The Alchemy of Tension

Rather than succumb to tension, we can use it for our benefit.
Photo by
Amelia Pape
April 5, 2021
10 min

I last saw my family in early March 2020. I had flown to North Carolina from my home in Oregon to visit my brother, sister-in-law, and new baby niece. My mom and dad each joined me during different parts of the trip. Back then, there were stories of a new illness wreaking havoc in a far corner of the globe, but it felt like an abstraction — too distant to impact my life. I brought hand sanitizer on the plane and smirked at the one passenger wearing a surgical mask. Less than 24 hours after I returned home, I came down with a fever.

The next morning, Governor Kate Brown brought Oregon’s economy to an abrupt halt. The pandemic was no longer just a blurb in the international news section; it was here. In response, Brown issued a stay-at-home order to slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Her move suspended routine life for Oregonians, as if she’d pressed pause on a remote control.

Days later, after my fever had given way to what felt like a head cold, Gov. Brown made another big decision: she shipped nearly 20 percent of the state’s stockpile of ventilators to New York. At the time, Oregon had a limited supply of the lifesaving breathing machines and the fewest hospital beds per capita in the nation. That same week, I lost my sense of smell.

Many residents of the Beaver State were proud of Brown for reaching out to help fellow Americans in a desperate time. Others worried when this news became public. New York, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. last spring, clearly needed help. But its overloaded hospital beds might also portend a terrifying glimpse into our future. Models projected Oregon’s infections to peak three weeks after New York’s. What if we needed those ventilators here? I kept a bottle of peppermint essential oil next to my bed to test my olfactory system each morning. I still couldn’t smell it when our ventilators flew east.

The situation in Oregon exemplifies a tension that has existed since humans evolved from hunter-gatherers to builders of increasingly sophisticated societies. It’s a tension between self-interest and shared interest, and it shows up any time we have to interact with others. It asks whether we are more likely to benefit if we prioritize our own needs, or if we invest in the good of the whole. This and countless other tensions are wont to dominate our thinking in these extraordinarily tense times.

Across the globe, political, economic, and public health leaders have faced impossible choices: do we prioritize public health above economic impact? Nationalism over globalism? Individual freedoms or protective measures? If we think of these as mutually exclusive scenarios, there is no obvious solution. This is a zero-sum mindset: only one choice can prevail.

But, instead of picking winners and losers, what if we chose to embrace a new state of mind?

Change your mind

There is perhaps no better demonstration of the interconnectedness of all things than a global pandemic. It can’t be called conjecture to say that the decisions we make profoundly affect others at the individual, community, and systemic level — we see it every day in the rising COVID-19 case counts, unemployment rates, and racial inequities around us.

Acknowledging this interrelatedness and seeing the systems we participate in is the foundation of a new mindset. If networks are interconnected systems, cultivating our ability to see those systems and to think and act accordingly is what we at Converge call network mindset. This is, in essence, the opposite of a zero-sum mindset. Network mindset transforms “either/or” into “both/and.” When network mindset is put into practice, hierarchies flatten, structures soften, trust supersedes control, and tension indicates vitality.

To cultivate a network mindset, we must engage with tension differently. Rather than problems to be solved, network mindset calls us to view tensions as ever-present polarities that co-exist, each bringing its own value to the whole.

Consider the example above of self-interest and shared interest. In collaborations of any kind, there must be a central purpose that calls participants together. The initial step in cultivating complex collaborations is to clarify that purpose so it’s specific enough to motivate people to act, and broad enough to be relevant to many diverse stakeholders across the system. This is the establishment of shared interest.

Yet, shared interest alone is not enough to sustain collaboration over time. Altruism is a powerful catalyst, but it must be augmented by self-interest to bolster long-term engagement. I may be willing to take action that contributes to the health of my community, like wearing a mask or sharing ventilators with other states, but I’m much more likely to do so if I know my actions will also support my own wellbeing. The question, “what’s in it for me?” is not a faux pas in healthy collaborations — it’s encouraged.

