What to Do When the World is Falling Apart

What Should We Do? What Can We Do? What Will We Do?

The world is grappling with invisible conflicts. Conflicting messages from global leaders about the novel coronavirus pandemic; disturbing videos of police brutality that conflict with official reports; and conflicting protocols about returning to whatever the “new normal” will be. This is the state of our world, here at the midpoint of 2020. The only clarity available to most people around the world right now is this – the structures that you have been relying upon (for better or for worse) are no longer recognizable.

This piece will present a “What?” – “So What?” – “NOW What?!?” format for grappling with the global dissolving of structures we once relied upon. It matters that these structures are gone because structures help us deal with stress, and this is the most stressed out the entire planet has been at the same time. The answer lies within – we must learn ways to internalize a structure that can deal with the extreme states we are experiencing, and the PTSD that is barreling towards us.

The “What”

When the post-traumatic stress disorder from dealing with 2020 hits us, it will be the biggest “wave” with which we must contend, for our overall resilience as a species depends on our ability to make sense of the world. When the world no longer makes sense, we stress, we break down, and we despair. That is a path to chaos.

Make no mistake about it, this the adaptive challenge for the entire planet right now. Individuals and groups will carve out responses to the structural breakdowns that most affect them, but each breakdown will affect everyone to varying degrees. We are all in this together, yet we must respond apart. The challenge for our species at this time is for individuals to self-generate structures based on principles, and most of us are not up for this challenge.

I know that most of us are not really up for this challenge because of my experience working with some of the most highly capable people on the planet. These are the people who naturally generate structures – scientists, philosophers, finance wizards, and leaders in global law firms. Their number one goal when hiring me to help them recruit and coach executives is that everyone “owns” their work.

When I explore what this means for them, the overwhelming majority of the time it is an unspoken claim that everyone (including them) be a self-authoring adult. That is, an adult who can generate the structures that support goal-accomplishing behaviors instead of relying on existing structures/networks that do this for them. And what we find is that most college-educated adults are not up to this task. One of the reasons that college-educated adults are not up to this task is because college education seems to value the deconstruction rather than construction of structures of consciousness. It is no surprise, then, that a small number of professors have attempted to address this (e.g., Jordan Peterson’s “Self-Authoring” program is a direct response to this).

We rely on the structure of our daily routines, a structure that has most of us leaving for work and engaging with a marketplace of products and services. There is comfort in such routine. We enter these structures physically, the actual offices, stores, vehicles, restaurants, and establishments where we operate. Yet each of these is actually part of the larger structure that sustains all of this. That structure is the assumed, invisible, mental structure that integrates them all – the culture of capitalism. It is a thin culture, to be sure, as it attempts to appeal to traditional, modern, and postmodern values alike. This is another way of saying that it appeals to the lowest common denominators (money, surface beauty, and effective performance). Despite the lack of depth, you feel its absence. The uneasy feeling you have is from the absence of access to the physical structures, and the current ambiguity of the invisible structures.

We rely on the police, even if we don’t realize it. There is an old joke that captures this, “Everyone hates attorneys and cops until they need one.” The “civil” in “civil society” has long relied upon a police force. What is being “enforced” by the police force is the social contract, and many people feel that this structure is broken. Regardless of the actual data (which often does not support such claims), the worldwide perception seems to be that people no longer feel they can rely upon their local police.

We rely on global governance, both elected and appointed officials, to select from any number of paths forward. Again, you may not have realized this until you heard the conflicting reports coming from Presidents, WHO officials, and once-trusted media sources. What little structural agreements about paths forward that once existed have been tossed out the window. Even the natural, polarized tension that existed between progressives and conservatives has dissolved – how can you have any tension when you are nowhere near the same page?

In the absence of agreements – especially the agreement of agree-to-disagree – even tight knit groups are experiencing divisions about the best course of action. The absence of a structure at the global level, revealed by current actions that pull us away from one another nationally, even scientifically, fuels the disturbance in the back of our minds that this moment in time is different from those in the past. The global structures that had been emerging are stillborn at the dawn of the 21st century.

The “So What?”

There are two choices left for us under these conditions: regress to a familiar, but less holistic, way of being in the world; or do the hard work of creating your own structures to replace what has gone missing. Regression results in even more identity politics, what most people call “tribalism.” But creation takes work. It can feel overwhelming.

The problem is difficult to see, so it is even more difficult to address. The absence of invisible structures cannot be found through microscopes or telescopes. It is felt; it is the uneasy feeling of being disconnected. The internet connects us even as it divides us. Which means the internet isn’t actually doing anything; we are the ones disconnecting, in spite of our technical networking.

