The Gift of Fallibility

Conversation with John McKnight and Peter Block

Highlights from A Conversation with John McKnight and Peter Block: The Gift of Fallibility, February 7, 2012

John: Welcome, everybody. “Fallibility,” if you look in the dictionary, means “capable of error and imperfect.” It seems to me that one of the essential questions about community life is, how do we see this capacity for error and imperfection? A lot of institutional and professional activity seems to me designed to respond by saying we’ve got to fix it. I often think that what makes an effective community is, instead of fixing, we are friending. A friend is somebody whose imperfections you know about and you are not dedicated to fixing. You are dedicated to the friendship with them. So, then the question is what do we mean by fallibility?

Fallibility it seems to me has different kinds of meanings to different people. I think of fallibility as being in a sense the half of yourself that you don’t write about on your resume. A resume is the way you present yourself institutionally. The other half we could say reflects our fallibilities and it seems to me that in my lifetime, especially in the last twenty to thirty years, that I’ve experienced and observed the increase in the manufacture of fallibility. What has been happening is that our society, and I am speaking about the United States, has been ratcheting up in ways that tighten the society, in ways that say we are improving and we are moving toward excellence. Our methods for doing that are essentially two and the first is to enhance competition. The other is to increase technology so that as we move toward a more and more competitive and a more and more technologic society.

And I think one of the unintended consequences [of enhanced competition may be that we are producing more fallibility. As we demand more competition, we are losing the value of cooperative people. As we value evermore speed, we are losing the value of graceful and thoughtful people. As we use more and more technology to do almost everything, we lose the value of handy people.  As we increase the noise in the society — my goodness, I can’t go into a restaurant without being sound blasted — we are losing a place for peaceful souls. As we have cyber-language taking over daily discourse, we are in a sense losing the storyteller and the literate. As we increase our management skills and focus, we are losing spontaneous people.

So, all of these things that are called improvement through the use of technology and competition I think are also eliminating from the society the gifts of more and more people. So that what we have now is a way of throwing people away. Edgar Cahn has a book called No More Throw Away People. I think that the focus on tightening up through competition and technology it is creating more and more useless people. The real tragedy is that what we mean by “useless” is people who are cooperative, graceful, thoughtful, handy, peaceful, storytelling and spontaneous. So, when we say let’s get back on the track and that America has got to get going again, I think we are off the track and to get back on the competition track and the technology track is disabling our society evermore. Discarding more people and their gifts and capacities. Instead of getting back on the track what we need to do is to wind down, to make space, and to say that our goal in our society is to have a place where the gifts of everybody can be used, expressed, appreciated, and celebrated.

The real tragedy is that what we mean by “useless” is people who are cooperative, graceful, thoughtful, handy, peaceful, storytelling and spontaneous.

So, I suppose all this an argument in behalf of winding down rather than getting back on the track. Peter, do you have thoughts?

Peter:  I think I am moving to another country.

The language is interesting, John, because I have not heard you talk about it quite this way. A couple of thoughts. One is, this argument can sound like a wish to go back. When we interviewed Angeles Arrien,she said this thinking is not the wish to go back; this primal warning in all of us is the memory of a time where speed was slow. She said nature moves two speeds, medium and slow. So, it is really to go deeper and it is not to go back to another time. The other thing, it is not an argument against technology. It is really a reflection on the meaning that we have given to technology and that we treat it as answer to certain questions when all it is a convenience, and it’s kind of interesting. So, that’s just another thought.

The other thing on the theme of fallibility, I think, is that a system world is a place that strives and thinks perfection is possible; you have growing out of the space program failure is not tolerated. Zero tolerance. Failure was not an option.  So, all that says that perfection is possible. On a religious level the wish to be perfect is to the wish to be God and in some worlds that is considered to be a sin. In a system world, if you are imperfect it is a problem to be solved. The performance review is a structure we have created that carries that message: it doesn’t work, but it carries that message. So, what we are saying is that if you buy the notion of development, constant working on yourself, then you have been kind of captured in the rapture of the system world. In the system world if you are fallible what you are offered is probation. In the community world, fallibilities are accepted and you don’t have to work on them; the focus then shifts to gifts.

