Catalyze

I’ve started formulating a framework for a transformative approach to both personal and planetary healing work. This framework is still in its early stages, but I’m feeling inspired to write about it, so I thought I’d share.

Two weeks ago, I wrote a blog entry titled “The Future Refused To Change.” This entry explored the dystopian future that has been set into motion by an interlocking network of social, economic, and political institutions. These institutions concentrate money and power into the hands of the few at the expense of the many. Climate change and other ecological disruptions are rendering our planet increasingly difficult to live on, while Big Business and Big Government are making our economy and society increasingly difficult to thrive in. If we take no action, our world will be reduced to a smouldering ruin by these institutions.

On what seemed like a separate tangent, I’ve also been exploring and reflecting on all of the ways in which individuals and groups fail to communicate and cooperate effectively with one another. Different people hold different perspectives on the nature of interpersonal relationships, social/economic/political structures, community development strategies, and reality itself. If their hearts and minds aren’t open to including the wisdom (and transcending the shortcomings) of multiple perspectives, then they end up simply fighting with each other.

As I was walking home tonight, it occurred to me that there is a healing response that speaks to both of these problems. There are seldom simple solutions, but I believe I’ve come up with a simple framework for our thoughts and actions that can lead us to discover many creative and effective solutions to our personal and planetary problems. That framework can be summed up in a single word:

Catalyze.

A catalyst causes or accelerates a process of transformation by its very nature and presence in a situation. Catalysis has a very specific meaning in chemistry, but this technical definition serves as a metaphor for the quickening presence of individuals in communities and communities in societies. And just as a chemical reaction requires a balance of the right elements and conditions, personal and planetary catalysis requires a balance of the right elements and conditions.

On the level of interpersonal and group dynamics, one such balance is the golden mean between coddling and trolling.

Coddling is the process of inhibiting healthy development by enabling unhealthy behaviors. This is usually done out of a sense of compassion, with the coddler not wanting to challenge the individual or group because of the discomfort that is likely to result from such a challenge. But ultimately, coddling does not serve the coddled. It avoids short-term discomfort at the expense of long-term growth and evolution.

Trolling is the process of inhibiting healthy development by attacking healthy behaviors. This usually arises out of a sense of callousness, because the troll either doesn’t care about the other person’s feelings or is willing to trample on those feelings in a misguided effort to challenge the individual or group to learn and grow. But ultimately, trolling does not serve the trolled. It drives people further into their defenses without challenging them to release those defenses.

In the past, I’ve tended toward coddling over trolling. If an individual doesn’t want to talk about or act on difficult topics, I’ve tended to just accept the fact that they’re not ready to deal with anything that challenges their comfort level. No point in stirring up a bunch of unruly emotions if they’re not ready to process those emotions anyway, right? If a group doesn’t want to clarify its focus or change the way it operates, I’ve tended to just accept the fact that the group is dysfunctional and unwilling or unable to change. No need to have a long-winded debate about process or strategy if we’re just going to fall into the same old patterns anyway, right?

Coddling is much more socially acceptable than trolling. But that doesn’t make it any more conducive to individual or group development. When I coddle, the people and groups around me end up being stuck in dysfunctional patterns because I haven’t done enough to challenge these patterns. And I end up being stuck in dysfunctional patterns because I have to walk on eggshells around other people and wrestle with groups that writhe and flail like 10-headed hydras.

I’ve just about had my fill of coddling (and being coddled). But I don’t want to respond to this coddling tendency by swinging to the other extreme and becoming a troll. I want to respond by becoming a catalyst — acting with courage, and relating with love, and speaking my truth, in a way that will catalyze liberatory transformation in interpersonal relationships and group dynamics.

The challenge, though, is that each situation requires a different catalyst. A close friendship, a casual acquaintanceship, an informal community group, and a formal institutional setting, all fall in vastly different places on a continuum of self-expression. Polite behavior that is very productive in a formal setting can be very stifling in a close friendship, and expressive behavior that is very productive in a close friendship can be very disruptive in a formal setting.

