"A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world." - Oscar Wilde
I was recently asked how I was feeling about the future of the world and, in that precise moment, I shared that I was feeling some despair. So I responded honestly. It seemed like a harmless enough comment to me – and quite truthful in the moment. However, the person listening to me interpreted what I told him and concluded that I was deeply depressed – perhaps suicidal - and became very concerned about my well-being. He even called back afterward to “cheer me up” which I assured him was unnecessary. I explained that I was a firm believer in feeling my emotions and, like it or not, despair was a natural human emotion. Avoiding any emotion, even those I don’t enjoy, is not only very unhealthy but leads to denial and all kinds of problems down the road. Besides, emotional repression murders one’s visionary capabilities.
As a futurist who advocates creating a desired future rather than predicting some projected outcome based upon the past, I am used to living with two realities – the one that we’re in and the one I see as possible. I suspect that any visionary knows what I’m talking about here – living with this “delta,” this gap between “what is” and “what can be.” This would apply not only to people like me who want to shape the future of society but also inventors who are taking on huge undertakings in technology, the creative arts, architecture, community development and other areas of human endeavor.
Anyone who is a serious advocate for major change of any kind needs to feel the emotions that naturally ebb and flow as their expectations go unmet and inevitable reversals occur. This is particularly true in paradigmatic shifts, where old behaviors get really exaggerated as they get close to changing, getting more entrenched than ever as the change appears inevitable.
Depending upon how ambitious the vision may be, a visionary can face public ridicule, peer invalidation, sarcasm, and all sorts of other criticism. We have all heard stories about exceptional visionaries whose ideas were scoffed at in the early stages only to be heralded as mighty inventors or inspirational leaders at a later time – oftentimes after they died.
If one cannot sit with these feelings, in all their intensity, coping mechanisms will usually creep in which can include delusion about the progress being made, rationalization about the status quo, distraction through addictions, or chronic depression. Several people I have worked with in the past hit a wall of despair and chose to retreat to less-challenging tasks. When I asked them why they said it was just too discouraging. In other words, they found it too painful.
Coping mechanisms can poison one’s vision. They relax the tension that provides the energy for maintaining the visionary’s commitment. Or, perhaps better stated, they numb out the unwanted feelings. One needs to know the feelings of disappointment, despair, hopelessness and even powerlessness and be intimately familiar with them if one is going to hold the “space of possibility” for big visions to be manifested. Taking solace in a drink or a stupid TV show might provide some temporary relief from the feelings but it won’t further the vision.
I call these unwelcome feelings “occupational hazards” for the visionary.
Feeling my emotions as deeply as they are in me, neither avoiding their intensity nor wallowing in them for days on end, keeps me in the present – the “now’ – and helps to keep me more authentic. From this place I can be most effective in bringing about the vision I foresee.
Recently, I was asked to describe the future I envisioned if we didn’t choose the “better future” which I write about frequently. I started to describe the future I see humanity headed for unless we make some fundamental changes in how we treat one another and our planet Earth. As I was speaking, I began to sob – feeling a huge wave of despair about what I was describing and another wave of sadness about the collective choices we have made that are leading us to this reality. It was incredibly moving to feel so deeply about one possible scenario for humanity. When I finished, I felt clearer and more energized to continue advocating the positive alternative – the better future which is equally clear to me.
While feeling these “negative” emotions isn’t at all enjoyable, it is absolutely essential if I am to remain empowered about the vision I see as totally possible, despite the course we are on presently. Unlike ‘intellectualized’ emotions (thoughts that sometimes pass for feelings) which cannot be experienced and released, true emotions are part of the human experience. The only unhealthy emotion is an unexpressed one.
Another popular myth about emotions: “expressing” an emotion means dramatizing them or “acting them out.” Wrong! Expressing an emotion simply means feeling it – now, when it comes up - not years later in therapy or exploding inappropriately sometime down the road as something or someone reminds us about it. When one feels rage, it doesn’t mean you have to throw something or hit anyone. It simply means feeling outraged, or fury, or intense anger.
I once told a colleague I was feeling some rage and her face changed noticeably. I asked her what was going on and she confessed that my words put her “on alert” – anticipating that I might be about to have a tantrum of some sort. I explained that feeling outrage was all I was doing and that I had no inclination to act it out. She understood what I told her intellectually but she remained somewhat guarded nonetheless. This was a reminder to me that many people still think “expressing our emotions” means acting them out in some sort of immature or harmful way.
Another myth is that if one allows one’s feelings to surface they may never go away. Contrary to this common belief, fully-experienced emotions can be processed in mere minutes. Once one learns this, and sees how quickly these feelings pass once they are fully-experienced, one cannot help but wonder why we store unexpressed emotions which usually take years to process at later stages in our lives. It is such a waste of energy!
People who claim they don’t allow their feelings to “run them” – who routinely suppress their emotions so they “won’t get the better of them” – are in fact being controlled by their unexpressed emotions. Keeping the wraps on feelings takes energy like storing radioactive rods from a nuclear power plant. Lots of time and restraint is needed to keep the toxicity from leaking out and doing great harm to others.
People who can tolerate big gaps between present-day reality and their vision for the future, without the need to somehow lessen the tension between the two, make good visionaries. Most people won’t deal with this tension and seek to reduce it as a means of feeling “more comfortable” – choosing one of the coping mechanisms I mentioned earlier. Living with this tension between “what can be” and “what is” makes for an interesting life, as well as challenging one, to be sure. But the true visionary wouldn’t have it any other way. After all, it goes with the territory!
While there are the potholes along the road to getting there, the payoffs are incredible when the visions start coming into focus.
Hats off to all you visionaries! May all your dreams be realized.