In the system world if you are fallible what you are offered is probation. In the community world, fallibilities are accepted and you don’t have to work on them; the focus then shifts to gifts.

I think that connecting gifts to fallibility makes a great deal of sense.  I heard another line I like which says that all self-improvement is an act of violence, which means I am not enough. So, the fallibility discussion opens up the room by asking, what does it mean to be not enough? What does it mean in a consumer world that no matter how much you have that you need more? Why does the top 1% continue to accumulate more?

If you live in a world where no matter how much you have is not enough, then you are caught in what Walter Brueggemann calls the Pharaoh’s world of restless productivity. That it may be the reason we are talking about fallibility: because it symbolizes or holds the place of an alternative to this empire world of perfectionism of development. We know as a nation that our efforts to develop other countries have mostly extracted the resources from those countries to our own benefit. We see now that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and their efforts in South America and Africa have disabled the people that they were reportedly there to save or to help or to lift up. It calls into question in the idea of development whether it is an aid in our foreign policy or whether it is me working on myself on things that I have been working on for 60 years without much success. It calls into question having a system where whatever you do you have to do more.

All those are dimensions of the world in community that we are trying to lift up and give presence. I think that fallibility opens up that door. John, I know that in your thinking it is also connected to friendship. I have heard you say many times that friendship is that place where we accept each other’s weaknesses and they don’t become the point of our being together.

Those are just some thoughts about why I think that discussing fallibility matters. Then you can start talking about what does that mean in raising a child? What does that mean in caring for the people on the margin? It has huge implications in what we choose to look at. You meet a person on the street who is asking for money, sitting on a bench with all their belongings. Now I have a choice about how I relate to that person. Do I see them as homeless? Do I see them for their fallibilities? Or do I say, I wonder what they are good at? I wonder if they are connected anywhere?

Let me just rest at that point. Dan, do you want to open for questions or do you want us to talk some more?

Dan:  We don’t have anyone in the queue, but I just want to ask you to follow-up a little bit on what Peter was just saying about reframing how we see people on the street and how we identify them. How do we change the way we see people? Is it an active thing that we have to do or is it just a matter of shifting our focus?

Peter: The way it gets embodied is the conversation we choose to have with them. Whether it’s people we identify as deficient — the poor, people who have not been to college — and all of that conversation that we are constantly having. John and I were on a phone call yesterday with Fresno, California, and the first thing that they want to tell us is that Fresno has increasing rates of school dropouts, poverty, crime and drugs, and everybody has great energy for that conversation. What we are trying to do is decide not to feed that energy; it doesn’t deny the suffering in the world, but I can start saying I wonder what these people are good at. I wonder what that neighborhood in Fresno has going for it. When I drive around neighborhoods in Cincinnati, if I look carefully and drive slowly, there are all kinds of entrepreneurship going on there, and I don’t mean drugs. They are selling shirts, they are selling oils, they are selling food out of carts.  I think changing the way we see people is a choice to what I pay attention to fundamentally.

Also, I can change the questions I ask. Children raising children is a great domain to think about. I’ve been thinking lately what would it mean if a village raised a child and one thing it would mean is we would not talk about SAT scores. We would not talk about how are they doing on tests. We would ask the child, what are you good at? We would figure out for our children how can they become useful. We would try to live in a neighborhood where we decide all I want is for my neighbors to know my children’s names.

If a village raised a child, one thing it would mean is we would not talk about SAT scores. We would not talk about how are they doing on tests. We would ask the child, what are you good at?

I think all that grows out of the recognition that our fallibility isn’t something so much to be worked on or focused on or invested in. It’s something to be accepted and then you start saying, what’s working here in this neighborhood? What are its gifts and what are the capacities in this town? What about our children? How long does it take for us to find out what our children are good at? We are so anxious for our kids to do well and be happy. It has taken me 45 years to think about what my daughters are good at. I think that’s part of the shift. Any thoughts, John?

