Tag Archives: resolutions

Fire Wall: A 2020 Resolution, Dr. Robert Zuber

29 Dec


The opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness; it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy; it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death; it’s indifference.  Elie Wiesel

It is never too late to be what you might have been.  George Eliot

What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.  Maya Angelou

What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us. Ralph Waldo Emerson

Hell is empty and all the devils are here.  William Shakespeare

We are coming upon another new year, another season of abundant resolutions largely unmatched by commitments to amending our collective ways in the face of the numerous fires that are now consuming much of what once –or so we in the global north allowed ourselves to believe — made us more prosperous and secure.

Many of us are justifiably horrified by many of the demons that are being released on the world, most recently the hate-crime stabbings yesterday north of New York, the shootings near Houston, and the murder of students and other civilians earlier this week in Mogadishu.   And we also know that this is the tip of a robust iceberg, that threats not immediately apparent are creeping closer to our enclaves, the places we have constructed and thankfully nurtured but which are now “feeling the heat” as rarely before.

It does at times feel as though the “devils are all here” now, that what we continue to unleash — willfully at times and through a modern version of collective indifference at others — is simply perpetuating our current fire storm, compromising both the opportunities that exist for reconciliation and the skills that we know we possess to cool down our current, over-stimulated patterns of consumption, sexism and ethno-centrism.

But as essential as local initiative is to bringing the fires under control, we know that our task would be more in reach if our leadership were more focused and reliable, if they were truly committed to ensuring the well-being of all of us, and not simply to the consolidation of national interests or the maintenance of their positions of authority.   It is ultimately foolish for leaders to ask the rest of us to shed our indifference — which the current fires surely require —  when they are so often unwilling themselves to set that bar, to make that hopeful example, to confess the ways in which political or economic privilege has been maintained at all costs even as others (mostly those marginal to the centers of power) are themselves being stripped of what little access to privilege and opportunity they enjoyed previously.

In real time, fire fighters need competent leadership and dependable backup if they are to create and maintain a successful fire wall.  But in this time, such competent and dependable leadership is all-too-rare.   For many of us, it seems, there is now this endless struggle to find points of access, to plan and then engage in activities and assessments which ultimately promise no more than  lawn hoses when fire hoses are required.

Our own engagement with policy leadership, of course, is with the UN and more specifically its Security Council.  The broader UN is set to embark on two potentially significant events for 2020 that have the potential to alter its public perception as well as its policy course:  the reform initiatives surrounding the UN’s 75th anniversary year as well as the early segments of what the UN is calling the Decade of Action and Delivery for sustainable development.  Regarding the latter, we have largely squandered the first five years of a 15 year plan to implement the Sustainable Development Goals.   “Action and Delivery” is, at least in theory, the antidote to a massive institutional promise that has run a bit off the rails in some key instances, but it can also help focus attention on the state of our oceans and climate, the importance of addressing threats to food security and massive human displacement, and the need to rescue resources from bloated military budgets and rampant government corruption so as to successfully deliver on our development promises.

As for the 75th anniversary reforms, there are fires to discuss here as well:  the decline of respect for human rights and the safety of rights advocates;  the too-slow pace of inclusion (including of women and cultural minorities) in policy and security sector functions;  the uncertain footing of international criminal justice in a time of increasing disregard for international humanitarian law; the misreading of consensus that creates de-facto vetoes for states and leads to watered-down resolutions that are barely taken seriously by states in their aftermath, even at normative levels.

But for many diplomats and NGOs, the primary focus of reform is the Security Council, a body whose decisions (and non-decisions) impact virtually every other aspect of the UN’s work. Sadly, the Council remains largely unaccountable to the general UN membership and its oft-politicized decision-making and the disregard so-engendered for its ostensibly “binding” resolutions – disregarded at times even by Council members themselves – has somehow managed to demean itself and its full, potential influence on how conflict should be prevented and resolved.

As our readers already know the Council’s two-tiered membership – its permanent and elected members – has become an occasion more for policy entitlement than for inspiration towards a more peaceful and sustainable world.   Given the often-suspect levels of global statesmanship in evidence around the oval, Council members too-often continue the practice of placing national interest over the interests of the whole, offering statements designed to convince the few who still bother to listen that their causes are more just and less relevant to their own narrow preferences than is often the case.

