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The Power of Compassion and Story for Building Resilience in Local Living Economies

Duane Elgin

By Duane Elgin

I was invited to be a catalyst for a two-hour conversation and inquiry at the BALLE board meeting in Chicago on September 16, 2012. Our intention was to explore the glue that holds a ‘local living economy’ together. What is the cohesive force that extends beyond self-interest to community interest? As I have heard a number of times at BALLE, “we’re all better off when we’re all better off.” This is caring for the well-being of the overall system and for networks—of people, nature, and communities as well as companies. If mutual caring or compassion is a key ingredient in building resilience at the local level—greatly enhancing the ability to bounce back from shocks and stresses—then compassionate communities and economies are understandably of central interest to BALLE.

I enjoyed the meeting greatly. It was wonderful to see my old friend David Korten, still the vibrant, sometimes cantankerous, and always insightful pioneer of the new economics, local and global. And I finally got to meet Judy Wicks, who has inspired so many with her compassionate work in business. Meeting more than a dozen other empowered and capable individuals, I felt deeply honored to be invited to share this time with BALLE. This is an organization whose local business networks are creating templates for how local economies can work together, and how everyone can be better off.

For me, the generative challenge of this meeting was how to bring themes of compassion, generosity, and community into the world of everyday business, given its notorious reputation for competitiveness and a single-minded focus on making money. Rather than looking for new policies, we decided to reach much deeper to the stories underlying our perspectives. The stories we tell ourselves about who we are and where we are going—and our ability to change them—offer the greatest leverage for transforming the complex systems of society. As we begin to understand our deeper and largely unspoken life stories and collective social story, then we can begin to tell a new story of business and build a new future.

We began the board session with two straightforward questions. First we asked: Is humanity growing up and, if so, what is our life stage? Four choices were offered to describe our life stage: toddler, teenager, adult, or elder. After a few minutes of conversation, we took a vote and there was overwhelming agreement that the human community is in a teenage stage of development and behavior. I described how I have asked this question when giving talks around the world and the answer has always been the same. All kinds of audiences in India, Brazil, Japan, Europe, Canada, and America have consistently responded, and by a large margin, that as a species we are in the life stage of adolescence. We then acknowledged both the challenges and the gifts of this life stage.

For the second question, we asked: What was most important for you in moving into adulthood? The key assumption here was that our personal life experiences offer valuable insights into how the human family can move from its adolescence into adulthood. People spent ten minutes or so in dyads sharing their stories of transitioning from adolescence to adulthood. Then I invited everyone to share his or her personal experience with the group; and for each person we extrapolated insights and experiences that could be applied to the human family as a whole.

• For one participant, the transition from adolescence involved feeling the “failure of success”—i.e., feeling financially successful but off course in life, as well as exhausted and despairing—and then recognizing a deep personal responsibility to choose a life path with meaning. We then spoke as a group about how many people feel that the human species is off course and headed for an evolutionary wall, and yet are so busy, exhausted, and therefore unable to see other possibilities. We also noted that, by living out our true talents and gifts, we bring forward lives of meaning and purpose that serve the well being of all. What would it mean for the species as a whole if more people lived out their true talents and gifts?

• Another person described breaking free of the expectations of family and society and then leaving to find a life in a radically different culture. This change of perspective brought new insights and a meaningful life path. We then discussed how a change of perspective—for example, to a whole-systems point of view—could transform the human community, locally and globally. With a new perspective, the people of the Earth could also awaken to a more sacred regard for the wisdom and wild beauty of the natural world, and humanity could better handle the responsibilities of adulthood.

• For another individual, it was the combined impact of mentors, role models, and the stories of others on a path of maturation that was most powerful. As a group, we observed that there are few role models and stories of compassionate communities and economies. Where are the ‘compassionate mentors’ who demonstrate a more caring relationship with the Earth and a responsible stewardship of nature? Where are the inspiring stories of the amazing people building living local economies?

• One board member spoke of death, despair, and personal loss as a source of maturation combined with a sense of personal responsibility for raising children.  Together we explored our species’ pushing the Earth’s limits and a growing sense of despair at the multiple losses of a benevolent climate, cheap oil to power us, plentiful land and sea to sustain us, a diversity of species to accompany us, and much more. We also acknowledged our responsibility for the challenges facing future generations. Others affirmed that with local ownership of businesses comes local responsibility, accountability, and, maturity.

• Another board member spoke of discovering that compassion is the gateway to true freedom. After living with tremendous fear in a predatory world, it became clear that compassion can transform great fear into great freedom. The group then discussed how by giving up our fear of living in a world of predatory, cut-throat competition, we can find ways of living and working “where we are all better off.” Real security comes from compassion and community.

From our exploration of the first two questions, we could see from our personal lives that compassion, generosity, and caring are powerful forces for building resilient communities and local living economies. At the same time, we noted that compassion is not something that we tend to see in our busy and distracted society. So for the next hour we explored the question: How we can create occasions where caring and compassion can be more easily expressed? Here are a few examples I suggested in a handout to get the creative juices flowing:

1. Open up parks and public places for the free offering of music, poetry, and other arts.
2. Add more benches, ‘nooks,’ and places to sit to appreciate nature.
3. Create an edible city with food gardens everywhere. Bring nature into the community.
4. Develop local skill-sharing networks (repair, cooking, gardening, elder care, etc.).
5. Develop a mentoring ‘school’ to teach these and other skills to others. Invite retirees to volunteer time for mentoring in their areas of expertise.
6. Hire local neighborhood youth for odd jobs – a Craig’s List for the neighborhood.
7. Create a community credit card where a percentage of purchases goes to support local nonprofits.
8. Local businesses sponsor community cleanup days that, for example, renovate and improve playgrounds for kids and adults.
9. Develop diverse community “play days” for people of all ages.
10. Create special zoning districts for co-housing, eco-villages, and pocket communities.
11. Foster transparency and accountability in local government via the Internet.
12. Limit commercial advertising and increase the presence of art and nature.
13. Gather the written, visual, and oral history of the community. Collect stories of generosity and compassion as a legacy of the community.
14. Develop a community history/story ‘museum’ (both physical and online) that honors historical role models, educators, compassionate actions, and selfless deeds.
15. Honor contemporary local heroes, elders, youth, and others who contribute selflessly.
16. Encourage local artists to develop murals depicting community history.

A number of board members remarked that many of these were already being done within their business networks, and described their own experience with building more compassionate and resilient local living economies and networks.

We also discussed the emerging “global brain” and the ability of BALLE to now communicate about localism to the world in every imaginable way -- written, video, live, animation, and more. I emphasized the value of recording the pioneering, local experiments in organizing, and to share, for example, ‘best practices’ with others via the Internet, on the “be a localist” website of BALLE, and elsewhere. A new world of organizing through trusted Internet communication is emerging rapidly.        

We concluded by exploring the role of story in building a living economy. If an economy is alive, it has a story—one that includes both the joys and the sorrows, the good times and the difficult times. When local communities understand and appreciate their ever-changing story, people are in a much stronger position to build a resilient future by consciously telling new stories that fit a new future. A new community story supported by a vibrant local economy, fosters a strong sense of collective identity that makes it easier to work together in difficult times. A new story can also shine a light on a community’s greatest opportunities, highest talents, and most effective actions as we all move into a very challenging future.

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