It’s a God-Awful Mess, but It Is the Way Things Work

February 1, 2003

In this issue:

Newsbriefs: Megatrends’ Aburdene at The Spirit of Power Workshop in S.F.
Meg Wheatley, Bernard Lietaer & Lynne Twist Join John in February
February Editorial: It’s a God-Awful Mess, but It Is the Way Things Work
Newsbrief: Clinton Cites Mandela and Rabin as Most Admired

Where’s John?

Megatrends’ Aburdene at The Spirit of Power Workshop in S.F.
Patricia Aburdene, co-author of the global bestselling Megatrends books, will join John and Martin Rutte, co-author of Chicken Soup for the Soul at Work, for a one-day workshop called The Spirit of Power in San Francisco on Sunday, March 16; more about the workshop and these three visionaries who will be presenting can be seen at

Meg Wheatley, Bernard Lietaer & Lynne Twist Join John in February

An Eagle’s View is being offered at the University of San Francisco on Saturday, February 15, for visionaries who are interested in refreshing their visions and taking new stands for creating a better future; features Bernard Lietaer (author, The Future of Money), Margaret (Meg) Wheatley (author, Turning to One Another), Lynne Twist (author of the forthcoming Soul of Money) and John Renesch (author, Getting to the Better Future).


Feedback from the U.K.

Last month’s editorial by John – “Slow Down and Think” – prompted the following response from British consultant John Armstrong:


Interesting article on going too fast. In it you point up the difference between the speed of the car and the speed of the engine. The important point for both cars and humans is that even though the car (business) may go faster and faster, the engine (humans) shouldn’t.

The difference between car speed and engine speed is, of course, gearing. With very high gearing a car can go very fast, but the engine doesn’t. I wonder what the equivalent for humans is. I know that when I am well centred, sitting in some core part of me, the outside world can spin as fast as it likes and I am unaffected. I can also operate effectively from this place, as if I had a high amount of gearing. But if I identify with the outside world, make a through connection between outer and inner, as it were, then I just rev my head off! The secret seems to find the “gear lever” and use it to adapt the link between inner and outer.

Please keep up the editorials – I love the sense of mind expansion they give me!

Kind regards,
John Armstrong



Nature is messy. It isn’t nice and neat like we humans would like it to be most of the time. Actually, when you think about it, who’s defining what is “neat’ or “orderly” anyway? After all, God created Nature and he/she seems to know what she/he is doing in all other areas.

For many years, I liked to think about my work as involving two worlds – business and consciousness. I saw myself as a “bridger” or a translator between these two domains – neatly distinguished in the way I saw them. In my mind there was business – with its focus on marketing, management and leadership, profits and growth – and then there was consciousness – where I could include the work of mystics, philosophers, and spiritual teachers.

To my thinking, these two worlds stood within a picket fence or walled community beyond which I did not adventure. Matters involving macro-economics, politics, government, parenting and education were left to others. They were not arenas where I cared to go, remaining within my fenced-in yard…tending to my knitting in this imaginary geography.

That is until the early months of 2002. Sometime around March or April of last year, a couple of things happened to me and I realized that I could no longer remain in my sterile habitat – remaining within my picket fenced estate and keeping hands off much of what was going on in the world. The escalation of violence in the Middle East was one of these events and the other was a session I was having with executive coach Maureen Simon, who asked me to describe the future I envisioned for the world. She asked, “John, as a seer, what kind of future do you see ahead for the world?”

I told her that I saw two futures – one that we were headed for if nothing changed, and another that I saw as both desirable and achievable, if we take corrective action soon. “Tell me about the first one,” she asked, “the one you think we are headed for.” I proceeded to describe a rather dismal future: where the shrinking number of the “haves” had settled in a fortress-like, walled-in city, protected by hired armies and military technology while the growing number of “have nots” amassed outside the walls and were making constant attacks on the enclave – driven by desperation, powerlessness, hopelessness and despair about their deteriorating circumstances.

“It isn’t too much different that what we are now seeing in the Middle East,” I explained to Maureen. “The Israelis and the Palestinians are giving us a preview of how we may end up on this planet if present trends continue unchecked. From where I sit it appears that both sides are acting out of desperation and hopelessness, knowing that the violence is not doing any good but not knowing what else to do.”

Surprisingly, I found myself crying as I described the scene I envisioned, knowing that what I was describing was not sustainable and that eventually all “order” would devolve into chaos. I soon realized that I had never before allowed myself to describe this scene – either orally or in writing. It was too painful, so I had avoided it all these years. I had an idea of where we might be going but I hadn’t gotten into the scene in any depth prior to this coaching session.

