Integrating Our Souls, Systems, and Society
Jonathan Rowson (@Jonathan_Rowson) is co-founder and director of the research institute Perspectiva based in London. He is also the former director of the Social Brain Centre at the Royal Society of Arts and is a chess grandmaster and three-time British Chess Champion. His books include The Seven Deadly Chess Sins, Chess for Zebras, and, most recently, Spiritualize: Cultivating Spiritual Sensibility to Address 21st Century Challenges. His forthcoming book, The Moves that Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life, will be published in November 2019.
Krista Tippett, host: I agree with our guest today, Jonathan Rowson, that more and more people in are “coming out” of a cultural closet we made, using the word “spirituality” with a new seriousness. He is an applied philosopher and a chess grandmaster who explores the influence of our inner worlds on society and politics. The challenge for democracy now is partly, he says, a challenge to change human consciousness. We engage his broad spiritual lens on the great dynamics of our time, from social life to the economy to the climate.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
Jonathan Rowson: Getting things in their fullest, broadest, and deepest perspective is necessary to actually feel this problem. The crisis of climate change, in particular, is a crisis of disconnection between the facts and the feelings. We know something is true; we don’t feel that it’s true. We don’t live as if it’s true. There is what you might call a kind of stealth denial. We speak as if we believed it, but it’s not obvious from our behavior and the way we vote and what we campaign for, how we talk, that we accept this as a real problem. And I think that is ultimately spiritual.
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
Jonathan Rowson has studied the brain, philosophy, economics, and education, and he directed the Social Brain Centre at the Royal Society of Arts. And he is co-founder and director of Perspectiva — a research organization in London that examines the relationship, as he says, between systems, souls, and society.
Ms. Tippett: One of the threads of your thought and perspective and work is the matter of, well, just using the word “spiritual” — reasserting it, and then pondering what it means, what it doesn’t mean, and it makes me curious about — if you can identify any roots of that longing or that perception in your earliest life and, perhaps, in whatever you would now look back and call the religious or spiritual background of your childhood. How do you think about that?
Mr. Rowson: Two things come to mind. I have a particular memory of childhood in mind, but the first thing to say, to contextualize that, is, I think the spiritual sensibility towards life is entirely natural, that there’s no need to over explain it. It’s something that’s inherent in human nature. But insofar as it’s distinctive for each individual, the memory that comes to mind is, I’m roughly ten years old; I’m in a place called Westburn Park in Aberdeen, which is in the northeast of Scotland; and I’m alone, and I’m trying to figure things out. But I’ve probably got a ball; it’s likely to be a white ball. I’m kicking it against the fence that’s next to a play park where younger children are playing. And I’m really just biding my time. And I think what was going on in my life at that moment were various things I had to make sense of. My father became mentally ill; my parents separated; and, as a young person, I was just thrown into making sense of it. And in that context, I suppose I felt, at some level, held — that I was, at some more fundamental level, looked after. And I think it began from there. That gave rise to a kind of a willingness to introspect, to reflect. And those things gave rise to a fuller spiritual life, later on.
Ms. Tippett: And when did you start to play chess? Because it also feels like that has shaped you, existentially.
Mr. Rowson: No, it has; it has. Well, I was five years old when I learned the moves, and I played, like any young schoolboy, with friends and at school. But then, around the period of time between maybe 9 years old and about 13 years old, it really became a kind of passion, and almost every waking hour that I could, I was trying to figure something out on a chess board. And I think you don’t need to be too much of an armchair psychotherapist to see a connection between a young child trying to make sense of the world and seek refuge, and finding some sort of order in chess…
Ms. Tippett: Right, making order.
Mr. Rowson: … Yeah, and a place where one can grow, somehow.
Ms. Tippett: So one of the ways you’ve spoken about your driving passion and inquiry now is this — here’s an observation you made: You are focused on “the societal challenge we have become accustomed to ignoring, and that is the inherent nature, meaning, and purpose of it all” — that “we do problems, we do policies, we do systems, but we don’t really even aspire to a grasp of the whole predicament.”
And you make this observation that also feels so relevant to me, but I don’t think we say this often enough — that one thing that’s different about our crisis is that, unlike the Cold War, which I lived through, where it was very clear who the enemy was and what the risks were and what the stakes were — part of our problem is our inability to diagnose and articulate the character of the crisis, which, I feel, is that grasp of the whole predicament that you’re talking about.