In order to be a catalyst for liberatory transformation in all areas of our lives, we must develop different skill sets and explore different sides of ourselves, standing ready to shout loudly and proudly in one moment while listening quietly and speaking softly in another. We must learn when to offer tender comfort to the weary and when to offer relentless challenge to the complacent. In all of these cases, we must let our truth, our love, and our courage shine through in our every thought, word, and deed — but we must express these traits in a way that catalyzes positive transformation rather than coddling people when they need to be challenged or trolling people when they need to be comforted.

On a broader scale, this “catalyze” principle has the power to change the world.

In order to change the future of this planet — in order to avert the apocalypse by liberating ourselves from the destructive institutions that currently rule the world — we must catalyze institutional change at each and every level of the world stage. Just as individuals can catalyze change within small groups, small groups can catalyze change within larger social, economic, and political institutions.

Some of our institutions need to be challenged to evolve or dissolve. Others need to be supported in their growth and evolution. If we learn the difference between the two, we can serve as living catalysts, challenging oppressive institutions and supporting liberatory ones. Each of these institutions, in turn, serves as a catalyst for even deeper transformation in society at large, leading to the very sort of revolutionary shift in institutional structure and group consciousness that we need to liberate our planet from the forces of oppression and destruction that currently dominate the globe.

The time has come for each of us to be a catalyst for personal and planetary liberation and transformation!

Remember, a catalyst creates change by its very nature, and the change it creates does not exhaust or consume the catalyst. Instead, the catalyst sparks change all around itself simply by virtue of who or what it is, accelerating the process of transformation going on all around it and sticking around until that process is complete. In this way, even a lone individual can eventually make a difference in the global process of liberatory transformation — and a large group can work together to bring that process to completion in the blink of an eye!

So… catalyze individual and interpersonal transformation in your personal life. Catalyze a transformation of group dynamics in your community groups. Bring your presence and your energy to community groups that have the power to catalyze liberatory transformations in the social, economic, and political institutions that surround you.

Become a living catalyst of liberatory transformation! The world is a strange and complicated place, and it can be very hard at times to figure out how to do this. But if you set a positive intention to be a catalyst, and put enough time and energy into this intention, you will find a way.

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Robin Hood

Robin Hood (Errol Flynn): This is a photo of Errol Flynn as Robin Hood in "The Adventures of Robin Hood."

Wherever the rich steal from the poor, Robin Hood appears to settle the score.

Robin Hood is not a lone individual. He is any person, and every person, who knows in their heart that the hungry must be fed and the working people of the land should not labor to fill the coffers of distant tyrants.

Do not wait for him to come and save you; do not mourn his absence in the land you call home. Instead, go out into the streets in search of him, for you will only find him in the company of those who struggle for justice.

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The Future Refused to Change

Most if not all die-hard video game fans are familiar with a game called Chrono Trigger. This pioneering console RPG allowed the player to control a cast of characters on their journey through space and time to save their world from a terrible apocalypse. The plot was rich and complex, including several possible endings. The most bleak of these is the one in which our heroes fail and the apocalypse isn’t prevented. This version of the tale ends with the poignant words “But… the future refused to change” hovering over an image of their ruined world.

Sometimes, I feel like I’m caught in the real-life equivalent of Chrono Trigger. I’ve seen into the future — and what I’ve seen isn’t pretty.

But... the future refused to change.: "But... the future refused to change." In this photo, this poignant quote from Chrono Trigger is superimposed over an image of the Earth to emphasize the dire state we find ourselves in. Art by LegacyChrono.Our social, economic, and political institutions have created a bleak future: one where climate change, pollution, war, and destruction of ecosystems causes the end of life as we know it. No more forests; no more wetlands; no more savannas; no more prairies; no more coral reefs; no more megaflora or megafauna. All that remains are lichen, fungi, and bacteria that are hearty enough to survive when our society’s death throes raze the majority of the planet and blot out the sun.

If this sounds bleak, that’s because it IS bleak. And much of this downward spiral into global apocalypse will likely happen within our lifetimes. So far, our efforts to change this future have failed. So far, the future has refused to change.

But there’s still hope. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be writing this blog entry or doing the work that I’m doing.

We can change the future. We can create a world that is the opposite of the barren husk that currently awaits our grandchildren. We can create an abundant life for all humans while actually increasing the biodiversity and long-term sustainability of life on this planet.

