Blueprints of a Future with Meaning
Exceptional personalities from the disciplines of science, art, and spirituality who have developed ideas, made new discoveries or embody outstanding values or who have contributed significantly to the shape of the future of humankind were invited. They envisaged the interdisciplinary study and research needed for a life in which a sense for themselves and others can be created. One of the fundamental insights of the Meeting 2005 was that the greatest challenge facing the world today is the challenge of change; great changes are already happening all around us, more changes are on the way. To create a better future, we must find ways to guide and direct change in positive directions. This recognition gave shape to the Meeting 2006.
When Andreas asked me, shortly before I came here, to try to write an essay in real time, summarizing the discussions and presentations at this year’s conference, I told him I thought this was a very scary idea, but I would try–not to write an essay–but to make some notes about what we heard, what we experienced, and what we learned together over the last two days. Perhaps I thought I could link last year’s experience and this year’s experience and try to answer, or at least suggest, some answers to two questions.
The first question is, “Why have the Waldzell gathering, in the first place?” The second question is, “Where is the Waldzell gathering going in the future?” Let me try in a few minutes to suggest some answers to those two questions.
When I came here last year, I thought I would talk about my own work in starting and running a magazine and in reflecting on the revolution in business that was going on in the world over the last decade or so. Then I ended up being the last speaker, and I had the benefit of listening to the Nobel Prize winners, the artists, the scientists, the religious leaders who came before me, and I ended up with real-time learning. There was not one revolution going on in the world around us, there were five happening simultaneously. The first was a revolution that brought together culture, politics, and religion in a whole new way. Last year Shirin Ebadi talked about her experience in Iran, and David Goldberg talked about his thoughts, not only as a Jewish leader, but his understanding of the prospects for peace in the Middle East. This year, we heard Tenzin Palmo talk about her experience with Tibetan refugees. The question behind that, of course, is why there are Tibetan refugees and why this terrible event is going on in that part of the world where politics, religion, and culture are creating a tragedy that the world needs to pay attention to.
We heard about a revolution in science, in technology, where we can actually begin to get a feeling for the origins of life and track the DNA revolution and the genomic revolution. We also heard about the threat to biodiversity, which science is increasingly aware of.
In last year’s conversation and in this year’s conversation, we heard about the importance that we all place on a search for meaning and self-discovery, and how, no matter where you are from or what your age is, at some level there are questions we ask about our own lives to make sense of them.
We heard last year and this year about artistic revolutions that are going on and how we are in the middle of this struggle over tradition and self-expression, over what technology makes possible, so that we can all publish our own novel, or record our own album, or make our own movie, and yet how important it is to have skill and craftsmanship in producing these things. Then there is the revolution that I have spent quite a few years thinking about and I share an interest in, with my friend Peter Senge, and that is the revolution in work, in business, in the system by which wealth is or is not created in economies around the world.
So we have these five strands running parallel, transforming our lives and the world. They are separate and yet they are all connected; they are all echoing and reflecting on each other. Last year, my feeling of listening to the speakers was one of enormous energy and discovery, almost like a global vow that these five revolutions were going on simultaneously. This year I sensed in the group and in the speakers something more like a sense of disquiet, maybe not impending disaster, but great urgency that action needs to be taken.
I begin to think why this was in the spirit of the gathering this year, and it occurred to me that part of every gathering is what we talk about and part of every gathering is what we do not talk about. I thought that what was noticeable in its absence this year, was a discussion about the extent to which this disquiet and sense of urgency perhaps has to do with the state of the United States of America. Our speaker on the first morning asked, “Isn’t it interesting that we start with three Americans?” But we did not talk overtly about what the United States is or is not doing in the world today that makes us feel uncomfortable, disquieted and perhaps sad. There is a great sickness in the United States, almost a fever that started on 9/11 and continues today, as if we had all collectively gone into a sleepwalking state where we have lost our capacity to make sound judgements and to align our values with our behaviour, and until that fever breaks, we are all a victim of it or an unwilling participant in it. That was the conversation that was in the room, but not part of the conversation, not given a voice. What, I think, the two events share most powerfully, is the sense that we are all present at the creation of the future. I was thinking about the last time when this happened in the world, and, I think, it happened about a hundred years ago, when the world experienced what came to be called the birth of the modern, when music and painting and psychology and science and literature were all transformed by people like Stravinsky, Matisse, Picasso, Freud, Einstein, and James Joyce. That creation of the future, which happened a hundred years ago, is happening in this room, and we are all privileged to be present at its creation with men and women who are our version of those larger-than-life heroes, the speakers and the participants here at Waldzell. What I sensed in the urgency of the gathering this year, was a feeling that the future is drawing nearer. Thom Mayne started the conference by quoting a writer who said, “The future is already here, it is just unevenly distributed.” I had the feeling that the future was drawing nearer; we can almost hear it knocking at the door of the Abbey at Melk and gaining entrance while we are sitting here. Why does Waldzell exist? I think Waldzell exists to give us all the opportunity, to be present at, and to assist as midwives, in the birth of the future. I think what Waldzell offers us, in the conversations that take place in a very compressed time, are glimpses of the future. Some of the things that I saw and noticed are glimpses of the future and clues, suggestions, on how to bring the future closer.
aulo Coelho said just now, “If we want to see the future more clearly, we have to ask the right questions.” Thom started his remarks by saying, “Architecture starts with questions.” Anton Zeilinger said, “The question you ask, according to quantum physics, will determine the outcome of the experiment.” We all need to be working and asking the right questions. A friend of mine in Sweden, Leif Edvinsson, has told me about a field of study, called quizzics, the art of asking the right question, the right way. One challenge for all of us is to practice the art of quizzics, so we get better at asking the questions that will create the future that we want to inhabit.