Moreover, the structure of the Council and its so-called “provisional rules of procedure” often serve to marginalize the bulk of its elected membership, placing them in charge of sanctions committees and other specialized functions while restricting their public contributions largely to pleading for unrestricted humanitarian access for victims of conflicts which the Council has failed to prevent or promptly resolve in the first instance. It is sometimes hard to watch (and we watch daily) as high-profile, current elected members (such as Germany, South Africa and Indonesia) have their initiatives (and at times even their voices) suppressed by the policy stubbornness and political gamesmanship of the permanent members.

This suppression is of course more apparent in the case of the smaller states which have also found their way on to the Council.   In a few days, a “class” consisting of Kuwait, Poland, Equatorial Guinea, Peru and Côte d’Ivoire will make way for Estonia, Niger, Tunisia, Vietnam (Council president for January) and Saint Vincent and Grenadines.   While we wish them well, and will join them daily in an attempt to encourage their policy independence, there is little reason to believe that they will have more impact on global peace and security than the states they are replacing.  And while we are particularly interested to see how the highly-respected, former president of ECOSOC Rhonda King handles herself around the Council oval, it is likely that Saint Vincent and Grenadines will have policy impact only to the degree that she is able to credibly represent the issues of her Caribbean Community (CARICOM) colleagues.

There is much more to say about the contributions of non-permanent members to Council reform and the more general need for greater transparency and power-sharing within the UN’s peace and security architecture.  The point here is the degree to which the resolutions we make within our own families and neighborhoods, the inspiration required to sustain personal and  community change, require more of our leadership, much more in fact.  If those of power and privilege cannot find the words that can genuinely inspire us, if they cannot also commit to actions and policies that give tangibility and credibility to those utterances, the heat we all now feel from steadily rising temperatures and rapidly rising anger will only intensify.

We still believe that the fires that rage now can be contained and that (as in nature) life can recover from the current devastation and find a fresh level of abundance.  But we need to hear more from those in positions of authority entrusted with the lives and well-being of the global pubic, hear that they fully understand the urgency associated with too many “devils” released into too many global settings.

Our commitment to you in 2020 is that we will do whatever is needed – with whomever is available — to help keep those in authority focused on their responsibilities and contributions; urging them to become more of “what they might have been” and do more to inspire and elevate a common commitment to lower both the actual and metaphorical heat that threatens us all.

We’ll keep you posted on our progress.

Loose Change: Fortifying the Habits that Matter, Dr. Robert Zuber

30 Dec


I made no resolutions for the New Year. The habit of making plans, of criticizing, sanctioning and molding my life, is too much of a daily event for me. Anaïs Nin

A resolution to avoid an evil is seldom framed till the evil is so far advanced as to make avoidance impossible.  Thomas Hardy

Good resolutions are like babies crying in church. They should be carried out immediately. Charles M. Sheldon

I’m starting to think nothing goes away, no matter how deep you try to bury it.  Laurie Elizabeth Flynn

As the sun sets on this often-tumultuous, often-invigorating year, I return to a favorite subject — resolutions – those things we pledge, individually and collectively, based on an often-shallow view of the human condition that presumes that change comes, if at all, through careful articulations of intent rather than through painstaking reversal of the patterns that have contributed to our being less than what we could be.

In the worlds that I inhabit, the quest for change often embodies a schizophrenic character that ultimately undermines its potential.   The mantra of far too many – this is just how I am – shares the pot with an often deep and impatient demand for change in others, even in the systems that govern and otherwise impact the planet.   Essentially the formula goes, “impossible for me, essential for you.”

In an age of climate change and other existential threats, we can perhaps agree that change towards more sustainable futures is “essential.”  But we can perhaps also agree that such futures require more than summit declarations and resolutions from international institutions.   We have such things in tow now and they “should” make more of a difference in the world.  That they don’t is in part a function of our unwillingness to carefully track and then assess the impacts of previous resolutions and in part a function of our belief – perhaps more like a suspension of disbelief – that there is a tighter relationship than could possibly exist between the presentation of our intent and the diversion of practices that have impeded more significant progress up to the present time.

