Three Things that Give Me Hope

"The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.”

― Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams

It is easy to lose hope. Things are changing radically, or they aren’t changing at all. You feel powerless in the midst of chaos, or you have been given power without direction. Information blasts from every corner, but you struggle to make meaning of the noise. You connect with people around the world, but you are alone with your most pressing problems. Hope can fade when chaos reigns.

And . . .

Complex systems offer patterns of possibility. When you understand the power of self-organizing, you begin to see opportunity in emergent changes, even if you cannot predict or control them. Three of those complex adaptive system patterns have kept me afloat in the waves of uncertainty I’ve encountered recently. Like most things in this new paradigm, they are both radically simple and deeply profound.   

One: Uncertainty

There is comfort in knowing what will happen next. Emergent change disturbs this comfort because each moment carries surprising possibilities. In the past, we saw certainty as a sign of competence and care. When it is gone, we can be left with a sense of helplessness and fear. It is easy to expect the very worst when you don’t know what to expect. On the other hand . . .

If I don’t know what to expect, optimism is just as valid as pessimism. I am free to choose what I see and how I see it. Why not choose hope?

Two: Butterfly Effects

Complex systems can be sensitive to small changes, but not always. In its most stable state, a complex system gets locked into a pattern that persists, regardless of what you do. Then, when you least expect it, some small event can release all that stored up energy in a cascade of change. Consider a learner who struggles with a new challenge, stuck in confusion until they see how everything fits together; or the breakthrough experience of innovation; or the moment of creative inspiration. In each of these cases, some small, unpredictable shift sets a whole cascade of change in motion.

The same thing can happen in my own frightening and chaotic world. If any small change might tip the system into a new pattern of possibility, I am free to imagine that everything I do has the power to release the potential of a positive future.

Three: Fractals

Complex systems are master pattern replicators. Natural systems—from broccoli to thunderstorms—repeat patterns at different levels of scale. In technical and mathematical systems, such cross-scale patterns are called fractals. Tensions and interactions in complex adaptive systems generate similar structures over time and across space. The whole, the part, and the greater whole share characteristics that may be subtle or obvious, but never exactly the same. Examples abound in human systems: Cultural patterns of competition or collaboration; mob violence; community identity; or collective will. In social systems, it is easy to get distracted by the obvious patterns—the ones amplified by the media and people who want to manipulate you.

And . . .

Every complex system includes many different patterns, massively entangled and hidden in plain sight. I can look past the obvious and frightening patterns. I can search for patterns that reflect my hopes. I can spend my time and energy reinforcing them and helping others see them, too. 

Live Inside that Hope

Despair is a dominant pattern for many of us these days. Wherever you are, whatever your wealth or status, regardless of your politics, it is easy to lose hope. Some people blame their hopelessness on the complex systems and chaos that surround them. When I am at my best, I find hope in the emergent possibility of patterns I am able to see, understand, and influence. I hope you can, too. 

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