Mr. Rowson: I think that’s right. There’s an intelligibility conundrum at the heart of our experience. We sense something that we can’t grasp. On the one hand, the world has achieved a great deal, and we’ve developed formidably through technology, and there’s lots to be celebrated. At the same time, the confluence of existential threats, not least ecologically, but also, democracy fragmenting in a certain sense, or weakening, inequality becoming out of control, and then technology maybe overreaching in certain ways — so there’s a range of different threats to our bearings of who we are and what life’s about.
And in that context, we look back to, well, what do we have to hold onto? If everything is a variable, what are the constants? And one way of looking at it, Krista — I don’t know if you’d agree; probably heard from people who’ve spoken this way before, but one way to see it is, it’s kind of like a new Axial Age. It’s a period of time where there’s such upheaval in the economic and political spheres, technological spheres —
Ms. Tippett: And the Axial Age was this handful of centuries, 2nd to 6th or 8th, B.C.E., in which — well, why don’t you describe how you think about the comparison to now.
Mr. Rowson: Well, you can describe it as a period of time around the Bronze Age, where technology developed in such a way, places were changing, because there were marketplaces emerging. [Editor’s note: In some parts of the world, like Europe and East Asia, the dates for the Bronze Age overlap with the beginning of the Axial Age. Learn more.] And technologies would make tribal warfare all the more deadly, because —
Ms. Tippett: It was also a very violent time.
Mr. Rowson: Violent time, and in that space of massive upheaval in the external world, people were obliged to almost recalibrate their sense of who they were. There was a shift in consciousness at a global level.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, well, the Hebrew prophets and Confucius. This was the lifetime of — and also of Socrates and the Buddha.
Mr. Rowson: Certainly.
Ms. Tippett: But what is so astonishing, also, about that period of time, because that was also global, is that those were disconnected cultures and countries; and yet, it does feel like something happened at a consciousness level, because these very kindred and deep things happened around the same time.
Mr. Rowson: And my sense, and I think I’m not alone, is that something similar is going on at the moment. People are experiencing a kind of waking up, and it’s quite diffuse; it’s often quite subtle; you can’t be sure if you’re kidding yourself, if it’s happening. But there’s a feeling of a sort of planetary immune response emerging, and levels of awareness and attention that may give rise to some new of seeing the world and seeing each other. And we don’t quite know what it is yet, but my feeling is that something is emerging, of that nature.
And yet, to get there, we have to step off the treadmill and the sinuous fear that’s around us that’s telling us how to live. So we need to develop some kind of immunity to those forces that are constantly telling us who we are and how we should live.
[music: “Geometría del Universo” by Colleen]
Ms. Tippett: Who we are and how should we live — you said, a minute ago, who we are, what life is about — of course, these are the ancient questions. But they are questions that have to have a place in interior life. Not that that’s disconnected from life in the world, and in fact, the point you’re making is that it needs to be relevant to politics and society.
Mr. Rowson: It’s a challenge, though. I’m sure you know yourself that many people who are very interested in spiritual life, broadly conceived, they’re quite happy to stay in that realm and think and speak and be in that place. And then those who are more interested in the political world, likewise, prefer to think in terms of questions of power and influence and so forth. And there are many who recognize that there is a deep connection between these worlds, and broad brushstrokes here, but people in their 20s and 30s, when I speak of the spiritual and the political in the same sentence, they don’t flinch, and they see exactly what I mean. And those somewhat older want me to clarify, very precisely, what I mean by my terms. And they want that to pin me down analytically so that I can’t breathe.
Ms. Tippett: There’s something you say — I think this is a really intriguing idea. You say there’s this analytical mode with which we do things when we’re being serious, and it has to do with measurement and precision, and its metrics are numbers. And yet, you say, the better part of us is struggling to be heard in public life.
Mr. Rowson: Well, there’s a key source for this, which is Iain McGilchrist’s work on different forms of attention that we pay to the world. And before I did the spirituality project, or maybe alongside it, I did an inquiry into this particular understanding of the world. I think it’s a profound viewpoint that needs to be considered, at least. Now, as I understand it, within neuroscience, there was a period of time where people felt that the brain hemispheres were very different. And then there was a period of time where pop psychology got hold of that and ran wild with it and stated saying that your left brain was this, and your right brain was that. And most of it was bogus.
