From the inception of The Weekly Service four years ago, co-founders Cameron Elliott and Henry Churchill, have wrestled with the question “Is The Weekly Service enough”? In this story Cameron shares his response to a provocation that for him raises more questions than answers - a riddle, koan or paradox to be sat with and for which a satisfying response may never be found.
In the past when I’ve shared a story at The Weekly Service I’ve spoken about something that was largely resolved in myself – something I could tie up with a neat little bow, put it in a box and say – done. But today I want to speak about things that aren’t resolved in me. Threads of something just out of reach that might one day come together…or not.
Is The Weekly Service enough? It’s a question I’ve wrestled with from the start and I still don’t have an answer. As is often the case, I am left with more questions.
It has been one of the biggest joys of my life to be involved in creating a place where people can explore big questions, get to know others in their neighbourhood, and feel less alone in this crazy world. I’ve seen individuals transform, a community grow and mature together, and witnessed so many incredible talents and gifts emerge, not to mention all the beauty, kindness and creativity that pours out of people when a space is held for it. But I am left wondering – is it enough?
At times it has felt like worthy work. At its best it can feel like there is a synchronistic dialogue happening between the service and the broader context of the world. A collective reimagining of our way of life. In talking about the big issues of our time – climate change, gender equality, work-life balance, drug addiction, mental health – there is a relief that we aren’t alone in our experiences of the darker aspects of life and a hope that we might be able to collectively turn the tide. And in sharing the joys of life there is an expansion of the heart which further feeds the flames of hope and compassion.
But at other times I’ve wondered - is talking, thinking, experiencing, and feeling enough? Don’t I need to DO something with what I’ve learned and discovered through all this reflection?
As a healthy, middle-class, white man, I’ve won the lottery when it comes to privilege and power – I have been handed on a platter the ability to summon resources to my aid and create impact with comparably little effort and without having to deal with any structural inequality along the way. In other words, no matter what hardships I’ve experienced, compared to most people in the world my life is a walk in the park. So what am I doing with this power I’ve been gifted? I feel I have a responsibility to use it to make things easier for others or to improve the world in some small way.
As our community has grown over the years the challenges we’ve faced as leaders and as a community have grown and this has brought many lessons around power, tension, group dynamics, collaboration and leadership – many of which are still rippling outwards for me. Holding a leadership role in a community has been a crucible – and I’ve been ground down and remade in the process. I’ve taken what I’ve discovered into my consulting work with other organisations and been amazed at how the patterns I’ve observed in myself and the community play out in similar ways in other organisations. I can see how The Weekly Service has been a training ground for my work in the world – supporting other individuals and organisations to be aware of power, group dynamics, how to work with conflict and how to lead. So in this way I guess I am doing something with what I’ve learned and discovered. But I am still left wondering – is it enough?
In the past few months I’ve watched with rising panic and horror as world heritage listed forests in Tasmania exploded in fire, floods ravaged North Queensland, and the Murray river choked. I’ve read of the decimation of insect species in Europe and South America due to climate change. It is a harbinger of what is to come. This is the future I am leaving my daughter, Elka and her generation. I’d say my grandchildren too but the science suggests we might not make it that far. When staring down the barrel of what looks likely to be the extinction of our species everything seems meaningless. Nothing seems like it is enough.
This meaninglessness haunts me. Every endeavour feels hollow. How can any response be adequate when faced with such a paralysing existential threat; particularly one with such urgency. Depending on which report you read we have anywhere from zero to 10 years left to get to zero emissions if we are to avoid the collapse of civilisation. And even if we achieve that the existing emissions lock us into an increase of 1.5 degrees which will usher in longer and more severe droughts more severe flooding and crop failures in dry countries like Australia. Things we are already starting to see.
Supporting people to talk about taboo topics like climate change, to find meaning and purpose, to feel things, to create beauty, and to collaborate, lead and resolve conflict better might make the world a happier and kinder place to live in, which might one day lead to more people making more sustainable choices in how they live, which might one day lower carbon emissions. But that is a long game and the clock is running down.
I’ve tried taking a big picture view – looking at the human species as one of many – no better than any others – no better than the thousands we’ve eradicated in the last century. I’ve tried thinking about the fact that our existence has always been fragile and civilisations have always fallen. Or that eventually our sun will turn into a red giant and swallow the earth so our time will end eventually anyway.
In short I’ve tried accepting the inevitable end of a species I’ve been raised to see as special, god-like, immortal. And I can do it as an intellectual exercise. But when I allow myself to feel the loss of everything – our music, our poetry, our art, our science, our passions, our dreams, our loves - it is too much to hold. There is a part of me that can’t accept that. Perhaps it’s the same part of me that can’t accept my own mortality?
Know the personal
Yet keep to the impersonal
Accept the world as it is
If you accept the world
The Tao will be luminous inside you
And you will return to your primal self
Knowing the personal – my love for my daughter, Elka, my partner, Sarah, my parents, Sharon and Stuart, my brother, Tristan, my friends, my community, humanity – how can I possibly keep to the impersonal - that big picture detached view. How can I accept a world where humans do not exist?
Two years ago I shared a story at the service with the title “Hope in spite of everything”. At that time I comforted myself by thinking that if I played my role to the best of my ability and everyone else did the same we’d be okay. I saw my role as holding the flame of hope that a different way of living was possible and that this might get us over the line. I had faith that whatever would happen was what needed to happen in the grand scheme of things. Thinking this way alleviated my fears around climate change and helped me sleep at night. But I’m not sure I can believe it anymore. As Greta Thunberg, the 16 year old who kicked off the student strikes for action on climate change said:
“I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”
The traditional role of a leader is to inspire hope. But that’s something I can no longer do. Given the global context I’m not interested in anaesthetising myself or others with false hope.
However I do have hope for The Weekly Service. I hope will we use our privilege not only to support our own growth and wellbeing but also to support the wellbeing of others and the natural world. To pick up what is being called of us in this moment and respond. To act knowing all the while it might not be enough.
Martin Luther, the father of modern Protestantism once wrote:
“Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”
We are hosting a meeting with the membership community after the service today where we will collectively decide how the organisation will run without a leadership team. We are nearing the end of a long process of stepping back and inviting the community to step forward and collectively lead. It is no longer my role or Henry’s or Kirsty or Caro’s to hold the flame of hope for the organisation and it’s place in the broader context. We are all now collectively responsible for it.
This seems fitting because we are living through a time when our country and arguably the world is without effective leadership and we are being called to step forward as citizens. To see what needs to be done and take action. To plant our apple trees.
Will it be enough?
I guess that is up to us.
So the story isn’t really over, it’s only just beginning.
I’m reminded of a song by Taylor Goldsmith:
If our lives were a movie
If our lives were a book
They’d be longer than I’d recommend
When you’re telling a story
At some point you stop
But stories don’t end
They just go on and on
Til someone stops listening.
Thank you all for listening. I’d like to share a song I wrote in response to the question: “Is it enough?” Songwriting is my refuge when grappling with big questions with no answers or answers I can’t accept. Like the story I just told, it isn’t quite finished.