Ignorance is bliss - until we realise our ignorance. Therein lies a painful paradox at the crux of films like, The Matrix and Vanilla Sky. There can be something deeply unsettling, disorientating, releasing about a dramatic shift in awareness like a sudden waking from sleep. Our eyes are opened, we can see and now we face fresh possibilities, choices and responsibilities. Ironically, the existentialist French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre described this experience bleakly as, ‘condemned to be free.’
This awareness-raising phenomenon raises important practical and ethical questions for those working in people professions. The Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, emphasised the importance of conscientisation, critical consciousness-raising, as a means to liberation. He argued that people are in some ways unaware of themselves, their circumstances, until enabled to see through fresh eyes. This resonates with a Chinese proverb: ‘If you want to know what water is, don’t ask a fish’.
A girl I was working with recently from a very different cultural background to my own reinforced this point: ‘I didn’t see myself until you saw me.’ Her interactions with me as an outsider enabled her to see herself in a new light – as if for the first time. This idea of metaphorically (and sometimes literally) stepping back to notice what we had previously not noticed, to critique and reframe our insights and experiences, to open up new choices and actions, is at the heart of reflective practice.
Yet someone challenged me strongly on the ethics of this last night: ‘Who are we to raise others’ awareness like this? What if it leads them to be less happy, more frustrated in life?’ If we enable people to reflect, critique and de/reconstruct their current realities, what if they and others experience the net impact as negative? Is it always true that it is better to be aware than to be unaware? Who makes that decision? If you work with people, I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas on this!
I have rarely witnessed such a humbling, authentic act of generosity. I was in the Philippines for the past 2 weeks visiting people and communities who are, by global standards, economically poor. The Filipina who accompanied me is poor too. She grew up in a remote jungle hut with no running water, electricity or sanitation. She works hard, long hours to support her children, family and community, determined that others should have better opportunities in life that she has experienced in her own.
We were walking through an island village with children, teenagers and parents staring and smiling to see these strange visitors. The homes they were living in had only one room, no facilities, and we were passing a small hut with snacks hanging outside it on strings. It served as the village shop. We hadn’t eaten or had anything to drink for some time and the weather was hot and humid so I handed some money to my guide to buy herself some food. What happened next took me completely by surprise.
This young woman bought all the snacks that were hanging there and immediately handed them to the intrigued children that had surrounded us. Then she walked around, handing them openly to mothers who were carrying toddlers – and toyed playfully with teenagers who wanted some too but were too shy to ask. The scene around us was transformed into one of spontaneous celebration with smiles everywhere and children running and laughing excitedly. It reminded me of Spirit, of incarnation, of Jesus.
As we left the village with these images and sounds still dancing vividly in my mind, I commented to this special person, ‘You were amazing with them.’ She looked at me, wide eyed, and replied quite simply, ‘Nick – I am them.’ Those words detonated deeply in my soul. As leaders, OD and coaches, how far do we view staff, clients etc. as ‘them’, distinct from ‘us’? How would it impact on our presence, our behaviour, our effectiveness if we shifted our perspective, our stance, to one of radical identity with..?
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.