John:  Yes, I met a man in Canada years ago whose name is Pat Worth. He had been given a label of being developmentally disabled. We became good friends and he said, I want to organize people who have my label into groups so we can begin to do something that will change how we are viewed by society. I worked with that group at the beginning of its organization. It struck me as wonderful that they decided to name themselves “People First” because their lives had always been defined by “retarded person” or “developmentally disabled person.”

The people who use those kinds of labels are not people of ill motive. They are people who think that they are helpers. So, all of this language has such professional value that we apply to so many people, saying things like “they are mentally ill” and “they are mentally depressed.” The manual used by psychiatrists has a couple of thousand names for the deficiency. One of the powerful forces that keeps us from seeing the gifts of people is that we have so much respect for the people who don’t want to call people “people” first. Who want to say first, they need treatment and they need professional help.

One of the powerful forces that keeps us from seeing the gifts of people is that we have so much respect for the people who don’t want to call people “people” first.

Because we have brought too much into that way of thinking, we have legitimized the notion that there are all kinds of people whose name should be preceded by their fallibility. I’ve often thought if I’m speaking somewhere and they introduce and they say Professor John McKnight, but in fact I’m heart-diseased John McKnight. The difference between people who have some power in society and those who don’t is that they get called “professor” rather than “heart-diseased.” The tragedy is that people who think that they are doing good don’t put people first. They put deficit first, but it all sounds helpful and it all sounds therapeutic. So, how would you like to live your life where everybody called you by your fallibility? Oh, he’s retarded. Doing it another way, I think, really requires us to devalue the labeling that is so common and made to seem so good and so helpful.

Peter: Maybe, John, “development” is a word that is not that useful anymore. It’s a form of colonialism. It is easier to see it in the large scale. So, what we are saying in the conversation about fallibility is to stop developing each other and stop developing ourselves. Shift the language and the naming of who we are in the direction of what we are good at and what we are willing to teach others. I think what that means is that for me the task is to accept my weaknesses as being pretty much part of defining who I am and just kind of lose interest in them. They don’t go away, but they stop being so powerful and I think that’s related to the personal way that people express their voice and citizens reclaim their community, and that is all kind of woven together. So let’s accept fallibility. Also, every religion is really an excellent place for honoring our fallibility. Some go a little far, but it is the space where fallibilities are honored and accepted. I think that’s why religion is a legitimate thing for us to be talking about. The mystery, fallibility, silence — they are all characteristic of every religion.

Dan: We have a comment coming in from Florida, but before we get to that I want to follow up on something that has been said in the comments, which is exactly related to what you two have been talking about. One guest has said that trust in his community has been lessened because they were looking at people as people instead of people who are on the margin. Apparently somebody robbed a church and business. So, I wonder how you would respond to something like that: where people have looked past the easy definitions of who people are and looked them as people, and then their trust has been broken. How do respond to something like that?

John: I would think that when you think that your trust has been broken that sort of puts an intention on somebody else that may not be their intention. I think that if we understood the person who robbed the church and didn’t say it’s my being that has been violated, but instead say this person has engaged in an act that has perhaps no intention in regard to me. That act that they have committed I need to understand and when I have an understanding of the act and their intention then it seems to me it is possible for us to rediscover each other. Rediscover a way to be together. To be centered around the idea that if somebody does something that is negative and that violated my trust in them, then that closes a door and stops the possibility of moving on and of recompense.

Peter: Restoration?

John: Yes. So, looking at the person and their act and their intention means that my intention can then begin to become a bridge is the way we have to deal with these acts, which I think are not breaking trust.

Dan: Peter, would you like to add anything to that?

Peter: Putting people first or seeing their gifts doesn’t mean that evil will be eliminated in the world. This isn’t the kind of moral conversation and I don’t think we are doing this to eliminate crime. We are saying that if we get to know our neighbors our street will be safer than if we didn’t know our neighbors.

It reminds me a little bit about the argument of high control or low control in its organization. People say, we are going to try highly participative management and then somebody betrays that. Then somebody says, what we need is more control. Then when control doesn’t work, we want more control, but when democracy doesn’t work we should be saying maybe we need more democracy. Maybe the people who open the doors need to be even more trusting despite the fact that somebody stole something from the church. In other words, I would separate out crime and leave room for evil.

