Receiving the adjacent possible

Receiving the adjacent possible

By Sister Margo Ritchie C.S.J.


Seeds caught by wind evoke the adjacent possible,  the constant way that life, newness, and transformation can spring forth unexpectedly. Photo by Deborah Bifulco, Flickr; used with permission.

ABOUT 10 YEARS ago I attended a workshop in London on evolutionary consciousness. One of the speakers used the term “the  adjacent possible” to partially describe the dynamic of the evolutionary process. I could immediately see people writing down that phrase. It seemed hopeful and not too heady. Something was adjacent, right there beside us, and it was possible. The presenter, Carter Phipps, spoke about how every audience he had been with prior to our workshop responded exactly as we had. They and we wanted to hang on to that phrase. It is as if there was a collective call to new horizons in the audience. To give credit where due, the phrase originated with Stuart Kaufmann who used it to describe biological evolution.

Consider your own experience and your own institute or congregation, not to mention our world as you read the quotation from Stuart Kaufmann below.

The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself. The adjacent possible captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation. The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations.

Thurman and the growing edge

Let us look to another source for the same essential idea. Howard Thurman was a Black civil rights advocate, theologian, and mystic. He was born in 1900 and died in 1981. Listen to his words; he was born at the start of the last century and wrote from the context of his “here,” a global pandemic when he was a teenager, two World Wars, the civil rights movement, assassinations of a president, an attorney general, and multiple civil rights leaders; and the feminist movement. All of this happened just before the emergence of the Internet.
Howard Thurman wrote:

Look well to the growing edge! All around us worlds are dying, and new worlds are being born; all around us life is dying, and life is being born. The fruit ripens on the tree, the roots are silently at work in the darkness of the earth against a time when there will be new leaves, fresh blossoms, green fruit. Such is the growing edge! Look well to the growing edge.

It puts religious life into a larger context when he notes that worlds are dying and new worlds are being born. Somehow the question of new forms of religious life or transformation of religious life must always be nested within the larger “here” of worlds dying and worlds being born. Doing that prevents our “here” called religious life from being too small.

And here is where I want to insist that the adjacent possible is not the next best step. It is not the unfolding of the strategic plan worked on with our best consultants. It is not the next move in a chess game, although I do understand that chess is a game of thinking ahead three moves at least. And for sure, in our context of leadership in religious life vocations, the adjacent possible is not merely a step-by-step process to ensure the continuation of religious life, mostly as we have known it, by applying a little bit of tweaking.

What seems true is that the impulse of Spirit is never just another name for good planning. The adjacent possible sometimes arrives on the horizon unexpectedly. It always is in the service of making life more whole. And sometimes the adjacent possible may take years to perceive. I think it is fair to say that the adjacent possible is an archetypal pattern that accompanies us. It fills our history and certainly the pattern in this movement we call Christianity.

And, truly, was not Jesus the ultimate adjacent possible who entered unexpectedly into human history? No logical strategy could have planned that event. Could we just let that sink in for a moment? Mostly I think the adjacent possible is received rather than planned. It is necessary to leave an open space to see below the usual and the conditioned.

And if we stay with the image of adjacent possible, I think we could easily describe the various prototypes of life in common that we now call religious life as the perfect example of an adjacent possible. In most of our original stories of our beginnings, we would find the questions, “Where is here? (of course, they would never have asked the question quite so abstractly) What is needed? What is God asking?” In our own Sisters of St. Joseph history we spoke of four miseries in 17th century France—poverty, lack of education, widespread illness, civil and religious unrest and division. Our sisters specifically set out to meet these miseries by dividing the city into quarters and going out in pairs to meet those needs, to change those realities. Then they returned home to share their experience and to see it all in light of their understanding of God.

How do you see the adjacent possible in the foundations of your congregation and in your lives today?

This article is an excerpt from the keynote presentation by Sister Margo Ritchie, C.S.J. at the 2021 Conference of the National Association of Vocation and Formation Directors.

Sister Margo Ritchie, C.S.J. is a Sister of St. Joseph in Canada and is part of the Congregational Leadership Circle. She is interested in collaborating with many justice-oriented groups and also in putting into words some of the insights combined with her own reflections on spirituality.



Published on: 2021-11-02

Edition: 2021 HORIZON No. 4 Fall, Volume 46


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