In most networks, people are free to act independently and to leave at any time; participation is typically not legally binding. Because of the drive to take action together, network participants usually spend the majority of their time looking for shared interests and then working together on behalf of those shared interests. However, networks must also serve the personal and organizational objectives of individual participants to justify the time it requires to participate fully. Navigating this ever-present tension is at the heart of network practice.

Invest in trust

If tensions are a certainty, how do we engage with them in beneficial ways? It begins with trust. Again and again at Converge, we see within our own network and in our work with others that the most essential prerequisite for effective collaboration is a foundation of trust, or, what we call trust for impact. In nearly every part of the network formation process, we make a point of cultivating trust among participants, not so they always agree, but because we expect they won’t.

Trust for impact allows participants in a group to dissent without risking dissolution. An investment in trust is an investment in the long-term strength and endurance of a network. Trusting relationships are the invisible, flexible structure that keeps the system connected, and more connected systems are better equipped to flex with the tensions that are guaranteed to arise.

The Santa Cruz Mountains Stewardship Network (SCMSN) has had to engage with tensions between diverse participant priorities when considering how to “cultivate a region where human and natural systems thrive for generations to come.” With representatives from timber companies, conservation organizations, parks departments, and a Native American tribal band all in the same network, there are many competing interests. But the network has used these apparent tensions to its benefit, finding ways to learn from one another’s unique experiences.

Within its first three years, SCMSN members collaborated on more than 65 land stewardship projects. In 2019, three network members, including a conservation group and a lumber company, announced an $11.7M landmark deal to preserve 937 acres of coastal redwoods. Describing this kind of partnership before the network had formed would have sounded improbable, if not crazy. But, like the ancient philosophy of alchemy — the belief that certain inputs could be transmuted into something new and precious — the SCMSN converted tension into the creative energy needed to address previously intractable challenges. By focusing first on building strong relationships among its members, the network has become adept at advancing the individual interests of its participants while also looking for issues where members’ needs intersect. Their capacity to positively engage with one another around a series of tensions continues to uncover opportunities to advance their complex purpose in ways they could never have done alone.

Use the force

Physics tells us tension occurs when force is applied to a system. Imagine two people standing across a chasm from one another, symbolizing a disconnected system facing a shared challenge. Each person represents a divergent point of view. In order to make any progress at all, the people in the system need to be connected. If they hold something rigid between them, like a piece of wood, it creates a connection, but a brittle one that could break under pressure. If what connects them is even more impliable, like steel, there’s no room for them to shift their positions, as we humans tend to do. A flexible medium like a rope allows them to connect, but also to move about, withstand pressure, and respond to an ever-changing environment without severing their connection.

Like the rope, relationships of trust are the flexible structure that makes networks resilient. Cultivating strong, trusting relationships is the first step in effectively navigating tension.

The next essential practice in leveraging tension for collective good is developing our holding endurance — our ability to stay in the tension. If we continue with the rope metaphor, imagine the two people beginning to pull tighter and tighter, representing deeper conflict or divergence, or the growing complexity of the challenge at hand. Over time, one person may tire of holding their end of the rope and decide to drop it. This releases the tension, but it also severs the connection and leaves the challenge unmet.

If the two participants become so skilled at holding the rope taut for long enough, however, a third person could come along and walk across it, bridging the chasm of divergence and entering into a new place of possibility. In this instance, a new solution emerges that would not have been possible without a flexible structure of trust, the divergent perspectives inherent in diverse systems that create tension energy, and participants’ capacity to hold that tension. In networks, tension contains a similar kind of emergent energy that can be alchemized into powerful new solutions.

The chasm described in the metaphor above is reminiscent of what systems scientist Peter Senge describes as the gap between vision and reality, or what he calls creative tension. In his seminal book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, Senge writes, “the gap between vision and current reality is also a source of energy. If there were no gap, there would be no need for any action to move towards the vision.”

