Belonging and the Moral Arc: A three part look at Three Horizons and Meaningful Change

Published 16 February 2023

Previously I shared encountering fractal patterns of the bittersweet and belonging while isolating with Covid. Continuing these themes of patterns and belonging, I want to explore how the often-invisible forces of systemic belonging shape our identity, choices and ultimately the fabric of our world. To do so, I will use the first of three central practices within a wonderful framework known as ‘Three Horizons’ by Bill Sharpe – if it is new to you, check out the links at the end of this blog. 

This first central practice is described as follows:

“The first is to see things as patterns, to think systemically.  The framework draws our attention towards systemic patterns rather than individual events or global trends.  These patterns result from the activity and behaviour of those who are maintaining or creating them in the present.  Each horizon in effect is developing a different quality already existing in the present, and which might come to become more prominent depending on how people choose to act – to maintain the familiar or pioneer the new.” – International Futures Forum

The idea of Australia

When I returned to Australia in late 2021, it was clear that the fabric of society had changed during the 13 years I had been away, but I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what and why. At a deeper level I was also wondering if I could reconcile my new sense of self with the idea of being Australian. As I grappled with these questions of belonging, the guide I needed showed up at my local library – Julianne Schultz’s freshly published ‘The Idea of Australia: A search for the soul of the nation’.

Defining belonging

Before we go further, I want to clarify the definition of belonging I’m speaking to. These days it’s often used alongside a dancing analogy in the context of diversity and inclusion. The idea of ‘bring your whole self’ has merit, and the relational safety found in high-quality relationships is essential for our psychological and physical wellbeing. Systemic belonging, however, is concerned with the unwritten rules governing our sense of survival.

And survival it is. It’s often said we’re born wired for relationship – a more accurate take would be that we are born with a core need to be in relationships.  

Our families of origin are our first patternmakers for understanding the world we live in, and it is here we learn the boundaries of belonging. When we adhere to the unspoken rules, we are rewarded with a felt sense of safety and acceptance. Acting outside the implicit rules compromises our belonging, and feels like a threat to survival (which it can be). These patterns continue in ever-widening circles of relational systems – school, cultural communities, religious identities, the workplaces we join, families we marry into, and more.

You might be wondering if I’m exaggerating, but consider this example. When your colleague makes an inappropriate comment and you go along with it rather than rock the boat, what is the consequence you fear? Or when I raise my eyebrow to my young son, what influence am I exerting to modify his behaviour? 

Developmental psychology shows how formative attachments in infancy shape our sense of self and others throughout our entire lives. A systemic view of belonging recognises the ways in which these bonds – like elastic bands – hold our personal and collective identities and exert a powerful influence on us all.

Belonging gone awry

Belonging is so deeply integrated in the human experience that it supersedes definitions of morality or the seasonal winds of politics, but sometimes it is obvious that the outcomes are less than helpful. Cultures of silence, scapegoating and victim blaming to protect the powerful. Elite boarding schools giving rise to generations of national leaders whose boys’ club worldview is coloured by privilege, emotional deprivation and misogyny. Allegiance to cultural, political and religious identities that causes people to commit otherwise unthinkable acts of cruelty towards those seen as ‘other’.

But belonging can also go awry in more mundane ways, inhibiting growth and responsiveness to the present moment.

In a desire to ‘keep good faith’ with the people who have transmitted important expectations about our belonging – be they immigrant grandparents, sports coaches, church leaders or career mentors – we might find ourselves unwilling to deviate from their worldview. The desire to leave an unsatisfying career or shift political views might feel like betrayal. Alternatively, we may be stretching and growing into new identities but unable to express these facets of ourselves within certain groups for fear of being seen as changing, or (heaven forbid) the dreaded tall poppy.

We all grow up aware there are roles we are expected to play, and as such we are all susceptible to falling into patterns of belonging that no longer serve us and the future we wish to see.

Belonging in Australia

Our first nations people understood the world and their place in it from an orientation we today might describe as systemic – patterns of reciprocity, responsibility, kinship, and reverence for Country. The first Europeans to arrive here were as unaware of this as they were of the patterns making up their own back-catalogues of belonging.  Waves of migration since have all brought their own.

The 19th century American philosopher, historian and psychologist William James stated, “We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep”.

Covering the seabed of connection is an ocean of currents. Some are beneficial, bringing vitality and facilitating greater interconnectedness. But many are treacherous – patterns of fear, shame, guilt, silence, and inherited and perpetuating traumas – leaving us feeling isolated and adrift, struggling to make way against the current, or perhaps even broken apart by the power of the ocean.

