I find it intriguing to look back on defining moments in life. One such moment for me arose when I was 8 years old. My nan lay dying in hospital and it was a strangely mystical experience because, as a spiritualist medium, she appeared to know the exact date and time that she was going to die.
The thing that captured my imagination at the time, however, was her moving admission that she had always dreamed of going horse riding but never actually got round to it. And now she would never fulfil that dream. It freaked me out, the possibility of reaching the end of my life with that feeling.
So I embarked on an approach to life characterised by doing whatever I felt an interest or passion for. I was determined not to miss a moment, an experience, that could leave me feeling regret - that sense of opportunity lost. If nothing specific came to mind, I would try something new anyway...just in case.
As I look back, I can see how that experience of my nan's experience has stimulated, spurred and driven me to push my own boundaries so many times. On reflection, it feels like a mixed blessing, making it difficult to ever feel settled, content, satisfied. There's always the possibility of that something else.
And so it feels like a paradox. I thank God for the rich experiences he has granted me, for that desire to experiment and explore, yet I also need to learn to be less driven by my own need for adventure, to look outward to others' needs more, to know peace and calm and to appreciate more that which is.
I was discussing social constructionism with a friend recently and, holding up a fork, he commented on how that particular object is immediately identified as a 'fork' in our cultural environment. We recognise it based on previous experiences of similar objects and associate it with the particular function it's used for in this context, in this case for eating food.
However, it's quite easy to imagine how the same object could be identified as something very different in a different cultural context, e.g. as a hair comb or garden implement. It's clear from this example, I think, that the meaning we attribute to an object is socially or culturally constructed rather than something necessarily inherent to the object itself.
I've noticed how, in contrast to me, when doing DIY this same friend is able to look at tools and tasks in fluid rather than fixed ways. e.g. I think of a spanner as a 'spanner', whereas he views the same object simply as something of a certain shape, size and strength that could be used for multiple different purposes. Needless to say, he is far more successful at DIY than I am.
I was reflecting in this same conversation on how fixed perceptions and constructs can apply to non-physical examples too. Our assumptions, presuppositions, preconditioned ideas, associations and the labels we use can prevent us seeing alternative perspectives and possibilities in ourselves, other people, relationships or an opportunity or problem we hope to address.
Take for example a leadership team seeking to redesign an organisation in such a way that enables efficient and effective cross-team working. An exploration of what constructs the leaders already hold in mind (e.g. what their picture of the 'organisation' is, what the perceived 'role' of each team is, which teams 'lead' and which 'support') may reveal assumptions that could be tested and re-formed.
This ability to surface, recognise, challenge and reframe social and psychological constructs has powerful potential in other disciplines too such as coaching, counselling and community work. It has the possibility to release people to discover new ideas and solutions, to create and innovate in fresh and exciting ways and to live a life that feels so much more enching and liberating.
It felt like something died inside today. The pain, frustration and powerlessness of experiencing a courtroom injustice first hand felt very different to toying with the notion as an abstract idea. The opposing party presented false evidence under oath yet our barrister was unprepared and the judge ruled in the opposition’s favour.
I felt confused, angry, misrepresented, betrayed. It wasn’t only the loss of the case itself, it was something about a loss of innocence, a loss of faith in a system. How could truth and right be so easily swept away by a legal technicality? How could a judge be more concerned about protocol than the rights of an innocent party?
As I drove home, I felt something stirring inside, an uncomfortable awareness of how far I've become numb to other people's experiences of vulnerability and injustice, in spite - or even because of - trying to address them through my work. I'm praying this experience today will inspire in me renewed empathy and greater passion to strive for change.
I find it curious how difficult it is to be, become and stay present in the present moment. Even more so to be present to the Presence who is himself present to us in the present moment. But what is it about presence that sounds so deeply attractive and enriching yet feels so elusive in practice?
My mind is so easily preoccupied with what has happened in the past, or what I anticipate happening in the future, that simply being in the here and now takes real effort and concentration. It seems paradoxical to me. After all, I am in the present moment and yet nevertheless find it so hard to be here.
Buddhists describe the discipline of being present in the here and now as mindfulness, the art of being and becoming aware. It draws attention to the senses - what am I seeing, hearing, touching, feeling, smelling, tasting, doing. It's about what is going on within and around me, now; noticing the unnoticed.
A close friend gave me a gift, a book called Nowhere. The title itself reveals a mystery, since what appears to be a negation at first glance is also the words 'Now...here'. In gestalt, it's a phenomenon known as 'figure' (what emerges and captures our attention) and 'ground' (what lies unnoticed behind).
By becoming focused or fixated on one aspect of my experience to the exclusion of others, I lose the ability to notice what else is happening in the same space and time. This selective ability enables attention and concentration but I wonder how much it filters out that could be of true or deeper value.
So, what am I not noticing? What am I not paying attention to that could bring fresh insight or broaden perspective and experience? What am I not saying or doing that could deepen my relationship with or value to others? Who or what am I pushing into background that should really feature as foreground?
Do we have a core, coherent personality or are we really fractured selves? Personal construct psychology suggests our sense of coherent self may be something we superimpose onto ourselves to feel more coherent - a kind of rationalisation of our experience to feel more whole and unified as a person. It makes sense to me as a possibility.
It's a bit like life. I look back over my life and see a pattern emerge. Is the pattern really 'there' or do I subconsciously superimpose a pattern as a way of post-rationalising my experience so that it feels somehow less random and chaotic and more unified and meaningful? It's a philosophical and psychological hypothesis I find intriguing.