Some of this is a legacy courtesy of our religious dispositions.  In the Christian tradition, we recite (enthusiastically in my case) a Eucharistic prayer that ends “but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”  In a similar vein, clergy too-often believe that the word “they” pronounce convicts, that preaching at people provides them with the energy they need to resolve their problems, divert their course, or achieve healthier outcomes.

It might have that impact, at times, in the same way that a timely storm can release long-dormant desert toads from their drought-imposed slumber.  But for most of us, in most instances and contexts, change is less an event than a process, a process that is more about redirecting our life energy – step by step – than by episodic epiphanies which are surely exhilarating if largely unsustainable.

Alarmingly, more and more people I speak with seem suspicious of the notion of change at all, plying rhetoric about “human nature” that seems designed to provide comfort, somehow or other, that we are essentially cut from a self-interested and predatory cloth, about which we can actually, in the end, do little.  This worldview casts suspicion on efforts to seek the good and inspire hope while simultaneously accepting violence and economic predation with an undeserved resignation that simply deepens the habits we would do much better to change. Especially as our calendars flip over, we seem anxious to “turn the page.”  But the book and its plot remain largely the same, and we aren’t as committed as we might be to rewrite what has long become a tired script.

Earlier in what passes for my “career,” I was regularly in touch with a Boston-based group called Second Nature.  I appreciated the work they did but was even more enamored of what the title suggested – a striving for a lifestyle redirected towards more healthful, less violent, more sustainable outcomes, but in such a way that the outcomes became almost effortless – recycling and repurposing of the products we use, saying “yes” even at moments of inconvenience, pushing past the people we have grown comfortable being to the people we say we want to be, demonstrating that it is possible to make modesty of consumption, hospitality for strangers, even leadership for causes and issues close to home or across oceans as part of the “habit” of our lives, what we have “re-trained” ourselves to do, and do differently.   And of course more effective conflict prevention that stems the need for protracted conflict resolution.

Ironically, there is support for this “second nature” approach from diverse sources, certainly from within the religious community, parts of which have long stressed the need to “walk the path of righteousness” rather than wait for a divine lightning bolt. But even neuro-biologists have evidence to suggest that, health permitting, it is within our power to change the way our brains function.  We can, in effect, rewire ourselves to overcome our compulsive life investments – addictions if you will – that are impeding our progress and ensuring that even our resolutions to change and reform are mostly relegated to the waste bin.

But this rewiring isn’t easy and certainly doesn’t happen overnight.   It takes many steps in a new direction before our brains, let alone our hearts and souls, can adjust to a new set of demands and responses.   This is especially the case since we have too often rejected the call to mindfulness about ourselves and the distance that remains to be traveled such that we might contribute –as second nature — to the world that we say we want. This is true of ourselves; also of the United Nations and other institutions we rely on to direct a common response to current global challenges.   As in the personal realm, resolutions to reform are no substitute for concrete measures, day by day, to make our institutions more attentive, more accountable, kinder and more cooperative.

As this New Year unfolds, we find that there is little time to waste.  While we have some progress to celebrate, our unsustainable habits run deep, our tolerance of violence and its many distractions runs deep also.  The longer we continue to walk down the current path –one generally cheered on by advertisers, sports franchises and politicians in power, but also by our friends and neighbors who seem to need reassurance that we will not “rock the boat” on our current, often-rapacious course– the harder it will ever be to shift energies and priorities to better meet the demands of the times.

This shift is not about resolutions per se, not about the “loose change” that seems to be the best we can muster and which will result in little noticeable difference, little in our personal lives but also in the settings where global challenges predominate.  Rather its about the small and resolute steps, one by one, determined as we must make each of them, that will get us to the places envisioned by our personal resolutions and institutional promises; indeed that will help make our better selves “second nature.”

