By Jonathan Rowson
In 2015 I chaired an RSA event with Vincent Deary on his book ‘How to Live’ and was struck by his emphasis on the perennial human challenge of getting from act one to act two.
“We often spend many years or decades stuck in act one, doing more or less the same thing as creatures of habit and convention.”
Deary’s point is that in dramatic contexts of books and films we rarely spend much time in act one; it is just the setting before the trouble starts and the changes begin. But in our lives we often spend many years or decades stuck in act one, doing more or less the same thing as creatures of habit and convention. We often have ‘character sclerosis’ which means instead of venturing forth into the relative unknown of act two, we stay in act one where things are familiar and we know what is expected of us. This idea is captured in Frank Sinatra’s lyric “You keep saming when you should be changing.” Change should not be valorised for its own sake, of course: the new is not always better. But most of us sense when we need to make moves in our lives, and it is at such moments we need willpower, courage and support to get there.
Working at the RSA was wonderful but after more than six years of challenge and support I could feel that I was getting stuck in act one; the routines felt too familiar and it was hard to imagine growing in the role. I had a similar experience with playing chess professionally about seven years before, a feeling that something had run its course. The sensation is much deeper than just having itchy feet or restlessness. It can feel like a spiritual call. However, moving to act two can also be seen as a natural maturational process in which a healthy organism seeks a state of being in the optimal balance between support and challenge. When there is too little support we feel anxious, when there is too little challenge we get bored and stop growing. That place corresponds to what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’, and he believes it is a key driver of human development.
With the support of Swedish entrepreneur and philosopher Tomas Bjorkman I co-founded Perspectiva two years ago. I did not know exactly what I was doing, but still felt absolutely sure it was the right thing to do. Professionally, I needed to get to act two and this was my path to get there. I was the edge of my comfort zone, suspended between order and chaos, from late 2015 until late 2017 when I began to sense that act two was becoming act one again. The intellectual and social challenge of creating the organisation, and the administrative avalanche that follows coincided with the birth of my second son, Vishnu, so act one lasted a long time, but once it was clear that Perspectiva was here to stay and operationally, financially, socially and intellectually it was in reasonable health, it was time to take Perspectiva into act two.
In act one the characters were mostly supportive – for instance, I created an informal advisory board with people I trust and respect. In act two there are new characters who are a little more challenging! For instance, our researcher Sam Earle, who specialises in imaginaries – a core concept for Perspectiva, is merciless in her constructive critiques of my writing, and her insistence that I attend to all sentient beings, not merely humans. Our creative director, Pippa Evans, respects the intellectual mission of Perspectiva, but has no time for beard twirling, and helps keep our work grounded in accessible language and activities, as we did in our first two events (videos available here and here, and also blog). Dan Nixon leads our Paying Attention project. Having worked at the Bank of England, he helps ensure I don’t pretend to understand economics more than I actually do, while agreeing that new economic thinking has to be allied to deeper philosophical foundations than it typically is. Anthea Lawson is an activist full of questions about what it means to be an activist today. She is leading the Beyond Activism project, and the truth is that neither of us know what lies ‘beyond activism’, just that we have to ask the question. And Andres Fossas is leading our Human Growth initiative, asking what it means to mature as a person, and why that might be a critical feature of responding to new forms of social and political complexity. The challenge is how to honour the relevance of the depth and dignity of the human soul without instrumentalising it. In the following weeks we’ll be hearing from all of them about these initiatives.
This initiative is about building a coherent intellectual vision of what it means to grow as a person and clearly articulating why that matters for society.
This initiative is about developing the case for deeper forms of activism, informed by an inquiry into the relationship between the personal and the political.
This initiative is about understanding how we pay attention, why that matters more than ever economically and politically, and what follows for our lived experience and capacity to shape the world.
This initiative explores the opportunity that climate change presents to consider not what, but how we understand, and outline why that matters for everything.
“We need to navigate complex challenges with reference to systems, souls and society because they don’t work by themselves.”
Act two is daunting, but exciting. And it allows you to see act one in a new light. Perspectiva was premised on the need to examine complex challenges from the perspective of three different kinds of world that exist within the same world: the objective world of systems; the subjective world of souls; and the inter-subjective (and inter-objective) symbolic world of society. Only now that we have reached act two does this emphasis really make sense to me. We need to navigate complex challenges with reference to systems, souls and society because they don’t work by themselves.
Those who think we need a new social imaginary, and “a wider grasp of our whole predicament” as Charles Taylor puts it, are right. We need to reconceive who we are, what there is, and what matters most at the most fundamental level. But we won’t get there without changing aspects of the system – e.g. inequality, ecocide, kleptocracy, consumerism – that reinforce the current imaginary. And we need to understand our own complicity in social construction, how we perpetuate limited conceptions of what social change might mean, for instance by using dead metaphors like ‘left and right’ or ‘the environment’.
‘Systems change’ is typically a hollow injunction. Changing the system is not necessarily improving it, unless that change is grounded in spiritual development and better patterns of relating to each other.
“Love may be the ultimate answer, but power is the proximate question.”
And those who say ‘love is all we need’ need to get real about systemic and social influences on our capacity to love (poverty, exhaustion, alienation) and how difficult they are to resist. Love may be the ultimate answer, but power is the proximate question.
Act two is demanding, and rightly so. We’ll be trying to keep you with us while we are there, and perhaps even find our way together to act three.
Jonathan Rowson is Director of Perspectiva and the author of Spiritualise: Cultivating spiritual sensibility to address 21st century challenges.