In the Moment of Situational Awareness

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Situational awareness is a skill of insight, anticipation, and respect for personal boundaries in social and organizational contexts.

It is the skill of perceiving reality as it is, not as we want it to be, or how others see it, but as it is.

Situational awareness is knowing how to be yourself regardless of the context you are in.

From this place, situational awareness enables us to discern the influences that affect us both internally and externally. From those perceptions, we gain perspective. We can because we see the distinction between external realities and inner strengths. The external realities of the situation we are in seeks to control and absorb our attention. Our inner strengths are those qualities, so may say character, that enables us to move into a wide variety of settings without losing our sense of who were are.

External Realities - Inner Strengths 

Here's a depiction of this perspective that resulted from my engagement with a group of young women who are each in the midst of a dramatic life change.

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They identified the six eternal realities that they must address in their lives. Then from our exploration of them, we came up the ten inner strengths that would be most helpful for adapting to those realities with the greatest benefit.

The conclusion is that we need "tools" for coping with challenging situations. This is why situational awareness is a skills-based capacity, and, not just a tactic or an idea.

Here's an example of what I mean.

Like many of us, I often encounter people who are panhandlers, asking for some spare change for various reasons. They may or may not be homeless. They may or may not be telling me the truth about why they need the money. Their reasons don't really matter. What matters is the interaction we have at the precise moment of our encounter.

My values tell me that each person, regardless of their life situation, should be treated with dignity as a human being. That doesn't mean that I have to approve of their life choices, or whether they have the self-respect that should accompany that sense of dignity, or that I should even trust them. It is that without a belief in the inherrent dignity of each individual, we do not have a foundation for a relationship that allows for us to honestly explore what is possible between us.

If a person on the street, who asks me for help, is clearly not high or drunk, then I will do something to help him or her. It they say they are hungry, I will take the time and buy them a meal. If they say they are hungry, yet do not want the meal, but the money, then I know that there is an ulterior motive in their request to me.

I tell them that is all I am willing to do. (This reflects the boundaries that I have set for my interaction with this person.)

If they say they need a bus ticket, I may drive them to the bus station. If I am convinced that this is a legitimate request. I will ask them lots of questions to determine whether the story is legitimate. If I'm satisfied that it is, then I will help them.

If they are drunk or smell of alcohol, I'll send them to the local agency that works with people in need.

I hope you see by this scenario that I have constructed a way of being situationally aware that does not place me in conflict with the external realities are clearly designed to do so. Many of our interactions with people are intended to put us in a compromised position, so that we give against our wishes and our own interests. The key is being prepared to relate to the person or group as they present themselves to us right now, in this moment, not historically, or as may happen in the future.

I have decided that to treat people with dignity, who lack self-respect and feel no reciprocal dignity towards me, requires the kind of internal strengths identified above. 

To learn to do this brings freedom and peace of mind to our relationships, both those with whom we live and work everyday, and, those whom are strangers that we encounter outside of our normal environments.

Situation awareness is a type of intuition into a particular situation.

We see into it, connecting different observations, sensations with logic and past experience.

We see into the situation as a result.

Let's take this interaction a step further.

The dignity I offer to a person asking for help is to believe what they tell me. To respect them as a human being, and to establish a relationship of trust. Even if this is for a minute or two, it is important to do this.

Social conformity, which I wrote about in my previous post, is derived from the need for secure external circumstances. The goal is to minimize the internal discomfort that we may feel as we encounter all kinds of people every day. These feelings of discomfort are the ground upon which we build the inner strengths that we need for situational awareness.

There is a kind of natural co-dependency that occurs when social conditions are secure and constant. It is the picture of happy families and homogeneous communities in movies.

Times of social and economic disruption are more traumatic for people. Their emotional health and sense of self-worth become dependent upon the support and constancy of external circumstances. In other words, when personal security is found in conforming to some social expectation, we lose the best parts of our individualism, and become more resistant to change and social difference.

When a person goes through a divorce, loses their job, finds their children are disabled in some manner, or the nation goes to war, the community experiences a catastrophic natural disaster, or at a more superficial level, their favorite sports team fails to win the championships that everyone expected them to do, then these are not simply emotional blows to be weathered as better times return. Instead, these changes may be threats to one's own sense of self, or identity.

Returning to my scenario of the panhandler, if I give her or him, I then tell them the following.

"I am giving you this money trusting that you are telling me the truth. I have no way of knowing this. But you do. This money is a gift to you. In response, I only ask you that when you are given the opportunity, that you do the same for someone else. I am asking you to give to someone as an act of thanks for the gift that I am giving you right now."

The money is not the point. Establishing a rapport of trust, dignity and mutuality is.

To act in this way requires discernment that is learned at a deep level. It requires of us to be able to listen to the story behind the story, to ask questions that get to that story, and from that awareness, determine whether there is a possibility of establishing, even for a moment in time, an open, trusting relationship. If we can do this once, we can do it again and again.

The risk is that I may have totally misread the situation, and I have squandered the price of a bus ticket or meal on someone who is simply using me. That is the price I pay for treating people with dignity. I accept that, and am willing to take the risk because of the times when the response is one of deep gratitude.

The point is not the money, but the story we tell ourselves about who we are in social situations. My story is about dignity, trust and generosity.

In the next post in this series, I'll write about the story we tell ourselves. I've written about this before in The Edge of the Real: The Unfolding Story.


The Social Space of Situational Awareness

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Situational awareness is a skill of insight, anticipation, and respect for personal boundaries in social and organizational contexts.

It is the skill of perceiving reality as it is, not as we want it to be, or how others see it, but as it is.

Situational awareness is knowing how to be yourself regardless of the context you are in.

Situational awareness functions in real time and in real places. Think of it as a relationship, as a connection, to people, places, ideas, structures, institutions and to one's self. The space is a kind of gap, a discernable distance, between me and the other. This space is a situation that calls upon us to think, to engage, to decide and to act in a way that reduces the distance that exists between me and the people and situations that stand apart from me.

Situational Awareness is the skill that enables a person to establish community, peace and reconciliation in places that are fragmented, broken and in transition from what they once were to what they will be in the future.

These social relationships are varied and inter-mingled in time. They follow patterns of attitudes and behaviors, but not always in a predictable fashion. To be socially aware is to observe all that is taking place in a space, and, then, understanding how to respond appropriately.

Here's an example.

Walking into a coffee shop on the way to work, you are talking on the phone. You acknowledge the server, see your best friend in a business meeting in the corner, nod an acknowledgement, and, read an ad on the community bulletin board for a local theater group's play to be performed this coming weekend. The phone call ends. The order is placed. An introduction is made to the friend's business contact, and, order for tickets to the play made from the smart phone all within a matter of just a few minutes.

