultural Creatives, an important one concerns how to sustain motivation for action over very long periods of time – something absolutely essential if we are to engage in the civilisation building processes under discussion there.
Previously I tackled the challenges of overcoming inertia. One of the issues there, that is also relevant here, was becoming able to see that what you could do would lead to what you wanted if you kept at it, in spite of how incredible that might seem. But, to be honest, the problems of getting started pale into virtual insignificance when compared with those connected with persisting in the implementation of a plan over decades or even generations.
Concerning one movement examined in the book The Cultural Creatives the authors put this bluntly:
In the consciousness movement, the people who can persevere for ten, twenty, and thirty years are the ones who can have a dramatic impact on the culture – because that is the true time horizon of effective action.
(The Cultural Creatives: page 203)
Within the Bahá’í community the issue is the same. A currently serving member on the most senior institution of the Faith wrote recently:
Generation after generation of believers will strive to translate the teachings into a new social reality. . . . . . . .
It therefore seemed worthwhile having a look from a psychological perspective at what that challenge might involve. It should complement the spiritual one. I am only just beginning the process of stretching my mind to encompass at least some of the implications of the most recent message from our sovereign body, the Universal House of Justice, whose rich, subtly textured and multi-layered analysis unfolds in detail what such complex work stretching over many decades demands of us. They have clearly taken into account the factors I am about to discuss and many more besides. I am not yet in a position where I can even hope to integrate the two kinds of discourse into a clear explanation. Some aspects of the psychological point of view will have to suffice for now, and maybe that is enough as it does help me (and hopefully others) get to better grips with at least some of what the world centre of our Faith is saying.
When I was working as a member of a rehabilitation team in a mental health context, I had reason to adapt into a simpler form Fishbein and Bandura’s ‘s model as a way of assisting people who were stuck in a kind of learned helplessness to free themselves from the unrelenting grip of that quicksand.
The first step was to help the trapped person define the ultimate destination (s)he wished to attain if at all possible. Once that had been defined, whether it was a return to work, completion of a college course, creating a pleasant place to live, finding friends, developing interests, preventing relapse or some combination of several of them, there was another question to be answered: was the goal as defined highly enough valued to be intensely desired, particularly when ego boosting immediate rewards might be in short supply?
If the answer to that question was a resounding ‘yes’ we could move onto the next stage. If not, we had to work at making the vision clearer, more positive and more intensely desirable and, above all else, easier to hold on to. It is easy to see how this stage of the process can be applied to creating a motivating vision of civilisation building such as cultural creatives, Bahá’ís, and other people who care about the state of the world, need to develop. Because the next steps will take some explaining I won’t dwell on the obvious at this point.
The next few questions are of critical importance. Obviously, once the vision was clear and sufficiently compelling, we had to look at what steps needed to be taken to get from where the person was to where (s)he wanted to be.
This inevitably led fairly rapidly to considering two other interconnected questions which had to be answered before these ideas consolidated into a plan: did the steps as defined relate convincingly to the achievement of this goal and did they seem within the person’s power to execute?
We need to look at those one at a time.
Sometimes people don’t make a forwards move because they feel external demands are requiring them to do something that they can’t see is relevant to what they really want to do or they don’t believe that the step they can make at this point really will lead to where they want to get to. Such doubts have to be dealt with sympathetically and not discounted out of hand. There is often more than a grain of truth in them, and even if they are largely irrational, it does no good simply to say with a wave of the hand, ‘It’ll work out, don’t you worry.’ Often, the act of surfacing them in a supportive and sympathetic conversation with someone else dispels their paralysing power. It can cut them down to size and allow the person to see for themselves how it all might work.
Sometimes people can see that the step would work, but don’t believe they can perform it. It feels beyond them. Either they lack the skill or the courage or both. There may be material or other objective obstacles such as lack of money that may have to be addressed, but in the absence of those, what has to be tackled is making action possible by reducing the size of the step, increasing the level of support, practising and acquiring the missing skill or possibly all three.
Accompaniment and encouragement play a huge part in helping us embark on challenging adventures of this kind, and this is well recognised within the Baha’i community as well as outside it. Without those two supports many of us might well never move an inch.
There are some useful thoughts from another tradition of psychology that also have a bearing here.
Our society sells a very disabling illusion: a good life is a life without pain and discomfort. Even though it is fairly easy to prick this bubble – you only have to look carefully at how much painful effort and determination generally has to go into even the most apparently straightforward achievements – the lie slides back into our minds and tells us we shouldn’t have to exert ourselves to make something of our lives. We deserve it just for being here. Buying the lie is completely paralysing.
This lie relates also to the fixed mindset that the book Bounce deals with so vividly, its author Syed drawing heavily on the work of Dweck and others: ’If I’m talented I should succeed without trying: if I have to try I’m not talented.’ There are countless other insidious variations.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) gives this kind of life lie short shrift from a slightly different angle than the one Dweck, Syed and others are speaking from. Discomfort, pain even, are inevitable concomitants of life, they argue. Building a life around their avoidance is deadly: it paves the way to addiction, escapism, exploitation of others, loss of meaning and ultimately a frozen state of spiritual suicide, a living death that may even lead to someone taking their own life. Pain and discomfort are not to be made excuses for doing nothing on the grounds that they make everything too difficult. You learn to enact your values regardless of the discomfort they bring. The rewards ultimately far outweigh the costs. That is the good life.
There are many other aspects to consider which enrich the picture and reflect the full complexity of life more effectively, but I feel I will be in a better position to look at those when I have moved forward a bit more in my own thinking and developed a deeper understanding of what the House of Justice has so recently explained. So, these will have to wait for another time.
For now it is probably enough for me to repeat that there is more to healing a wounded world than recognising the tasks and making a start. Keeping going is the difficult trick to master, and remembering, as dear friend of mine put it, “You can’t sprint a marathon.’ That’s how you get from something like the building site in the first photo to the glory of this one.