Joe Ross

Learning to Walk Together: Small Steps towards the We of Us

What is the calling that pulled us from the sea? Whatever will become of you and me? And how to become WE?


By now it is abundantly clear to just about everybody that we are in the space of ‘in-between’. Collectively, we intuitively sense that the habitual ways of orienting to the world are collapsing in lock step with the institutions, modes of governance, and the economy built upon the notion of a cohesive social imaginary. This quasi-hypnotic state of somnambulance is dissolving before our pixelated eyes.

We are traversing constituent components…we are morphing, state changing, bifurcating, phase shifting, evolving, and reconstituting in real time in an un-real moment of becoming.

What will be?

What needs to emerge?

“What is the calling that pulled us from the sea?

Whatever will become of you and me?”

And how to become WE?

This is my continuation of a series of articles published together with Tomas Björkman and which could roughly be thought of as an elocution of our current condition (situational assessment), and an interrogation of the why underpinning that condition (lucid and fluid diagnosis), and finally this attempt at finding a small foothold to take first steps ‘in the fog’ towards cohesion and coalescing into a collective we (productive doing).

Where we are now – first essay

In our first essay we laid out the argumentations for and architecture upon which we need to understand this transitional moment as unique in human history; as happening globally due to ‘techno-connectedness’ and systemically as we hit our human heads against nature’s natural ceiling. A ceiling defining the comfortable bounds within which our species can survive in what we have come to take as normal and eternal conditions of our biosphere which allows our species to thrive.

Conditions – second essay 

In our second essay we laid out the argumentations and architecture for an upon which our collective sense-making of our personal/social/’cosmo-local’ (credit to Indra Adnan for the term “cosmo-local”), needs to both deepen and thus open and enrich our understanding of ourselves, and our constructed world. 

Interlude: What has happened since 2015 pre-Trump/ rise of Authoritarianism and the pandemic

Looking back while looking forward – change, substantial change, has been in the air always, and since about 2015 has been picking up speed in lock step with the hits of an existential two-punch of climate catastrophe coupled with the endgame of economics and the governance of that economics (21st century global open 24/7 market economies). Along with an ineffective and possibly harmful intergenerational knowledge transfer system, i.e., education. All this plus the predictable rise of strong-men (yes men to this point – women are better leaders, different essay), authoritarian leaders needing only to strong arm a path of nation/state redemption while simultaneously giving a sense of purpose and meaning, albeit propagandized nationalism, to individuals and thus short-circuiting their desire to be, know, or become whole human beings. 

How do we find ourselves now: Calm between the storms storming the calm

And here we are, knowing and not knowing; connecting but not certain what to do with those connections. Polarized, but sensing that the source is the same – it is how we respond to it that is different. The tension is real, though the etiologies diverge. Is the ‘other’ enemy or is it the mirror reflection the glass maker wants us to believe? That tension derives from a fear that is stoked by those hanging on to power in a collapsing system. What really is that fear? Perhaps it might be a fear of being lost. That sudden panicky feeling like being deep in a thick forest and losing the trail. It doesn’t arise all at once, it happens only after you make two or three false starts down wrong paths – those add up, and then the sudden rush comes. 

How to capture the energy/tension of division

Complex systems science tells us that a system under pressure from its context will reach a point where incremental change or adaptation is no longer possible. The system reaches a phase shift point – a bifurcation point – where the evolution of the system needs either to break through to a higher level of organization, often with unforeseen, emergent, properties, or face a break-down in complexity and organization. We are at such a point right now in the evolution of human civilization.  Therein lies tremendous force if the system is allowed to shift from potential to actual. Complex systems science also cautions us about entropy. And we should know enough about outsourcing the ‘waste materials’ of systemic phase shifts and system change by now to, with some prudence, avoid that.

So how best to use the tension that is already captive, loaded, and ready, in our system becomes a key consideration.

When energies oppose, be that political ideology or religious/social belief, or other polarizations;  two possible responses are hard-wired into the human biological systems: the well-known ‘fight or flight’ and its lesser-known cousin, ‘tend and befriend’.  The latter is lesser known because it is the more dominate female reaction to situations loaded with tension where we might react by protecting one another (tending) and seeking out others for mutual defense (befriending). This response exists as an option open to all, and it seems that tending to our predicaments and finding human friendly solutions is far better than either turning our back on the risks facing us, or scapegoating and blaming the other as the source, and the source to be destroyed.

So, the question remains: How can we best use this potential energy in these times of high tension? Why do we remain divided? And in the camps of our division – what is both holding the polarities in some form of cohesion while simultaneously sensing that the divide is, at root, artificial? 

Collective archetypes are missing 

Could it be that we don’t yet have a universal ‘blueprint’ imprinted in our humanity? One that tells us how to act together collectively with a singular identity while still retaining our individual singular identity. Yes, this is seemingly a paradox. And holding the paradox, rather than attempting to reduce and solve it, may be our best way to step back from the existential cliff we are close to walking off.