There is nothing naive about my focusing on your gifts versus your deficiencies. It’s just that we have very little evidence that a deficiency orientation reduces deficiency. Usually, most healing processes are when people accept their deficiency. They forgive themselves and others around them so that they are able to move on. It’s not about elimination or eradication.  I remember Dennis Bakke ran a power company and he had a high-trust strategy regarding people at the bottom. He let them manage large sums of money. He thought all inspections should be self-inspections instead of third-party inspectors. Then they had an accident in one of the plants and people got hurt because of a mistake. The question came up: do we need to reinstitute more controls or treat this as an anomaly? He said, we are not going to change our philosophy because an accident happened, which is to say an accident happened and we are going to do everything we can to make sure it doesn’t happen again. So, the conclusions you draw from events is huge and churches are going to get stolen from.

John: Dan, one of the things about the kind of situations that you are describing about stealing from a church and the possibility that there will always be bad things and evil reminds me that some cultures recognize that and have ways to deal with it culturally. I experienced this once. I was visiting my old friend Ivan Illich, who lived in a village in Mexico called Cuautepec. I was there one time and all the people in the village were people of Indian descent and have long-time traditions. They had a village square where they had one whole day of celebration. When we went to the celebration, we thought it was very unusual because all the people in the village were in a circle and they were laughing and taunting one another. In the middle were several people who had the mask of the devil on them. What they were doing was something that is fairly common in Mexico. They were dancing with the devil and recognizing that the devil is always with us. We need to understand together and we need to deal with that reality and recognize it. We are probably not going to overcome it.

The culture in that village had a ritual that reminded people that we can’t expunge our fallibility. That it is a part of us and we can dance with it, and we can mourn about it, and we can laugh at it, and sometimes we might even touch it. So, I think that an interesting question is, how does our culture help us deal with this reality of the deep fallibility? I think the more we see deep fallibility the less we become so hyper over what we want to do, which is to intervene more and to produce more institutional controls rather than learning how to dance with the devil. The devil is going to be there.

The more we see deep fallibility the less we become so hyper over what we want to do, which is to intervene more and to produce more institutional controls.

Dan: We have someone from Florida on the line.

Caller (April): I just want to comment a little bit on the ideas of perfection in community and some of the power that I’m finding in my own work and striving as a way to reorient us around gifts, as well as aspirations. I work with a group of artists called Uprise Art Collective in Sarasota. I’m an artist, too, and I think there is an interesting interplay between always feeling that there is a kind of perfection as an artist when you are taking on a work, a piece of expression. You know when you are there and you will feel it and there is a striving to get there. So, in a way there is a belief in perfection, but there is a knowing that you need to go through a process of spontaneity and following something that is trying to come out inside.

What I found is that in previous work in doing conversations in community is that one of my favorite questions to ask people was what is your dream for the community? Also, their ideal of perfection came out in the conversation. I want this to be a community where everyone really respects each other. I want this to be a place where children can play in the street safely. These were pictures of perfection. So, what I’m appreciating is this idea that we fall so much in this institutional way of thinking that we are trying to control each other and bring out the fallibility. I do think there is a value in some idea of perfection when you have been able to create something. People are acting together and being together as friends and citizens because then you can aspire together and realize that what is most valuable towards getting there is not highlighting each other’s deficiencies, but building on each other’s strengths and utilizing those strengths.

One other thing is, through association with artists I found that this idea of self-improvement becomes a natural outcome of associating with people that you see and admire. For instance, I have been in contact with artists that now have a style that is really advanced. I see that I want to get more towards that place and I’m not quite there. So, being associated with them in a voluntary way and around some common shared ideal is something wakes up in me a form of self-improvement, but it is not systematic.

John: I think that is wonderfully perceptive. You may think about the word “perfection,” and you could substitute for that word “satisfaction,” because I know a lot of things that strive for perfection and even if they reach what they call perfection it isn’t satisfying. I now have the perfect computer until Tuesday when the next perfect computer will be here, so that computer can be perfect and never be satisfying. So, perhaps a way of thinking about what an artist may be doing is that they are producing a work which they want to be satisfying to them, and that is very different from the idea that it is perfect or I have achieved perfection.

