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Ontogenetic Resilience

v1.0 July 9. 2022

Published onJul 08, 2022
Ontogenetic Resilience

We just heard the roots of the original Macy Meetings, and now in the era of the #NewMacy, we move even further beyond thinking about “mechanical machines.”

One way we shape systems is through the stories we tell ourselves about those systems. Stories orient us. They reveal or conceal arrays of possible action and movement. Stories are ontological machines, they “make sense." A story situates us somewhere in a beginning, middle, or end. When we find our place within this story-system, we have a sense that we will be ok. The story will persist, and the next story will come.

A friend of mine teaches story writing for TV. TV is organized as a continuing series of episodes following a linear story structure: this happened, then this happened, then this happened. I've asked her what stories are and what they do. She told me to think of this sentence: "The cat runs up the tree." It’s not a story, she said. It’s a statement. There is no beginning, middle, or end. To make that cat into a story we have to chase it out of the tree or know how it got there.

As soon as we do, we "make sense" — we offer a continuity, through which an action has an effect. Knowing the causes and effects of things is comforting. A cat in a tree is there forever, trapped in stasis and tension. Suspense is a "suspension" of meaning: if we don’t know the story, we don’t know what things mean.

When Anthony Giddens wrote his work on Ontological Security, he described it as:

“...the continuity of identity within people and within a host of systems, such as nation-states, and other institutions. Identity, which human psychology tends (wrongly) not to view as malleable, can trigger fear of the ultimate discontinuity, the end of our identity altogether: “reflexively understood by the person in terms of her or his biography” (1991, 53).

As a quick glance at the shocks of the 21st century will show us, we are all cats stuck in a tree with little sense of how we got there or how to get down. Discontinuity has become reliable. We survive not by predicting what happens tomorrow, but by bracing for the unexpected. Ontological security becomes an ontological insecurity through massive political, ecological, social and interpersonal upheavals, particularly when the forces we relied upon for security are beyond the scope of personal control: global problems, brought to us by global media systems, overwhelm us.

We’ve lost hope of “now” guiding us to a predictable “then.” We are cats in a tree: stuck without ladders, with few paths toward resolution. We don’t know where the story goes and we don’t know what the story means.

In lieu of ontological security, we propose Ontogenetic Resilience — an identity oriented not toward being, but toward becoming. Ontogenetic resilience moves us away from passive subjects anchored by the stability of institutions. Instead, we see new currents creating new meanings, and a sense of identity as adaptive stewards of the systems we are embedded in. Ontogenetic resilience activates suspense — the suspension of narrative certainty — as a mechanism of exploration, thoughtfulness, and growth.

To re-weave communities in ways that support this resilience requires a rearrangement of purpose. We find stability not in the resolution of a linear story, but in our collective capacity to shape and make sense from suspense.

Willis Overton has written about the distinction between “I mean” and “It means.” To say “I mean” is to isolate, it splits us apart from the world, forming the “me” that creates narratives of selfhood central to our sense of ontological security. The “It means,” on the other hand, emerges from systems and relationships. When relationships become threats and the narration makes “no sense,” the binary choice is to withdraw from those connections. To isolate within the meaning of one’s self. For Giddens, this search for ontological security demands an identity of our own construction, but is met by clinging to expiring reassurances of a stable and continuing worldview. The anti-social relationships of misinformation, cults, or extremist political movements appear to be “collective” but are radically isolating: they offer no tools to grow or to arrive at the acceptance of change.

Cybernetics proposes a few. It offers a way of seeing ourselves through embeddedness into the systems around us. In cybernetics, the individual and the group are two frames that inform and influence each other. They are distinct but mutually constructive, allowing for reflexivity and movement. A “lens” is a cliche, but an apt metaphor: the edges can become blurry or sharp depending on your selected focus. But what becomes blurry doesn’t cease to be. We grasp at a constant crispness such that our boundaries hardly waver.

Ontogenetic Resilience suggests a way of living between this softening and hardening of focus, the movement that takes place in the refraction of a lens. Resilience is when we embrace the continuation of the story, even when we are out of focus. Resilience opens a space of possibilities. Surfing develops the muscles needed to balance ourselves on shifting currents.

Resilience lets us surf between the fuzzy borders of ourselves and others.

Ontogenetic resilience means sustainably preserving a state of becoming. This is in contrast with ontological security, which we seek through the preservation of what we have already become. Many of the problems we face today — in the 21st Century and in the next few hours — benefit from giving up on the search for “solutions,” and turning away from the idea of some thing or state our world might become. Instead of solutions, we propose navigation: Surfing! The question moves from “how do we solve” and becomes: “how do we surf between states of resistance, refusal, acceptance, withdrawal, or rest?” As we surf among slipstreams, we learn when to tighten and when to release, strengthening the muscles of ontogenetic resilience.

And today, we’re going to surf.

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