But what Iain did, and he’s become quite a good friend over the years, is that he stopped asking the question of what did the different hemispheres do, and instead, he asked, what are they like? If you think of a person, you don’t ask what exactly are they; you ask, what are they like? What is their character; what is their nature; what is their disposition? And what happens, really, is that the left hemisphere is typically trying to narrow things down to a point and denature something, turn it into an algorithm, turn it into something that is like something else, while the right hemisphere is more broadly vigilant, trying to give context, trying to see something more fully and more precisely in terms of what actually is. And the reason this is relevant is that these two forms of attention, one that’s about focusing in and narrowing down and one that’s backing up and seeing the bigger picture, this is playing out, culturally, and that the period of time that we’re in is one where that narrowing of focus, metrics, everything being overanalyzed, people asking for evidence-based policy, people wanting to turn something into an algorithm so it can be put to scale — this state of mind is very pervasive.
And what we’ve lost in that is the kind of broader pattern of attention that says, hang on — what are we trying to do here? What is the fuller context in which we’re trying to make sense of things? And of course, that’s a harder question to ask and answer because it requires soul-searching and working together and lots of things which, culturally, are somewhat disempowered at the moment. Whereas the mode of operation that’s a bit more analytical and precise and zooming in and trying to denature things, that has a certain amount of hegemonic power at the moment because it’s the language of computation. And it’s the language of big tech and artificial intelligence. And so, there is this —
Ms. Tippett: And it’s the language of the stock market. It’s the language of the economy.
Mr. Rowson: The stock market, yeah. [laughs] So I think — when I say “the better part of us is struggling to be heard,” there is that one reference. But I think it goes deeper than that. It’s really about the fact that we are creatures of habit. We’re not only creatures of habit in the sense that we follow familiar patterns, but we’re also habit-creating creatures. We actually try to make niches for ourselves where we don’t have to think too much.
And convenience, in some ways, is how that manifests. And the reason that matters is that many things that are habitual and comfortable and convenient may not be that good for us, and they may not be that good for each other and for the planet, and so we need to back out of that, to find the part of us that’s a bit more free, a bit more considerate, to actually look more deeply at the habit that we’re creating and ask if we can do better.
[music: “Fading Glow” by Jon Hopkins]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today with applied philosopher and chess grandmaster, Jonathan Rowson.
Ms. Tippett: We’re at this interesting juncture, also, where — even the way you just described the way we function is based on a new insight we have into how our brains work, how our bodies work, how we function as creatures, why we became this way. So even at the same time that we can describe things about ourselves that are part of the problem, there’s some power in that knowledge, of being able to see ourselves.
Mr. Rowson: Yeah. We are disclosing ourselves to ourselves at some level. And that’s a combination of globalization and scientific knowledge, and also, maybe, material affluence. For many places of the world, having solved the major problems of survival, you move on to questions of — in theory, at least — meaning and purpose and self-understanding. So there is this period of time where we are doing this deep soul-searching; at least, some are.
But I wonder. To be honest, there are times it fills me with hope, and there are times when I’m not so sure it’s going to work out that well, because — there’s a saying that enlightenment is your ego’s biggest disappointment. And I always find that quite a useful expression.
Ms. Tippett: Why do you find that useful?
Mr. Rowson: Well, the reason I say that is because I think that the desire to know oneself, the desire for self-understanding, it’s often driven not by a humble service spirit of trying to make sense of one’s existence, but also more a narcissistic identity project. And there’s a risk that the motivation for self-knowledge has to be right too.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, also, this interior life and a true desire for self-knowledge is a necessary complement to spirituality, for spirituality, because — we talk so much about meditating, but meditators can be the greatest of narcissists. This is not — there’s more to this, to — what did you say — “the better part of us” that is struggling to be heard in public life, than — it’s not like these spiritual practices actually guarantee enlightenment.
Mr. Rowson: No, far from it.
Ms. Tippett: And I think that’s what you’re getting at. You’re saying, “What is this ‘more’?” and that this “more” is absolutely relevant to our life together; that it must play a greater role in the public realm.
Mr. Rowson: So the language of spiritual sensibility helps, I think. But, to be honest, for those who find even that language problematic, another way to think of it is positive and negative freedom. So we’ve lived in a liberal hegemony for a long time, where the prevailing idea was that the public realm was for questions of resource allocation, and the private realm was where you figured out what was true and what was good and what was beautiful.
