Updated: Sep 21, 2022
Craig Chalquist, PhD
Here's a paradox about making lasting, beneficial change in the world: The harder we try to do it, the more resistance we run into, including internally. But when we playfully perform the change we'd like to see, sometimes it comes about as a natural result.
One reason for resistance even when change makes sense is that adults generally don't like being told what to do. Most of our social arrangements ignore this aspect of human nature. We get told what to do all the time: at work, at school, at traffic stops, by clergy, by police, by tax collectors... So when we get a chance to rebel against, say, an activist lecturing us about how to save the world, perhaps we turn away instead or even do the opposite of what they demand. No surprise there for anyone who understands basic psychology.
Of course, sometimes pushing might be needed. Rights tend to vanish when protests fall silent. Gandhi's writings mention a word he considered sacred: "No." Decades of protest, diplomacy, and "no" went into dismantling the Berlin Wall, although the collapse came when enough people tired of living in pointless barbed-wire ugliness just so a handful of opportunists could stay in power.
Most of us remain painfully suspended between opportunists blocking change (some retreating into what Martin Luther King Jr. called "creeping gradualism") and reformers pushing for direct intervention. I coined "enchantivism" when I wondered what might be available for those of us not called to engage in pressure or protest.
The Enchantivist Alternative
Enchantivism is the art and craft of creating or retelling stories - not only verbally but through art, film, photography, performance, drama - that begin in rupture or injustice but move outward to envision the healed outcome. We see the flourishing urban food gardens, those quiet rebukes to badly paying grocery retailers. The traditional enemies in a warm embrace no governmental stalling could bring about. Artistically woven mittens on the hands of refugees with new stories of kindness to relate.
We see a poem by Jacqueline Suskin saving a stand of trees no protests could help. On the bridge of USS Discovery stands Captain Michael Burnham, the first Black captain to command a starship. Even Hollywood gets it right sometimes, but only because creative people showed the way.
Here are a handful of other examples of change through tending enchanting possibilities:
Nichelle Nichols was praised for playing Star Trek’s Uhura, and thereby showcasing a diverse human future, by Martin Luther King Jr.
Ramzi Aburedwan assembled Al Kamandjati (The Violinist) groups to risk bringing music to the occupied West Bank, Gaza, and Lebanon. Even the Israeli soldiers stopped to listen to the concerts.
Australian Aboriginal rainmaking singers offer song workshops for preserving their own languages while bringing comfort and hope in the wake of the terrible climate change fires ravaging the continent.
Klaus Tan Yihong photographed beautiful, community-building, clean-energy home, work, and city spaces in Singapore to show what a beautiful future could look like.
Generations of women have been inspired by the feminist science fiction and fantasy works of Ursula K. Le Guin.
Environmental activists cite passages from Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.
Thai activists hoist the three-finger salute of liberation from the Hunger Games films.
During the civil war in El Salvador, women in refugee camps set up Committees of Joy.
According to Ari Honavar, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, videos spread of Iranian doctors dancing in hospitals and Persians chanting Rumi – “I am the sultan of love!” – during the Iran-Iraq War. “Those of us who lived through the fundamentalist power grab in Iran experienced a revolution of joylessness. Perhaps the most radical act of resistance in the face of adversity is to live joyfully.”
Contrary to interventionist thinking, sometimes a beautiful story is enough, as when the novel Black Beauty highlighted animal rights while improving the lot of taxi drivers in London. The Kalevala, a collection of Finnish folktales, directly strengthened Finnish solidarity in difficult times and continues to do so today.
We play with the paradox by building hopeful storytelling into our lived philosophy. The more vividly we imagine and dream together as an enjoyable practice, the more what we envision begins to pull on us from the future.
And then what?
"Meet the new boss, same as the old boss..."
That's the thing with revolutions: rulers come and go, whatever democratic titles they give themselves, but the paradigm of rulership does not change.
Systems theorists distinguish between two levels of change: first-order, in which superficial aspects of a complex system—a society, a network, a forest—are altered while leaving the system’s basic style and operation intact; and second-order, where new interactions between the system’s hubs, nodes, and other key components create a new system that works in novel ways. Likewise, psychotherapists can see the difference between insights reabsorbed into a client’s lifestyle-as-usual and far-reaching changes in personality, attitude, and behavior.
Something similar is true for social systems. Ordinary revolutions do not repattern the system; instead, they merely replace one set of leaders with another, transferring power while old habits persist and the unheard remain neglected and disadvantaged. Revolutions also depend on violence, the repercussions of which run down through generations and even centuries of injury.
By contrast, transrevolution is when a living system restructures itself from the inside out, reorganizing around a new central image or vision of its basic nature and purpose. Transrevolution is cultural metamorphosis: collective regeneration consciously fostered.
Transrevolutions involve basic redesign with long-range consequences. They are peaceful mobilizations of energy and action across social strata. They do not merely transform what they influence, they transmute it. Instead of simply fighting old injustices or dysfunctions, transrevolutions move to outgrow them.
Transrevolutions begin when an aging social system starts to fall apart. As voices pushed aside by this system call out from the cracks opening in its public surfaces, a new guiding image (symbol, vision, dream, archetype, myth, strange attractor) stimulates the imagination of sensitive people. When they recognize each other as similarly prompted or called, they begin to organize for change. The networks they weave eventually blueprint new institutions and centers of public discourse. The resulting transmutations resonate with more and more people and eventually take hold permanently.
Transrevolutions unfold at various scales, from the personal to the familial to the collective and, one day, perhaps, the planetary. Examples of transrevolutions in progress include:
Gnosticism, which reimagined ancient myths
The Women’s Movement
The Civil Rights Movement
Organismic psychology (e.g., depth, humanistic, transpersonal)
Ecopsychology and ecospirituality
The emphasis on diversity in business
The ecological / Gaian worldview
Because transrevolutions represent evolutions (rather than revolutions) that challenge existing positions of power, they are always resisted by elements seeking to maintain the system at its current level of (dys)functionality. As a result, they often take time to play out, although their nonlinear ramifications can leap forward unpredictably, like pioneer species suddenly turning up across disturbed ground to help convert it into a mature ecosystem. The more integrated and interconnected the evolutionary efforts involved, the faster they tend to conduct their work of redesign.
In transrevolutionary action, narrow habits of thought expand, creative urges find expression, supportive conversations deepen among diverse views, visions find common ground on which to grow, traditionally rigid roles loosen, and participants move into their full humanity and maturity. Transrevolution is how a species faced with difficult times comes of age.