Radical Hope


According to Ray Kurzweil, a scientist and futurist, there will be more changes in the world between 2015 and 2022 than there was in all of the 20th century. I don’t know how accurate his prediction may be. It’s difficult to predict a future. There are contingent events and new possibilities arising that alter the future you’ve predicted, in ways you can’t currently see. For example, no one could have predicted that Apple would succeed beyond the market’s prediction of their demise. No one imagined that Steve Jobs would invent an iPod, or an iPhone that would completely alter the music industry, the publishing industry and the photographic industry. But Kurzweil’s prediction of the future leads me to ask—how would a human being integrate that magnitude of change? Or navigate through that amount of change? How would that scale of change impact the pathway of evolution for human beings? What choices would we make? If we fall into a mood of despair, or fear, about the world’s current events—from Orlando’s shootings, to Turkey’s failed coup, to America’s political drama—we will see the future as very dark. If we cultivate a mood of wonder or hope, we will see some very different opportunities. It won’t take away from the difficult conversations we need to have, or traumatic events that we need to navigate together. But, it would have us choose a better future together.

When the United States extended the railroads into the West, we killed most of the buffalo along the way. There were 15 million buffalo in the 1850’s. By the 1890’s, there were maybe 1000 buffalo. It was America’s new frontier, but it ended an era for the sovereign Native Nations that called the Western territories home. Their home was not just a tepee on the prairie, or a long house in the forest. Their home was the prairie itself—and the mountains, and the Great Forests and Rivers. Their brothers and sisters were the trees, the 4-leggeds, the rocks, the winged, the finned, and the furred. The people coming West had absolutely no clue about this. It wasn’t a reality for any of them. The Crow Nation had built their lives around being warriors hunting buffalo, and fighting to protect their home from the Sioux and Cheyenne. War was not the concern of just male warriors, but of the whole tribe, from cradle to grave. This is how they survived as nomadic hunters, following the buffalo. They cultivated courage and bravery into the very fabric of their daily lives, story-telling of brave and courageous acts both with their enemy, and on hunting expeditions. So, how they raised their children, how a woman picked a man for a husband, how they lived happy, honorable and respectful lives, what a warrior was and how they were trained—this is what it meant to live a meaningful life.

The Crow Chief, named Plenty Coups, because of his extraordinary acts of bravery, said, “After the buffalo went, the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.”

The kind of shock, disorientation and deep grief that happens when your entire way of life is gone is profound. Think about that for a minute. You deeply knew who you were, and after the change, those actions were suddenly meaningless. Raising a child to become a warrior and a hunter has no meaning, so why have children? Cooking a meal so that those who were hunting and fighting for the tribe’s safety were healthy and strong was no longer needed, so why cook? The very acts that were used to develop courage and honor had ceased to make sense. When they told stories of their bravery, they called this “counting coup,” after the long sticks they carried with them into battle, and they planted the coup sticks in the ground to to valorize their fearlessness with the enemy, and show pride in their families and tribe. This was the appropriate way to behave as a warrior. Now, the coup sticks were merely pieces of firewood. Our Crow brothers and sisters, now on the reservations, were not a shadow of their former selves—they could not find themselves. Literally and truly, they did not know who they were. In spite of all this, the Crow Nation survived as a nation with most of their homelands intact, owned and stewarded by them. How did Plenty Coups, the Chief of the Crow people, pull that off? And, in the face of such despair? He had to lead his people to build a new way of living together with strange and barbaric new neighbors.

Jonathan Lear in his book, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, talks about radical hope as “the commitment to a bare possibility that, from this disaster, something good will emerge: the Crow shall somehow survive.” He goes on to say, “this is a daunting form of commitment: to a goodness in the world that transcends one’s current ability to grasp what it is.” Imagine that. You committing to goodness in a world that will emerge at some point in the future, while the world you know and live in, is dying or gone. How do you do that? Further, what would you have to see or understand that would indicate taking action from that kind of radical commitment?

We turn to Dr. Brian Arthur, the founding head of the interdisciplinary economics program at the Santa Fe Institute, for a potential answer. “For the big decisions in life, you need to reach a deeper region of consciousness. Making decisions then becomes not so much about deciding as about letting an inner wisdom emerge.” Cultivating this capability enables you to get in touch with that deep inner place and allows for a knowing to emerge. There is no decision making or figuring it out. What to do becomes obvious. What counts is accessing that inner wisdom, and knowing that you can access it anytime. We call that dropping in to an inner knowing—dropping in between the thoughts and feelings to that deeper consciousness. It is possible as a small group, and as networks of people, to develop this skill. It allows for seeing our seeing, for new structures of attention that are distinctly different from simply reflecting on and reacting to past experiences. It allows us to learn to better sense and connect with a future possibility that is seeking to emerge, a future that depends on us to bring it into being.