Peter: Also, I think the art world is very interesting metaphor, April. A friend of mine who gives voice lessons and teaches people to sing and said that people think to sing well is to be a performer and it hurts their capacity to find their voice. I think all of us who long to be an artist think we can’t draw and it is because we set ourselves a standard — like I will never be as good as Van Gogh, so why try?  I do think that there is some way of letting go of end goals. The difference between a dream and setting a goal is the dream holds us somewhere. The goal would be to be the best in the world — I think that’s what John said — and from that you can have tremendous outcomes and no satisfaction.

Dan: Thanks for your call, April. We have a few more comments in the Chat. John, I want you to follow up on what you had mentioned earlier. You mentioned the importance of winding down. I wonder if you could comment a little more on that and give some specifics of how we do that and what exactly does that do in terms of building community and embracing fallibility.

John: My sense, and other people may have other ways that they understand about winding down, but my sense of winding down focuses on diminishing the amount of my life that is engaged with technology rather than with people. To understand that each new thing that technology offers me to engage with it, regardless of what the content of it is, is diminishing my friendship and neighbor opportunities.

I think the first step would be to set some kind of intentional limit on the amount of time in one’s life that you are going to spend in front of tubes or machines, and open up the space for the relationship where you can discover the gifts, and also the fallibilities, of all kinds of people. The second is to move away whenever we can from competition. I think it is almost tragic to see what is going on in schools where we are just dousing young people in competitive experience in the grading system and in the so-called sports world, so that their lives are being, I think, misdirected. They come out believing that it is by beating somebody else that the world gets better and they get better. So, redoing the space for young people, which is now filled with something called school, is the other thing that I think we need to do. We need to really say what is the nature of the experience, not the curriculum? What is the experience for young people that will allow to them to reach the age of eighteen having experienced the thrill of understanding their gifts and developing them, expressing them and sharing them rather than wondering, did I win?

In redoing the space for young people, what is the experience that will allow to them to realize the thrill of understanding their gifts and developing them, expressing them and sharing them, rather than wondering, did I win?

Those are a couple of the things that seem to me to be very important that we could do, especially rethinking school. We’ve got school reform across the United States in every city and in all kinds of ways and have noticed the difference. The evaluations are showing over and over that we are not changing school as we define it as the problem. Once we begin to recast what we are doing and to say, we have young people here in our village and what is it that can lead them, when they reach adulthood, to being satisfied, effective, contributing, cooperative and beautiful people rather than asking, can I pay to have my child prepared to take the SAT? How sad, sad, sad.

Dan:  I think it is great what you are saying there, John. It is interesting that as we talk about this we are using technology right now. One of our guests in the Chat said that we are using technology to foster the community, which I think is great and it is a fine balance. We have some callers and I’m going to open it up again. We have Ed on the line.

Caller (Ed): It seems to me that the issue of fallibility is sort of a really dual-edge sword. I’m thinking of community building because that is what I spend a lot of my time on. When I talk to city managers about it what I’m trying to understand is why there is resistance. I think it is a lot about letting go and that when you build community you have to let go. It’s interesting when I talk to managers, one of the things they say a lot is, oh yes, I’m a bit of a perfectionist. It seems to me that’s sort of a nice word for an excuse for being a control freak, which maybe is a too hard a word and it really is to say, I’m afraid. What we get down to at the bottom is fear and fear prevents so many. Maybe the fallibility we have to come to grips with is not so much in others, but in ourselves. What managers would accept that they are fallible? A lot. It would be easier to let go. I’m interested in your comments.

Peter:  I love that bit. Talk about an oxymoron. I’m a bit of a perfectionist. Does that mean I’m an imperfectionist?

Caller (Ed): An imperfect perfectionist.

Peter: You know, I do think that you are right about the vernacular. I am no harder on other people than I am on myself. I think those are expressions of doubt, and I do think it is about their wish for predictability and to take uncertainty out of the future. Somehow we have made an equation that if I can get it right I will be safe. I will be successful. My children will be protected. My future will be assured. I think that assumption or storyline gets us in big trouble, but somehow we make a deal with God: if I do this you will give me that. In a consumer world and in a barter society we engage in these kind of unspoken agreements and then get cynical or wounded when they don’t work out.

