Why are we behaving so badly?

Margaret Wheatley
11 min readDec 8, 2020

Why are we behaving so badly?
With 20:20 vision, what can we see more clearly?*

Have you ever been in conversations about how an alien invasion might save us? How, faced with a common enemy, we would band together as one humanity to save our species from destruction? I was often in these conversations about 15–20 years ago, especially with young people, but they seem to have disappeared now, replaced with more troubling questions about our self-destructive path.

I want to revive this question because it’s such a good lens to bring things into focus: How do you think we humans would behave if the aliens invaded planet Earth today? Would we band together, pool our defenses, risk life and death to save our species? Or would we throw each other under the bus? Would we give the alien destroyers GPS coordinates for our personal enemies, those nations we despise, populations we judge inferior and dispensable? In the face of an existential threat, how would we respond?

My vote goes to the bus.

In the face of existential threats

I vote with such confidence because we have far too much evidence about how we respond when our existence is threatened. Look at our lack of response to climate change. What are we doing in the face of the greatest existential threat of all time? Have we collaborated, cooperated, abandoned nationalism to mitigate and prepare for present and future catastrophes? Will we ever?

Irrefutable science, crystal clear warnings, global initiatives, prophecies and predictions, what has been their impact? Faced with this undeniable and unavoidable threat to our existence, how have we responded? Answers are frighteningly obvious: Leaders have chosen greed and power; people have chosen their lifestyles. When natural disasters strike — 207 in the first half of 2020, a 27% increase — we deny their implications or extend temporary sympathy via remote viewing to those impacted. And then we return to the selfish comforts of our own lives.

And look at how we are responding right now, day-to-day, with the Covid pandemic. The virus is growing exponentially: Infection and death rates are doubling in ever shorter time periods; U.S. hospitalizations doubled in the month of November; U.S. deaths may double to 450,000 by April. It took five months to reach one million infections; at November’s end, it took just five days to add another one millionat the beginning of December. (The U.S. total is more than 15 million as of December 8.)

Neuroscientists explain that the human brain cannot comprehend exponential growth, so to pierce through this cognitive deficiency, we are shown pictures. ICUs are filled to capacity with the increasing severity of infections, so we are shown photos of temporary hospitals set up in tents, parking lots, convention centers. Death rates are doubling, so we see photos of cemeteries, freshly dug graves, refrigeration trucks used as morgues.

The head of the CDC warns that “December-February are going to be the most difficult time in the public health history of this nation, largely because of the stress that it’s going to put on our health care system.” Many government leaders are holding frequent press conferences to educate us, to plead with us, to try and connect us human to human. The governor of Ohio held a noteworthy press conference on November 30th devoted to one purpose, giving nurses, doctors, and care givers time to share their experiences. Every person described their current situation visually, passionately, tearfully, angrily. One nurse described the increasing severity of symptoms and the resultant increase in deaths: “We are not the frontline workers. We’re the last line of defense.” A week earlier in Wisconsin, nurses and doctors took out a full-page newspaper ad. They didn’t want to scold or make people feel guilty, they said, they just wanted to wake up their neighbors to the severity of the situation in local hospitals. (The ad was paid for by their hospital system.)

These efforts assume we care about our community, we protect our families, we will do whatever we can to save lives. They assume that once we know what’s happening, we will, of course, willingly sacrifice our momentary pleasures to slow this catastrophe that is upending everything.

Has this been a failure to communicate? An Axios article on Medium¹ suggests that what officials need to do is change their choice of words and terms. They’re advised to use words that don’t trigger people. Don’t call it a “lockdown,” call it “stay at home.” Call it a “pandemic,” not “Covid-19,” rename “mandates” and “orders” as “protocols.”

Seems that even public safety and health announcements now require trigger warnings.

We have met the enemy and it is us

The fundamental cause of the rise of Covid is community spread — we, silent spreaders, infect one another in homes, places of worship, at weddings, funerals, parties. Only if we change our behavior can this exponential growth be halted and rates of infection and death decrease. “Only we can save ourselves” said Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator.

But will we change our behavior? Have we? Look what happened in just four days between November 25th-29th. Four million Americans travelled by plane for Thanksgiving; On Black Friday, shoppers crowded the streets of major Spanish cities even though pubic gatherings are restricted to six people. (At least they were outside, commented one politician); Maskless protestors rallied against government restrictions in London; Nurses continued reporting that a few of their patients, critically ill with Covid, still insist that the virus is a hoax.

And Christmas looms as an even greater threat.