What if Plenty Coups and the Crow people had a way of dropping in together, that helped them to seed radical hope into their current situation? In fact, when Plenty Coups was a nine year old boy he’d asked for a dream. It was such an unusual dream, that in the practices of his tribe, he took this dream to his Elders. Plenty Coup’s dream was in three parts. In the first part, he was shown countless buffalo living on the plains, and then they were all gone. In the second part, he was shown a domesticated kind of spotted buffalo that was smaller, weaker, and milder than the first buffalo, living in great numbers on the plains. The third part of the dream, showed a great storm in which the 4 winds waged war on the forest. Only one tree remained and stood tall. In that tree was the lodge of the Chickadee. This bird is least in strength but strongest of mind among his kind. He is willing to work for wisdom. He is a good listener and never misses a chance to learn from others. He gains successes and avoids failure by learning how others succeeded or failed, and then using that knowledge for himself. Together, they listened, observed, prayed in their way, and interpreted his dream. They felt that dreams were a way that their God or Great Spirit spoke with them, and helped them to navigate an unknown future. The tribe’s elders took their time to interpret this dream, because in their hearts they felt its importance

Once you’ve dropped in to that deeper, inner place and you connect with a profound knowing, you’re able to observe, to be patient and wait for the indication of action. In a practice of dropping in and then observing, things will align in a certain way, patterns will emerge. You will feel a sense of rightness, not as an emotion or feeling, but as a knowing, and the right action emerges inside your intention for a new future. It won’t take away the pain of big changes, transitions or devastations, rather it allows for a deeper wisdom to emerge. It allows for a way to navigate the complexity of life changing rapidly and without external warning.

Plenty Coups never abandoned the experience he’d had with the Elders and his dream. Lear speaks to this, “He never abandoned the idea that he’d been given a vision that derived from the spiritual world….He held onto it and led the tribe in the light of it.” In fact, Plenty Coups made a declaration: if the tribe followed this deep knowing they would survive. They would face the inevitable devastation that the dream showed, but they would survive.

Facing a future that destroys your current ways of living, of flourishing and of dying, takes great courage. The Crows’ traditional conception of courage had become inapplicable. Their common sense about being courageous and honorable told them that fighting the enemy, the white man, was the right action. However, the elder’s dialogue of the dream, and the knowing that emerged, indicated a different action for the Crow people, which was different from the traditional, common sense notion of courage that most of the Native American people adhered to. The dream indicated that being like a Chickadee—developing his mind, listening, observing and learning from others—was critical to the whole tribe’s survival and to re-creating their new lives powerfully. Using the dreams’ message for his people, Plenty Coup’s actions differed from other tribe leaders—he cooperated with the White people, and began to learn from them. Sitting Bull of the Sioux nation, insisted that “authentic tribal leaders would never cooperate with the American government. To do so would be to surrender one’s personal authority and sacrifice one’s followers to the whims of petty officials.”

To be clear, Both Sitting Bull and Plenty Coups were men of extraordinary dignity and courage; both were struggling to find an honorable way for their people to live. Sitting Bull was coming from their traditional idea of courage, while Plenty Coups was embodying a new form of courage that Sitting Bull did not grasp. Plenty Coups understood that the quality of courage had to transcend fighting and counting coup, the old ways of showing courage. What were the new ways of living a honorable and courageous life? They were not agreed upon yet.

The Crow were forced to face up to a reality in which traditional ideals were no longer applicable. Yet, those same ideals made up who you are, and how you lived well. Clearly, new ways of learning and navigating would be essential to being successful in that transformation, because courage now meant taking on that journey. You cannot truly let go of your past ideals without the kind of deep inner knowing that Dr. Brian MacArthur talks about, and that we train people in here at the Taylor Group.


Today, you can visit the museum in Plenty Coups State Park in Pryor, Montana. There is a plaque there that reads:

Our elders interpreted Plenty Coups’ vision to mean that the white people would take over Indian country and that the Chickadee’s lodge represented the Crow tribe, which placed its lodge in the right place. Today we retain the heart of Crow country as our reservation.

The Chickadee survives because he is able to learn from others. Plenty Coups urged the tribe to be educated in white man’s schools. He said, “With what the white man knows, he can oppress us. If we learn what he knows, he can never oppress us again.”

I leave you with questions that are relevant for our time:

What is our buffalo? Climate change? Big oil? A Sharing economy that is already re-writing how we connect and interact? A complexity in our culture that we have never navigated before? Potentially, we are in front of our own cultural transformation/devastation. We can choose, like the Crow Nation, how we will walk into the future we are building together. Are you learning the new skills and sensibilities needed to navigate these waters with a sense of wonder and gratitude?