It's as if I choose certain experiences selectively from memory and then draw imaginary lines between them. If this is the case, it opens me to alternative constructions that could change how I understand myself, my life story, and thereby open up fresh possibilities for the future.
A Singaporean friend asked this morning, 'Why is this so interesting for you at this point in your life?' I found that question very thought-provoking. Perhaps I'm at a place of re-evaluating lots of things, viewing my life and the world through different lenses as a way of making new sense of them.
It's often a struggle to find meaningful language to express such difficult ideas that lie at the edge of language and experience. I would be very interested, therefore, to hear from any other people grappling with similar ideas, concepts and experiences. May God guide us with insight, wisdom and freedom.
I was having a conversation recently with Rudi, a social worker mentor and friend in Germany, about personal construct psychology when he suddently commented, 'I really don't know how much of what I think and believe is genuinely my own, and how much is a product of the government, media, commercial organisations etc.' Rudi is one of the most profoundly insightful, constructively-critical and free-thinking people I have ever encountered and so, at this point, his comment took me a bit by surprise.
As the conversation progressed, we explored how we are each subject to lifelong conditioning by parents, educational systems, organisational cultures etc. combined with ongoing influences from what we read, what we experience, everyday conversations etc. And so even as I write this blog entry, how much of what I'm thinking and seeking to articulate genuinely originates in me and how much is simply a cumulative product of the influences of others? I'm speaking with my own voice, but whose thoughts are they?
Even the language I use, the language I'm using now, is something I have learned from others. It enables me to communicate but also creates and shapes the conceptual frameworks I think in, filters how I experience the world, limits my ability to think outside of the constructs and ideas inherent in it. It's one of the advantages of learning a different language, to immerse onself in the culture of others (as far as that is possible), to stretch one's own ability to think in new ways, to find an ability to experience and express fresh ideas and perspectives.
Yet even then, how much of my thinking is unique, generated from within me, genuinely my own? Have I simply broadened the range of influences on my thinking? I don't know. Perhaps the awareness of others' influence on my thoughts provides me with some opportunity to choose - and although what and how I choose is similarly influenced by the formative thinking and values I've encountered in others, the sense of choosing is about making my thoughts my own. 'God, guide my thoughts towards your thinking.'
I spent time in Cambodia and Thailand last week and was fascinated by observing and speaking with people engaged in Buddhist practices. The question kept rising with me - what to make of diverse religious beliefs and practices throughout the world?
As time goes by, I'm feeling more and more convinced that 'religion' as worldview and culture is essentially socially constructed, although I feel cautious about saying it because religion is such a complex personal, social, cultural and political phenomenon and social constructionism is complex too.
As far as I can see it, the notion of social construction does not of itself negate the possibility that a specific religious worldview and lifestyle is Divinely inspired, guided and sustained. In fact, I believe the God of the Bible is the principal voice in such construction, at the heart of all genuine spiritual discourse.
However, this perspective cautions me to be careful about attributing too much value to any particular religious dogma, interpretations, cultural manifestations etc. and to stay open and listening to the mysterious Spirit who, in the words of LLS4, 'speaks the (true) language behind language'.
I was amazed this week to be sent the following extract from Simon Walker's new book, 'The Undefended Life.' It resonated deeply with what I had been musing on in recent blog postings on leadership. Here's the extract (my own emphases in italics):
'Look at spaces between people...the life of God is constituted in the relationships that exist between Father, Son and Spirit. The divine is not an essence in each person but a quality of relationship between them. This observation transforms how and where we look for God's presence in the world. We tend to think of such things as the fruit of the Spirit as virtues or core attributes that exist within a person, like an internal ethical guide or a source of energy that leads to godly action. Our minds easily go to the notion of essence, the fruit of the Spirit as an essence in a person's character. But this notion...suggests that we should see the fruit not as within a person but between that person and other persons. The fruit of the Spirit is the character of the relational space that individuals foster around them.'
...I guess the risk is that we locate the cause of the change in the leader, not in the relational dynamic that emerges between leader and led, a dynamic that has as much to do with the responder as with the person who stimulated it.
There's also something significant for me about the wider social, cultural and political context within which we see 'leadership' manifest itself.
For instance, a church minister speaks from the platform in a church meeting and evokes a positive response from those present - and we attribute that response to the minister's leadership qualities. If the minister spoke the same words in the same way in a very different context (e.g. in an environment dismissive of or hostile towards Christian beliefs), it would likely evoke a very different response.
Does that mean the minister exercised leadership in the former environment but not in the latter, or is what we experience as 'leadership' actually the product of a specific social interaction within a specific social, cultural and political context?
A friend, Alex, responded to my last posting: 'When you say leadership sometimes emerges unexpectedly, it also makes me wonder if it isn't always recognised at the time but is construed as leadership after the event, particularly by the follower more than the leader.
In other words, as a follower I am the only one who can legitimately apply the label leadership to what I experienced in my own psychological processes as a result of what you the leader did, how you were, what happened between us. Otherwise, if you the leader use the term leadership, all you can apply to it is a set of behaviours or competencies which may not have landed with me as leadership.'
That strikes me as incredibly profound and provoked fresh thoughts in my own mind too. I've noticed how sometimes an idea or question that emerges through conversation can begin to exercise its own leadership-like qualities, drawing the conversation forward in a way that feels almost independent of the people involved. Weird, strange - and deep.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in developing critical reflective practice.