Within a flexible structure of trusting relationships, tension is not solely an indicator of discord, but also a signal to shift from zero-sum thinking into a network mindset, where divergence can lead to innovation. To quote a network leader we’ve collaborated with, “our limit as a network will be defined by the level of tension that we can tolerate and our capability to transform these tensions into constructive energy.” In healthy collaborations, tension fortified by trust creates a durable alloy that engenders emergent solutions with transformative potential.

Prepare for emergence

We are now over a year into the COVID-19 pandemic. In this time here in Oregon, we have endured deep heartbreak from the rapid spread of this disease and the resulting loss of lives and livelihoods, devastating wildfires of unprecedented magnitude, and civil unrest in response to ongoing violence against Black lives, all in anticipation of an unknown future. Tension abounds.

In scary times, zero-sum thinking can easily become the default. As COVID-19 continues to envelop the globe, scarcity dominates the news: personal protective equipment, hospital beds, and effective treatments have been in short supply almost everywhere. Nearly every country on earth needs the same things at the same time. Yet, instead of banding together to harness the globe’s incredible manufacturing prowess, we’ve seen a rise in nationalist policies. By April 2020, fifty-four governments from the United Kingdom to India had curbed exports of medical supplies. This exacerbates the strain on limited resources, particularly in developing countries that rely on international trade for medical technology.

In the global race to save our species from COVID-19, we’re challenged not to succumb to tension, but to use it for our benefit. We must reframe competing priorities as diverse ingredients that will coalesce into stronger, more impactful solutions. In a Time Magazine article, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright suggests that not everything about this pandemic is novel: “It is also a reminder of a lesson we should have learned long ago,” she writes, “that, to thrive, people of every nationality must combine strengths.”

This year has brought complex, systemic challenges to the surface of our lives so we can no longer ignore them. We can see, now more than ever, the need to tap into our collective wisdom to tackle these issues from many angles at once — in other words, the need to collaborate. Inherent in all collaborations are divergent perspectives, competing priorities, and conflict. Western dominant culture is rife with problem-solving strategies that unknowingly perpetuate a zero-sum mindset. We’ve been taught to place our issues into a mental hierarchy in order to focus our attention on the most pressing one and fix it.

We can’t do that now. There is no way to rank public health, economic stability, and racial justice in order of importance. Even the search for common ground, a regular practice in social change work, implies the removal of tension as a measure of success. But if we release tension too soon, we risk missing out on emergent solutions like in the metaphor of the rope and the tightrope walker. It’s time to change our mindset.

A year of this pandemic has felt simultaneously like lifetimes of separation from loved ones, and mere moments repeating like an unending Groundhog Day, leaving us wondering when we will finally get some relief.

Thankfully, I regained my sense of smell and recovered relatively easily from COVID-19, though I mourn with millions of others who haven’t been so lucky. I still haven’t seen my family, but thanks to technology, we’ve connected in ways that make us feel closer than ever. This is true for people around the world, evidenced in stories of rediscovering a sense of community and investing in relationships as a beacon of hope in uncertain times.

This pandemic has now lasted long enough for new human lives to be conceived and born all within its duration. Perhaps that is fitting, given the feeling that we are also birthing a new way of life. What that new life will look like, we don’t yet know. But this state of not knowing is our opportunity to practice our holding endurance. We can learn to coexist with tension and keep building our relational infrastructure along the way. And then one day, like alchemy, something new will emerge.

Amelia Pape

Amelia is a social entrepreneur turned systems strategist. She partners with multi-sector stakeholders to develop resilient collaborations that advance a diversity of complex goals, from sustainable food systems to ethical neuroscience. In addition to her work with Converge, she teaches graduate courses on storytelling and impact measurement at Portland State University. Before planting a stake in the consulting field, Amelia built corporate food access programs and drove a grocery-store-on-wheels.