This means that we have an opportunity to be irritated. (I’m sure most of us actually are irritated.) And being irritated is the first step in addressing any challenge we have in life. Let’s use this moment to adapt instead of regress. I hope you are feeling curious at this point, because curiosity is a key ingredient in overcoming the dissolving of structures. People who learn to automatically add a layer of curiosity to their irritations will go far in life. It is the key to perseverance, which is the one quality every successful person has.

Regressing to magical thinking, identity politics, and cynicism is a seductive way of coping with the current state of the world. These are the junk foods of your international diet. They make the bad feelings go away for a short time. But like conspiracy theories, all they offer is a false sense of control. You are replacing the lack of structure with less evolved structures of consciousness. (Which is not to say conspiracies are not happening; I’m sure they are, but conspiracy theories serve the function of helping you feel in control.)

What we need is internal progress. This is not to be confused with social, economic, or scientific progress. Internal progress means turning routines into rituals and rituals into structures. This is both a “top-down” and a “bottom-up” process, as all structure building must be. You must plug into something larger (top-down goals, missions, and a vision for your future); and you must behave in ways that move you towards such (bottom-up plans, actions, and lessons).

The “NOW What?!?”

Every one of us can stem the tide of the coming PTSD wave by creating internal structures to replace the dissolving external structures. This is easier said than done, but it is far from impossible and it quickly becomes a “virtuous cycle.” That’s like a vicious cycle, only positive. And virtuous cycles are healing in at least three ways: they create internal maps for positive action; they protect you from the constant bombardment of conflicting external demands; and they give you a sense of direction for your goals.

One of the first things you must do when you enter a Buddhist monastery is to learn the value of washing your bowl when you are done eating. Or the value of sweeping the floor. In the military, you are taught to make your bed each morning – not just throw your covers on it, but actually make it. What they are really learning to do is to clear their minds of clutter.

Small behavior changes like this can be leveraged to become internalized structures that will help you deal with the dissolving of the structures you once relied upon. What monks and soldiers benefit from is the clearing away of mental clutter, to create the space for new structures of thinking, feeling, and behaving.

These monks and soldiers are building internal maps – things they themselves feel they should do (they agree with the authority figures about these actions – at least a little – and so build an internal authority this way). Why reinvent the wheel? Find authority figures with whom you agree and create your own version of their best practices.

Monks and soldiers are protecting themselves from external demands that would pull them in many directions at once – so they begin to reap the benefits of a focus that helps them cut away less functional actions. Because they have this foundation, they can see the path to their goals – uncluttered by less functional actions and confident that small changes create a stable internal system, they can privilege the actions that lead to their goals.

The easiest place for anyone to leverage this method is in your morning and evening routines. Routines should become rituals. Too often, a routine can become an automatic, unconscious rut. But done properly, a ritual is a meaningful thing. The eminent psychologist C.G. Jung warns religious people that any meaningful ritual can become a “dead ritual” when you only engage the behavior and avoid a higher purpose. That’s a ritual regressing to become a routine. The reverse is also true – actions can become meaningful when you connect them to a larger purpose. That is how routines become rituals.

If you feel bored right now, it’s because you have never created a systemic internal structure. You don’t know the power you actually possess. You’ve been relying on the systems other people have created. There has never been a better time to risk being a little bored for the potential reward of a better life.

From Routines to Rituals to Structures

The rituals I have my clients do are the “Cs and Ds.” I like that title because it reminds me of college. The morning rituals are the 4Cs – Clean it, Clear it, Clarify it, Create it. The evening rituals are the 4Ds – Do it, Delete it, Delegate it, Defer it.

Morning Ritual: Clean – Clear – Clarify – Create

Clean your environment, clear up your relationships, clarify your goals, create new behaviors. The point here is not to go too deep too fast, but rather, to identify the spaces, relationships, and goals that are “low hanging fruit,” and only then address small behavior changes. This may start out slow, but it is designed to be done relatively quickly each morning.

  • Clean your environment: treat your bedroom like you want your mind to be. Clean away the clutter; make space available for later use; empty the garbage; put things away; and make your bed every morning. Stretch your body! Clean those sleepy hormones out of your muscles and joints.
  • Clear your relationships: treat your relationships like a good diet. Clear up the stupid fight you’re having with your partner, roommate, or family member. Forget about the big, important stuff for the moment. Find the easiest thing to appreciate about them and tell them you appreciate this thing about them. Most importantly, do not use any screens for the first five minutes upon waking up. You probably need to clear your relationship with your phone more than any other.
  • Clarify your goals: treat your goals like waypoints on a map. Clarify your most important task. Find the easiest place/person/position which holds value for this goal. Write the goal down. Write down any easy, obvious steps to take that will make incremental progress towards the goal. Have an objective plan.
  • Create new behaviors: treat your behaviors like you are making art. Create the behavior, do not just blindly act. You are the agent of your life, and the sooner you realize this, the more effective and happier you will be. This is easier said than done! Start with the easy stuff. Creating this morning ritual (and the evening ritual below) is a great first step.