After that day, I saw that I had to get outside of my comfort zone, beyond my mental picket fence that made a distinction between “my work” and the rest of the world. Within a week or so, I had written my first ever “op-ed” piece (for those unfamiliar with this bit of journalistic jargon, this means a written opinion or article published in a newspaper on its Opinion/Editorial page). I sent it to the major dailies, something I had never done before. A third “first” for me was that the subject of my op-ed piece was not my usual fare; I took on the economic system we call capitalism, referencing how far a field we seem to have strayed since the days of Adam Smith – considered by many to be the “father of capitalism.”

I was definitely outside of my comfort zone – a wider potential audience for my words as well as a wider scope for my content. I was “writing louder,” as I put it.

Then it occurred to me that we have created such a complex society that we can no longer engage one system at a time. As a perennial scholar of systems theory, I am always learning and my mental understanding of some ideas take some time before I get them integrated into my way of being in the world.

For the first time at this depth, I now saw that all the systems we have created are political, not just the political system. All our systems have economic aspects, not just the so-called “dismal science” of economics or business. Educational systems have elements of all the other systems too. All of our systems possess spiritual facets, not simply spirituality or the religious systems we’ve created. The environment is not the only system that needs to be sustainable. So does our politics, our education systems, our economics and our governments.

Governance systems have spiritual, economic, educational, and political aspects to them. Look at the words of the founding fathers of these United States and the spiritual genesis of our nation is obvious.

Life isn’t neat any more. It has gotten messy, like Nature. Our complex world is now comprised of very complex systems and the only way to solve our problems is to engage the complexity and, to do this, we need to be willing to get messy – to get outside of our mental models about everything arranged nice and neat.

As much as our minds would like to stay with our linear, cause-effect thinking that caused this mess, we need a more complex way of thinking if we are to have any hope of getting to meaningful and lasting solutions. Einstein warned us that we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that caused them. One way of examining the evolution of our systems from simple to complex is to see that we have lived in the world of separate “parts” until now and all these “parts” are now relating to one another. The school system isn’t remaining in its tidy little cubby hole any more than the politician or the merchant are staying in their boxes.

We have created a “whole” and it cannot be engaged part by part any more than you can engage a person’s kidney without engaging their whole body.

On a recent trip to Australia I walked through a rainforest. Seeing all the dead leaves stacked several feet high at the base of all the trees seemed “messy” and my first thought was “boy, it would be really neat if someone cleared out all these dead palm leaves and planted grass.” Before I could verbalize my thought my guide explained how the debris is an essential part of the ecosystem and that many Western tourists see it as “unkempt.”

It is time to change our consciousness so that we think in terms of the whole instead of parts – engage our problems from the perspective of what’s good for the whole, not merely what is wanted by one part.

My late colleague and friend Willis Harman (author, Global Mind Change) used the example of the human body as a complex system. You’d hardly expect the heart to complain to the brain that it wasn’t getting any new ideas, or the lungs complaining to the heart that they weren’t getting their “fair share” of blood, he would remind me.

The human body is a pretty functional system, even with its complexity. But it too is messy in some ways. It needs to evacuate waste – which is certainly messy. It gets dirty and stinks sometimes. It gets viruses and diseases occasionally and we are just now learning how to treat them holistically, and how treating only symptoms is becoming outmoded.

In our world today, we could use some whole-to-parts thinking about our global family and drop this selfish, part-focused, nationalistic, parts-to-whole thinking that has become outmoded if we are to transcend our problems.

Clinton Cites Mandela and Rabin as Most Admired

In an exclusive interview with Leaders magazine, former U.S. President Bill Clinton said that former South African President Nelson Mandela and the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin were the two people he most admired (Leaders, January-March, 2003).

Where’s John (public events where John’s appearing)?

February 15: An Eagle’s View workshop, 9 AM to 5 PM, University of San Francisco, with Meg Wheatley, Bernard Lietaer and Lynne Twist (

February 28, The Presidio Dialogues, 7 – 9:30 PM, The Presidio, San Francisco, Hosting “Working with Spirit in Large Organizations,” with representatives from Wells Fargo, Sun Microsystems, Charles Schwab & Co., and Yahoo ( ).
About John Renesch

Better Future NEWS is prepared monthly by John Renesch, a San Francisco writer, business futurist, and consultant/executive coach.

His latest book is Getting to the Better Future: A Matter of Conscious Choosing. For a list of all the SERVICES John offers, go to Services.

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John Renesch

John is a seasoned businessman-turned-futurist who has published 14 books and hundreds of articles on social and organizational transformation.

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