The second thing that I learned this year was that if you want to see the future, all of us have to get outside of our comfort zones. For Tenzin Palmo, this may have been the moment when she decided to go to a cave to live, and move into a place that was outside of her comfort zone. That was the time when she was the happiest in her life. Jonathan Wittenberg said to all of us, when he left his comfort zone of his own Jewish community, he encountered Palestinians and Muslims, and learned more about his own religion than at any time when he was ministering to his own Jewish community.
The lesson from Waldzell, I think, is that we have the most to learn from people who are the least like us. That is true whether we are talking about our religion or our professional discipline.
The third thing that we learn about the future is that it only emerges through the process of deep conversation. All of our speakers told us that we construct the future, we create the future through the stories we tell each other. The future is a narrative that we can agree on.
Paulo has written books; 90 million of his books are being read by 270 million readers and these are stories designed to help people create a future that they want to live in as individuals. Peter Senge says that we create our stories and then our stories create us. That is a very helpful idea. If we bring together people from all different disciplines, which are represented here, and construct a narrative about the future we want to live in, we could possibly create a story that has space in it for all of us. The next thing I learned from listening to our speakers was that while each one of them is an expert in his or her own field, the future will be created at the boundaries of these disciplines. The future will be created where art meets business and finds a way of working together, where science meets religion, as David Goldberg was suggesting and finds a way for a conversation where they learn from each other, where philosophy meets art, and the circle starts over again of a conversation among and between disciplines where we learn about the best that each has to offer. In a beautiful moment of self-portrayal, Franz Welser-Möst described himself as an amateur philosopher. So we have one of the greatest conductors in the world who is offering us philosophy. We have from Tenzin Palmo a brief discourse on the nature of medicine and how Buddhism and clear-mindedness does not automatically mean a healthy body. The world does not work that simply. Craig Venter, in a moment of poetry, speaking as the foremost scientist in the world on DNA, offers us his thoughts on global ecology. These speakers are creating new contexts by the merging of ideas and skills, reframing problems, so that we do not see issues and threads of conversation as problems, but as new connections. The art of creating the future is the art of innovation, the art of making new connections by crossing boundaries.
Finally, what I learned from the moment I arrived at Waldzell was that the future will emerge as we resolve dialectical oppositions. The future that will be created by us will not be an “either-or” future; it will be a future of “both-and,” a future where there is both individual action and collective action. I was privileged to hear Paulo Coelho and Tenzin Palmo have a discourse over where inspiration comes from. Where do you draw inspiration? Do you draw it by going within and mining the depth of your own soul or do you go out into the world and see through experience what inspiration can come to you? The answer of course is, it is not an “either-or” choice, it is a “both-and” choice.
The future will be both discipline, but also freedom. Franz Welser-Möst says, as a conductor, his job is to give his musicians as much freedom as they can accept so that they do what he wants. The future will come, as Peter Senge said, through this dialectic of transformation through conservation, where you have both the best of the past and the new innovations of the future. Yesterday, as I looked at the presentations of our speakers’ lifetime achievements, it struck me that it is not an accident that the symbol to the Waldzell gathering is a Moebius strip, because a Moebius strip appears to have two sides until you look at it carefully and you realize it only has one side. That is the resolution of dialectic opposition into a one-sided space that combines things that appear unable to be brought together.
That leads us to the bigger question, not why we have Waldzell, but where is Waldzell headed. It struck me at the round table that we are very privileged to listen to men and women who have made an enormous difference in the world through their lives. Even a living legend like Christian de Duve modestly says, “Well, I have not made much of a difference, but let me describe some of the things that I might have had some of an impact on;” and they are very powerful, they are very important. So we witnessed the kinds of contributions that these men and women have made and I think it requires us to ask a question of ourselves.
That is for those of us who attend the Waldzell conference, “What kind of a difference do we intend to make with our lives?” The “Architects of the Future” are certainly one step toward formalizing that question. Hopefully, this group of talented young people will continue to ask that question and work through the proposition that they have gifts to give. I am asking you now, “How will you choose to do it?”
What else can we imagine for Waldzell? Can we imagine the creation of a Waldzell community that lives on 365 days a year or will this just be an annual conference? Can we imagine ways to keep these deep conversations alive among the people who attend, or will all of us be passive listeners, who go home at the end of two days and say, “That was a very interesting experience. I got to listen to ten very smart men and women, now I am going to go back to work.” These are questions that should not be left just to Andreas and Gundula and to the sponsors who make it possible for us to come here. Each one of us, who chooses to attend the Waldzell conference, needs to decide for ourselves, “Do we want to participate in making a home for the future, here in Austria, here at this Abbey, here at Waldzell?” This is a question you may not be ready to answer here this afternoon right now. I would suggest, as Paulo said, “The future depends on the questions we ask.”
I will leave you with the question: “Are you going to participate in making a home for the future by your actions or does this conference simply end when we go home?” Monday morning is the time to start answering these questions.
Alan M. Webber