Sensemaking

A lifelong struggle for me has been the frustration that people don’t make the changes needed to address justice, peace, social and environmental problems.

One of the most troubling, for example, is the direct connection between gas burning cars and environmental destruction. It made perfect sense, to me, that we had to greatly reduce the number of cars in use in order to reduce pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions. Did everyone else fail to see the problem, or did they not want to give up their cars because of the inconvenience?

After all these years, with increasing understanding and evidence of environmental destruction from greenhouse gas emissions in the form of increased air and water temperatures, stronger storms, drought, etc., it makes even less sense that people continue to use personal automobiles.

When I recently came across the term sensemaking, this refusal to give up cars began to make sense to me.

sensemaking–the action or process of making sense of or giving meaning to something, especially new developments and experiences.

…there remains the most existential risk of them all: our diminishing capacity for collective sensemaking. Sensemaking is the ability to generate an understanding of world around us so that we may decide how to respond effectively to it. When this breaks down within the individual, it creates an ineffective human at best and a dangerous one at worst. At the collective level, a loss of sensemaking erodes shared cultural and value structures and renders us incapable of generating the collective wisdom necessary to solve complex societal problems like those described above. When that happens the centre cannot hold.

Pontoon Archipelago or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Collapse. By James Allen, originally published by Medium
June 18, 2019

“The most existential risk of them all: our diminishing capacity for collective sensemaking.” Why is it increasingly difficult for us to make sense of the world around us?

Why did it make sense to me, and lead me to give up having an automobile, when few others did so? “Sensemaking is the ability to generate an understanding of the world around us.” Was there something about the way I understood the world that was different from others’ understanding?

(When I refer to “me” I actually mean everyone who has chosen to give up having a personal automobile).

I believe the answer is “yes”, my understanding of the world is different for very specific reasons. The first is I came to love the Rocky Mountains, where we would go for family vacations. Secondly, I moved to Indianapolis in 1971, prior to the widespread use of catalytic converters. I was affected by the sight of the clouds of smog, and coughed and breathed the car exhaust as I rode my bicycle through the city. I clearly remember seeing an image in my mind of the Rocky Mountains totally obscured by smog, which hurt deeply. I then knew I could not own a car, and contribute to that vision of not being able to see the mountains. That was sensemaking, i.e. “the ability to generate an understanding of the world” for me, which many other people didn’t share because they hadn’t had similar experiences. In this case, those who have never experienced smog from auto exhaust don’t viscerally understand what is coming out of cars.

How could we convince lawmakers to pass laws to protect wilderness? Lopez argued that wilderness activists will never achieve the success they seek until they can go before a panel of legislators and testify that a certain river or butterfly or mountain or tree must be saved, not because of its economic importance, not because it has recreational or historical or scientific value, but because it is so beautiful.

His words struck a chord in me. I left the room a changed person, one who suddenly knew exactly what he wanted to do and how to do it. I had known that love is a powerful weapon, but until that moment I had not understood how to use it. What I learned on that long-ago evening, and what I have counted on ever since, is that to save a wilderness, or to be a writer or a cab driver or a homemaker—to live one’s life—one must reach deep into one’s heart and find what is there, then speak it plainly and without shame.

Reid, Robert Leonard. Because It Is So Beautiful: Unraveling the Mystique of the American West . Counterpoint. Kindle Edition.

That is why I like the following quote so much.

Everywhere people ask, “what can we do?”
The question, what can we do, is the second question.
The first question is “what can we be?”
Because what you can do is a consequence of who you are.
Once you know what you can be, you know what you can do.

Arkan Lushwala

When Robert Reid wrote (above), “I left the room a changed person, one who suddenly knew exactly what he wanted to do and how to do it”, that was what Arkan Lushwala was saying, “what you can do is a consequence of who you are. Once you know what you can be, you know what you can do.”

This means it is important to strive to help people generate an understanding of the world they don’t currently have. That process might involve new experiences, like camping in the mountains. Might involve exposure to all kinds of art, music, prayer, worship and story telling. Sensemaking is something I will keep in mind.

ALL THAT WE ARE IS STORY. From the moment we are born to the time we continue on our spirit journey, we are involved in the creation of the story of our time here. It is what we arrive with. It is all we leave behind. We are not the things we accumulate. We are not the things we deem important. We are story. All of us. What comes to matter then is the creation of the best possible story we can while we’re here; you, me, us, together. When we can do that and we take the time to share those stories with each other, we get bigger inside, we see each other, we recognize our kinship — we change the world one story at a time.

Richard Wagamese (October 14, 1955-March 10, 2017)
Ojibwe from Wabeseemoong Independent Nations, Canada

We change the world one story at a time, because this can influence others’ sensemaking.

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