New thinking

The idea of the explorations in this project is to unravel, unwrap and even, using a current phrase in our COVID-19 world, unlock the lockdown. Perhaps, just as in our worst moments of lockdown in 2020, these explorations play with the idea of freedom and what we have assumed it to be. Do we need physical freedom to be convinced of the reality and purpose of our lives? Do we need friendships, touch, space, colleagues, routines and a social life to define us? Have we been forced to face something much deeper inside our minds or thoughts or souls as we grapple with the issues that bubble up as we stare into the screen of another virtual meeting?

The explorations in this project use many synonyms for ‘nothing’ but the events of 2020 offer us ‘isolation’ as another way of thinking about nothing. The word speaks of something we used to have which we are now separated from. The ideas for this project were shaped and written in a pre-Covid world but it is interesting to reflect that the paradoxical realities of the title make more sense now that we have been through (or are still in) a global pandemic. There will be time in this project to reflect on a pre- and post-Covid world, but we will stick to many of the ideas conceived and suggested before 2019, with reflections that capture the very essence of this world – and they will no doubt emerge with more challenges and possibilities.

‘Nothing is everything’ presents two extremes. Extremes are usually illustrations of a more ‘normal’ reality. They show us that those extremes can’t possibly be true (for most of us), and are even over inflated extensions of reality, but they may help us to find what really is true. We may ask the question, ‘If I could have everything, what would that look like?’ We could also ask the question the other way and say, ‘If I had nothing, how would that make me feel?’ Both are probably not where any of us would choose to be but thinking about those extremes drives us towards the acknowledgement of what is meaningful or real or even what is a mentally stable and sustainable place to live. ‘Nothing’ may well be the starting point because it presents us with an open canvas, open possibilities, ‘blue sky thinking’ or whatever your way is to describe it. Having ‘everything’ leaves us in the end with nowhere else to go, nothing more to explore; it leaves us with too much choice, too many possibilities and an overwhelming sense of responsibility. We can’t, to use the well-known phrase, see the wood for the trees.

Until we have understood the extremes it is hard to find the true ground on which we are really standing and what the ground should really be. Now that we have lived (or are living) through the Covid crisis, it’s probably good to try and think back to what you originally thought about yourself before time stopped and everything changed. In doing so it might bring to light some of the meanings in the phrase that we are exploiting – if you have more affinity with the idea that ‘nothing is everything’ now than you had six months ago, then you may well have faced, wrestled with or dismissed the idea that it is not materials and ownership that validates your existence, but that it is the abstracts of touch, relationship and belonging that makes you tick. This is a poignant and not unfamiliar set of circumstances that humanity has been through at various places at various points on planet Earth.

Mathematical modelling has been one of the new phrases fresh on everybody’s lips during this current season of life. It seems a very safe and possible place: we can work out the science and then bring a finish to all this. However, deep inside we probably feel very unsafe, very unfinished, very like the possibilities could go anywhere. It’s not that science has no relevance and no help to give during this time – in fact quite the opposite. However, again we seem to move from one extreme to another: from extremes of fear to extremes of hope as we scientificate all possible outcomes and irrational thoughts – that this pandemic might never end and COVID 19 will be the new ruling force of planet earth. How strange and unusual that a virus or even a protein would seem to have such power to change the thinking, views and possibly even economic forces of the whole planet in the space of a few months. It would seem like everything has suddenly become nothing and that, in fact, we might have to start the whole thing again with some new ideas and paradigms.

So despite the birth of the many strands of this project before Covid-19, we now see a fresh and urgent context for our search for paths towards a relational existence. As has already been said, this project will contain synonyms for different kinds of ‘nothing’, like ‘stripping away’ and ‘peeling back’. At its core is a deliberate movement away from the bastions of certainty and status quo. It suggests that we have to lay everything bare, embrace the unknown and rediscover the potential and creativity in nothingness. We have to go back in order to make room to go forward in a new way. Only when we are in this vulnerable position – leaving behind certainties and labels and hierarchies – can we have room for other possibilities. If we don’t do this, we will forever be full of and preoccupied with and committed to everything that we already know. This project aims to challenge the idea that stasis is acceptable or ideal. It questions the complacent attitude that says we don’t have to change.

Of course people will look at this and say it is idealistic. But idealism always starts somewhere. We are hoping to provoke conversations, discussions that will be catalysts for new thinking. It doesn’t so much matter which conversation we are part of but which one really changes us and our locality.

The idea of this series of thoughts in this project is to get us to think more deeply about what really matters, what drives us, and to ask what can we let go of in order to re-define another way of living, building community and existing on our planet? The observations that formed to bring this material together look at different aspects of poetry, art, housing, community, business, science and education in the context of twenty-first century life and cities, but with a close eye on the planet and its future challenges and stunning resources.

We have to ask ourselves, can we redefine in small and varied ways space, place, people and purpose? Can we grapple with the questions that could be posed and the possibilities that exist for future generations? We hope these conversations will stimulate, challenge and re-define, but most of all help us to live better and fuller lives on this amazing planet. Like Francis of Assisi’s paradox, our aim has been to illustrate ideas that are contrary to the accepted ways of doing things. Paradoxes are, after all, the product of innovative thinking; thinking in which the obvious is juxtaposed with the surprising.

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