How do we do it? I wish I could say it’ll be easy. It probably won’t be. But it IS possible, and it’ll be well worth the effort. Here are a few thoughts on how we can all get started.

The first step is self-education. What are the current threats to the health and survival of the many ecosystems that support life as we know it on Planet Earth? Two of the biggest direct threats I’m aware of are climate change and pollution. For more information on climate change, visit http://skepticalscience.com. For more information on simple steps that individuals can take to “go green,” check out Treesong’s Green Tips.

The second step is interrupting the cycle of destruction. How are we as individuals, communities, states, and nations contributing to problems like climate change and the pollution of the air, land, and water? How do we break this cycle of destruction? Reducing our emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions at the individual, local, state, and national level is an essential part of this process. So is supporting activist efforts such as 350.org that seek to educate the public and put pressure on our leaders to make the necessary changes.

The third (and perhaps most important) step is the constructive program — in other words, taking positive actions to create new systems that are healthy for both people and the planet. A few examples of this include supporting the creation of green jobs, incorporating the principles of permaculture and other ecological approaches into the design of our homes/farms/businesses/cities, and transitioning our food systems toward eating more locally.

Do I have all of the answers? No, not by a long shot. But given the future that lies ahead if we do nothing, I feel inspired to speak and act based on what I do know, in the hope that we can create a better future together.

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Keeping It Real

A growing number of people are adopting a costumed or uniformed approach to community involvement. Some of us call ourselves Real Life Superheroes. Others go by a different name or see no need to give a name to what they do. It’s convenient to have a unifying term, though, so I tend to use the term RLSH for all of these people who adopt a new name, put on a costume or uniform, and hit the streets in order to make a difference in their communities.

As the movement grows, so does the media coverage. As the media coverage grows, so does the movement. The unusual mix of media hype, secret identities, internet communication, and late-night patrolling makes it almost impossible to determine just how big this movement is, where it’s coming from, and where it’s going. But given the growing forum membership, the increasing prominence in the media, and the profiles collected at the Real Life Super Hero Project, it’s clear that this is a very real and rapidly-growing phenomenon.

So far, my personal experiences as a Real Life Superhero have been very positive. I’ve been a community activist off and on for the past 14 years, so people already had some idea of what to expect when I put on my new superhero costume and declared my intentions to serve our local community. Some people celebrated my decision. Others teased me a bit about it. Others still raised some thoughtful questions about it. But ultimately, no one seemed terribly offended by the idea. I found renewed inspiration, made some new friends, and started doing what I could to make a difference.

Unfortunately, not everyone’s experience has been this smooth.

As the movement grows, so does the controversy. Anyone can dream up a superhero name and throw together a simple costume or uniform, so people in costumes and uniforms are appearing out of nowhere on internet forums, on city streets, and in the media. Some of these are cheery volunteers in brightly colored costumes who feed the homeless, clean up litter, or raise money for charity. Others, however, may dress in black body armor, wear intimidating masks, and creep down dark alleys with batons, stun guns, and other weapons.

On the one hand, this is a somewhat unfair dichotomy. There are plenty of RLSHs who patrol with protective gear but also do homeless outreach or other forms of community service. Their responsible approach to fighting crime is similar to any good neighborhood watch group: keep an eye out, report crimes to the police, be prepared to defend yourself if you are attacked.

On the other hand, based on videos that I’ve seen and firsthand testimony that I’ve read, I’m well aware that there are at least some “superheroes” out there who are just a heartbeat away from becoming dangerous vigilantes. These people study martial arts, carry around deadly weapons, wear masks, and walk the city streets late at night looking for trouble.

Naturally, this raises some questions. Who are these masked, armed, militant individuals who roam our streets and answer to no one for their actions?

Believe it or not, this isn’t the first time that the question of masks has come up in my community work. In November of 1999, at a mass demonstration often referred to as the “Battle of Seattle,” a large group of protesters put on black clothes and face masks and went around engaging in militant (and often illegal) protest activities such as breaking through police barricades, “unarresting” fellow protesters, and vandalizing corporate chain stores.

