Imaginative Gridlock


I’ve been making my way through Edwin Friedman’s fabulous book A Failure of Nerve and I cannot recommend it more highly. Actually, if you haven’t ever read anything by Friedman, you should just go online and order all of his books right now, or at least make it a mind-altering trifecta with Generation to Generation and Friedman’s Fables.  (And wouldn’t you know it, Amazon is so smart they have one of those “buy 3 together and save” with this very combination.)

In his chapter on imaginative gridlock, he uses the Age of Exploration as a metaphor for the kind of adventurous boundary breaking that is needed in our time. Because we are all kinds of stuck. Congress is stuck. All of Washington is stuck. Family systems are stuck. The Church is stuck. Businesses are stuck. Our national debates on gun control and marriage equality are stuck. I could do this all day…you get the point.

Friedman says the reason we are stuck is that we lack imaginative guts. We want to reform- and only what we absolutely must, and with as few apples falling off the apple cart as possible. We do not want to get rid of the apple cart entirely. And that’s a very typical and understandable human response. It’s just also wrong. And it won’t get us anywhere past these problems that encircle us like hawks.

What we need to do to break our emotional barriers and to free up our imaginative gridlock is to risk. To risk it all, if we must. To engage the world with a deep sense of adventure and to let go of our need to be right, to be certain, to be safe. Friedman says that anxiety and a quest for certainty always ends up in a failure of nerve. We falter because we psych ourselves out about what is at stake. I hear this in conversations about the future of the Church all the time. What if we spend all this money and then it doesn’t work and then we also don’t have any more money? What if the young people don’t come back? etc.  But then the problem looms so large in the room that you can almost feel a sense of paralyzation wash over people. What would it be like if we just stared that question in the face and shrugged our shoulders instead? What if more of us could just say, yes, that could happen. Yes, the young people could never come back. Yep, it’s always possible the Church as we know it will just crumble away. But let’s create anyway. Let’s do something new anyway. Let’s trust anyway. As an anonymous person once said, “The safest place for ships is in the harbor, but that’s not why ships were built.”

Friedman writes, “The acceptance and even cherishing of uncertainty is critical to keeping the human mind from voyaging into the delusion of omniscience.” (p.46)

I feel like we should put that on sticky notes in our bathrooms and on billboards across the entire United States until it really sinks in.

The problem is not intellectual. It’s emotional. We are afraid and anxious and too worried about being right. And it is creating brick walls that are locking us into an increasingly claustrophobia-inducing space. It’s time to let go.

Explorers in the Age of Discovery had to get over their fears about sailing to the end of the world and falling off. They had to get over their anxiety about crossing the equator. But they did it. And if you think about it, that was one HUGE mental barrier to hurdle. Roger Bannister broke the barrier of the 4-minute mile. Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier- by GUNNING IT when the plane started shaking when everyone else hit the brakes, no less.

I know, it’s Eastertide, and I am overly excitable about discussing boundary breaking, because this story is about that if it’s about anything at all- about a perceived ending being a new beginning, much to everyone’s great surprise and shock. It’s a truth meant not just to be proclaimed but practiced. What would it mean for us to ratchet up our sense of adventure and let go of the weight of certainty?

Maybe we wouldn’t die. Maybe we would experience resurrection.


1 Comment

  1. Thanks Danielle for the insights into Freidman’s book. I have a copy of Failure of Nerve and tried to read it but found it a bit slow in the beginning but after your blogpost I will pick it up again. I’ve also been looking an alternate approach to change called Appreciative Inquiry. You can read about at the Clergy Leadership Institute website. Thanks again for your fresh insight.

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