Let this latest calendar shift be the one where we take the consistent, determined steps towards lasting change that we have largely abandoned in resolutions past, stuck in domiciles filled to brimming with our stubborn habits and in houses of worship and other institutions filled with metaphorical “crying babies” that should be “carried out” with much greater urgency.  We can’t bury the mistakes of our past, but we can celebrate our still-formidable potential and those determined and sustainable achievements still to come – indeed that must come – but that surely won’t appear in a timely fashion without the gritty participation of an enhanced version of ourselves.

Habit Forming:  Infusing Possibility into Personal and Policy Resolutions, Dr. Robert Zuber

4 Jan

As many of you recognize, a ritual element of our recently-concluded New Year’s celebrations involves the making of personal “resolutions,” not quite like the UN’s resolutions except perhaps in the extent to which too little in the world actually changes as the result of most of them.

Indeed, few are capable of making groundbreaking modifications in personal or professional contexts, in part because so little around any of us is either committed to or encouraging of that level of change.

The pious proclamations of the New Year are largely betrayed by a too-comfortable sameness; after the holidays, most of us return to the same jobs, engage the same relationships, reside in the same places, indulge the same media.   Moreover, most of the “changes” we allegedly seek in the New Year are largely personal in nature — about spending habits and weight loss and other matters that are of little consequence to any but those in our tightest social circles.

Although we like to think of ourselves as our own “definers” – often accompanied by the hope that our personal branding will obscure some of the downsides of our behavioral routines – we cannot escape the fact that we are what we practice in the world.  We are, to quote an old American football coach, “what our record says we are.”  Thus, if we wish to be different in any sense other than in a rhetorical one, we have to commit to changing our “record,” which means changing our practice, upping our game and then sustaining its demands.

The good news is that repeated, thoughtful, intentional practice does accrue tangible benefits; indeed neuroscientists have chronicled the degree to which people can actually change brain patterns for the better through determined pursuit of productive skills and habits. We can indeed become more like the people (or societies) we sometimes imagine we already are, but there are no shortcuts to this “promised land,” no products to purchase that will shave time off fulfilling the challenges of habit change.

As 2016 unfolds at the UN there are circumstances that signal opportunities to set and maintain a different course – new members on the Security Council, new diplomatic energies in member state missions, the launching of ambitious 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, a revitalized Economic and Social Council, new commitments to inclusion for often marginalized persons, a concern for largely neglected but critically important vocations such as agriculture, and much more.

Here as elsewhere, this context is as important as it relative, providing opportunities to seize or squander based on the intensity and constancy of our practice.  If we are collectively resolute about making the most of the opportunities and obligations given to us this year, sustaining and growing “records” of progress on security, development and climate implementation that become as familiar to us as our personal morning routines, then (and only then) there are reasonable prospects for achieving our most urgent policy objectives, including eliminating poverty, ending mass atrocities and healing our ailing planet.

But if we don’t “put in the time,” we will not ever see the results that so many people are desperate for.  Moreover, we will demonstrate once again our deference to an outmoded, non-scientific and even non-spiritual principle to the effect that that if we have well-researched ideas, the “right” intentions and relevant negotiated agreements, the world will inevitably change.

All those elements indeed matter, but they don’t matter enough.  (Or as we might say in philosophy, they are necessary but not sufficient conditions.) We need to establish contexts for change, and we have often done so admirably in recent years. But we also need to demonstrate plainly the hopeful, energetic resolve that can attract new stakeholders to the work while encouraging persons near and far to abandon some of the innumerable, addictive distractions of modern culture — and then set out on a healthier, more intentional path. Only then can the urgent implementation on security, climate and development for which all of us are now responsible be something more than episodic, cosmetic and unsustainable.

Habit change is essential to sustainable global healing, but it also takes time and we don’t have a lot of that now.  2016 needs to be the year that we fully reap the opportunities derived from the contexts that have been recently and carefully crafted at the UN and other international organizations.  Such resolve must be based on an awareness that political consensus and New Year’s resolutions make worthy pre-conditions for thoughtful and determined practice, but are in no way a substitute for it.

Here’s to a New Year for the international community characterized by that most challenging and necessary of attainments – urgent and thoughtful policy resolve.