Preserving Dignity in Uncertain Times

We’re all living with uncertainty – in politics, our economy, the climate, socially and culturally. The last time I recall feeling this much uncertainty was after September 11th.  On that unforgettable day, I was at  home tweaking my speech on “Managing Energy Operations in Emerging Democracies” to be delivered to a 350-person audience, members of the Association of International Petroleum Negotiators, many of them from Muslim-majority countries,  gathered in Calgary for an annual conference. Driving downtown with the radio turned up, listening to reporters describe the fall of the twin towers, again and again, I couldn’t stop crying. Whatever the facts, the lives of many people I knew as friends and colleagues would be irreversibly changed. There was no precedent, no grounding, for this event. It was agony; all I could think of was, “what now?”

Understandably, one of the reactions to times of great uncertainty and to any attack – whether real or perceived- is an increased receptivity to top-down direction and powerful leadership, for example, forceful security measures to counter terrorists or even aggressive tweets in the attempt to deter rogue states threatening nuclear war. We want someone to fix the problem! And, yet, in addition to the minor indignities, the hassle of security checks at airports, there are serious implications for personal dignity that we are wise to consider before being seduced into avoiding or succumbing to the turbulent emotions that accompany uncertainty.

Although it’s tempting to tag Donald Trump, The Disruptor, as the source of all uncertainty, some argue that our present state is actually rooted in the forceful response to security threats in the wake of 9/11.  That attack on America unleashed a drama whose ripples continue to rock our boats. Government leaders had to step up, then, to be seen to be keeping citizens safe, and despite the fact that it’s more likely you will be struck by lightning than be killed by a terrorist, people still feel uncertainty and fear.  As our freedoms erode, there is frustration, anger and a loss of dignity too. In her latest book, No is Not Enough, Naomi Klein argues that Trump isn’t an aberration but an inevitable culmination of what she calls “destructive trends” including the rise of a super-powered brand of top-down decision-maker, the “CEO saviour”. I don’t often agree with Naomi Klein on political ends, but on this, we agree.

PeatWith David Peat, in Pari, Italy

During the early heave of September 11th, I met David Peat, a British-educated quantum physicist who was associated with scientist and philosopher David Bohm (the two wrote the book Science, Order, and Creativity together); worked in Canada as a researcher with the National Research Council and ultimately founded the Pari Centre in Pari, Italy. David was in Alberta introducing ideas for leading change in turbulent times, built on Bohm’s scientific principles.

In that first meeting, I was struck by David’s emphasis on the need for creative and “gentle action”. While others were focused on top-down “fixes” and massive interventions in complex systems, David was offering up a different response, one that seemed to honour the dignity of affected individuals. Top-down decision-making is occasionally necessary, but  when it’s tone deaf to the experiences of citizens and communities, these interventions make things worse, intensify the drama,  disrupt ecosystems and damage economies.

6093614Gentle Action became a primer we used with Canada Bridges for guiding local and youth leaders who wanted to change the status quo in their own communities.

Very sadly, David passed away this spring, at home in his beloved Pari.

Of course, there are times when top-down directing is an imperative. In the operating room, I prefer that one person, the surgeon, direct the operation and in the heat of battle, soldiers need crystal-clear orders. More often though, a mix of top-down and bottom-up decision-making is most effective. Over the years, I’ve gotten more comfortable with my leadership styles, and recognize my sweet spots and weaknesses.

Beyond top-down and bottom-up, it’s advantageous to think about how to approach change. Based on my research we can look at this from a few different places–as an insider, as an outsider, or as someone in between. Working in large energy companies, in the role of employee or advisor, I was always outward focused. When elected to government, I understood the importance of allegiance to a political party yet equally prioritized my allegiance to constituents. There are times that this way of thinking, of taking both my party and my constituents into consideration, has been misinterpreted as disloyalty.   I’ve never been the consummate insider, one of those people who serves at the core where decisions are made. And, I’m rarely the outsider – the person who throws missiles from beyond the walls. Where I’m most often found is at the edge of the inside.  It’s the place that seems to nurture my sense of who I am, my true self. My sense of dignity.

Fr-Richard-FH-porch-300x205Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest living in Albuquerque coined the term, edge of the inside, and suggests in his pamphlet “The Eight Core Principles,” that when you live on the edge of any group, “you are free from its central seductions, but also free to hear its core message in very new and creative ways.”