Ms. Tippett: You kept it to yourself. [laughs]
Mr. Rowson: You kept it to yourself, yeah — it was your business. If you wanted to believe x, y, and z, fine, but do it in your own room.
Ms. Tippett: And it’s interesting, also, that there has also been in modernity this idea, this assumption, certainly in intellectual circles, that secularization was happening and would continue, and religion would, if not disappear, just become ever more consigned to the private sphere. And in some ways, religion — the way I see it is that religious institutions are in a state of great evolution and flux, like every institution. However, as you point out, what is happening instead is not what was predicted, because spiritual inquiry and these questions simply don’t go away. It turns out that they are part of us.
You have this great quote — I’ve heard this before, but I saw you requote it. I always like being reminded of it, from Julian Barnes: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” And that the sacred and this longing for the sacred, and in fact, this longing for the deep things, the better part of us — that this part of the human endeavor tended, questioned, carried forward in time and community and ritual — this is as vibrant as ever before.
Mr. Rowson: It certainly can be, and it’s there for people to experience and engage with. The challenge is that it’s not perceived that way, at least not in the UK. I know the context in the U.S. is a little different, but secularization is some way further on here. But I believe some recent survey by Pew Research that says 90 percent of the world will identify as being religious by about 2030, give or take.
And that’s really an extraordinary way of looking at it. Religion is not going away; far from it. It’s actually the sort of secular, atheist view that is somewhat irregular. And it’s not necessarily because it’s more advanced or more sophisticated. It could be because it’s missing something. Is that God? I don’t know. That’s maybe going too far. But I think, at least, we have to be less allergic to the language of religion and not — I have a friend called Elizabeth Oldfield who speaks about the G-bomb, with regard to God. But I think a culture that can’t use the word “God” without getting the heebie-jeebies has some serious problems. You should be able to just use the language without feeling that there’s a threat in the room.
Ms. Tippett: But I think the important point is what you’re driving at when you say we have to be able to talk about this. And the words are all inadequate, and the words are awkward, and they mean different things to different people. But we have to be able to talk about this part of ourselves — about what it means — what have you said — to take a look, more deeply, at what it means to be human, we have to have a more fulsome understanding of the human in order to grapple with life and society in the way that we long to. That’s what this is pointing at.
Mr. Rowson: It is, and I think the preeminent issue of our time is, our only habitat is gradually being — well, destroyed is maybe the right word. It’s losing its resilience fundamentally. Ecosystems are breaking down. And most of this is happening because of human behavior — more precisely, human behavior driven by a certain economic model.
Now, in that context, for your average individual, trying to make sense of human existence and spiritual life, the connection isn’t obviously clear. But I do think many are at home, being aware, for instance, of climate change. I believe there’s currently a storm in Florida as we speak. And I know that they’ll be wondering, “What can I do? This is happening, but it seems so much beyond me.” The gap between a single person and this massive global challenge that isn’t even simply human; it’s superhuman, and it’s into the atmosphere and so forth. Then, questions of perspective come into play, getting things in their fullest, broadest, and deepest perspective is necessary to actually feel this problem.
The crisis of climate change, in particular, is a crisis of disconnection between the facts and the feelings. We know something is true; we don’t feel that it’s true. We don’t live as if it’s true. There is what you might call a kind of stealth denial. We speak as if we believed it, but it’s not obvious from our behavior and the way we vote and what we campaign for, how we talk, that we accept this as a real problem.
And I think that is, ultimately, spiritual. One way of looking at it, to give it a bit of definition, is, most religious traditions confront the question of death. It’s central to the fact that you’re a mortal being that you have to consider how you’re going to live with the one precious life that you have. In the context of climate change, I think there’s a very clear parallel between our denial of our death — the fact that we can’t really confront this fact that we’re going to die — and this denial of this planetary emergency. I think the two are extremely closely linked. And yet, figuring out in what way they’re linked and how facing up to one might help us to deal with the other is, I think, a shared endeavor.
Ms. Tippett: This is so interesting, too, because so much of the hand-wringing that happens, in the States, at least, is about the fight — climate change deniers, which sometimes is a matter of language and — there’s a whole spectrum of that. But you’re talking about people who may be using that language and looking at the facts, and yet, there’s a step we haven’t taken that would actually allow us to grapple with this.
