One thing I learned when working on Resilience with Ann Marie is that writing a nonfiction book is about much more than researching and engagingly presenting a body of ideas. It’s also about inviting a set of questions, themes and not-quite-complete lines of thought into your head, and letting them occupy it long after the writing is done.

One of those lines of thought, which is briefly touched upon in the book, is about the relationship between time and resilience, and the role of remembering and forgetting.

In individuals, organizations and systems, the memory of past disruption often plays a crucial part in keeping a system from crossing a critical threshold. Likewise, the forgetting – intentional or otherwise – of past disruptions often leads to collapse. This is one of the reasons that calamities are often “once in a generation” – it takes that long for the cultural memory of past disturbance to fade.

And when it does fade, paradoxically, the very success of the rules that kept the system safe is cited, invariable, to argue for their elimination. (“We don’t need those rules — there hasn’t been a banking collapse since the Great Depression…” or We can allow for the destruction of those wetlands — our contemporary engineering practices are so good that they have made hurricanes less catastrophic.”) In a further paradox, it’s also why some of the most resilient places are also places that regularly experience failure – the awful regularity keeps the cultural memory of disruption alive.

But the relationship is not that simple. It’s also, sometimes, the forgetting of past practices that makes way for the new innovations; and holding too firmly to past ways can lead to a system’s annihilation. (“The past is what we know. It’s what we trust. It’s how we’ve always done things.”) And, importantly, past practices may have been exactly the ones that kept us safe in the past. Why should we let go of them now?

All of which is really another way of asking: how do we let the past speak? and how do we let the future speak? And what if, as is so often the case, they disagree?

I am thinking of these questions when reflecting on two contemporary stories from Japan, the first told by José Holguín-Veras, of a 1000 year-old shrine, built in the small village of Murohama on Miyatojima Island to warn future generations of the possible impact of a tsunami:

“A millennium ago, the residents of Murohama, knowing they were going to be inundated, had sought safety on the village’s closest hill. But they had entered into a deadly trap. A second wave, which had reached the interior of the island through an inlet, was speeding over the rice paddies from the opposite direction. The waves collided at the hill and killed those who had taken refuge there. To signify their grief and to advise future generations, the survivors erected a shrine.”

The Murohama Shrine

The shrine – built at the point of the high waters – persists until the present day. When the 2011 earthquake and tsunami hit, most of the people in Murohama heeded the story and headed to safer ground on the other side of town. It was this interweaving of cultural ritual and religious practice, symbolism and story, and most of all, deep remembering, that saved lives a millennium later.

* * *

Another story in Japan, also about human constructs that last for more than a thousand years, tells a different story. The world’s oldest company, Kongo Gumi, went bankrupt in 2007, after 1400 years of continuous business building temples. The company operated for more than 14 centuries – including having an astounding 40 generations of a single family lead the company. The last CEO, Masakazu Kongo, cited the company’s “flexibility in selecting leaders as a key factor in its longevity.” Specifically, “rather than always handing reins to the oldest son, Kongo Gumi chose the son who best exhibited the health, responsibility, and talent for the job. Furthermore, it wasn’t always a son. The 38th Kongo to lead the company was Masakazu’s grandmother.”

So how did a company started in the 6th century flame out in the 21st? The company had borrowed in the 1980s to invest in real estate, running up significant debt, and saw those assets shrink after the recession of the 1990’s. That hurt, but ultimately, the thing that brought the company down was not a financial change, but a cultural one: people simply stopped making contributions to temples. The prior borrowing and the company’s own deeply entrenched culture had limited the company’s adaptive capacity, so when this cultural change came, it was all but impossible for it to pivot.

There are several lessons here, but one is: there is an art to remembering, and an art to forgetting. Wisdom – and resilience – is know when to practice which.

Main Image: cobalt123 on flickr