Creative Tension and Crisis

It's hard to open a newspaper these days without reaching for a nitroglycerin tablet.  The markets are a roller coaster ride and most of us have stopped looking at the monthly statement describing the wreckage of our investment portfolios, kindly forwarded by our brokers. (I am told that the witness protection program has swelled substantially). Of course, like Warren Buffet, we are all value investors and in it for the long haul. What used to be termed "Freedom 55" is now been rebranded "Freedom 95".  

In the face of grim news, it's important to remind ourselves of the concept of "creative tension". Creative tension is the stretching that is required to hold both current circumstances and possibilities for the future simultaneously. We must be able to keep one foot firmly planted in our current conditions and remain optimistic about the future without becoming overwhelmed with fear, doubt, cynicism or resignation.  The ability to manage this gap keeps us open, flexible and resilient, the three qualities required to weather the storm of uncertainty. Our ability to handle and manage creative tension– individually and collectively– contributes to the expansion or contraction of our personal, social and economic fortunes.


Crisis is one of the triggers of such creative tension and we currently have a doozy.  Crisis presents us with uncertainty, volatility or surprising changes to call forward our personal and collective mettle. It reveals where we have been out of integrity, holding on to false assumptions, irresponsible, or arrogant in believing that we are immune to cause and effect. In such times, decisive action must be taken to avoid breakdown or disaster.


Every crisis is an opening for faith, the engagement of the will, the deployment of  gifts and talents, and collaborative problem solving that serves the collective interest. There are five orders of crisis that invoke creative tension: failure, conflict, loss, suffering and success.


Failure is the experience of falling short of goals or expectations. Stock prices are driven by the ability of public companies to meet or surpass performance expectations.  So too are economies.  When a company or an economy surprises us by failing to meet it's performance expectations, confidence is shaken. However, it is often through such failures that we discover what has been missing or wrong in our philosophies, strategies and plans. The knowledge derived from failure, applied in a timely way, creates continuous improvement and progress.


Conflict is a state of emotionally charged disagreement or a clash of visions, ideas, principles, perspectives or aspirations. The result is hostility and polarization. Flexibility, civility and mutual gain fall victim to reactivity and anger. But conflict can often produce a breakthrough, especially when we recover our ability to deepen dialogue and explore common concerns, needs and opportunities. Behind every conflict is a creative possibility searching for a way to manifest.


Loss seems to be our current crisis lesson– a crash course in World Economics 101. Loss teaches us to live in the present moment.  It is easy to become wrapped up in the past or deluded by the potential of the future.  Loss brings us present, often with a cold, sobering smack.  It reminds us of what is really important, the blessings we have been given and earned.  Loss instructs us about values and principles. Even economies run on such stuff and when values, principles and ethical conduct go missing, so does long term sustainability. Loss also reminds us that the opportunity to act is always now, and that opportunity can only be plucked by those that are vigilent, disciplined and proactive.


Suffering is a natural part of the human journey and conveys strength, tenacity and endurance. Suffering can be physical, psychological, emotional or spiritual in nature. The crisis of suffering calls for courage–the strength of heart– to meet difficult or painful circumstances and to fight the good fight. Ultimately, suffering teaches compassion. It reminds us that no one is immune to pain and that we all belong to what Angeles Arrien calls "the scar clan". When suffering visits us, as it inevitably will, it is also an opening for our allies to appear– loved ones, friends, family, the community, even strangers, in support and solidarity. 


"Success..." wrote Ben Franklin, "has ruined many a man."Success is the fifth order of crisis.  In it's pure form, success is the recognition that an outcome has been produced that matches or exceeds the intention that was its source.  But success has a shadow side, as Franklin noted.  Success can spawn excess that leads to greed.  We have certainly witnessed greed on Wall Street, where the addiction to acquiring wealth and power seems to have completely overtaken common sense. Success can also foster unhealthy pride, including the kind of arrogance and self-importance that places personal gain over the collective good. It is also a contributor to stagnation, where our work becomes stale, predictable and repetitive. We may be seduced by success to abandon creativity for formulas and recipes that have produced results before but which eventually lead to the abandonment of creativity for the safe haven of repetition.


Ultimately, crisis and creative tension, always lead us back to fundamentals. Accountability, courage, clarity, equity, and decisiveness are the fundamental principles that  create a pathway from crisis back to possibility and positive change.


© Patrick O’Neill 2008. All rights reserved.

Posted on October 29, 2008 and filed under Uncategorized.