How are we to interpret these deadly levels of denial and defiance? A richness of commentaries have been published (many on Medium), seeking to understand these obviously dangerous behaviors:

  • They indicate a failure of America, exposing our deeply narcissistic hyper-individualistic culture. Yes.
  • They indicate the disconnection and meaninglessness experienced by youth (who’ve been big spreaders). Yes.
  • They indicate that people are exhausted by Covid, they’re now “covid resistors.” Yes.
  • They indicate that definitions of personal freedom/liberty no longer include responsibility to others. Yes.
  • They indicate that people no longer feel nationalistic, that patriotism is dead. Yes.
  • They indicate science illiteracy, people don’t know how to interpret data. Yes.
  • They indicate increasing numbers of paranoid people who believe every institution, corporation, government and elites are out to get them. Yes.

Our bad behaviors locate us in history

In complex social systems, there are no singular causes. Every cause is true yet insufficient. Only when combined do they become a startlingly clear lens for understanding why we are behaving so badly, threatening our very existence as a society.

These behaviors are the well-defined and predictable responses of humans when their civilization is in collapse. No matter the time period or culture or geographical location, humans always behave precisely in these ways in the last stages of their society, what historian Sir John Glubb named, “The Age of Decadence.”

Here is a composite description of these historical behaviors: “Frivolity, aestheticism, hedonism, cynicism, pessimism, narcissism, consumerism, materialism, nihilism, fatalism, fanaticism, and other negative attributes, attitudes, and behaviors suffuse the population. Politics is increasingly corrupt, life increasingly unjust. A cabal of insiders accrues wealth and power at the expense of the citizenry, fostering a fatal opposition of interests between haves and have-nots. Mental and physical illness proliferates. The majority lives for bread and circuses; worships celebrities instead of divinities; takes its bearings from below rather than above; throws off social and moral restraints, especially on sexuality; shirks duties but insists on entitlements; and so forth. The society’s original vigor, virtue, and morale have been entirely effaced. Rotten to the core, the society awaits collapse, with only the date remaining to be determined.²”

While this is an accurate description of now, this is a generic description of how we humans behave in the final days of any society. Glubb studied eleven empires from ancient Assyria (859 BCE) and Persia up to modern Russia and Britain (1950). His brief monograph, published in 1976, “The Fate of Empires,” is easily available online as a pdf and well-worth reading. Although historians from classical Greece to the present day have written about the collapse of civilizations, Glubb’s unique contribution is the behaviors that evolve/devolve from generation to generation because of increasing prosperity.

The logic is quite straightforward. Behaviors change in response to increased wealth and material comforts. Each generation matures in better socioeconomic circumstances than their parents. Because they enjoy more material comforts, they develop an attitude of entitlement, demanding even more. (Those of us who parented Millennials, think about it.) A meaningful life is measured by material gains and worldly success; thoughts of self-service and sacrifice departed long ago. Thus the civilization declines into decadence. In the eleven civilizations he studied, Glubb noted that this devolution took ten generations, approximately 250 years.

“The life-expectation of a great nation is that it appears, commences with a violent, and usually unforeseen, outburst of energy, and ends in a lowering of moral standards, cynicism, pessimism and frivolity.”

I have used Glubb’s generational, historical logic in my own work as the most powerful explanator of current behaviors.³ As I daily read the news, I just tick off the behavioral boxes. And I notice how this historical perspective is missing in nearly every analysis of what’s wrong with us.

Our personal existential challenge

I have also learned how incredibly hard it is to accept what our current destructive behaviors signal: we are in collapse. Our suicidal behaviors are predictable, normal, unavoidable for this “Age of Decadence.” As we open to this reality, as we accept it, there’s no way to avoid the very strong emotions of anger, grief, sadness, despair. And once we acknowledge where we are, a personal existential question confronts us: What am I to do?

Do we give up? Do we withdraw in despair and hopelessness? Do we get crushed by anger or sorrow or grief? Do we blot out reality and find a comforting cocoon? After all, if we’re all going down, what’s the point of doing anything? In a magazine interview a few years ago I was asked: “If the world is going to hell, why do good?” I answered immediately: If the world is going to hell, only do good.

It’s recently become common to challenge leaders with the question: “Which side of history are you on?” But to stake our claim (and it is an important challenge), we first have to know where we are in history. All civilizations, like everything alive on this planet, go through the cycles of life: birth, growth, flowering, harvesting, dying. it is essential to recognize that we are in the final stage of this cycle. (America is clearly the leader for collapse, but will be followed quickly by all nations caught in the viselike grip of global culture.)

