The (In)Consequentiality of Circumstance
There is a man who lives in a van that frequents a cafe I visit once or twice a day. I go there to break up the energy of being in my studio. Mostly I drink decaf lattes. They tell me I’m the only one they keep those beans for. Me and children under 12.
I got to know this man first by his scent. There is an incredibly massive wave of body odor that follows him wherever he goes. With your back turned, you can smell him enter the room from 50 feet. Not long after the birth of our olfactory relationship (which I imagine was asynchronous, but my wife says she can smell odor on me when I still think I’m fresh as a daisy, so who knows), we got into conversation and I learned about how he had come to live in a van. Although we could relate in some ways seeing as I had spent half a year living in a van, our stories diverged at the cause. For me, I was seeking adventure. For him, it seems to be the only thing keeping him off the street.
In speaking with this young thin man with long hair, it became quickly apparent that he is an intelligent and knowledgeable individual. Not long ago he was doing well paid and interesting work in NYC. I didn’t get the full story, as I wasn’t that interested in where he’d come from. What had my attention was how and why he was where he was now, struggling with a weak wifi signal on an old laptop to apply for some kind of grant for a few hundred dollars to keep gas in his van so that he could keep moving it each night and stay out of the way of the police that seem to follow him around.
In our many short conversations, I have found myself agreeing with his fine articulations of a society that has become dysfunctional. How he speaks of the structures that keep him down and make it near impossible to climb his way out now that he is down is very enrolling. It’s logical and the evidence of it is as clear as day.
While I agree with his many claims as to circumstances being the cause for his condition, I also see him as a bleeding victim of his own depressed perspective. The trouble is that nothing he claims is untrue. He is intelligent and his arguments are valid.
I don’t mean to say simply that, ‘Life is hard, so what?’ I mean more sharply that, indeed, the closer you get to the bottom the harder it is to climb out. Furthermore, I think it true that this is not a natural order, but the oppression of an economic system based on interest and leverage and a culture sold an underlying philosophy of survival as primary.
The red tears I envision dripping from the corners of this man’s saddened eyes pulls at my heart to help him. I want valiantly for him to see his own agency in this mess. I’ve done my bit – both gently and aggressively – trying to help him see that although what he points to in the world is there, it is holding all of it inside his mind that is pressing his eyes firmly against their sockets and making them bleed.
Our conversations are not that dissimilar from those I have in my studio every day. My professional dialogue does not typically begin in such a place of desperation, but I am often in this same conversation concerning the impact of circumstance on condition. I find myself nodding in agreement with entrepreneurs’ frustrations and leaders’ sense of impossibility due to external factors.
In fact, a few weeks ago I was doing some work with the leader of a multinational organization who oversees offices in nearly 50 countries. He was telling me about the ‘inevitable’ challenge of developing of a global strategy with leaders from so many different nations and cultures. Obviously bringing together leaders from 50 countries around the world was going to include strong disagreement and clashing. When I challenged him that he was creating this entire dynamic, he looked at me in the same way the man living in the van did when I challenged his idea that it was not the ‘system’ which was keeping him down.
In neither case was I suggesting that the external circumstances did not exist. Nor was I saying that they had did not have influence. Instead I was suggesting there was a parallel truth that the entire situation was actually resulting from their perspective that the circumstance was at cause.
To be clear, I am not just saying that their ‘experience’ of the situation as challenging was being created by them. Indeed, I mean that, but I am also saying that the external condition itself results, at least in part, from their perspective.
One might argue this as untrue by suggesting that if they were to remove themselves from the situation, the ‘problem’ would still exist. What they aren’t seeing though is that removing oneself is not the only alternative.
In a keynote I do on leadership I make the assertion that in the same way by being a competitive leader, you generate more competition in your organisation, by being a collaborative leader, you generate more collaboration too.
Core to my work (and my life actually) is leveraging the idea that ‘your state of being creates your world’. I often sound like a broken record pointing people to their own agency in the creation of their circumstances.
An extreme example I use is how it rarely rains where I live. Indeed, my impact on rain in southern California would be hard to measure, but when viewed from the perspective of ‘where I live’, then I am wholly at cause. I moved my family here from London largely to escape from under the wet grey blanket of a sky there.
I don’t mean to say the answer is always so simple. I just mean to point out that there is always a place where we are at cause and when we can find that cause we are empowered to create something different.
After some gentle nudging, the leader of the multinational organisation was able to see how his perspective was encouraging an expectation that many came with. He also discovered how this perspective was wearing him out and making him less effective at leading a more cooperative conversation.
The man in the van wrote down in his notebook a question I shared with him. It’s one I told him I ask myself whenever I don’t like an experience I’m having.
“How am I creating this?”
There have been a few moments like this where he has touched the liberating edges of the inconsequentiality of circumstance. They have given me a glimmer of hope for him in climbing his way out. Enough hope for me to buy him a book and give him a photo of me in my van with one of my favorite quotes written on it – a quote with a subtle nod to the power of transcendence and paradox.
The funny thing about all of this work that I do – professionally and habitually with myself and those I meet wherever I go – is that the deep purpose behind it, what really drives me, is my very present awareness as to the consequentially of circumstance.
While I hold it deeply true that ignoring external conditions is how an individual finds the most power, I hold it equally true that we are inextricably entangled with everything and that not even a single breath or thought happens in us entirely of our own volition. I see that we are tiny whirlpools appearing for a brief moment in a gently and yet incessantly rolling eternal river. I see that everything is a dance and that circumstance is indeed entirely consequential.
I realize that these ideas, because I hold them in such extreme, seem to be mutually exclusive. I assure you though that they are not. The closer you get to them, the more you see how they fit perfectly on the backside of one another.
And there is a time for putting attention to each.
When in the voting booth, for example, I act fully from and for the rolling river.
When I meet another whirlpool though, one struggling to keep spinning and staying in existence amongst the massive currents all around – be them the oppression of an economic system or the force of clashing nationalities – I put all of my focus on the how the little whirlpool creates the giant river.
Everything that goes into something is also simultaneously coming out of it in reverse.
My personal wish is to live in a perceived world where I am the absolute creator of every circumstance so that I may be empowered to create circumstances most supportive of all those others I am inextricably entangled with.