However, what if this typical busy, non-stressed moment in your morning, randomly includes the following. After you've order your coffee, the person next to you picks up their coffee, the lid pops off, and the hot liquid goes all over her and the floor at your feet. As you turn to find some napkins, you see that your ex-mother-in-law is standing in line behind you with your ex-husband's new wife. Then a text message buzzes, and it is your son letting you know that he has been in an auto accident on the way to school, and that he is okay. 

We move through situational spaces that require us to observe, engage and act. If however, we personalize all these situations, we then demand that each of these situations function for our benefit.To personalize a situation is to make it about ME, and, to narrow and confine the possibilities for interaction and impact.

To practice situation awareness is to see a larger picture, where my needs, wants, desires and demands, are not at the center, but just another set of considerations to be addressed in that moment of decision.

To treat this moment from a socially and situationally aware perspective is to take the initiative to help the woman whose coffee has just spilled, by reaching for some napkins, and to begin to help clean up the mess on the floor. At some point, you wipe coffee off of your own shoes. Instead of ignoring your ex-mother-in-law, you go over say hello, and introduce yourself to your ex-husband's new wife. Then you pick up your coffee, step aside, and text your son asking whether he needs you right now.

If, in each of these situations, we are unsure of ourselves, lacking the confidence to know what to do because we are unsure of who we are, then we avoid having to make these choices. We may stay hunkered over our smart phone, reading email as if no one else in the shop matters. We present an image of strength and detachment in order to block out intrusion.

Charles Taylor speaks about these spaces as a moral space, as "a space of questions" that require us to make distinctions. These distinctions that we make in these situational moments are answers to the fundamental question of who am I in this particular setting at this moment in time. If everything is personalized, or, if we lack confidence to make those decisions, or, if we have no clear idea of what we believe or value, then these situations fill us with fear and anxiety. What happens in situational space reveals who we are at our most basic level.

This is why living in the world of The Spectacle of the Real can be so attractive. We vicariously live through the lives of others, transferring responsibility for acting as a person onto the celebrity or the news opinion reader, instead of discovering the life that is available to us to live. The development of Situational Awareness is a path towards understanding who we are, finding our identity, and with humilty and confidence, understanding how we are to fit into all the social situations that we find ourselves in everyday.

Find other posts in this series on Situational Awareness:

Three Keys to Situational Awareness

The Speed of Change

The Social Space of Situational Awareness

Social Conformity and Situational Awareness

In the Moment of Situational Awareness

The Story We Tell Ourselves


The Edge of the Real: The Call of Desire

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DESIRE

The physical, emotional, or intellectual longing that is directed towards something or someone that is wanted.

Sarah Coakley, PhD.

Cambridge University

Desire is a longing which bridges our inner life with the outer world. It is a longing for connection, completion, and relationship.

Desire is a longing for fulfillment or achievement. It is a longing that is born in emptiness, frustration, or loss. It is the feeling that comes from a missed opportunity or the sense of unrealized potential when a project ends suddenly, or when love shared goes unrequited. 

This longing is born in our experience of change. It is something we feel inside. It is our inner voice telling us that more could be done or needs to be done.

Desire does not fade. It seeks out that which is beyond our grasp today, but maybe not tomorrow. Our desires define who we are.

Desire precedes and is greater than our goals, strategies, plans and intentions. Desire is that deep core within us that we identify as what we love, for those people and causes to whom we give ourselves with passion and sacrifice. It is that place within us where human flourishing finds its source and motivation.

I've seen desire in people for a long time. Early on, it was that "thing" which emerged when a group began to have a vision for their organization or community. They are passionate about their cause. They see it, feel it, taste it, smell it as this movie-like visualization of a idea that comes to life and compels them to invest their shared life to bring it to fulfillment.

Passionate desire is a longing for something better that engages the whole person, mind, body and spirit. It is who we are at our most central, deep and intimate level.

The desire for wholeness is born within us. Philosophers, theologians, motivational experts, story-tellers, and artists have spoken about desire, passion, and completeness in many and various ways. They know, as we know, that this is the nature of our world. Broken, incomplete, unjust, raw, untouched potential, filled with passionate visions of the good which touch us down deep inside, drawing us out into a life which is better, more complete and whole. This isn't a new story. It is rather the oldest story of human endeavor taking on urgency for each of us, everyday.

To follow our desire, we must think for ourselves, act as responsible persons, and live as the embodiment of that desire. Out of this commitment we discover a new life, and the potential for completeness.

Philosopher James K.A. Smith, writes,

“… we are primarily desiring animals rather than merely thinking things ... what makes us who we are, the kind of people we are – is what we love. More specifically, our identity is shaped by what we ultimately love or what we love as ultimate – what, at the end of the day, gives us a sense of meaning, purpose, understanding, and orientation to our being-in-the-world. What we desire or love ultimately is a (largely implicit) vision of what we hoped for, what we think the good life looks like. The vision of the good life shapes all kinds of actions and decisions and habits that we undertake, often without our thinking about it.”

The challenge is to not get lost in the rush of emotion that comes from passion.  We need to treat our passions with maturity, respect, and understanding.  Our passions have the power to create goodness as well as to destroy the very desires at the heart of our passion. 

We, therefore, need to understand the source of desire. We need to find a way to create patterns of thought and practices of behavior that allow us to see how to bridge the deep reservoir of meaning within in us with the world of change that envelops us like the sea does its fish.

The Three Desires

Over the years, as I've listened to what people say and have observed what they do, both in private and organizational settings, I've seen that this inscruble thing called desire is always present. It is evident in the passions and visions that people have for their future. It is also evident in their response to situations where they are frustrated, disappointed, anxious or angry.

I eventually came to see that this desire from down deep within us is a mix of three desires. I've concluded that this is the spiritual core of our humanity, or, what we mean by our human spirit. It is the center of our individual humanity that is the platform for the life and relationships we nurture in the outer world. It is what is celebrated, what elicits tears, cheers and commitment to making sacrificial gifts of art, wealth and time. From my own experience, I see this as the mark of divine intention upon our humanity. Nourish these desires, and we see why we exist, and what our lives are to mean in practice and difference. Our desires carry that kind of singular importance.

The Three Desires guide how we function in our work, our communities, and our families. Our desires are revealed when we plan, in how we address problems, in our celebration and mourning of life's transitions , when we succeed or fail, and, in how we go through the changes and transitions of our lives and work.

What are these desires and how are we to understand their function in our lives?

Our Three Desires are

for Personal Meaning, for Happy, Healthy Relationships,

and, to Make a Difference That Matters.

