[Be advised: this article makes reference to sexual violence.]
Many years ago, when I started talking publicly about thrivability and regeneration (words I use interchangeably), people struggled to understand what I was talking about and what it could mean for them. And so in place of regeneration, I sometimes proposed the word “healing.” After all, to support a system’s ability to regenerate is, fundamentally, to support its ongoing healing and emergent wholeness. Healing is a concept we’ve all experienced. With a little effort, we can all imagine how an experience, a product or a service could contribute to healing. This framing seemed to offer an accessible way for people to start thinking of themselves as wise, compassionate stewards of what is alive in their organizations and communities.
In recent months, the concept of regeneration has become more widely recognized and embraced, to the point of downright trendiness. Though this is surely a good thing, I find that the approach to regeneration can sometimes be overly focused on speed and scale, on the technical, on problem-solving. And this triggers my concern that, with the best of intentions, these efforts will inadvertently replicate damaging patterns from the outgoing, mechanistic paradigm. To try to slow down and deepen the conversation, I sometimes ask: what would change if we substituted the word “healing” for “regeneration”?
And there, the response is often that this terminology won’t work because we “need to meet people where they are,” with the assumption that most people will not be ready for words like healing. Instead, I hear things like: “we like to start from the positive, from strength.”
Surely, this is a sensible approach. This is a compelling way to attract people into necessary, constructive conversations. And there are always strengths on which we can build. I think of Rob Hopkins’ latest book, From What Is To What If? — an ode to the power of imagination, filled with encouraging examples of what’s possible. What kind of a buzzkill would I be to suggest that this isn’t what is needed most?
And yet, I’m perplexed by the reluctance to talk about healing. If regeneration is rooted in living systems thinking, and if healing is core to what it means to be alive, then this should be an obvious part of the conversation. As I wrote elsewhere: “The root of the word is ‘to make whole.’ Healing as ever-greater wholeness, through care and generosity.” The ability to heal is a key part of what distinguishes us from machines. This is nothing to shy away from.
If I dig a little deeper into my feelings about this, I find the reluctance to be a position of immense, possibly even obscene privilege. To be able to cavalierly overlook the deep harms that have been suffered — that continue to be suffered — by people, by other species, by ecosystems. To leave those wounds untended. I can’t imagine saying to my indigenous neighbors here in Canada: let’s not talk about healing; let’s just start from the positive, from strength. Or to Brazilians devastated when a mining operation negligently flooded their river and community with toxic sludge — twice. Or to anyone gazing out over a bleached, lifeless coral reef.
This aversion to talking about healing also strikes me as fragility masquerading as strength. My ever-wise Mohawk friend, Chuck Nikastoserá’a Barnett, had this to say:
“I know many mainstream non-natives do not like the word ‘healing,’ because it infers that one has been hurt or injured or been the victim. This is counter to a culture based on masculinity — this John Wayne culture that says we do not talk about hurt, thereby there is no notion of healing. Even in Mohawk, at times we will use a suffix such as ‘ihrats’ to mean ‘strengthening’ when we could just as easily say healing. But if a culture does not acknowledge pain or hurt, it is a culture that can never experience healing.”
If it is the culture of masculinity that avoids acknowledging hurt, preferring to jump instead to problem-solving, speed and scale, then it seems that healing may be rooted in the feminine. And that may have something to do with the reluctance to engage with it. In order to embrace healing, we may have to learn to honor the feminine.
Indeed, for those with the privilege to overlook the need for healing, I feel tempted to frame the situation more bluntly. As we rush into the trendy new concept of regeneration, let’s keep in mind that what we’re working to counteract — the opposite of regeneration — is not simply degeneration, which sounds comfortably abstract, passive and almost inevitable, like a steady decline into old age. No, the opposite of regeneration is rape culture. Rape of the Earth and of democracy. Transgression of women’s bodies and silencing their perspectives and wisdom. Colonizing and oppressing indigenous and minority peoples and cultures. It’s all the same underlying dynamic and logic. And there is nothing abstract, passive or inevitable about it.
Let’s open our eyes to what’s really at play and at stake. Regeneration is not simply — not solely — a new-and-improved approach to problem-solving and systems change, to be rolled out rapidly and at scale with John Wayne bravado.
There can be no regeneration without healing.
Margaret Mead wisely noted that: “For the human species to evolve, the conversation must deepen.” What would help you find the courage to talk about the healing that may be needed within your project, in your community, in the world? Where can you help to amplify the voices of women and minorities as an offering of guidance and direction? What can you do to create the spaciousness of time to reflect, connect and sense the deeper currents of what wants to emerge? Each of these is an act of healing in itself. On that foundation of ever-greater wholeness through care and generosity, there is far greater likelihood of lasting, regenerative transformation and even of speed and scale, if those are truly required.