Evening Ritual: Delete – Do – Delegate – Defer

At the end of your workday, delete whatever has been completed, do leftover tasks, delegate the work that someone else can or should do, and defer only those things that do not fall in the first three Ds. The point here is to eradicate something called the “Zeigarnick Effect.” Essentially, you lose cognitive horsepower any time you have tasks that are incomplete or unplanned. We all have these “I.O.U.” slips in the back of our minds, and they rob us of important brain resources.

  • Delete it: if it’s done, do not let the remnants just sit there cluttering up your physical/mind space! Remove these things by filing them away and be sure to delete or throw away (or maybe burn?) everything that you can. Double check any worry that “I might need this later!” Really? If you don’t have space on your computer desktop, your actual desktop, your room… chances are you are not deleting enough items.
  • Do it: if it takes two minutes or less, just do it. This is straight out of the David Allen “Getting Things Done” playbook. If you are more right- than left-brained, I highly recommend this left-brained system. I don’t use all of it, but what I have incorporated has been instrumental.
  • Delegate it: if you know someone who is better, willing, and able to do it, then you should delegate it to them. Maybe even if they are only half-willing. Ask for help. Easier said than done, I know! But it’s a good experiment, to ask for help with something small. Do you like to help people? Why would you rob others of the chance to help you? Asking for help doesn’t make you the bad guy; if it does, then ask yourself “do I want the relationship to stay this way?”
  • Defer it: for anything left over, send yourself an email for the next day (or write it in your daily planner, you dinosaur!). Do not keep doing this – if it is taking more than two days, then you need to break this down into separate tasks which you put back into the system. Even if it is a small thing, like making an appointment. “Obtain email address/phone number” can be a task that you accomplish and delete, to get to the next small task, “Email/call.”

Create and Use a Meaningful Phrase

The most important ingredient that turns routines into rituals is to create a phrase that speaks to you emotionally when you say it upon completing the ritual. One of my clients loves the movies, and so his phrase was hasta la vista, baby. You simply will not get the cascade of positive hormones that sustain a ritual if you do not have something you can say to yourself that will reconfirm for you on a daily basis the benefits of completing things and entering a new phase of your day.

It is not only good vibes you get from this, you are also declaring to yourself that a boundary has been crossed. “I am now moving into my day…”; “I am now done with work.” This is the invisible boundary that you can eventually internalize, the structure that can help you during a time when all other structures are dissolving.

In biology you learn about “semi-permeable membranes.” Every one of the cells in your body has one of these. You should think about the boundaries between work-life and home-life as semi-permeable. They are living walls that let you make judgments about what goes in or out. You will likely have to work after you’ve stated your embodied phrase, from time to time. That’s fine. Be the author of what this means for you (hint: if you say, “because my boss is unreasonable,” you are not on the right track).

Why This Matters

A little over 10,000 years ago, humans began to farm the earth. No longer wandering around, we began to integrate ourselves with the changes of the seasons. During that time, the cycles of sowing, growing, harvesting, and storing began to dominate our collective thoughts and behaviors. It should be no surprise that this laid the foundation for traditional religions around the world.

In a similar way, we are in the middle (I hope) of the shift from an industrial economy to an information economy. Like the agrarian revolution 10,000 years ago, we are being challenged to adapt to a new reality. Like our ancestors, we must create new rituals, in order to generate the structures that will help us adapt to this new reality.

Until this point, most of us could surf along the structures that others built for us. But now, those structures are largely dissolving. This time won’t be exactly the same; after all, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.

The PTSD wave is coming. You can think of this routines-to-rituals-to-structures process as a way of building some protection for yourself when it hits. If you doubt that a simple method like this can have a big effect, just remind yourself that monks and soldiers rely on these same methods, and they seem pretty adept at handling stress!

My “Cs and Ds Ritual” is the easiest way for anyone who works from home to build routines that can become rituals, and rituals that – over time – will become structures of consciousness. It may seem boring to declare to yourself that you are crossing a threshold into and out of your day. Give it just one month. If you do this every day, you will begin to see that the benefits go well beyond the simple actions. You will not only feel more in control, you will be more in control. I can think of nothing better when the world seems to be falling apart around you. Keep your head in a time of crisis, and you’ll learn to master that elusive creature known as the “self.”