[Images: floor mosaics at London’s National Gallery]
The Pope has just issued a call for a ‘revolution of tenderness’ in a surprise TED Talk. He calls on leaders to “connect [their] power with humility and tenderness”.
He goes on to say: “The future of humankind isn’t exclusively in the hands of politicians, of great leaders, of big companies. Yes, they do hold an enormous responsibility. But the future, is, most of all, in the hands of those people who recognize the other as a “you”, and themselves as part of an “us”. We all need each other.”
For a world so supposedly interconnected, we seem to be losing the language of tenderness, and of caring. The language of love. Part of the challenge the world faces today is a crisis of caring. We are losing our ability to care — for our neighbour, and so for our world.
Care. Kindness, tenderness, joy, compassion, feeling, connectedness. Love. Where do we find these words today? How do we use them? Do we take them seriously when we hear them? These are not rational, scientific, binary words. They are hard to measure. And yet when it comes to these concepts, the western ‘developed’ world feels malnourished. People are disconnected, sad, depressed, lonely.
Some of my work involves co-leading an international community development charity. In the development world, I’ve read reports, impact assessments, research, evaluations and plans. But, I’m naturally a creative, a romantic, a poetic idealist (and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being an idealist. We need idealism, aspiration, and intelligent hope (different to blind optimism) to call us to the future. Idealism asks: what kind of world do we want?). And though I’ve written these reports and plans myself (in international development, and in science), I don’t naturally align with their dry, efficient language.
I realise that poetic thinking and language isn’t always appropriate, but I think we’ve gone too far the other way. We’ve stripped heart and humanity out of our language and communication. And we forget the value of wonder and imagination in our work. We find it hard or improper to let the excited child in us come out. We want to appear cool and professional and say that we have all the answers. We find it hard to utter those three little words…”I don’t know.”
Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman says we have an “unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance“, and novelist Pico Iyer says that “the illusion of knowledge can be more dangerous than ignorance.” In international development we have much to learn. Why some things work, and others don’t can be a mystery. But it’s important we admit the things we don’t know, and the things that didn’t work, and that we do so with humanity, honesty, compassion, and a learner mindset. The very sector that is trying to bring hope and life often feels starved of real humanity when it self-analyses. Words like love, compassion, empathy, care and connection will unlikely appear on official ‘high level’ reports and evaluations. How much humanity are we willing to bring into the plans we create and the stories we tell? How far will we go in being vulnerable, and in choosing language which most accurately provides a conduit to what we really feel and hope for, and then moves us to act?
The poet, activist and farmer Wendell Berry says:
“‘Every man for himself’ is a doctrine for a feeding frenzy or for a panic in a burning nightclub, appropriate for sharks or hogs or perhaps a cascade of lemmings. A society wishing to endure must speak the language of care-taking, faith-keeping, kindness, neighborliness, and peace. That language is another precious resource that cannot be “privatized.”
Where are the poems and psalms, the songlines and ancestor stories that show us where we come from and give us hope? Storied rhythms of humanity need to go beyond boxes of culture and art, and infuse how we think and work in other fields like development, leadership, education. Where is the care-taking and heart in what we do and what we are striving for?
Love is powerful. But it is also unpredictable, immeasurable, unknowable. Love is all the things that the language of proof and progress rejects. We treat love like it is antagonistic to advancement. Love is not invited into the world of GDP and growth, or education, economics or governance.
And yet in our personal lives, we instinctively don’t trust things when there is no connection, humanity, heart, soul. We’re humans, not machines. Though sometimes it’s easier to adopt a machine-like way of working. It’s easier to cause pain when we don’t feel what’s inside another, and when we leave humanity out. This can be seen in animal farming (they don’t start life in neatly packaged meat containers in a supermarket); with child soldiers in conflict (they’re drugged to lose their connection and humanity, and so become cheap programmable weapons); it can apply in company redundancies (staff are a cost, rather than humans with families to support); and in government (benefits are cut and migrants turned away, because they are simply drains on economy. And Donald Trump certainly seems to find it difficult to feel what’s inside another).
I want to reclaim the word ‘love’ and its coruscating power in our daily lives. The first book of Corinthians in the New testament, says:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.
Imagine if we bought those concepts in bold into our work. What would patience, kindness, trust, hope and post-knowledge truth and wisdom do for economics, government, education, international development? It links back to what Wendell berry says are the key ingredients for a society wishing to endure. The language we use to get us to this place should be aspirational and precious and accessible to everyone. It should be the language of existence and connectedness and humanity. We all get a say in the direction we’re headed.
Love and joy can be subversive. It’s OK to feel happy. “A bird doesn’t sing because it has the answer, it sings because it has a song“, said Maya Angelou. Our own personal wellbeing and the wellbeing of the world are linked. We care for the wild places by caring for our own wild minds. And you cannot protect people without protecting the planet. We’re linked.
Einstein said “beyond complexity lies simplicity“. Perhaps imagination, humanity, hope and heart — and the language that encourages these — are resources we should start taking seriously if we are to find a way through the current complexity we face, and shape the world we want.
To think more about this, here are a few questions for our work and lives:
- What could happen if I stood in another’s shoes?
- What might be possible if I bought more heart into my work / home? What does this even look like?
- What’s the worst that can happen if I say “I don’t know”? What’s the best that could happen?
- How do I really listen in this situation, until I hear the language of humanity? What will I do when I hear it?
- How do we develop the language of [insert sector] to be more honest, real, human? How could that help this sector grow and evolve?