Mr. Rowson: I think so. While I was doing the project, one of the findings that I find most fascinating — it’s really sort of uncanny — is what we call “post-traumatic growth,” which is basically, when people have some kind of trauma — maybe they have a cancer diagnosis, or they’re in an accident where they just survive — there’s a report of people turning their lives around, living a more intrinsically motivated life with relationships and experiences at their heart and trying to serve, in a certain way. And they’re asked, “Why did you change your life around?” And people say, “Well, I suddenly realized I might have died.” And the irony there, of course, is that they already knew that.
Ms. Tippett: They were definitely already going to die. [laughs]
Mr. Rowson: Yeah, we should already have had that moment of “Hang on — this is part of the curriculum already.” But it’s like we almost have to have that shock. And I think, on many of our major problems, we haven’t had that shock, and that’s part of the problem.
[music: “Avril 14th” by Aphex Twin]
Ms. Tippett: After a short break, more with Jonathan Rowson. And you can find this show again in 3 of the libraries at onbeing.org: Cultivating Virtues, Moral Imagination, and Reinventing Common Life. We created libraries from our 15-year-archive for browsing or deep diving by topic — for teaching and reflection and conversation. Find this and an abundance of more at onbeing.org.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today with the applied philosopher and chess grandmaster Jonathan Rowson. His work insists on holding a deeper appreciation for the influence of our inner worlds on society and politics. We’re exploring how he applies a broad spiritual lens to the great dynamics of our time, from social life to the economy to the climate.
Ms. Tippett: The way you talked about the ecological challenge and the human challenge implicit in that is — you have this book called Spiritualise. And so that is — I don’t know if you would use this language, but it feels to me like that’s spiritualizing the discussion, our reckoning with ecology. And I want to just ask you about a couple of other areas and how this lens would take them on. So the economy, economics. Someplace you said, “Maybe we can’t reimagine the world without rethinking the economy; and perhaps it’s better not to be an economist to make that case. What is the economy anyway? I frequently sense that there is no such thing.” And I think a lot of us feel that way right now.
Mr. Rowson: Right; we should call it out as often as possible. When someone says “the economy,” what, exactly, are they talking about?
Well, I think it’s true, and I think this is no longer particularly controversial, that economic questions are too important to be left to economists, because they’re not, at their heart, technical questions for a kind of scientific expertise. They deal with questions of how you make value judgments in the world.
And moreover, economists haven’t done a particularly great job of keeping the world from economic crises or distributing income properly and so forth. When it comes to the economy more fundamentally, there’s a lot of good new economic thinking out there. I’m currently a fellow at a place called the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity, at the University of Surrey. Professor Tim Jackson is a lead. And they’re trying to imagine what it would be like to have a viable economic model that didn’t assume that economic growth was the be-all and end-all of it, that you had a way of doing the economy that was giving rise to different forms of human flourishing that weren’t necessarily about material advancement. And what’s great about the way that work’s being done is that they’re calling upon artists and philosophers and psychologists and people from various walks of life to actually help imagine what an economic system would look like that spoke to human value more broadly conceived.
And I think we look at the word itself — I believe ecology and economy, they have the same root of “eco,” which, I think, comes down to “home,” so there’s something about that — I think there’s something about the idea of home at the heart of economics that we need to reclaim ownership of, because it’s our home too. I think there is a place for econometric analysis, but it’s not at the forefront of public life. It’s once you’ve made a lot of difficult decisions together, collectively, about who we are and what we’re living for — at that point, we might want to figure out how we go about making the economic models work. But the economic models themselves are very much a servant; they shouldn’t become the master.
Ms. Tippett: And something that occurred to me as I was reading you and preparing for this, and maybe it’s connected to the suggestion you’re making, which goes hand in hand with this, that we need to work with realities like death and grief and loss, is that right now, right at the center, especially, of Western democracies, is an incredible amount of trauma that’s been hiding in plain sight — racial, the history of colonialism, the history of slavery, but beyond that, trauma that has to do with the way we’ve done gender relationship, the way power has been wielded. And maybe if I think about how you were talking about death a minute ago and how, in grieving, there’s this moment where you feel it — you don’t just know it, you feel it. And I think that certainly, this reckoning with trauma, with all of our layers of trauma, is happening at different rates for different people. But to some extent, it’s being felt.