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We desire for our lives to have personal meaning.

Our minds sort through our experiences; sift through the sensory data we are receiving; categorize the information that we absorb; identify patterns of behavior and recurrence of ideas; then, our minds establish order, perspective, understanding, and finally meaning.

Most of the time, all of this takes place just below the level of our conscious awareness. Learning from childhood onward to think this this way, it becomes second nature. Physicist and philosopher Michael Polanyi describes it as tacit knowledge. It is that knowledge that we know, but we don't know how we know it. We just know it. It is learned in the experience of life.

We think this way, finding meaning in our lives and in the world, until there are too many discontinuities. Increasingly, in the modern world, these discontinuities are markers of societal and intellectual change on a grand scale. All the meaningful continuities of the past, of belief in God, in the goodness of humankind, in the power of government to do good, in freedom, opportunity and progress. Each of these points of personal and societal meaning are in transition. It doesn't mean that the foundational truths are changing, but rather how they function in the world is changing.

Personal meaning is not just a set of intellectual or spiritual beliefs that are important to us. This sense of meaning rises from down deep in us. It is not just individual, but a shared feeling. I've seen it in working with businesses. There is something that draws these people together. Some vision or desire that compels them to join their lives together to venture forth in some great endeavor.

A vision of this sort, as I point out in my Circle of Impact Leadership system, is formed by ideas. They provide a core belief or meaning for us to make the commitment to work together towards goals that we define as our organizational purpose. A vision, then, is a picture of shared meaning that is acted upon by the people who work within an institutional system to create impact.

Circle of Impact- simple

We articulate this order by telling stories. We share our opinions, make decisions and practice ethical discernment because of the clarification of the values that form our desires, or are the product of our desire for personal meaning.

We act on what is personally meaningful, by defining our purpose, by elevating values that underlie our purpose to a central place in our relationships with others, and, then, together, implement a vision that leads to the impact that is a fulfillment of that which is meaningful to us.

Unless there is constant attention to sustaining a culture of founding values, future generations only see those values as relatively meaningless, and possibly, irrelevant cultural practices.* In other words, Personal Meaning is not private meaning, but meaning that is shared within the social context of our lives.

We desire to have happy, healthy relationships.

In a previous post in this series, Fragmented Boundaries, I write,

I am who I am, always have been, always will be. Though I live in the external world, I am who I am, in an always changing interaction between this person who I am and the world in which I live. Therefore, I am always becoming the person who I am right now.

Crossing the boundary from our inner life to the outer world requires an engagement with that world. It is in our relationships with one another that we find our most tangible connection to the outer world. Let me describe what I see.

Recently, I took a salsa making class. In this class was a retired couple who had been married for six years. As we prepared our salsas, they talked about all the cooking classes that they had attended, from Santa Fe to Boston to Paris, and soon, in Tuscany.
I asked them, "Which one of you was the foodie who got the other involved? They said, "Neither. When we got married, we decided to do something that neither of us had ever done. We took a cooking class, and found out that we both loved it."
What was it that they loved? Sharing the experience of learning, of being creative, and establishing a whole new circle of friends in their hometown.

In the context of their relationship, individual desires, long dormant, came to life. Joy and meaning, and a life that matters resulted. For not only has their experience provided them a context for a happy, healthy marriage, it has also brought them into relationship with people that they may never have had  the opportunity to know.   

We are social beings, even the most shy, introverted and individualistic ones of us. It isn't that we want to hang out with people all the time. It is that our engagement with people, more than in any other facet of our lives, is where our inner selves meets the outer world. To speak, to know, to share, or to love, requires something from within us to form into words or actions that communicate to the other person, who translates what they see and hear into something that touches their inner self.

We are not random objects bumping into one another, like billiard balls on a pool table. We are purposeful, desiring beings who seek connection with other purposeful, desiring beings.

Our shared connections make us tribal beings as well. We gather around the things we love which release our passion in life. My tribes are the church, social entrepreneurs, organizational and community leaders, people who desire change, the Red Sox Nation, jazz and classical music aficionados, lovers of history, philosophy and culture, and travelers through landscapes of mountains, oceans and open spaces.   

We learn in the context of relationships; a living context where our inner lives touch the outer world in a less mechanistic, more organic way. To know someone, to interact with them, requires us to live in a shared story of meaning and expectation. This is true for our oldest friends and family, as well as the person that we have just met.

Our human relationships are the embodiment of particular values that are intimate, social and practical.

A happy relationship is one free of doubt, open to vulnerability, peaceful, affirming, with genuine compatibility, and love.

A healthy relationship is built upon the mutual practices of openness, respect, trust, honesty, and responsibility.

There are two distinct contexts for our relationships. One is personal, the other professional.

Happiness and health in our relationships with friends, lovers, spouses, children, parents and in-laws function in a long historical arch. Live with someone for ten, thirty or fifty years, and our lives are bound together in ways that are invisible and continually present. We nurture the health and happiness of long term relationships by giving our attention to the core desires that we each have individually and those we share. It is by this daily practice that we produce happiness and health. The ancients believed that happiness and health came as the virtues of life were mastered. This is the intention that is needed in our closest, most intimate relationships.

A relationship between two people is between individual persons. Each is defined by their own distinct values. Each is defined by what they desire in a relationship to the other, and, together they grow into an understanding of the difference their lives are to make. When there is compatibility and a sharedness in each of these three parts of our lives, then happiness and health can grow.

In the professional sphere, our relationships are less personal, more detached, more difficult to be qualified by the terms happy and healthy. Modern organizations have become increasing dehumanizing, unreceptive to human interaction (communication), and lacking the supervisory space to allow for the expression of individual initiative to create a collaborative environment for relationship.

As the old, dying models of 20th. century hierarchy fail to adapt to the rapid introduction of technologies for individual autonomy and collaboration, resistance to change grows. Defense of institutional positions of power and influence create weakness in the operating structures of organizations, making them less agile and more prone to corruption and violation of founding values.

Outside of many of these corporate structures are networks of relationships that are spontaneous, open and collaborative. Leadership is not directed and delegated, but shared and facilitated. The network of the relationship is marked by the phenomenon of shared values, responsibility and outcomes. The structure of organization that is needed rises from the purpose and desired impact of their work together, and by design is agile and adaptive to contexts of rapid, discontinuous change.

Network-Hierarchy ImageThe weakness of these networks of relationships is that it is difficult to scale and sustain the work of these kinds of relationships. As a result, they need a structure within which to work that can accommodate the energy and ambiguity that exists in these relationships. The challenge of hierarchy is nimbleness for change. Networks of relationships emerge out of the discovery that we - WE - share similar desires that call us together for achieving impact.  These structures need one another to counter their inherent weaknesses.