Perfectionism is about the wish for predictability and to take uncertainty out of the future. We have equated “if I can get it right” with “I will be safe, I will be successful, my children will be protected, my future will be assured.”

I also think for managers the expectation of their subordinates is part of the burden they are living under, and we want our managers to be everything, like surrogate parents, to take the uncertainty out of the future. We want them to deal with the world so that our budget is secure. We want mostly safety. I think that in your world and with dealing with managers carrying the expectations, not only of their employees, but it’s a public position and so they carry the expectations of the community and it wants them not to make a mistake. What is interesting is that we all know that when you make a mistake publically the only thing to do is confess and defending yourself is the reason you get fired. If you just confess, the world will forgive you.

So, maybe the argument for fallibility is to legitimize confession. Another tool that religion has worked on for a long time. So, you might ask managers, when they say I’m a bit of a perfectionist, what weakness you would like to confess to? You can become a priest then.

Caller (Ed): Not my style.

Peter: I think that they are wrapped together, and it’s just not style. I think that you are unwrapping this notion of fallibility to say that perfectionism has to be dealt with. It is code for I want predictability in my world, which is interesting to me because city manager is the most difficult job around and the reason it is difficult because you hardly have any control over anything. You have chosen a career that is unpredictable. You thought you were going to be an accountant and now you made the huge mistake of taking on responsibility for the well-being of the city. So, maybe that is what you are helping them come to terms with.

John: Ed, there is one other dilemma I see for managers. There are technologies where if you don’t insist on perfection then they’re huge negative consequences. The simple example is to imagine a General Motors assembly line where people are putting on the wheels and tightening the nuts at the end of its production. Imagine the person who consistently puts the wrong nut on the wrong bolt or consistently doesn’t tighten it enough. What do we do about that? Don’t we have to intervene, tighten up, train and get a hold of that person because if we don’t we are going to send a car out there that the wheels are likely to come off and somebody will get killed?

That is an example of one of the quandaries, I think, of our modern world: so much of the technology defines no possibility for exception and managers are forced by the very tools that they use to become controllers. I am not sure there is another way, if you understand what I mean. So, basically there are technologies in the world that force us to demand perfection because the consequence of not having it isn’t the same on an imperfect child.

Caller (Ed): To me, John, there is a difference between perfection and people who either don’t have the capacity or continue to make mistakes. I think that you deal with that differently. Well, at least I do. I don’t know what perfection is, but I know someone who just is either not paying attention or doesn’t have the wherewithal to do that particular job. They may have the wherewithal to do another particular job, but not that particular job. So, that seems a bit of a cop-out for me.

Peter: Also, I think the higher the risk for outcomes, the more backup systems should have. I think that is a good point and thank you.

Dan: Thanks and thanks for your call. Now we have Suzanne on the line.

Caller (Suzanne): My deep passion is community in the workplace and there is so much that has resonated in this call, from one being down to letting go. I find it so hard that when people go to work that they hold themselves back because they think they are not good enough and don’t want to take the risk. Then we work on community; you get out of work and you spend a lot of time with the energy that is remaining and you want to be that good neighbor. I just find that because people are so much at work that we could bring the spirit of community in our organizations. Whether you are a manager or representative of People First, winding down means engaging people in good old-fashioned conversations and getting to know each other as people from the gifts that we can bring with the hope that people will let go of being perfect. When you put them together in conversations they seem to find each other. I’ve seen it and it brings such joy. Thank you for this call and even if it is a technology call I feel such closeness in it. I really appreciate it.

John: I thank you for your observation.

Peter: Dan, if there are any comments or calls maybe we should just hear them all and then we can just reflect at the end because the questions and comments are the most interesting part.

Dan: We have no more callers, but we have quite a few people leaving comments in the Chat section. They are following up on what Ed was asking about this climate of fear and how that relates to perfection. So, it seems that a lot of people are starting to understand the value of losing control or giving up control and it sort of what we have just been discussing. Do you have any more to add on this value of sort of giving up control?