And you were saying that in a life, that moment can open to transformation. But I don’t think you get a guarantee that it’s transformation. It’s a terrible, messy, painful — because there’s a moment where you just live with the open wound, and it feels like you will not ever get past this.
Mr. Rowson: Well, what I hear when you say that is, I think of ritual, actually, because I think that much of the purpose of ritual was a kind of collective inquiry into some of these deeper and darker aspects of our natures. It’s a way of supplementing them, in certain ways. So when you take communion, for instance, you’re remembering a horrific act at some level, but you’re not really viscerally remembering it, but you’re acting out, something happened. Something really important happened, and we’re honoring that now.
And the reason I think of that is because, in some ways, liberal democracy is the thinnest kind of democracy there is, because democracy being of the people, for the people, by the people, a fuller conception of being together, living together, working together, figuring things out together — it’s implicitly a communal endeavor, whereas liberal democracy pulls us in the other direction, towards the individual.
In theory, those things are very well-balanced, and they keep each other in check, at some level. But I think that what’s happened is, as our lives have become more and more privatized, these forms of shared ritual, shared experience, shared practice, shared inquiry, disinterested inquiry — not having a partisan interest that you’re trying to advance, but a kind of passionate disinterest, where you really care about what’s going on, but not from a particular vantage point. You just want to understand —
Ms. Tippett: You just really want to know; you want to understand.
Mr. Rowson: What’s the common good here? How do we understand this? How do we get all the voices in the room to help us make sense of this? But those spaces are closing. And what we’re having instead is a competitive team sport, playing out as a kind of traumatic experience in public life. So I think it’s something to do with the heart of democracy is an underdeveloped theory of human nature that we have to get back in touch with.
[music: “Living” by Sebastian Plano]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today with the applied philosopher and chess Grandmaster, Jonathan Rowson.
Ms. Tippett: You are a father of sons, is that correct?
Mr. Rowson: Very much so.
Ms. Tippett: And they’re pretty young.
Mr. Rowson: One just turned three, and Vishnu is his name, and Kailash is nine.
Ms. Tippett: You’re in the very active child-rearing years. All of these ways of thinking and seeing that you live with, that are very grand in some ways — practical, but — I wonder, first of all, how this changes the way you move through the world, but also how, with living with your children, how it works in both directions — how you take this into how you’re raising them, but also, how living with them informs this grappling you’re doing, this way you’re thinking and evolving your thoughts.
Mr. Rowson: So the way you describe that picture, there’s someone missing, which is my wife, Shiva, who’s the mother of the children. But I mention that because someone joked with me, when I was becoming a father for the first time — they said, “The real challenge for men, when they become parents, is not becoming a father. It’s becoming the husband to a mother.”
Ms. Tippett: That’s good. [laughs]
Mr. Rowson: And I think that although that’s a joke, it’s actually a deep joke. It’s a very profound joke, because your relationship with your partner changes fundamentally.
Ms. Tippett: No, it’s right. It’s right. It’s another one of these things we don’t talk about. We don’t talk about how parenting changes the relationship and how challenging that is.
Mr. Rowson: Completely. So as you’re painting that picture — and also, Shiva, my wife, is Hindu, so she’s brought that richness of the whole Indian tradition into my life, as well, and that’s also in the children’s lives. And I think one way to understand this is that I often look with some envy at friends of mine who are having time to go to public events in London or going on spiritual retreat for two weeks, and I’m there doing the dishes or getting the kids to bed or changing a nappy or whatever, or a diaper, as you’d call it. And I’m — on the one hand, occasionally frustrated, and I wouldn’t want to pretend that it’s all grace and dignity. There’s quite a lot of apologizing along the way.
But I think what it’s done for me is, it does get you out of your own head, to some extent. There are these other beings. They look at you with their big eyes, and they are — one of the things they are saying to you is, “Daddy, get out of your head. I’m here. Look at me. Be with me.” So I was joking with a friend, “I’m trying to build an organization, but my three-year-old wants to build a train track.”
And that’s kind of part of my daily experience. So it’s grounding, but it can be — I wouldn’t want to give it the wrong impression. It can be very exacting. And parenting is, often, exhausting.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, it’s physically exhausting.
Mr. Rowson: Physically exhausting, and also, the joy that comes through — I think there’s a famous line in the poetry of Kahlil Gibran, in The Prophet, about “the deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy it can contain.” And I sometimes think about it that way with children. It’s not so much sorrow, but the more stress, the more exhaustion, the more worn-down you become through your children, the more the moments of grace and beauty when they do something utterly delightful, and it leaves you feeling proud and joyful. And you feel it all the more intensely for having gone through the mill a bit to get there.
