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Confronting your learned resignation

Published: Saturday, September 1, 2001

Updated: Sunday, August 17, 2008 16:08

In Glen Roth's column "Popping the Bubble" (October 9, 2001) he asked, "will our generation step up to the challenge, or has our fortune left us incapable of making a difference?" This question strikes at the heart of a condition of modern human being, namely, learned resignation. That's right, we have learned to be resigned that we can make a difference.

Learned resignation is waiting to see the world unfold rather than shaping our world here and now. Intellectual awareness, while important, does not affect change. Let me pose some challenging questions. What is the source of leadership that makes a difference? Is it our passion? The ability to feel genuinely?

Just look at the conclusion drawn by the same person that asked the insightful question above, "though I cannot claim to know what our role should be in this new era, as it appears to still be in its preliminary stage, I know our country and our world remain ripe with injustice and inequality."

This is an expression of resignation. I would rather have read that Mr. Roth initiated something new to address this situation. This student's response, I feel, characterizes the condition of learned resignation so prevalent in our society today. When will this student decide to take action? After the next attack?

Until then, Roth claims the present situation is, "still in its preliminary stage?" What this really means is, I understand - intellectually or conceptually - that this era is ripe with opportunities to make a difference, probably because someone in authority said it was so, but I am not ready or prepared to capitalize on any of these because I am not capable of understanding - experientially - the deep down passion required to take action.

This typifies the condition of "learned resignation." We are resigned that we can do anything to make a difference because we are not capable of experiencing for ourselves what our deep commitments are. We have learned our lessons well from each other and from our society's institutions, including Tufts, to intellectualize our lives, instead of experiencing our lives. Further, making a difference is so often a guilty response or an obligation, or payback, as the student further states, "I just feel that there can be no greater gift to the victims of Sept. 11 than having their sacrifice serve as a call to action for us." This is not difference making; this is intellectualized moral obligation.

What about acting because you feel so committed to building a new world society, instead of tearing one down? What about acting with all of your passions, simply because you are committed to something, and that you feel this commitment. Commitment is a choice to act in the face of resignation, it is the triumph of possibility over resignation.

Maybe we are so deadened inside that we have lost this ability to experience, to feel genuinely. I can only conclude that we are afraid of the power of our emotions as the source of our own leadership actions.

The resignation I am speaking about is that which lies deep within our consciousness - we do not even know it is present within us, EACH OF US! So, we can speak about "possibilities" and "difference making" but so very few are actually living these realities, except maybe Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush. They are acting, rightly or wrongly, consistent with their emotional connection to their commitments; it is not a concept to them.

What about making a difference here and now? If not here, then where? If not now, then when? Certainly these two present day world leaders are acting from their direct experiences, a call to action if you will. They have not let fear stop them from making a difference in the world, unlike most Middle Eastern governmental leaders.

When will King Fahd be challenged to break free of his fears that keep his country from taking bold leadership action, such as contributing to the building of a new vision of a world society? Will George W. Bush's own experience of his inner commitment sustain him through his Presidency and even through the next phase of the war against terrorism? Will each and every citizen act upon his or her own sense of commitment?

A good example is the work done by the Guardian Angels, founded by Curtis Sliwa in the 1980's, first in NYC and now worldwide (Guardian Angels exercise their right to make citizen's arrests when they witness crimes in progress). This group realized the existing threat to any subway rider's safety, and took matters into their own hands.

Why hasn't someone started the "Homeland Angels," an organization to screen all potential terrorists in this country? What if a student wrote about what he is doing now, in his own life, as a committed leader, versus something that should be done like a good idea or a concept? Would this make the difference, similar to a committed action, and similar to an experience of impacting a very real and serious situation in life?

Our learned resignation is not a condition of a single person, or a single institution, or a single people, but rather a human condition in modernity. To decide to "step up to the challenge" means not merely the situation in the Middle East, or NYC at ground zero, but the depth of our learned resignation, that is common to each of us and all of us.

This era is ripe with opportunities to make a difference, not because I said so, but because you know it - from deep within your self. Where did we learn to be resigned, what are we afraid of, and now what are we going to do about it? I have applied to teach a course entitled, "The LeadershipChallenge" at the experimental college. This is my personal answer. What is yours?

Henry G. Brzycki is President of The Center for Contextual Leadership and the Brzycki Consulting Group in Burlington Massachusetts.

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