The Challenge of Living into Adaptive Challenge

“Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke,” Office of Management and Budget Director Bert Lance said at a Congressional hearing in 1977.  I don’t remember what the hearing was about, but along with millions of others, I easily recall the phrase.  Most of us don’t refer to it much these days, because everywhere we look things appear to be broken:  the response to climate change, immigration, gun violence. public health, civility.  The list goes on.  And our culture, our political process, indeed much of our educational system – is oriented to find some sort of fix:  a quick fix, a technical fix, a budget fix (or reset), or something that will get us out of the various messes we are in. 

All of us have been reading, and most of us have been feeling, the challenge of the hottest July on record; along with floods, drought, and wildfires.  Climate scientists have provided data and evidence that these disturbing, debilitating and increasingly fatal trends could not be happening without the input of human induced global warming.

The intensity of the brokenness begs us to consider adaptive challenge.  An adaptive challenge refers to the issues we currently facing, for which we do not have an answer, that we need to address, in order to live into the future.  An adaptive challenge requires a cultural shift, involving significant changes.  Which, more often than not, we don’t want to do.  It is often said that people want things to be different, but don’t want to change.  I am embarrassed by the number of times I think that.  Various technical fixes are offered instead; and usually they serve only to kick the can down the road.

It turns out that the three Abrahamic faiths – Christianity, Judaism and Islam invite their adherents to live into an adaptive challenge.  Each of them encourages people to submit to something more abiding than the push and pull of everyday life; and to look beneath and beyond a technical fix.  Islam literally means submission, to a God who offers peace and beauty.  Jesus invites people to lose their lives in order to save them.  To let go of the demands of the ego and embrace the gift of the soul, which is the place where God resides.  Jews offer themselves to the mercy of the living God by following time-honored disciplines.  Outside of these ancient faiths, other networks stress the importance of submission.   In Alcoholics Anonymous, the path to sobriety involves step 3:  “we made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”  A process of submission; of moving from the ego to a deeper self

Submission is an acknowledgement of vulnerability; that we need to go deeper than technical fixes and dare to engage in adaptive challenge.   It is risky and scary, but as millions of alcoholics in recovery can attest, there is no other way.   Some clever (and insidious) demagogues across the world understand this need for people to submit to something beyond themselves.  And they cajole, and in some cases, require, people to submit to them.  Submit to their ideology, their program, their egos, and their insistence that they have what is necessary to – if not fix the world, at least to protect them from the destruction of it. “Submit to me, and I’ll take care of you”.  But what is left unsaid, but nonetheless implied, is that those who choose correctly will be spared – and others will suffer.  It can’t be helped.  Sometimes the suffering of others is the cruel intent.

The journey of submission is, in fact, a journey.  Engaging in adaptive challenge is a process.  We would do well to recognize when technical fixes are needed and necessary; when they are distractions; and – most importantly, when they are efforts to get us to cement ourselves into positions and postures that make it nearly impossible to change.

Adapting to challenges opens us up to new possibilities.  It helps us change, and better see the shallowness of the technical fix.




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