Ms. Tippett: Well, I think I want to talk a little bit about hope, as we draw to a close. You also gave me this beautiful quotation of Vaclav Havel, which I know I heard years ago, but it was good to read it again in this moment, which I’m going to read it now. “Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. It is an orientation of the spirit and orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more propitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper the hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” [laughs] And of course, he had lived through just extraordinary complexity and hardship. Those were hard-won words.
Mr. Rowson: Well, I mean — where do I start? I think, with the question of hope, I think it’s incumbent on anyone who would define their work as being in some sense about changing the world — and that can be quite a hubristic notion, of course — but anyone who is trying to fashion better forms of living, they need some working theory of hope. And I like the definition of Roberto Unger, as well, which is that hope is the “visionary anticipation of a direction.” So it’s not just so much about thinking things will be better, but actually seeing a place that’s worth going to and orienting your will towards that.
So when I quite recently created a new organization called Perspectiva, and the purpose of the organization, in some ways, is to paint a vision of the future and a pathway of getting there that does instill a certain amount of hope. And I think the only way we’re going to do that is if we get better at linking together what we call “systems, souls, and society” — so, complex systems, including the economy and politics and all that, the totality of our inner worlds, and then, how we talk to each other and how we live together. And I think, if we can get better and more nimble and more generous about how we move between those worlds, then the chance of creating a hope that makes sense for all of us is all the greater.
Ms. Tippett: We haven’t spoken about chess this whole time, and you are, of course, a chess grandmaster. And that’s such an interesting thing about you, that you bring together. And there’s one place where I saw you drawing on a chess image — “zugzwang”? Is that how you say it? I mean, that’s how you say it in German. Is that how chess people say it?
Mr. Rowson: Zugzwang, yeah; we would try to, at least.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Would you talk about your — not just the word, but the experience — I feel like you bring those together in a wonderful way, with what political hope is and this experience of chess that — yeah.
Mr. Rowson: So, interestingly, I’m in in the last few moments of finishing a book called The Moves That Matter, and the subtitle is “The Chess Grandmaster and the Game of Life,” so I’ve had some time to think about what this means. And one of the things that I think chess gives you is an appreciation for looking at the whole position; that often, in life, we end up looking too zoomed-in on one particular feature of the position, but chess gives you this disposition to try and see, as far as possible, what’s going on in the state of the world as a whole.
And the other thing it gives you is a fairly good sense of the opponent, the fact there’s always this alternative narrative, this alternative story, coming right back at you. And their reality is no less real than yours. And what it gives you, as well, is, rather than thinking of these big, grand schemes of how to think a hundred moves or a hundred years in advance, your main responsibility as a chess player is to play the best move in the position that’s immediately in front of you. And obviously, that has to be more or less visionary, but still, it’s good and circumspect just to realize that your primary responsibility is what do you do next, and how do you do that well. So as far as possible, I try and keep that in mind as I go through life, not to get too far ahead of the next thing.
Ms. Tippett: And in zugzwang —
Mr. Rowson: So compulsion — yeah.
Ms. Tippett: The way I understood that is where everybody feels stuck. There’s no good move. [laughs]
Mr. Rowson: So zugzwang, as I understand it, is literally “compulsion to move.” And the reason it’s relevant is that often, you don’t want to move. And most occasions in chess, to have the move would be a good thing, and you could make good use of the opportunity. But there are some situations where you can only do harm in your move. And curiously, at the risk of being slightly political, some have described the situation in the UK, leaving the European Union, as giving rise to a situation of zugzwang.
Ms. Tippett: Right; so there’s no good move.
Mr. Rowson: You get to a moment where it feels like you have to make a move, but nothing actually works. And then it gets more interesting. You get things like reciprocal zugzwang, where neither side can move without doing any harm. And then it’s all about trying to get it so that your opponent has to move instead of you. And this plays out in all sorts of political ways too.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. I think — someplace, you said, “Political hope depends on humanity not being in zugzwang.” And it is a wonderful metaphor for where we are now.
