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Citizen future: Why we need a new story of self and society

The process of rewriting the story is demanding for all of us. When the cracks appear in a long-held belief, it causes anxiety and pain. As the certain world is replaced by great uncertainty, the risk is that we cling to what we know more than ever. The gravitational pull of the familiar exerts itself, no matter how dysfunctional we know the familiar to be. When we recognize this, we can hold the space for this collapse and this transition more gently, more respectfully, with greater care. Otherwise, anxiety flips into anger, and people lose trust and faith in each other and their institutions. The result risks becoming a vicious cycle: as the challenges of our time intensify, we trust our leaders less, the outlets we seek in our dissatisfaction – such as anti-scientific beliefs, or conspiracy theories – become more extreme, and our leaders in turn trust us less. They become even more inclined to stick to what they know – the old stories – denying us agency as they engage in futile attempts to solve the challenges for us, without us.

This is why the most essential work at this time should be a reimagination of what leadership is. If those in positions of power act as if there is nothing wrong, nothing to see here, our mistrust in them deepens still further. Leaders who build the citizen’s future start by acknowledging uncertainty, sharing questions and challenges with us rather than providing (or failing to provide) answers for us. They create opportunities for us to participate and contribute. They cultivate so-called “safe uncertainty”: acknowledging unknowns, not denying them. They don’t pretend to know exactly what the future looks like. They do reassure us that we will best build it by working together. As the philosopher and activist adrienne maree brown puts it: “No one is special; everyone is needed.”

In order to survive and thrive, we must step into the citizen future. We must see ourselves as citizens – people who actively shape the world around us, who cultivate meaningful connections to their community and institutions, who can imagine a different and better life, who care and take responsibility, and who create opportunities for others to do the the same. Crucially, the leaders of our institutions must also see people as citizens, and treat us as such.

If we can step into the citizen future, we will be able to face our myriad challenges: economic insecurity, ecological emergency, public health threats, political polarization, and more. We will be able to build a future. We will be able to have a future – together.

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