When we know where we are, we can determine what to do. This is what it means to take our place in history, to see what is needed in the present and determine how we might respond to that need. Not what we would like to offer, but what is needed.

Two questions to discover meaningful work

These days, I am eager to offer two questions to everyone I meet. Enter into your day, enter into your work, enter into any situation asking:

1. What is needed here? What is the work that needs doing?

2. Am I the one to be doing it? Do I have the right support, conditions, skills to contribute here?

These questions require a profound reorientation. Our self-help culture encouraged us to define our purpose and values, and then seek work where we could enact those. Meaningful work was that which allowed us to fulfill our purpose. Using purpose to determine our choice of work was very powerful for many of us, myself included. But now it is a clear pathway to frustration and despair. You probably have already experienced this, heartbroken and/or enraged to see your good work swept away by forces far beyond your control.

All of us who worked so hard to change this world are heartbroken. We are good people who had noble aspirations for how we wanted to contribute. And now, with that same potent aspirational energy, we need to step forward into the world with a different orientation. We need to ask what is needed from us, right now, in these present circumstances. We aspire to serve what is needed, not what we want. We lay down our demands that the world should offer us meaningful work according to our definitions and open to the world that is, curious to discover what is needed from us.

Self-definitions of meaningful work become meaningless. Instead, we do what needs to be done. President Teddy Roosevelt said it perfectly:

“Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.“

And then meaning finds us. Not in grand gestures and large scale projects, but moment to moment when we are available and willing to stay present: to someone who just needs to talk; in meetings when a heated atmosphere is cooled by our calm presence; in team sessions when we attend to how people are, not just what they do; in our families when we are more patient, more available.

These moments of meaning don’t give us the same ego-boost as those times when our work worked, when we received applause, when we knew we had made a significant difference. How wonderful that we had those times! But now? As we witness so much destruction, so much abuse of people, so much fear and anger, does our past work — now ignored, defunded, or no longer doable — enable us to let go of ego needs and simply ask what’s needed now? It’s important that we leave behind our past triumphs and our complexity of needs. They cloud our vision.

Now, at this point in history, the world needs us to be awake, present and available.

I speak from my own direct experience. Since 2015, I’ve been engaged in long-term training of hundreds of leaders and activists who aspire to be Warriors for the Human Spirit. In doing our usual work in the midst of unending disruptions and collapse, we’ve discovered an inexhaustible well of meaning, moment-to-moment meaning that endures over time. When we can be available, when we stay present, when we refuse to let fear and aggression determine our actions, when we meditate regularly, when we keep asking “what is needed now and am I the one to contribute?” — meaning is always there. Guaranteed.

As we do our work in this way, we experience another utterly predictable emotion — joy. No matter what is happening around us, no matter how awful the external world, when we are truly present with one another, joy is present. Guaranteed.

As we willingly step forward to discover where we are needed, we take our place in history. Glubb describes this eloquently:

“While despair might permeate the greater part of the nation, others achieved a new realization of the fact that only readiness for self-sacrifice could enable a community to survive. Some of the greatest saints in history lived in times of national decadence, raising the banner of duty and service against the flood of depravity and despair.”

* This article is the first in a series “With 20:20 vision, what can we see more clearly?” Each essay strives to bring our experiences of the year 2020 into sharper focus, using historical, scientific and sociological lenses.

[1] https://www.axios.com/pandemic-language-study-covid-19-lockdown-d6ea2080-11fb-486f-b295-164b510c86e7.html?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter_axiosam&stream=top

[2]Ophuls, William. Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail. CreateSpace, 2012. Kindle Edition, p 49.

[3]Wheatley, Margaret. Who Do We Choose To Be: Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity. Berrett-Koehler, 2017.

About Margaret Wheatley:

Seeing with new eyes

Conversing with a Galapagos tortoise

Since 1992, I have published ten books, starting with the classic Leadership and the New Science, given countless talks, and written many dozens of articles. In everything I do and say, using different writing styles, poetry and photographs, I’m inviting you to see the world with new eyes. With a shift in vision, we can see more clearly what’s going on in the complex systems and lives we’ve created. With clear seeing, we develop the capacity to better serve the people and causes we care about. And we develop the confidence and strength necessary to persevere in our right work. My website is designed as a library of resources for you. www.margaretwheatley.com



Margaret Wheatley

Writes, teaches, speaks about sane leadership to evoke people’s best qualities. Now training leaders as Warriors for the Human Spirit: margaretwheatley.com