Peter:  I think in a way that giving up control is as big as an illusion as perfection because you need some order in your life. I do think that people are more afraid now than they have ever been and I find that interesting. I thought over 30 years ago that over time things would get better and that people would trust their organizations more, they would trust their bosses more, they would be less afraid and that there was a kind of an evolutionary movement towards betterness. Now I realize that is not necessarily true even though there has been progress in things.

I think the fear people have is about the unpredictability of the world, and more control, I don’t think, is a good answer for that. I think that it may be that the issue of giving up of control is usefully spoken of as discovering some basis for faith. The answer to unpredictability isn’t to try to better manage the world, but to have more faith in each other. Some people put that faith in God, but to me it is easy to have faith in God, but it is hard to have faith in each other. So, I would like to see the discussion to say, how do we work with systems or communities and neighborhoods that increases people’s faith and has them work for less certainty solutions? I believe that most of the harm in the world is from people who are certain about what they believe in and want to impose those positions on others, but there has to be some discussion of faith. Faith in what? Faith in each other and to me that is more doable. I can choose to have faith. I can choose to have the confidence that no matter what happens to me, I and the people around me will find some way to deal with it.

The answer to unpredictability isn’t to try to better manage the world, but to have more faith in each other. 

I think that is where community is an answer to the unpredictability in the world. It’s where I understand I can’t handle it and I’m beginning to think maybe there are people in the world around me who can, and I like that. I like faith better than hope. It means that I’m kind of waiting for something. I like it better than optimism, which is a wish to predict the future.

Just some thoughts I have about the control conversation because we have been talking about giving up control and in some ways things are a little bit better. I mean the idea of participation and involvement. It is no longer a new idea, maybe a way of practice, but at least it’s not a new idea anymore.

Dan: Closely related to that idea, John, we have a question from Rex in the comments and he is hoping that you can provide a story or an anecdote that tells the idea of embracing the mystery. Do you have anything you can tell Rex that can illustrate this idea of embracing mystery? We have about 5 minutes left on the phone call.

Peter:  I have a little anecdote and it is probably not helpful, but that never stops me. I was working with a group and it was a wonderful group. I kept trying to figure out why this was such a great group and I kept saying you guys are really special and I have about seven explanations. I was checking it out and one of the guys finally said to me, can’t you just experience this group instead of having to figure it out? I thought, a good point and so for me mystery means allowing yourself to experience life as it is. My instinct to always analyze things and to figure things out, but that came to mind in Rex’s question.

John: My first wife had terrible problem of addiction. I have a very close friend with whom I would discuss this dilemma. I would see him about every two months or so. I would catch him up on what had been happening on the latest unhappiness. Finally I said to him, I just don’t know what to do anymore. He said, then you are ready to mourn. You are ready to mourn. You are not going to fix it. This is her fate.

Our history tells us and our fates tell us that we mourn to live with our fates and we can mourn together as much as we can celebrate together. I often think there is something powerful when I see, particularly in Arab countries, pictures of a group of women together at a funeral crying out and mourning together. I think that we need culturally to value those ways that can allow us to live with fate’s mysteries. That would be a wonderful thing for a discussion among all of us. What are the things that allow us to understand, to move on, to experience, to trust the mysteries of fate, because we need obviously that cultural capacity if we aren’t going to invest in the managerial technological vision of ultimate utopia and perfection?

Peter: Maybe, John, the action step for mystery is either grief or celebration.

John: Yes. Excellent.

Dan: I want to thank everybody that has called in and thank everybody that has been following in the Chat. I hope we got to all your questions and I am sure there are some that we may have missed, but we will be doing this again in a month or six weeks. Also, you can follow us on Twitter and on Facebook and you can catch more content the website at Thank you again for taking part and thank you, John and Peter.




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About the Lead Author

John McKnight
John McKnight
John McKnight is emeritus professor of education and social policy and codirector of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at DePaul University. He is the coauthor of Building Communities from the Inside Out and the author of The Careless Society. He has been a community organizer and serves on the boards of several national organizations that support neighborhood development.

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