Like many of you, I grew up aware there were things we didn’t speak about. My mother’s family migrated to Australia when she was a young child – white South Africans descended from both the Boers and English, a maternal line tracing back an enslaved woman from Central Africa. My father’s family began arriving in Australia with the Second Fleet, but have remained tightly held by their Irish Catholic identity. Each of these groups comprised of people with long tails of history, where much of the past could not be acknowledged.

The power of acknowledgment

Yet acknowledgement of the past is essential if we want to form new relationships with our belonging and access greater possibility in our futures. This is as true for our families as it is for our societies. If we wish to move forward towards a more generative vision of the future, it is necessary that we acknowledge the ways in which the past shows up in the present – thus charting the ocean currents that both help and harm.

Identity work is therefore essential for meaningful change to occur. We have a hidden sense for when the ordering forces are out of balance. Seeing myself in my lines of ancestry helps me to begin acknowledging the ways in which they benefited unfairly from others, as well as the ways in which they were unfairly used – both can be true. A personal journey of reconciliation determines what I can contribute to a larger journey of reconciliation, and towards the imagining of a new shared future.

Seen through a Three Horizons lens, the Uluru Statement from the Heart is a profound expression of the third horizon. It asks “for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination”.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart also invites us into a more expansive definition of what it can be to be Australian, one in which all our belongings are a source of wellbeing and growth to the whole, “a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood”.

Bending the arc

Martin Luther King is famously quoted, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” The truth of this statement is wholly dependent on our choices and actions, both conscious and unconscious – as the IFF ask, do we maintain the familiar or pioneer the new? The arc will not bend on its own but is pulled by the patterns of our behaviours and the worldviews we embody.

Julianne Schultz points to the ways in which the idea of Australia is still being contested – between those who are imaginative, hopeful, altruistic and ambitious, and those who are defensive and inward looking. A tussle between the voices of the three horizons, a future which will be determined by our choices. Here in this moment the future is delicate. Our new government committed to a near-term referendum to implement the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full – yet many people around me are unsure what to think of it. 

I don’t have easy solutions, but I believe there are two good places to start.

Firstly, to reconcile within ourselves, engaging with our pasts and acknowledging where patterns were out of balance in our long tails of personal and shared history. To gently recognise the ways in which our belonging is no longer serving us and what we care about. 

And secondly, when faced with decisions about the idea of Australia we want to live in, don’t be distracted by analysing events and trends. Instead look for the qualities of the third horizon and use our choices to bring it closer, without needing to know for certain how it will be achieved. 

A more expansive, lifegiving definition of what it is to be Australian – to belong to this land – requires each of us to reclaim both the responsibility and power of our choices. Only then will we be able to find ourselves, our places and each other in a shared belonging that is larger and more spacious than we have previously know.

“It is always hard to believe that the courageous step is so close to us, that is closer than we could imagine, that in fact we already know what it is, and that the step is simpler, more radical than we had thought: Just picking up the pen or the wood chisel, just picking up the instrument or the phone, which is why we so often prefer the story to be more elaborate, our identities to be safely clouded by fear, why we want the horizon to remain always in the distance, the promise never fully and simply made, the essay longer than it needs to be and the answer safely in the realm of impossibility.” – David Whyte, Consolations

If I was to summarise all my themes of enquiry into one, it would be how meaningful change occurs. I have found ‘Three Horizons’ by Bill Sharp a particularly useful frame for exploring some of these facets. If you are new to this framework, here is a brief intro by Kate Raworth and a longer explanation by Bill Sharpe.

This is the first in a series of blogs themed around the central practices of the Three Horizons, outlined by the International Futures Forum as:

  1. To see things as patterns, to think systemically
  2. To put ourselves in the picture
  3. Listening to the voices of the three horizons


Notes and acknowledgements

  • The central practices for the Three Horizons can be found here at the International Futures Forum
  • I wholeheartedly recommend Julianne Schultz’s ‘Idea of Australia: A search for the soul of the nation’, you can read more about it here.
  • Deborah Rowland and her colleagues have written an excellent HBR article on change and belonging which offers an introduction to this systemic perspective.
  • The Uluru Statement from the Heart and its journey of becoming can be found here.
  • Daniel Christian Wahl shares a Medium article with a more theoretical take on the role of Three Horizons in innovation and culture change.
  • And finally, a song for the third horizon. ‘From little things big things grow’ is a co-written by Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly, based on the story of the Gurindji Strike more than fifty years ago.