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Many think that changes and reforms can take place in a short time. I believe that we always need time to lay the foundations for real, effective change. And this is the time of discernment. Sometimes discernment instead urges us to do precisely what you had at first thought you would do later.

What is worth discerning as 2013 draws to a close? It’s a little nuts to assess the tenor of a year on the day it ends. I get a mental image of a panel of fishes commenting on the nature of water as it rushes past: “Wet,” they say, nodding their silver heads sagely, “definitely wet.”

Still, on the cusp of 2014, I sense a sea-change in what Paulo Freire called our “thematic universe,” that stormy ocean of ideas and events in dialectical interaction that characterizes an epoch. In a thematic universe, no single idea or manifestation predominates. It’s the whole wriggling mass of ideas and their consequences that shape a moment: blind faith in fundamentalist religious dogma and its twin in overconfidence, the convictions that we’re nothing but chemicals and forces and that science will unmask all mysteries; rampant acquisition and exploitation and elective simplicity, living lightly; white supremacy and racial equality. The conjoined pairs that wriggle the most vigorously—including those I’ve mentioned—form the warp and weft of our era. But the tapestry is complex, many-colored, many-textured.

I’ve been strongly critical of the Catholic Church and its gigantic abuses of power, but lately, I often find myself in surprising agreement with the new Pope, who has displayed a notable humility, repentant spirit, and redemptive determination. He is right: this is a time of discernment, and what a discerning eye often sees confounds conventional expectations and received wisdom. As Pope Francis characterizes his own awareness elsewhere in Carroll’s profile, the moment requires “a spiritual discernment that responds to a need that arises from looking at things, at people, and from reading the signs of the times.” And it’s not just me: all sorts of leftists, liberals, and counterculturists are quoting the Pope these days. (Did you see that pig flying by?)

The discerning eye perceives themes that don’t make headlines, yet may turn out to be the most determinative. The one I’m tracking with close attention and keen hope may be a milestone in the history of social ideas. I’ll call it imposition versus awareness: the tension between seeing ourselves as social mechanics and understanding the pivotal role of awareness in nourishing a culture of possibility. Social mechanics believe that our challenge is to find and enforce the right solutions to wicked problems and social messes, tinkering with systems and programs—the software of society, if you will. But the emergent belief is that lasting change is organic, triggered by an evolution of awareness, and that mechanics follow—not lead—it. The change must be in our operating system.

The two poles of the dialectic are “We have to do something!” and “Let’s open our eyes and see differently!” It’s not that seeing obviates doing. To the contrary, deep awareness leads to action and sharpens action. Without it, action is just a way of keeping busy.

In this time of discernment, we can discern the pointlessness of so much furious position-taking, so many dueling policy proposals advocated with a fervor that masks the half-heartedness of their advocates’ belief in their efficacy. Abandoning the vain arrogance that colors so much of our political debate, people are putting countless good ideas into practice on a human scale. The obstacle isn’t finding the exact right formula; it’s whatever impedes the understanding that the most powerful responses to any social challenge come from the people most affected by it. It’s whatever prevents respecting lived knowledge as much as credentialed knowledge. It’s whatever keeps us from knowing that there are so many more of us guided by love and justice than the powerful few gripped by greed. It’s anything that gets in the way of recognizing that for each and all of us, the realization of our essential role in the culture of possibility is exactly what’s needed to potentiate the great turning.

You know what I discern. It infuses my two new books, The Culture of Possibility: Art, Artists & The Future and The Wave. Here’s a quote my recent piece in On The Commons, which was reprinted by Guernica and quite a few other online journals:


We are in the midst of a paradigm shift that is bringing our cultural commons to the center of our awareness: art and culture are being given their true value as the crucible wherein civil society is forged. The capacities that can be best learned through art—social imagination, empathy, improvisation, awareness of cultural citizenship, connectivity, and creativity—are being used to transform our collective story to one of possibility.

“Truth is a relationship,” said Francis. “As such, each one of us receives the truth and expresses it from within, that is to say, according to one’s own circumstances, culture, and situation in life.” The water is wet, my fellow fishies, but it is also transparent, admitting clear sight. If even a fraction of us make it our new year’s resolution to discern the culture of possibility hiding in plain sight, what we previously hoped to see much later will come into focus now. We will take many different actions, conditioned on our “circumstances, culture, and situation in life.” But they will add up to everything that matters.

May all of us have a year of discernment. May our discernment nourish awareness. May our awareness increase our sense of agency. And may our agency multiply the impact of love in the world. Happy new year!

Dax Riggs’ cover of Lucinda Williams beautiful “World Without Tears.”

If we lived in a world without tears
How would misery know
Which back door to walk through
How would trouble know
Which mind to live inside of
How would sorrow find a home

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