We desire to make a difference that matters.

The desire to make a difference that matters is the most fundamental expression of human desire. It is what we do, and the effect of what we do that we see as validating the value of our lives.

For some people, the obsessive need to prove their worth in achievement is the extreme expression of this most human of desires. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the lack of desire towards achievement or fulfillment is the product of the weaknesses or absence of the other two desires.

To make a difference is to create impact. To create impact is to take some idea or value and create a living expression of it.

If there is a forward movement through the three desires, it is towards making a difference that matters.  It is the most logical place where achievement and completion are realized.

There is some satisfaction in finding what is personally meaningful, as well as in having happy, healthy relationships. But it is this third desire which brings wholeness to our lives. If values strengthen the mind, and friendship enriches our physical life, it is making a difference through the expression of values in our relationships that brings the three parts of ourselves to fulfillment.

As a result, it is what we do, create and the impact we have which is the greatest expression of human spirit, and where wholeness is realized.

The Leadership of Making a Difference That Matters

Early on in my exploration of leadership, I came to see that all leadership begins with personal initiative. This initiative is specifically an act of decision in response to an inner desire for change. In effect, leadership is a form of our inner selves' engagement with the outer world.

This perspective is vastly different from views that are hierarchial or inspirational. Neither view places the source of leadership in human desire. Instead these views see leadership as either a position of responsibility within a management system, or, a kind of sloganistic pumping up of one's emotions to do various kinds of work.

My early inspiration for seeing leadership as a function of human desire towards creating change came from Peter Drucker, one of the preeminent management thinkers of the 21st. century. In his book, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, that was spark that led to the creation of my own leadership consultancy a decade later. Drucker writes about entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurs see change as the norm and as healthy. Usually, they do not bring about the change themselves. But – and this defines entrepreneur and entrepreneurship – the entrepreneur always searches for change, responds to it, and exploits it as an opportunity.

Drucker's view from three decades ago remains true today. Change is the norm. Effective leaders, as well as managers, learn to work within the context of change. This requirement is now no longer limited to people in positions of leadership, but the necessity for each individual, regardless of their place, standing or position in life or work. To respond to one's desires, is to accept, not a leadership role, but a call to take initiative to make a difference that matters.

The Call of Desire

Desire rises from within us as a longing for connection, completion and fulfillment. It is expressed in the desire for personal meaning, happy, healthy relationships, and, to make a difference that matters with one's life. This movement of desire bridges our inner selves with the outer world. When we act upon our desires to make a difference that matters, we are exhibiting the character of leadership.

Our desires, therefore, are a call upon our lives. A call to step out to make a difference in a way that fulfills one's desires.

The Call of Desire is a call to meaning, friendship, wholeness and impact in life. When we respond to this call from within us, we are deciding to change not only our outer world, but also ourselves. When we do, we turn away from the world of the Spectacle with its artificial hyper reality. We claim a reality that can be touched and experienced, created and replicated. This is how we reclaim the real for our lives and for the people and places where our lives make a difference that matters.

The call begins within, must be answered, and lived out in the world of change. As a result our lives take on the character of an unfolding story. It is this story that I'll explore in my next post.

*See Jim Collins and Jerry Porras' Built to Last for a description of this reality.

The Reason for the Real

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... is trust.

In the realm of the spectacle and the hyper-real, what matters is not engagement, but attachment. This kind of attachment, born of fascination, creates a co-dependency between the observer and the observed, between the viewer and the screen. With the spectacular, the pull is to become absorbed in the singular moment that evolves into a 24/7 series of manufactured moments.

For example, I ask because I do not know, what is the fascination with the Jodi Arias murder trial? Why does CNN and other networks invest so much air-time in the coverage of this one case. What is there to learn from it? What difference does this case make to the lives of millions of viewers that coverage of another court case does not?

This is the spectacle of the real that becomes the preferred hyper-real experience precisely because it is not our reality.  The culture of the spectacle is at its core voyeuristic.  We could describe this type of programming as murder-porn because it exploits the same sexual fascination with young attractive women to drive viewers to the screen.

When reality is engaged, a truth emerges that provides a way to understand how we relate to one another and to our environments. It is this relational connection that creates engagement. It is a connection that has a mutual flow between the relating parties. This is true even if we are speaking of our relation to the natural environment. 

Our human relationships of trust require honesty, transparency and openness in an environment of mutual sharing. It is possible to have these relationships virtually. But they must be intentionally developed.

The reason for the real is to create environments where doubt, suspicion and anxiety are replaced by trust, understanding and peace.

I'll write more about this in future posts. This short one is to simply clarify the points that I've made in The Spectacle of the Real and The Path to the Real.

Series Note: This post is one in a series that I am calling Reclaiming the Real. You can find a page of links to each post in the series here.


The Path to the Real

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All that passes descends and ascends again unseen into the light: the river coming down from sky to hills, from hills to sea, and carving as it moves, to rise invisible, gathered to light to return again. ... Gravity is grace.

The Gift of Gravity (1982)

Wendell Berry

In my previous post - The Spectacle of the Real - I take us on a long excursion to show how in many areas of our lives, we live in an unreal world of hyper-reality, spectacle and simulacra. This last term - an unusual one - is the simulation of one reality as a mask for another. It isn't a replacement, an alternative perspective, but something different. It accomplishes this diversion from reality through the use of images and the presentation of spectacles as a means to grab our attention.

The effect of living in this unreality is that it ill-prepares us for a time when reality surfaces in the form of disaster, disease or disappointment.

The Liberating Limits of the Real

This is what happens for the victims of a house fire, or a cancer diagnosis or the sudden discovery that a trusted business partner has been embezzling funds. Reality in this sense, accompanied by some kind of pain, awakens our perception to a world that we've been ignoring.

I've seen this in people who have suffered through economic hardships and loss. One response is denial and diversion.  Another is anger followed by bitterness and cynicism.

Then, there are those who wake up, fight through the pain to recreate their lives. For these people, they embrace the reality of their pain and use it as a lever to change their lives. In the words of Fredrich Nietzsche, "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger."

Pain, suffering or failure confront us with the reality that there are genuine limitations to our existence. We discover a horizon to our lives when we discover we can't do it all "by my ownself", finding that we need help in completing a project or doing our best work requires collaboration with others or recovering from injury. Our limits are liberating as a result as they open us to possibilities that weren't present. Our limits are mainly time and space, the strength of our bodies, the capacity of our spirit, and our minds' imagination.

 The Embodiment of the Real in Time.

