Tools of the Trade: Polarity Management

Development is all about understanding and responding to big messy problems. There are several skills and strategies whose usefulness has bled over into my everyday life. That’s what this series is all about. 

For the last two years, in the deepest, darkest part of the Canadian winter, I’ve had the opportunity to go to Niagara, to attend and then lead a trip exploring the issues of poverty and homelessness. Mostly, we hung out with the good people at Southridge Shelter in St. Catharines.

And while there’s a lot of stories that come from those weeks, something that consistently struck me was the staff’s ability to respond with eloquence to the complex and intense situations they faced. There was something in the air; from the way that people talked to each other, walls were decorated, and stories exchanged.

And while I think there’s more to it, the way that the shelter staff responded to big, messy problems was really inspiring. They used a framework called polarity management.

Here’s their goals for the community. The only thing more impressive than the statement itself is the degree to which I saw it lived out over and over again:

A community of LOVE that manages the tension of Unconditional Acceptance & Accountability.

A community of HOPE that manages the tension of Reliance on God & Individual Responsibility.

A community of BEAUTY that manages the tension of Excellence & Brokenness.  

A community of FAIRNESS that manages the tension of Consistency & Individuality.

A community that manages the tension of Fun & Seriousness to be a HOME.

The core reasoning at the center of polarity management is that most problems are not either/or problems, but both/and problems. The hardest issues come from balancing two necessary factors: work and life, task and relationship, breadth and depth.

Polarity management contends that when you value one at the expense of the other, you intrinsically lose something. Therefore, you must be constantly valuing both sides. 

Just pick an arrow and follow it, you’ll get it

Consider the example of breathing, or more specifically, inhaling and exhaling:

Inhaling and exhaling are complete opposites, but both are necessary for life. An important aspect is to realize that “getting oxygen” or “cleaning out carbon dioxide” are not goals in themselves, they are only means to the higher goal of life. If you want to learn more specifically how to do this, check this out.

For me, this is where the rubber hits the road. I started university with a pretty naive expectation of being able to change the world. My idealism was undercut by my ignorance as to the embededness of the problems I faced. But critical thinking easily gives way to cynicism, and I found myself jumping to shut down any idea I heard of. After a year, I mapped it out like this:

Confessions. 1: This is drawn on a McDonalds napkin. 2: It was my second draft and I did it at home because the one I actually did at McDonalds was too messy.
Confessions. 1: This is drawn on a McDonalds napkin. 2: It was my second draft and I did it at home because the one I actually did at McDonalds was too messy.

Berkely Professor Ananya Roy tasks us “to find the impossible space between two extremes: the hubris of benevolence and the paralysis of cynicism.” Both hope and criticism build towards a common goal: effective action, which is contingent on avoiding the pitfalls of both. More than a way to appreciate a problem, this is a roadmap for how to move forward.

So how do I do that? For the staff at the homeless shelter, it meant entering into peoples stories. It meant being moved enough by others’ reality that they were willing to chase something better, and do it in a way that would work. 

For me, this means being ready to do things different every time, make mistakes, ask for help, and put in a lot of hard work.
It means being ruthlessly critical and buoyantly hopeful.


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