The black clothes and masks of this “black bloc” tactic were adopted for a variety of reasons: to make a statement against what they saw as a repressive police state; to conceal their identities while engaging in controversial and/or illegal activities; to express solidarity with others who are rendered nameless/faceless by the corporate and governmental bureaucracies that arrest them or coerce them into a life of indentured servitude.

Over the next several years, a great debate ensued among various sorts of activists. Was this black bloc a threat to more law-abiding and less aggressive forms of demonstration? Was it an effective tactic for resisting the government’s targeting of certain types of political speech? Even if it was effective, was it ethical?

Eventually, this black bloc debate fizzled out in the U.S., in part because 09/11/01 took our political debates in a whole new direction. The black bloc tactic is still used at some mass demonstrations, but it’s much less prominent (and much less popular) than it used to be.

How does this relate back to Real Life Superheroes?

The black bloc controversy offers an important perspective on masked activism in our society. Many of the people who participated in (or supported) the black bloc tactic were genuinely motivated by an intense desire to do good in the world. They were unwilling to tolerate the actions of transnational organizations like the WTO that actively subvert the democratic process and cause tremendous harm at home and abroad. So they took matters into their own hands — they put on masks, smashed some windows, and set free some of the more passive protesters who had been captured by police.

Were they right? Were they wrong? To be honest, I have mixed feelings about it. But what I do know is that they were REALLY not well-received by the mainstream media and the general public. Why? Because regardless of how eloquent and accurate their press releases were, all that most people saw was a bunch of black-clad mask-wearing youth who were at best misguided and at worst a menace to society.

Sound familiar, anyone?

On the one hand, crimefighting RLSHs have a much better chance of being accepted by mainstream society because they are usually fighting to uphold the law rather than challenge the power structure. Most Americans are willing to give the benefit of the doubt to someone who stops their car from being stolen or chases away drug dealers on the corner, especially if they’re good at communicating their mission with some combination of symbolism and interviews.

But on the other hand, masks, body armor, weapons, and dark clothing on dark nights often make people uncomfortable. So if you’re going to be running around in a mask and body armor with weapons in hand, you’d better be prepared to receive intense oversight from the people around you. Your fellow costumed and uniformed activists will urge you to work closely with experienced crimefighters who they know and trust, and the people of your community may urge you to reveal your identity to the police or some other authority figure so that they feel safer about your presence in their community.

My advice? Even if you’re a crimefighting RLSH, start with the assumption that you shouldn’t wear a mask in public and shouldn’t carry any weapons. Then, think carefully about what your mission is, what your strategy for pursuing that mission is, and what tactics are most suited for fulfilling that strategy. If you ultimately decide to wear a mask, then fine, wear a mask. But think carefully about this decision, and talk with others who share your passion for crimefighting to ensure that you’re making the best choice for the right reasons. Some people really do seem to be able to pull off the whole masked crimefighter approach with the support of their local community, so I’m not going to say that you shouldn’t give it a try. But if it’s going to create needless problems, why even bother with it? You can do a costumed neighborhood watch without a mask — and some Real Life Superheroes do just that.

Since my focus is on ecological advocacy and community involvement rather than crimefighting, I won’t be surprised if some people take this message as a negative statement about Real Life Superheroes who fight crime. But that’s not my intention at all. Really, my intention here is to SUPPORT Real Life Superheroes who fight crime. Crime is a matter of life or death in many communities, and anyone who conducts a neighborhood watch or patrol may be protecting personal property or saving lives simply by being out on the streets. However, in order to achieve that good for the community, it must be done in a reasonable, responsible, and strategic manner. I would hate to see people getting hurt or getting in trouble simply because someone new to the Real Life Superhero movement didn’t think through the implications and consequences of their actions.

Many thanks to those of you who are doing the crimefighting and neighborhood watch work well. Hopefully those who are stumbling at it, or making a menace of themselves with their aggressive attitude and actions, will be able to learn from your good example. Many thanks also to the numerous Real Life Superheroes (including the crimefighters) who devote their time and energy to a wide variety of community service projects. Your steady, consistent, and fruitful volunteerism in these more widely accepted areas will help the world understand the good work that all of us are trying to do in our communities.

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My name is Treesong. I'm a father, author, talk radio host, and Real Life Superhero. I live in Carbondale, Southern Illinois. I write novels, short stories, and poetry, mostly about the climate.

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