How curious it is when humans come together as a ‘we identity’.  Notice how often this is referred to as ‘my’, as in my country, my religion, my school, my profession, my political party, my gardening club, my football team, my band, my city, my neighborhood, my friends, my family, ad infinitum… Note, too, that this collective lacks a singular cohesive referent, a collective archetype, for the individual forming these collective social imaginaries.

As a concrete example, let’s look at the organization and social identification of the people living in France. France is a country (another imaginary collective) of around 65 million people. It also has about 35,000 communes. A commune is a group of people sharing a common life. So, this in practice means that everyone lives and shares their lives in aggregates of around 1,500 people, a figure skewed by the large cities, while the actual median size is around 500 people. Too many to know each other, but a manageable size for making collective decisions to keep the commons functioning, clean, and healthy by having a loose political structure with a mayor, consul, and administrators. Loose because these are very often part-time jobs fulfilled by people with both enough time and concern to engage for the common good. These communes create a sense of ‘We’.  French people very often identify not as French first – but as their Region, or as a member of a smaller Department.

The same goes for Paris, which doesn’t exist as a singular entity. It is 20 arrondissements. Parisians don’t identify as Parisians, but as residents of their arrondissement. And even that is a stretch, because within each arrondissement are quartiers, ‘neighborhoods’, and recently these sub-division of sub-divisions have been setting up their own satellite mini-town halls with individuals playing the role of Mayor and administrators. Once again replicating the average national size of around 1,500 people. (The work of British anthropologist Robin Dunbar on number might be of interest here.) Stop and think for a moment about the place you live in: I bet that whether that is a large city or a smaller town, you identify your We with a smaller neighborhood section of the greater whole.

The WE is missing the collective archetype.

What I’m pointing towards is something which seems to be missing, that of archetypical type of representation that might help these collective ‘We’s to cohere and, more importantly, recognize themselves and more efficiently produce collective actions. 

Where are the We archetypes that are similar to the personal ones? Where might we find the We archetype for the hero, rebel, sage, ruler, caregiver, lover, etc.? There have been moments where most of humanity can sense itself.  An example is the first moon landing, for readers old enough to remember, or more recently the attack on the Twin Towers in New York, and most currently, the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. These are ‘We moments’; a moment when we sense together. Archetypes for moments such as these are missing and might be extraordinarily useful in helping us to cohere and act more efficiently together should we be able to collective realize them.

This is an intriguing and vexing exploration and while the answer is not clear, maybe inner development would be a first necessary step. Individual growth and more conscious behavior is foundational in forming better functioning social ecosystems where individuals are capable of holding both the We and I identities simultaneously. 

It is this non-reduceable reality of the individual and the collective individual that we must enliven and engage. This is neither trans-individualist nor a pre-individualized collective we. This I is also We; this We is also the collective I. There is a paradox which must be held and not reduced. From this perspective, a growing recognition of an archetypical We may emerge. 

Inner development towards externalized actions

With this in mind, the project of the Inner Development Goals may serve as a starting point. The project asks the question “What inner skills and capacities do we all need to develop, individually and collectively, in order for us to be able to function in this new and complex world?” How can we all start to relate to ourselves, each other and to the planet in ways that are conducive for the emergence of this greater we? And that without losing our individuated selves in the process.

We have reached a point in human history where an evolutionary leap has become a necessity for our species’ survival. We individually need to take these steps in order to learn how to – as strong individuals - walk together also as a collective, coordinated, and conscious We. 

A Working We

With this in place, the collective We can cohere in order to make important shifts, first in our world views, then in the actual collective societal practices which aggregate to the organization and function of our communities. 

Here are some of necessary shifts the collective we must coordinately achieve:
-from hierarchical fixed order to distributed, increasingly autonomous, distributed organizations 
-from ownership and possession to access, use, and relation
-from governments and sovereignty to governance by purpose driven interdependence
-from competition and scarcity-based fear to cooperation and abundance-based trust and sharing
-from organized religions and dogma to multi-faceted spirituality and nature-grounded reverence 
-from isolation-based independence and freedom to mutual responsibility and unity
-from rational, reductive, fact-based truth to dynamic co-learning fluidly adaptable experience
-from products and things to less fixed, actionable, use-based emergences  
-from ego-based gendered identity to compassion-centered, recognized interconnection of all life 
-from tribal, family, or romantic-based love to coherently aligned, all-encompassing new love

This list could go on, and any one of these can serve as an attractor for individuals to coalesce around and act upon as a collective We. And in so doing give rise to collective archetypes. 

These archetypes may help us hold our collective we. A We that is based on a clear sense of being; and being non-individuated or separate from our collective We – all engaged and taking the first steps towards re-building us. 

Image by Mords Saligumba @ Unsplash
Words by Joe Ross
Joe Ross is an author, poet, and social strategy designer. He works in developing new thinking around economic and social issues, often including the Arts as a transformational vehicle to create systemic positive change. He has served as Chief of Policy and Senior Advisor to the City of San Diego, California, PlaNet Finance in Paris, and the Tallberg Foundation in Stockholm. He lives in Paris.