In the 2021 movie “Don’t Look Up,” two astronomers discover a massive comet hurtling toward Earth. The comet will destroy life as we know it unless humanity bands together to stop it.
The movie represents the perfect metaphor for our times. The comet in “Don’t Look Up” stands in for climate change but that’s just one of the many existential asteroids pummeling us these days. We are living in one of those periods when the world as we know it is collapsing and a new world is yet to be born.
Our perspective in this uncertain time will define our actions. Those actions will create our future.
“Don’t Look Up” presents the film’s characters with a choice of perspective. The scientists, Dr. Randall Mindy, played by Leonard DiCaprio, and doctoral candidate Kate Dibiasky, played by Jennifer Lawrence, adopt a “confront it” mindset, as represented by the “‘Just Look Up’ movement,” while the movie satirizes the fictional president of the United States and her government lackeys as comet deniers focused solely on opportunities to monetize impending disaster. This “ignore it” perspective surges into the public consciousness when fictional president Janie Orlean delivers the slogan “Don’t Look Up!” at a rally.
Wrapping Our Brains Around The Big Problems
Whether or not the characters in “Don’t Look Up” could “see” the comet didn’t depend on “looking up” or “looking down.” Making the choice of confrontation or denial involved a different type of perception that goes beyond seeing with our eyes. It is not visual. It requires seeing with our mind’s eye. It is an act of comprehension.
Our mind’s eye can only see what we can comprehend, and we only comprehend what we are willing to tolerate.
If we can’t handle the enormity of a problem, when our mind’s eye can’t accept a new reality, we avert our eyes, we look down, we ignore, we deny.
It is challenging to perceive through our mind’s eye when we’re caught between a world that is familiar, even if uncomfortable, and a new, unfamiliar reality that threatens life as we know it.
Scottish anthropologist Victor Turner popularized the term “liminal space” as a way to describe the state of being “betwixt and between.” We can see our lives clearly in the review mirror but the windshield that should give us visibility to the road ahead is fogged.
We encounter such uncertainties in various forms throughout our lives, such as when we have left our old job but haven’t yet found a new one. These are bumpy, but manageable, moments of transition. We can hold them in our minds.
Holding The Paradox
Today as we experience an accelerated dissolution of the world we know without sight of the world of our future, we are not an individual moment of transition, but a collective one. Our traditional workplace disappeared in the miasma of COVID-19 yet the future of work remains amorphous and undefined. We transitioned our businesses to the digital world only to face the unknowns of the metaverse. It’s hard to wrap our minds around what is real when our reality hovers amid VR, AR and AI.
Even that doesn’t capture our collective disorientation. The challenge facing us now is to comprehend the world’s all-consuming, existential problems — climate crisis, rising authoritarianism, wars, pandemics and a reshaping of global powers, among others — while we navigate our personal role in averting universal disaster. This requires each of us to hold a paradox: You alone can’t stop the destruction, yet at the same time, what you individually do matters.
What Do We Do In This Daunting Moment?
We must heed the call of our fictional scientists: Just look up. Stare the problem straight in its glowing, meteoric eyes. Push away the instinct for denial. Perceive through our mind’s eye – what some spiritual traditions call ‘the eye of the mind.’
For many years, I have helped business leaders learn to negotiate with their often-conflicting inner qualities — the visionary Dreamer, the analytical Thinker, the empathetic Lover and the determined Warrior — to deliver their best selves to both their jobs and their personal lives.
The next steps in this journey of the mind require learning how to confront those external truths that may threaten our sense of self, our center of well-being and even the world as we know it.
In the movie, the comet travels so close to earth that it’s visible to the naked eye.
“There it is! Look! It’s right there,” Mindy exclaims.
“You can see it!” Dibiasky says.
In a profound snippet of dialogue, Mindy points out the paradox, “It’s horrific and it’s beautiful at the same time,” as Dibiasky urges the crowd to “Just look up — into the sky! Just look up!”
Indeed, the unvarnished truth of transformative change can be horrific and beautiful at the same time. Seeing it — just looking up — means stretching the ability within yourself to take the terrible along with the good. It requires expanding your capacity to tolerate what you can’t know and welcoming the unknown.
Stepping Up To The Chasm Of Uncertainty
To begin the journey to the “just look up” perspective, try these three key first steps:
- Take it all in. Let your mind comprehend fully what is happening and what’s at stake. Don’t pretend the stakes aren’t high when they are, but remember this cuts both ways. Uncertainty brings with it the potential for creative destruction, which can ultimately bring forth something magnificent.
- Feel it. Allow yourself to feel the dread and the horror of the situation, deep down, but feel the other emotions, too, including optimism and hope. We don’t know what the world will be on the other side of this great convulsion of history, but it may be splendid. Could plowing through the bad bring us to a greater good?
- Act on it: Our fate is not sealed. When everything is falling apart is often when we bring our best selves forward, our greatest creativity and our deepest passion. With wise action and audacity tempered with humility, we can change the course of the future.
Ours is a potent moment when we can see with our mind’s eye even when our instinct, as the comet barrels toward us, is to duck and cover. Our times beseech us to step into the chasm of uncertainty and become the agents of transformation our future needs.