Without a grasp of reality, creating continuity in our work over time can be difficult. There is a transitional nature to life. Most of us speak of this, with teeth clinched, as change. Time and change are indelibly linked together as Aristotle writes,

Time is a measure of change and of being changed, and it measures change by defining some change which will exactly measure out the whole process of change ... .

We move through stages that flow enabling us to build upon both the good and the hard in life. Without a grasp of the real, we see life as random, intermittent, and disconnected from purpose and meaning. This perspective is the perfect platform for the spectacle to become the default culture of our time. It is embodiment of the irrationality of change.

As a result, we don't see the gaps, the in-between spaces, the transition points, the ways that creating openness or vacuum in processes lead to opportunities that can carry us beyond our horizons.  We don't discover the flow, where life flourishes. Without the real, sustainability is difficult to establish.

The problem of time in an age of hyper-reality and spectacle is that we believe that we can make time stop. Time is not a quantity. It is not really minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years or a lifetime. Rather, it is the way we recognize the embodiment of change as life. If all time is is a measure of an endless series of days, then we have a life of random spectacle. However, if time is a measure of change, then we can see meaning unfold in ways that help us to see how our lives can make a difference that matters. To do so requires that we recover the reality of time as change.

It is change that represents time better than the clock or the calendar. I take this thought from Albert Einstein to his life-long friend Michele Besso as an indicator of what this means.

For us who are convinced physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, however persistent.

Change is what we experience in life. Some of it is welcomed, some of it not. But change, none-the-less, is what we live with each day. To face reality is to recognize that the boundary between the past and the future is a transitional one. What we call the present is just a way to identify the activity of change, those transition points, that we all experience. 

The border between past and future is porous, not defined. Some transitions are hard and fast, others slow and gradual, blending what was before into what will be. There is no static present that can be claimed and fixed in time. There is only the movement of time forward measured by change.

The illusion of time as something fixed is seen in our sense of having lost or wasted time. What we are really lamenting in those moments is the loss of opportunity or the failure to take advantage of a moment of change.

Along the path to the real, we recognized the importance and value of change in our lives. To resist change is to fail to understand life as it is. To embrace change is find the flow of life and time as synonymous. 

The Embodiment of the Real in Space.

Being able to distinguish the real from the fake or from the simulacrum of the virtual requires us to think differently about how we perceive the world we are in. Instead of taking statements and images at face value, we need to look at the wider context, which is always greater than the event or the presentation itself.

Almost seventy years ago, French writer Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote,

“We must not, therefore, wonder whether we really perceive a world, we must instead say: the world is what we perceive. In more general terms we must not wonder whether our self-evident truths are real truths, or whether, through some perversity inherent in relation to some truths, that which is self-evident for us might not be illusory in relation to some truth in itself. …  The world is not what I think, but what I live through. I am open to the world, I have no doubt that I am in communication with it, but I do not possess it; it is inexhaustible.” (emphasis mine)

We each inhabit a space. We move into and through other spaces to inhabit them along with others. The limitations and horizons of our lives are porous. We move into spaces and become a part of that space. There is a relational character to the way we move through spaces.

I sit in my favorite chair to read, but I do not become the chair. The chair and I do have a relationship that joins us together. It is not just momentary, but historic. It is my mother's chair from her childhood. I think of her as I sit. I remember other times, like the time I discovered a new way of looking at the world because of a passage in a book.

The same is true with other objects of which I am largely unaware yet within reach as I sit and read. The lamp behind me. The small table beside me. The pen and pad for taking notes. 

As I sit down, into my chair, for a brief moment, I feel the comfort of the cushion and tactile softness of the fabric. Then my awareness of the chair is gone, transferred to the book that is in my hands. Then to the words on the page, but not to the individual words but to the string of words that create a sentence, but not even the sentence or the paragraphs, but the meaning that the author's words suggest. Even then, I do not see the words, but the image or thoughts that the words conjure up in my mind, until I come across a word that I do not know. I stop, refocus to that word as the object of my awareness.

Our perception of things is whole, but our conscious awareness is always selective, governed by how and why we are moving through spaces.

I walk into a grocery store. I'm looking for things on my list. I ignore most of the things on the shelves that my eye catches. I don't see them. There is no conscious acknowledgement of those products. Yet, I am perceiving them because something triggers a recollection of a kind of cheese that I had a party last week. I go over to the cheese section, and find that special cheese that was not on my list, but is now in my cart.

We see more than we acknowledged. A part of these spaces are our memories, or recollections of things past. These are memories that are triggered by our senses. I've heard that smell is the sense most rooted to our memory. We remember things, not in our conscious awareness, but instead as an awareness of the wholeness of the spaces we enter.

We are watching a movie, and, we think, "I've seen this before." But where? We trace back through our memory. We are not thinking about the movie itself, but rather the context, the place in which we saw it. We try to remember the room, the people, the conversation afterward, the time of day, and other happenings in our daily lives at the time. Then our recollection of the space clicks into our awareness and we are there, in the past watching the same film. We relax, satisfied in our recollection, and settled back into watching the film in the present.

We move within physical spaces and encounter people and places that not only help form memories, but impact us as persons.

Educational programs that primarily focus on the development of intellectual knowledge are less effective in educating the whole person than those that create a range of behavioral responses to the situations we encounter. Aristotle wrote,  

"Anything that we have to learn to do we learn by the actual doing of it; people become builders by building and instrumentalists by playing instruments. Similarly we become just by performing just acts, temperate by performing temperate acts, brave by performing brave ones."

This learning does not take place only in our minds, but in our bodies within the places we live and move, work and play.

To see these spaces as they are means that we must get out of our heads and recognize that we are fully embodied persons moving in a world of fully embodied persons who, like me, inhabit a world of objects that also inhabit a space. In this sense, it can be said that in whatever space that I am in, that I have a relationship to those things, those physical objects, like chairs, lamps, cabinets, refrigerators and the like.

A wood worker becomes a master craftsperson by developing a relationship with the tools of her trade and the wood that is her canvas. That relation becomes less conscious and more second nature as she develops that relationship.

It is just like learning to ride a bike. Once learned, being conscious of maintaining balance is not necessary. That knowledge is now in our bones, and it was not learned solely in the mind, but in the bodies that we have.

When you go to a restaurant, do you care where you sit? Of course you do. If they put you in the kitchen, by the backdoor, near the dish washer, you would be offended and leave.  The spaces we inhabit matter to us because each part operates as a part of the whole context.

When we enter the restaurant, we look for a space that is a network of relationships between the chairs, the tables, the lighting, the placement within the room and its proximity to people. We do not identify each of those separately, but as a whole set of relationships.