Mr. Rowson: Well, you mention Havel saying something makes sense. I think that’s the connection I see here. It’s that you make a move because it makes sense; you don’t necessarily think it will lead to checkmate. But you have a rationale and a feeling that it makes sense and that it matters, and you play it, and then, you hope. And the same way with life: You need to do what is in front of you. If that’s washing the dishes, wash the dishes. But take the next step. And you may find that what follows is all the better for that.
Ms. Tippett: If I just ask you, right now, at this moment in your life and the life of the world, what makes you despair, and where are you finding hope? Where are you looking for hope?
Mr. Rowson: What makes me despair is shrillness. And that comes from all sides of the political spectrum; so, those who are so sure of what the problem is. And it’s often laced with projection. It’s laced with not seeing our own complicity in certain forms of the problem, whether that’s attacking the current American administration or lamenting Britain’s decision to leave the EU or whether it’s something more proximate, like complaining against all the bankers being terrible or all the political party that you dislike being terrible.
I find that very unhelpful. I think there is a time and a place for winning your battle, but really, hope comes from a deep recognition that we’re in it together. You don’t surrender your disagreements. You don’t lose your values. You don’t forget who you are. But you assume good faith, and you try and build a world together the best you can. If you reach a point where it becomes clear that the people you are hoping to cooperate with are not in good faith, then you can vigorously try and take a different strategy. But I think despair arises when we prematurely help ourselves to an understanding that is inadequate. And so, when that combination of partial understanding with moral certitude kicks in, I feel a certain sense of despair, whereas, when I feel hope is where there is a kind of discernment and a conviction about what’s going on, but there’s also an openness and a kind of generosity of spirit that defines it.
Ms. Tippett: Anything else you’d like to say? Anything you…
Mr. Rowson: The only thing that comes to mind is that I was asked by the Open Society Foundation, a sort of massive global organization, to try and help them make sense of the global crisis in human rights as they saw it. And in the process of doing that, I’ve again realized that a lot of it comes down to our working theory of what it is to be human. But I think the real challenge is linking that question, as a sort of living, breathing, unresolvable, perennial issue, to a particular political predicament.
Now, I wrestle with that, whether, really, this conceptual work that we do can really make a difference to people who are in need. And I’ve come to the conclusion that it can. [laughs] I’ve come to the conclusion that, actually, finding the right forms of language has real effects in the world. It changes conversations, which changes cultures, which changes practices. And I think, those who are charged with making sense of the world and feel called upon to do that should not despair that their work is irrelevant. I think I’ve come to believe that making the world clearer and looking at our foundations more fully can actually give rise to real results for people who are suffering on a day-by-day basis.
Ms. Tippett: Is there any example that comes to mind, in terms of a shift of language?
Mr. Rowson: One that comes to mind is climate change itself, actually, because I think “change” is such a neutral term that I now think in terms of climate “collapse.” I find it a more useful — I think climate “emergency” is too strong; I think climate “breakdown” makes it sound too mechanical. I think we’re looking at a systemic collapse gradually unfolding in front of us.
So you need to find a form of language that is heartfelt and true to the nature of the problem, but which isn’t shrill and doesn’t provoke a needless defensive reaction. Given that that language is perpetuated and multiplied a million-plus times around the globe, finding the right form and the right reverberation of language really makes a difference in terms of how people feel it, because as I said earlier, the main challenge on that particular issue is learning to feel it.
So “collapse,” not “change,” because our lungs collapse; financial systems collapse, and we collapse in exhaustion at the end of a difficult day. I think people can relate to that. So if we say the climate is collapsing, it’s so much more evocative than to say it’s merely changing.
[music: “Autumnal” by Teen Daze]
Ms. Tippett: Jonathan Rowson is co-founder and director of the research institute Perspectiva, based in London. He is also the former director of the Social Brain Centre at the Royal Society of Arts, and he is a chess grandmaster and British chess champion. His books include The Seven Deadly Chess Sins and, more recently, Spiritualise: Cultivating Spiritual Sensibility to Address 21st Century Challenges.
Staff: The On Being Project is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Erinn Farrell, Laurén Dørdal, Tony Liu, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, Profit Idowu, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Damon Lee, Suzette Burley, Katie Gordon, Zack Rose, Serri Graslie, and Nicole Finn.
Ms. Tippett: The On Being Project is located on Dakota Land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing at the end of our show is Cameron Kinghorn.
On Being is an independent production of The On Being Project. It is distributed to public radio stations by PRX. I created this show at American Public Media.
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