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Currents and Futures


[This article is based on a talk given this year at the West Hills Unitarian Universalist Fellowship…]


It would be very convenient if all the problems of our society fell into the lap of the Wall Street criminals, or environmental polluters, or politicians… The “Inconvenient Solution” is recognizing that we can’t solve any of our problems, or respond to any of our challenges, without envisioning, and acting upon, the “Big Idea”.

Every shift in human behavior started with a Big Idea, a big concept, an overarching vision. The impetus may be a problem, but the problems spawned the Big Idea. If you keep focusing on the problems… you get more problems, not the Big Idea.

Many of those who supported the candidacy of Barack Obama were hoping to see the dawning of the “Big Idea” within mainstream American politics.  The million-plus who crowded into Chicago’s Grant Park on Election Night, 2008 were joyfully anticipating that Big Idea.

Regardless of your current opinion of him, I think it is safe to say that the Big Idea is still lacking in American politics.

Our Next “Big Idea”

For me, our next Big Idea is simple, yet audacious: That we create a world that works for all. A world that works for all living beings. That we can create political and economic systems that serve ALL LIFE. Not just Americans. Not just humans. That we can create systems that enhance Life, instead of money.

Most important:  The Big Idea will not be found with your “head”, your intellect.  There are no college courses that can teach it.  The Big Idea will emerge from your heart.

We must start from the Big Idea, then use that Big Idea to create new systems and structures. Most of us, (including most “Progressives” and “Conservatives”), are really “status quo-ists”. We take the existing systems and structures as given, and then try plugging reformist ideas into them. We do this, because we don’t want to give up our comfort zone. We don’t want to give up our “Progressivism” or our “Conservatism”, or whatever “ism” driving your life.   We don’t want to be inconvenienced.

At some point, we will let go of our present toxic society. The only question is WHEN.  Will we open our hearts to the possibilities of a transformed society NOW, consciously, voluntarily?  Or, we wait until the society completely fails, and then go scurrying around, in desperation, looking for answers.  (I’m opting for the former!)

I suggest that we let go of the status quo now (at least in energy, if not in action), and open our hearts to the “Big Idea”. When we do that, when we open our hearts, we are going to see that there is something waiting for us. We won’t need to go searching for it, it’s WAITING for us. It’s there, right now. It’s been present the whole time.  It’s waiting for us to slow down a little, look beyond our comfort zone, and pay attention. Our Big Idea is simply waiting for us to wake up.

We Hold LIFE to be SACRED

From our hearts, we’ll see new, self-evident Truths — truths that are understood first with our hearts, then later with our heads:

  • That all Life is Sacred.  Life is not a commodity, not a “thing” to be bought, sold and manipulated.
  • That “Life”, “Spirit” and “Sacred” are synonymous.
  • That all Life is created with consciousness  — That Life IS Consciousness… and Consciousness IS Life.
  • That we can create human systems that support the sacredness of All Life.
  • That the Earth is our Mother… and she is not for sale.

We can create “The Society of the Big Idea”. We can stop supporting, rationalizing and condoning behaviors that negate Life.  Instead of burdening our children with increasing debt, increasing despair, hopelessness and anger, instead of handing them a toxic environment, instead of numbing them with digital gizmos that catch their eyes and empty their hearts… we can give them a world that makes their hearts sing.  We can give them a world that works for all.

My friends in the “sustainability” movement have it ALMOST right!  Sustainability IS a very important value… but it must DERIVE from even higher values.  “Sustainability” as a marketing ploy to make more money, or “sustainability” out of fears of climate change or fear of pollution or fear of ANYTHING… are little, tiny ideas.  And, as we have seen, tiny ideas lack the capacity to stir our souls.

I advocate “sustainability” based on the values above – a “heart-centered, Life-centered sustainability”.

A Living Example of the “Big Idea”

My birthplace, the City of Philadelphia, started as a Big Idea, a truly HUGE idea. William Penn had a notion: That a city could be based on human kindness and brotherly love.

Well, Penn’s Big Idea was a failure — in its urban form. However, in its rural form, Penn’s ideas were (and still are) a rousing success!  William Penn’s experiment, the “Pennsylvania Dutch Country“, has been a place where brotherly love and respect for the Earth can be experienced and practiced.  It has been a model of sustainability — for over 300 years. It is a place where people act like Life (not money) is their highest value.  Every year, hundreds of thousands of people visit there, to have an experience of a society where human beings are in balance with each other, and in balance with nature.  [Note:  I am not suggesting one needs to don a long black beard and become an Anabaptist in order to practice heart-centered sustainability!]

Like Penn, our Big Idea will not be a utopian fantasy, but a practical application of our highest values and aspirations. We can, and we must, transit into the new society. The transition is not optional. The caterpillar doesn’t really have a choice in its transformation into a butterfly. The caterpillar’s “choice” is simple: transform or die. It can’t say “I like crawling around and eating all day!  I think I’ll keep doing that, and skip the flying part”.

The transformation of human societies is inevitable; the only question is when. Right now, we are entering our societal chrysalis. Our caterpillar-like systems and structures are breaking down. Our society is turning into goo.

This breakdown is a necessary step in our transformation. However, many of us deny that our human systems and structures are breaking down.  Many of us cling to the status quo. Inside the chrysalis, some of us are trying to hold onto our caterpillar-ness! “Come on boys! Let’s hold together! We can walk out of this chrysalis as a caterpillar!”  [Spoiler alert: That’s never happened.]

We must build a new society, with the same level of preparation and dedication it takes to build anything else. It takes heart-centered vision. It takes hard work and dedication. It takes faith.