This is how we interact with reality, as a relationship to a whole context of space and time.

The Path through Space and Time

The virtual, online world lacks this context. We have the surface of the screen in front of us. The view could be Antarctica, but we are in shorts and a T-shirt on a ninety degree day in Miami. In virtual space, our body is mostly disconnected from the context that our mind inhabits.The connection is more emotional as we find ourselves immersed in a narrative of virtual reality. It can be compelling because it does touch us, but is still incomplete, because the embodied experience is missing.

We are more than thinking machines. We are more than feeling response mechanisms. We are embodied, perceiving, relating persons moving in and the through the spaces that we inhabit.

To recover reality, we need to recover our awareness, our perception, of the physical spaces that we live in each day. We need to immerse ourselves in the processes of change that carry us forward. To do so is to seek to discover the fullness of human experience within the world as it exists.

Over the next few posts we'll look at how to recover the real in some specifics ways of living and understanding.

We'll consider how reclaiming a context of history helps us understand why, where and how our lives unfold.

We'll look at the nature of meaning or values as reflections and guides to the real.

We'll explore how our relationships with one another are the most the best and most beneficial context for recovering the real.

And finally, we look at the nature of personal leadership within the context of social, institutional and organizational life.

The recovery of the real follows a path. As a result, it is a journey of discovery that will bring both pain and joy, freedom and obligation. It is the journey of living.

Series Note: This post is one in a series that I am calling Reclaiming the Real. You can find a page of links to each post in the series here.


The Spectacle of the Real

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Afghan Mujahideen camp

Afghan / Soviet War

Chitral, NWFP, Pakistan

July, 1981

We live in a time of images. They form our understanding of history and engage us in the present. These faces of Afghan freedom fighters from three decades ago sustain a memory of an encounter that I had with them as a young refugee worker. This image helps me understand the continuity of history in the region.

But without that direct engagement, this image maybe more surreal than real. For there is no life context in which to interpret what was taking place when the picture was taken.

Just a few days after the above photograph was taken, this man, an Afghan refugee, honored me with an expression of thanks after our team of refugee workers brought food, clothing and shelter to his refugee village on the desert plain outside of Peshawar, Pakistan.

Afghan man - Peshawar desert camp

Images influence our sense of what is real. Without direct engagement, however, they can deceive us.

Simulating the "Real" Story?

The Boston Marathon bombings were watched by millions on television and discussed all across social media platforms and online communities. The event, though, was mostly absorbed through pictures. The bomb at the finish line exploding over and over again. The pictures of the injured and maimed being wheeled away to rescue workers and hospitals. The faces of the two brothers as they became known as the bombers. Facts were few in number; reporting rich in conjecture, and all born through images that touched our emotions.

Fueled by a 24/7 news cycle, actual news - a statement of "facts" that an event, an accident, a death, an agreement, a visit or something has taken place, described in the traditional journalistic parlance of "who, what, when and where" - is transformed into a spectacle of opinion and virtual reality driven by the images of faces speaking words of crisis, fear and self-righteous anger. Televised analysis - more important than the "facts" of the story- drives the news through the ambiguity of the visual image and is its source of validation.

Imagine a gathering with family and friends, catching up on the news of each other's lives, and the conversation is like the panels of "experts" who fill televised news each day. No one intentionally chooses their backyard barbeque guests to mirror the political divisions of the nation. That would be boring, tedious, and just inhospitable and unwelcoming.

These televised events aren't conversations seeking truth, but, rather, people talking at and past one another in a game of leveraging images for social and political influence. We are drawn to the image on the screen of these "experts" having something to say that is meaningful, hoping that at some point some sense of the moment will be revealed, bringing reality into view.

Political Speculation.

Politics has degenerated into a unreal media-driven spectacle of dissimulation and simulation.  What we are given is not a story about what is real because to do so, the experts and our politicians would have to admit to their own limitations of insight and foresight.

Rather, we are given a simulacrum, a virtual story whose narrative appearance conceals a different purpose, enveloping the listener, the viewer, in an alternative world of meaning. Politics is a game of deflected attention, a sleight of hand, an allusion to the real that is an illusion. Get the public to focus on what inflames their passions, isolating them into their defensive enclaves, then we can go about the real purpose for which we were elected, to secure the next election and pass legislation that the public would not approve if they really knew. This is what the modern practice of politics has become.

French theorist Jean Baudrillard, in Simulacra and Simulation, describes how the portrayal of what is real has become the hyper-real.

To dissimulate is to pretend not to have what one has. To simulate is to feign to have what one doesn't have. One implies a presence, the other an absence. But it is more complicated than that because simulating is not pretending. "Whoever fakes an illness can simply stay in bed and make everyone believe he is ill. Whoever simulates an illness produces in himself some of the symptoms" (Littre'). Therefore, pretending or dissimulating, leaves the principle of reality intact: the difference is always clear, it is simply masked, whereas simulation threatens the difference between the "true" and the "false," the "real" and the "imaginary." Is the simulator sick or not, given that he produces "true" symptoms? (emphasis mine)

This is the game of appearances. In one instance, it is like the child pretending not to have the pilfered cookie that is in his pocket. Dissimulation is the lie that we learn as children where we hide what we have. It is a denial of reality, based on what everyone knows is true.

Simulation, on the other hand, is an imitation of the real.  Some simulators, like those that train pilots, are meant to mirror the real world as closely as possible. Other simulations are intended for the exact opposite, to create an alternative reality.

The Main Street of DisneyWorld is a simulated image of a typical American small town. Umberto Eco, the Italian novelist and linguist, writes in Travels in Hyperreality,  

"the American imagination demands the real thing and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake."

"The Main Street facades are presented to us as toy houses and invite us to enter them, but their interior is always a disguised supermarket, where you buy obsessively, believing that you are still playing,".

This is a simulacrum of a small town. It looks, on appearances, that it is a small town. But instead, it is a place of commerce hidden behind the image.

Simulations Abound

Patriotism is a common theme to simulate. Particularly in the use of the American flag as an icon of all things good about America. Print the flag on a can of beer, a bikini, a holiday table cloth, woven as a blanket, painted on motorcycle gas tank, flown in a church, and in massive numbers on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and on Flag Day, and you have attached the greatness of America to your consumer product. The image on the product distracts from the real purpose of the flag and its history in the founding of the American republic. The flag has become an commercial icon attaching itself to a powerful emotion - love of country - by simulating the perspective that buying is patriotic.

Pornography, in a similar way, is a simulation of love and intimacy. Televised sex is a provocative restatement of social relations for the purpose of advocating the primacy of sexual expression and pleasure for modern human beings. Pornography is a simulacrum that defines human beings, not as social beings, but as sexual ones. The erotic power of sex fills a person with intense sensory feeling, and by it, alters how a person views their relationships with others. The logical outcome is the practice of having friends with benefits.

