“At one communty meeting, we ran into a high-conflict issue. We ran out of time and agreed to postpone this issue until the following week. All week, emotions ran high and opposing views intensified. We eagerly assembled at the next meeting, impatient to get this issue resolved. This was a Quaker community—each meeting began with 5 minutes of silence. On this day, the clerk announced that, due to the intensity of this issue, we would not begin with our usual 5 minutes of silence. We all breathed a sigh of relief, only to hear her announce: “Today, we’ll begin with 20 minutes of silence.” —as told by Parker Palmer, Educator and Writer
This is the story that begins a brief essay on urgency by Margaret Wheatley from her 2010 book, Perseverance. It’s the story that captured my imagination as my thoughts moved across the threshold into another year.
To many, the turning point in Palmer’s story will seem more than a little counter-intuitive, especially when placed in the context of a reflection on urgency. After all, isn’t urgency a call to immediate action—a push to drop everything and respond?
As Wheatley points out, a sense of urgency pushes us into a crisis mode and our behaviour changes as a result. We are often fueled by anger and we lose our sense of foresight as well as our ability to think with clarity. The world becomes increasingly polarized and divided into those who “get it” and those who don’t:
“And we get angry. Anyone who doesn’t respond immediately becomes our enemy. They may actually be wise people who caution patience, who have a longer-term perspective. But we can’t hear their wisdome or experience; we’re too anxiously engaged in our cause. We hastily udge them as being in denial or just looking for an excuse not to get involved.” (from Urgency Urgency by Margaret Wheatley)
It has been my experience, in both my personal and professional life, that a sense of urgency can quickly transmute into a state of emergency!
Urgency is a bit of a double-edged sword, isn’t it? On the one hand, a sense of urgency can help to create the impetus for action. It can wake us out of our acceptance of the status quo and inspire us to action. In this way, there are many who believe that the change in education we want to see would benefit from a greater sense of urgency. At the same time, we don’t have to look very far to find evidence that the urgency trap has caused us to rush to respond to reports, test scores, public opinion and political ideology before we take enough time to allow us to move along the trajectory from data to information and through to knowledge and wisdom.
But what do we take from Palmer’s story as it appears within Wheatley’s context of urgency? What might emerge if our responses to educational indicators and datasets began with a type of no immediate action policy, allowing for the time to rest in the kind of “organizational silence” that, far from ignoring the need to respond, opened up a space for inquiry, insight and wisdom? And what if the results of that silence were allowed to influence the decisions we make and the actions we take? And what might happen if the length of that period of silence was directly related to just how urgent we perceive the situation to be?
Some opening thoughts at the beginning of another year.