Birthing a heart-centered, Life-centered society is the most important thing that we have to do. There is NOTHING more important.  IT’S WHY YOU’RE HERE.  This is our moment.

Our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will honor YOU as one of the Founders of our new society. The society that works for all.





11 Comments, RSS

  • Lois

    says on:
    August 20, 2012 at 8:55 am

    Beautiful! I am passing it on.

  • Antonya Pickard

    says on:
    August 20, 2012 at 9:36 am

    Sharif, Thank you for this inspirational message and the real-world examples to help realize the idea.

  • Starr

    says on:
    August 20, 2012 at 9:39 am

    Thank you. I think I tried to say this recently, but didn’t get it out as well as you have put it here. Keep doing what you do! Sharing now….

  • Tim Rouse

    says on:
    August 20, 2012 at 11:33 am

    Good job! In this speech you have summarized many of your core beliefs about a world that works for all. I believe Carol and I will use it with some groups. Thank you!
    With love, Tim

  • Brian Setzler, CPA

    says on:
    August 20, 2012 at 2:35 pm

    I’ve been rereading Peter Senge’s “The Fifth Discipline” and the importance of shared visions to pull us into the future.

    Both the current reality (status quo) and the future act like rubber bands pulling us in each direction. We need to spend more time focused on the future vision to strengthen its pull so we can escape the pull of the status quo.

    • Sharif

      says on:
      August 20, 2012 at 2:55 pm

      Thanks for the comment. I agree with all you said…

      And… a slight caution on the concept of “shared visions”. I’ve seen people and groups water down and even abandon their visions, for the sake of reaching “consensus”.

      Our most famous (infamous) example of this was the Founders writing into the Constitution that blacks were “4/5 of a human”, though stating in the Declaration of Independence that all humans were equal.

      So… I agree with you (and Peter) regarding the need for shared visions… so long as we don’t have to abandon our “Truths”.



  • Scott Crane

    says on:
    August 24, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    An excellent discourse, Sharif. There are still interesting pieces to consider in all this, and I mean pieces. Religious pieces, political pieces, cultural pieces, economic pieces…and that is one of the problems before the new society can be created. Collecting all the fragments and piecing them together like so many pottery fragments from antiquity. We don’t know the shape ahead of time, but we have pieces to puzzle out together so they become a whole. My own little corner/piece would have to center on the religious, since that is my background and training…I am guessing you have read Phyllis Tickle’s “The Great Emergence?” If not, a good piece to add. http://www.phyllistickle.com/books.html.

  • bob davis

    says on:
    September 7, 2012 at 11:02 am

    Hi Sharif,
    Well put! I would only add that we as individuals can only do so much in our lives! Everyone needs to focus on a part of the “Big Idea” that speaks to their heart. In my case I’m working on building alternative economies based on the co-op model. Co-operatives principles and values speak to me:
    Principles: 1) voluntary and open membership, 2) democratic member control 3) member economic participation, 4) autonomy and independence, 5) education, training and information, 6) cooperation among cooperatives ,7) concern for community
    Values: self-help/self-responsibility/democracy/equality/equity/solidarity/honesty/openness/social responsibility/caring for others.

    peace, bob davis
    PS: haven’t seen you in ages, lets get together soon!

    • Sharif

      says on:
      November 7, 2012 at 3:55 pm

      In the “12 Global Challenges”, dealing with a new, alternative and non-adversarial economic system is a big one!

      Not everyone needs to have “global work” like mine. Yes, doing local change work is most important — as long as all of us have a global AWARENESS, and not get self-satisfied when we get our little corner of the world in balance…



      PS: And yes, let’s get together!

  • Puanani

    says on:
    October 22, 2012 at 11:14 am

    I wonder if the idea that we are fighting against the status quo is an idea that will squash the Big Idea faster than a bug on a windshield. Pushing against something only results in that thing pushing back. The current status quo is not a big and evil baddie; it birthed this Big Idea. The current status quo was useful in its time, it is just time to realize that “now” is not its time. Now is the time for the creation of a new status quo, but that doesn’t mean that the old was not worthwhile. We cannot get others on board if we tell them they are wrong or bad. If someone wants to stick a toe in to test the water, then isn’t it better to welcome them? Chances are that once their toe is in the water, they will realize that they actually like the way it feels and jump in with their whole selves. But if they can’t make that jump, at least we will have partial buy in. Change is hard and no matter how “obvious” it is that the Big Idea is the way to go, we need to have compassion for those who can only get there with small steps.

    • Sharif

      says on:
      October 22, 2012 at 1:51 pm


      You said:

      I wonder if the idea that we are fighting against the status quo is an idea that will squash the Big Idea faster than a bug on a windshield.

      Yes… but tread carefully here. It’s a matter of perspective…

      John Adams said, “The American Revolution wasn’t the war. The American Revolution had taken place before the first shot was fired.”

      Yes, I agree — being against the “status quo”, or against ANYTHING, is ultimately defeating. (I wrote a lot about this during “Occupy” last year: see, for example, Occupy… with Direction, Discipline and Devotion.)

      The “tread carefully” part: Visions tend to be opposed. I’m sure you are familiar with this quote:

      All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.
      Arthur Schopenhauer

      This is not to say that I WANT violent opposition from those who believe their good lies in the status quo. It’s just that I don’t have any illusions about whether or not it will be present.

      Visionaries get it quickly. The non-visionaries just need more time. And, while they are taking the time, they are engaging in the first or second stages.

      Yes, I agree with you about people coming on board… Commonway accepts all “toes”! Even if they never get all the way into the water, it would be foolish to reject the gifts of those who have valid “toes” to contribute.



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