Human beings may be animals, but we are not just animals. We are human animals for whom human fulfillment is more than intense sensory release. We desire to be known in the realness of our lives. We are not fulfilled by "playing" a part, but by finding relationships of openness and mutuality. The mutuality of human love, of giving, receiving, sharing, is at the heart of the sexual intimacy that is so key to human flourishing.  The lie of pornography is that sex = love and love = sex. It is a simulacrum of the appearance of intimacy, though without the other conditions that drive human communion.

Spectacle as Simulated Reality  

Simulations can become a simulacra, a virtual reality, a hyper-reality, a replacement reality of the world of meaning.They are a kind of diversion, a deflection from reality that commands our attention. This is the nature of the spectacular event.

The culture of the spectacle, of the event that captures our attention for the moment, has become the driving force in the culture of news, entertainment, sports and consumerism. The spectacle deflects us from the real toward the hyper-real through the intensification of the historical moment as beyond history, as a singular moment in time that we must become immersed in to be alive or to be "informed." Not just a different version of the story, or different narrative, or a different perspective; but a different reality. This spectacle is a simulacrum. A iconic image event that simulates a representation of values or meaning, regardless of whether the reality of the event was about the moment being represented.

Reporting on the Boston Marathon bombing became a platform for speculation and conjecture based not on what was known about the bombing, but a projection of individual bias as expert opinion. The nature of the spectacle requires linkage to other spectacles to establish a pattern that validates credibility. This is now the nature of the news as presented throughout the day, everyday. Everyday, every event, is a spectacle for drawing attention to the screen.

As news became an entertainment medium, entertainment lost much of its distinctive appeal. The "news" isn't about the news, but a sensationalization of opinions about the news for the purpose of ratings and increased advertising revenue. On-air time space must be filled, and be paid for by ads. Without the sensationalism of the daily spectacle, no one would watch. The entertainment value of the news is the hook to tie us into a consumer culture of serial exhilaration and boredom. The difference between CNN and TMZ is one of degree, not of the difference between news and entertainment. The difference between the reality TV of news and entertainment and the actual lives that people experience is the difference between the simulacrum and reality.

The Game of Entertainment

Professional sports is a televised entertainment spectacle, less a sport, no longer simply a game to be played by talented athletes. It is the business of entertainment. The game is just the hook. The simulacra of professional sports has permeated the games that children once played, so that now, play is an adult managed hyper-organized simulation of college and professional athletic competitions. No longer do children just play on their own initiative, but are socialized into the developmental system of organized sports, essentially trained to become part of the entertainment spectacle of modern sports. 

The NFL is the master of the weekly sports spectacle.  Fantasy sports leagues now provide outlet for filling the attention gap when games are not on. It is real only in the sense that the contest happens. But it is unreal because, as a spectacle, it exists less as pure sport, and more as a collection of one-off entertainment events.

Winning a championship has meaning for the moment. By the next day, the thrill is gone and the addictive pull of the next spectacle returns. The spectacle isn't the event itself, but rather all that precedes it.  College basketball's March Madness has turned what was a locally focused, end of season tournament by regional conferences into a national three week spectacle, where even the President's "bracket" makes news. The entertainment pull is to analysis and the set up for the next spectacle. It is a consumer culture of diversion and hyper-reality.

Living in a world of impermanence.

The simulation of reality, the game of appearances, a hyper-real experience, diverts us from the mundaneness of daily existence, towards more pleasurable diversions that take us out of the real world.  Watching news, sports or entertainment programming are diversions of the type that scientist / philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote about in the mid-17th century.

Sometimes, when I set to thinking about the various activities of men, the dangers and troubles which they face at Court, or in war, giving rise to so many quarrels and passions, daring and often wicked enterprises and so on, I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to be quiet in his room.  A man wealthy enough for life’s needs would never leave home to go to sea or besiege some fortress if he knew how to stay at home and enjoy it.  Men would never spend so much on a commission in the army if they could bear living in town all their lives, and they only seek after the company and diversion of gambling because they do not enjoy staying at home.  ...

The only good thing for men therefore is to be diverted from thinking of what they are, either by some occupation which takes their mind off it, or by some novel and agreeable passion which keeps them busy, like gambling, hunting, some absorbing show, in short by what is called diversion.

The triumph of the culture of simulation is that it replaces the reality that we don't want with a hyper-reality that simulates what we do. But the simulation is not the same as reality. As Baudrillard wrote, "To simulate is to feign to have what one doesn't have." This is the power of a world that exists increasingly like an immersive video game, where I can "play" a role, a character, and live a fuller, more complete life in a Sim-ulated world, than in the real world of home and work.

MIT professor Sherry Turkle describes this simulated reality in her book Alone Together.

"After an evening of avatar-to avatar talk in a networked game, we feel, at one moment, in possession of a full social life and, in the next, curiously isolated, in tenuous complicity with strangers. We build a following on Facebook or MySpace and wonder to what degree our followers are friends. We recreate ourselves as online personae and give ourselves new bodies, homes, jobs, and romances. Yet, suddenly, in the half-light of virtual community, we may feel utterly alone. As we distribute ourselves, we may abandon ourselves. Sometimes people experience no sense of having communicated after hours of connection. And they report feelings of closeness when they are paying little attention. In all of this, there is a nagging question: Does virtual intimacy degrade our experience of the other kind and, indeed, of all encounters, of any kind?”

Simulation is not real life, but an artificial one. The result is that life becomes a series of spectacles, events that command our attention, one or more at a time in serial progression without continuity. The diversion works if we do not think too deeply.

French Marxist philosopher Guy Debord in his book, Society of the Spectacle, writes.

In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation. ...

The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images. ...

The concept of "spectacle" unifies and explains a great diversity of apparent phenomena. The diversity and the contrasts are appearances of a socially organized appearance, the general truth of which must itself be recognized. Considered in its own terms, the spectacle is affirmation of appearance and affirmation of all human life, namely social life, as mere appearance. But the critique which reaches the truth of the spectacle exposes it as the visible negation of life, as a negation of life which has become visible.

The life of the spectacle, therefore, is a hyper-reality lived through the images of the event. During the 9/11 attacks, the images of the Twin Towers burning, then collapsing, became a reference point for people to share their shock, their sadness, their anger, and ultimately their compassion for those who lost love ones.

But the nature of the spectacle is that it is too intermittent an experience to foster a life of continuity. Moving from one self contained event to the next is not a sufficient ground for a society or community to find a common life together.  Something else must provide that glue that makes civic life work.

