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Behavior Change
The Lizard, the Lion and the Lamb:
The Tension Between Fear, Action and Just Being Present

As individuals, we’re experiencing multiple concurrent responses to the crisis, which confuse and further un-nerve us. We are oscillating between fear and uncertainty, the urgent prompt to act; the rise of compassion and love, and also a need to cocoon and wait it out. These responses are reflections of how we function as human beings.

As the world continues to struggle with the coronavirus pandemic, many people who have been working on the potential for a shift towards a regenerative economy are sensing the opportunity for something new and radically different to emerge after this crisis — a chance for real systemic change. We are seeing a growing number of both science-based papers and speculative media articles looking at the relationship between our destruction of nature and habitats, our degradation of our environment and the potential for lethal viruses to emerge. More people are seriously questioning the validity and sustainability of our business-as-usual model from multiple different angles.

The satellite images of China’s clearing skies as the mighty Chinese manufacturing machine slowed offer us visible, undeniable indications that a virus might achieve what the Paris Climate Agreement has not: Drastically slowed emissions. Cleaner air. The sudden cessation of tourism has changed the colour of the water in Venice’s canals almost overnight, and brought peace and quiet in urban environments that would normally teem with tourists or be overflown by endless aircraft.

At the same time, there is also a surge of energy and conversation about the ‘importance of getting back to normal to secure jobs and income,’ and criticism and resistance in many quarters about any attempt to consider changing our existing systems in the face of immediate hardship. In some cases, such as in Denmark, we are seeing governments start to think about funding economic survival through delaying their green agenda. There is a real risk that the retreat towards populism will find new endorsement in an extended audience pulsing with a newfound understanding of our systemic vulnerability.

As individuals, we’re also experiencing multiple concurrent responses to the crisis, which confuse and further un-nerve us. We are oscillating between fear and uncertainty, the urgent prompt to act; the rise of compassion and love, and also a need to cocoon and wait it out. These responses are reflections of how we function as human beings.

Everyone reacts differently in a crisis. Some leap into action, some sit in denial, some are filled with an outpouring of love of their fellow beings. These are, fundamentally, all coping mechanisms for the same thing, which is at its root a deep sense of fear and loss of control. We are lizard, lion and lamb all at the same time.

Our ‘lizard’ response — the deep, primeval, fight-or-flight response to threat and fear — drives all of us to focus on short-term survival challenges. Governments are battling to keep their economies alive. People are resorting to stockpiling toilet roll and food essentials. Some people need to have arguments, lashing out on social media at anyone who doesn’t agree with their view of what’s happening. We feel an urgent need to retreat and retrench into anything that is known and familiar. We want to believe that governments can function, control and save us; so we suddenly and irrationally give support to leaders we might have marched against in other circumstances — we resist and strike out at anyone who suggests that now is the time to think about change and the future, because all we want is a guarantee that we will survive.

There is the rational, action-and-solution-seeking response that comes from emotional detachment and is typical of planners and strategists like me, who are already focused on the long-term potential for change. We’re chasing patterns and imagining what comes next. For governments and organisations, that’s scenario planning for how to address not only the virus in the future, but also how to respond to a changed economy. For regenerative business practitioners, that’s finding ways to see emergent potential in this unprecedented opportunity without being insensitive to freeze, fear and grief.

There is also fear’s opposite — our deepest human emotional response to love and care for one another, which is activating an outpouring of compassion and community spirit. All over the world support groups are popping up to care for the more vulnerable in society. The kind of community cohesion, support offered to strangers and kindness that emerges in crisis situations is like nothing else you will ever experience. What seemed like vital disagreements melt away, at least for a while. Love for your friends and family, care for others, are what will get you through this.

It is also triggering a curious need to cocoon as we are being called to be still. To be silent. To stop. To just be present in the moment, and allow ourselves space and time to adjust to a new reality. Do things slowly, mindfully; be present just from moment to moment. Some people can burst forth into immediate action, most of us really need to sit in the pause and give ourselves a moment to gather the shattered pieces of the illusion of security and safety before we can move. To rest together with loved ones, with nature, in silence and contemplation. This is the bottom of Otto Scharmer’s Theory U curve.

We all have all these responses to a greater or lesser degree. We're all managing all three and there is validity in all three. I find myself oscillating on an hourly basis between the tension of sensing an urgent need to seize the opportunity of coronavirus to truly activate systemic change, a wish not to seem insensitive to real grief and need, and a desire to just stop and watch Spring unfolding before my eyes.

We’re currently in the worst stage of the crisis. We’re in the moment when everyone collectively realises the severity of what we are facing. A colleague in crisis communications compared it to the moment at the top of the rollercoaster when we all look down: Your insides turn over, but it doesn’t last — you take the plunge at high speed; but in time the plunge smoothes out, and things find a new normal and a new rhythm. As we emerge from this crisis, we will emerge into a different life. We will have had a wake-up call of monumental proportions. For some people it will be a much harder, harsher reality. But for us collectively as a species, there is the potential — just over the horizon — for a fresh start.

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