Last June, David Brooks wrote an op-ed in the New York Times exploring this edge of the inside concept, with a focus on American politics. Here’s an overview:

  • It’s bridge-building work. The person at the edge of the inside of an organization can see what’s good about their own group, and as well, what’s good about rival groups. “A doorkeeper must love both the inside and the outside of his or her group, and know how to move between these two loves.” Insiders and outsiders are threatened by those on the other side of the barrier. But a person on the edge of inside neither idolizes the Us nor demonizes the Them.
  • A person at the edge of inside can be the strongest reformer. This person has the loyalty of a faithful insider, but the judgment of the critical outsider. A person on the edge of the inside knows how to take advantage of the standards and practices of an organization but not be imprisoned by them. Rohr writes, “You have learned the rules well enough to know how to ‘break the rules properly,’ which is not really to break them at all, but to find their true purpose: ‘not to abolish the law but to complete it.’”
  • The person on the edge of inside is involved in constant change. The true insiders are so deep inside they often get confused by trivia and locked into the status quo. The outsider is throwing bombs and dreaming of far-off transformational revolution. But the person at the doorway is seeing constant comings and goings. As Rohr says, he is involved in a process of perpetual transformation, not a belonging system, more interested in being a searcher than a settler.

This edge of the inside is definitely ‘beyond polarity’ non-dualistic thinking and acting! At this threshold between insiders and outsiders, you are perfectly positioned to see how seeming opponents aren’t really opposed in all things. This perspective can help you to see complementary relationships on bigger issues. Thinking really big, recall Lincoln’s ability to see beyond the divisions between North and South.


But, as Brooks points out in his op-ed, and as I know from personal raw experience, this is rarely a comfortable place.  At the edge of the inside, you are often seen as lacking the “purity” of the outsider and you aren’t the “true believer” on the inside. When people are uncertain, or afraid, they want purity and unwavering loyalty. And lock step unity.

We’re living in uncertain times. It’s natural to look for people who can shine a clear light through the fog. Sometimes that clarity comes from a sense of certainty or conviction about a position or values or priorities—which can feel strong at the core of an organization, or in rebellion against someone or some thing or some idea. There is a critical role for insiders and outsiders, and I admire people with the courage, commitment and loyalty to do what it takes to offer up certainty in uncertain times.

But there are people, including myself, whose truest selves are realized by acting at the edge of the inside. For those of you seeking creative, constructive and energizing space, and who can live with a little uncertainty, I invite you to join me at the edge of the inside, this space along the continuum of change where opposites can engage.  Yes, you will be criticized as not caring enough—but I can assure you that caring is one of the prime drivers in this threshold space. If I didn’t care about the organizations and communities and political parties to which I belonged, it would be easy to disengage. Not only do I care about my own dignity, I insist that the organizations and communities I care about live up to their truest selves, too.

Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest behind this “edge of the inside” idea, has a Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico. As I was fine-tuning this blog, Rohr’s Center emailed out a short message on change that seems timely to share:

A sense of order is the easiest and most natural way to begin; it is a needed first “container.” But this structure is dangerous if we stay in its safe confines too long. It is small and self-serving. It doesn’t know the full picture, but it thinks it does. “Order” must be deconstructed by the trials and vagaries of life. We must go through a period of “disorder” to grow up….Only in the final “reorder” stage can darkness and light coexist, can paradox be okay…Opposites collide and unite; everything belongs.”

In times of uncertainty, we crave order and the instant fix. And, moving from order to disorder, to ultimately arrive at reorder, is messy and uncomfortable business, it doesn’t matter whether we are  talking about recalibrating security measures to respond to terrorism and nuclear threats, the redesign of corporate operations to reflect consumers’ changing values on climate change, or the refreshing of a political party to respect the priorities of younger voters. So, yes, I’m inviting you to move from uncertain to uncomfortable! You may not always be the hero of the story, but you may have a little fun easing the rules; crossing rigid boundaries and optimally you could be a midwife to the birth of transformative and sustained change.

bridgeRarely is there a direct flight from order to reorder. We need bridges to cross through the disorder; uncertainty calls for them, dignity deserves them.

Donna Kennedy-Glans



6 thoughts on “Preserving Dignity in Uncertain Times

  1. A voice of reason and compassion to break through the noise of strong, certain voices that may hypnotize us towards a state that is less safe, less stable and in the end less certain. By being neither inside, nor outside you invite all of us not into an OR space, rather into an AND space. Invitation (to action) accepted!

  2. Edge of the inside, an interesting concept that perhaps promises more reason and a pragmatic approach to the chaos around us. Uncertainty can bring a measure of ones true self, potential, and creativity to the forefront, Interesting will have to think more about this.

  3. Wonderful, insightful, thought-provoking Donna. Now I realize that I have always been an insider at the periphery (i.e. edge). Perhaps a contrarian. And that’s ok. Thank you Donna


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