Recovering Reality

Living in the world of the image and the spectacle is a world where reality is an appearance and beyond our capacity to determine is this real, true and the way things actually are. This is a hyper-real world which turns reality on its head.

The dilemma we face is not directly with the spectacular or simulated realities. Rather it is not having a ground upon which to distinguish between the real and the hyper-real. Some people may choose to believe in the reality of the hyper-real world, which leads further into the world of spectacle and its consumer driven nature. But reality has a way of confronting such an artificial world with economic collapses, environment catastrophes, and the experience of disease, brokenness and loss.

To recover reality is not to challenge the simulacrums of our time. But rather seek to understand the larger context in which these simulations / spectacles function.

The ancients would describe this capacity to discern reality as wisdom. While wisdom is certainly in short supply and in great demand, it is only one piece of a wider fabric of reality that is needed.

One of the results of the world of simulation and spectacle is the loss of the capacity for open, trustworthy, mutually caring relationships. Instead, we have connections with people. We have "friends" whom we've never met, had coffee and seen face to face.

I am convinced that the recovery of reality comes through the establishment of relationships of genuine meaning and love.

For to love another person requires a kind of reality that allows for honesty, emotional intimacy and commitment to the care and nurture of the relationship.

Series Note: This post is one in a series that I am calling Reclaiming the Real. You can find a page of links to each post in the series here.


The Platform of Desire, Part 5

IMG_2304The Desire to Connect

Desire isn't just an idea. It is a movement within us drawing us towards some value or experience or person.

This drawing, like water into the porous membrane of a sponge, is the activity of connection.

You walk into a room at a business after hours event. You register, get you name tag, and turn around and look at the crowd. Who are you looking to meet? Who is looking to meet you?

We are drawn towards particular kinds of people. What is it that us draws to them?

You sign up for an online dating service, and out of the dozens of possibilities, one person jumps off the page. Why this person?

What draws us towards this one individual rather than another?

Why can we talk about the synergy between two people who only met two minutes ago? What is it that draws us into relationships where we are prepared to trust, to be vulnerable and change our business plan immediately?

It is the intangible nature of human desire. It is beyond rational. It really isn't subrational, but rather supra-rational. It is beyond explanation. It falls into the realm of faith.

What is it about the connection of human desire that causes us to flee the safety of the fortress to venture out into the unknown to discover what lay in our heart's desire all along.

Many refer to this as a call, a voice that constantly beckons them onward, to risk all for the sake of that source of passion deep within us that refuses to be quiet.

This is the magic that happens between two people or within a team when they stop playing the game of control and risk management, and pursue a call they share to make a difference that matters.

In other words, it is love that draws us together. The love of ideas, of people and of the change that we can create together. This is the desire that lies deep within us that calls us to accept and honor its all or nothing demand upon our lives.

The People We are Drawn Toward

At a most basic level, we are drawn toward two kinds of people.

One type are those who affirm or validate who we are. They are like us or complement us by helping us see the inherent value of who we are. These relationships appreciate us for who we are right now. These are family and friends with whom we have happy moments each day.

Often these are people we've known a long time and with whom, even if we are very different in personality, we feel comfortable because of our shared life experiences together.  These are people with whom we share similar values. These are our peeps.

The second kind are those people for whom we feel a kind of longing. This longing is to be different, better, fulfilled, complete, or known for some facet of our lives that the first group cannot see. These people set a standard for their life and work that we view as higher or more ambitious, and therefore is desirable. We desire relationships with them, hoping that some of their magic will rub off on us.  We desire what we think they have. More than anything, we want their respect, and a connection to them.

These relationships may not be with people that we know or with whom we spend most of our time. The relationship may be virtual as on Facebook or Twitter. A connection is made when they like a link that we post. A social media connection with this person fulfills a longing for association with someone whom we perceive to be the person we wish to be in the future. These persons symbolize for us the values that matter to us, that may seem beyond our reach, yet live down deep within us as the desires that we have for our life and work.

We need both of these kinds of relationships. However, neither speaks to the character of the relationship, only to a type of relationship.

The character of our relationships matter.  I thought of this when I came across this selection from the Diary of Anais Nin.

"The secret of a full life is to live and relate to others as if they might not be there tomorrow, as if you might not be there tomorrow. It eliminates the vice of procrastination, the sin of postponement, failed communications, failed communions. This thought has made me more and more attentive to all encounters. meetings, introductions, which might contain the seed of depth that might be carelessly overlooked. This feeling has become a rarity, and rarer every day now that we have reached a hastier and more superficial rhythm, now that we believe we are in touch with a greater amount of people, more people, more countries. This is the illusion which might cheat us of being in touch deeply with the one breathing next to us. The dangerous time when mechanical voices, radios, telephones, take the place of human intimacies, and the concept of being in touch with millions brings a greater and greater poverty in intimacy and human vision."

She could easily be describing the relationships that many of us have through social media platforms. We desire connection. But too often it is superficial, lacking depth.

What then does it mean to have relationships of depth?  This is the kind of relationship that I wrote about in my post Still Waters Still Flow. There I write,

"Am I setting up an impossible scenario for our relationships? Of course I am! For without a standard, an ideal, or a vision of the highest in human experience, then there is no clear direction to the flow of our lives.

When the love I describe becomes complete within us, and seeks out others who also have found a completeness in the love within them, then a depth of relationship results that changes us. We are transformed by loving, not simply by the idea of love.

All these human characteristics that we celebrate and honor, like Respect, Trust, Confidence, Responsibility, Courage, Empathy and Self-sacrifice find a ground upon which to grow. For ultimately, flow rises from our own capacity to be the person we wish others to be.

I wish I could say that all this can come without pain or suffering but it can't. In fact, it is the very comforts of our modern life that stand in the way of a fulfilled, complete and flourishing life. Those comforts present the appearance of strength and completeness. But too often they are the curtain that blinds us to harsher realities of the world.

For still waters to run deep requires the dredging of the stream bed of our lives to remove all those barriers to flow. The more courageous, the more willing we are to raise the standards of our life and work, the more willing we are to be committed to do the hard work of changing our lives, the more willing we are to defy fear, and move into unknown territories of discovery, the more we will discover that still waters still flow bringing peace into a world of conflict."

For these kinds of relationship to flourish requires a setting or an environment for our relationships to grow. Increasingly, I'm convinced that this is difficult to achieve when the relationship is only in a virtual context.

Digital or Analog, Virtual or ... ?

What do we call the setting of relationships that are not virtual, that exist outside of an online digital social space? To say they are analog, physical or real does not capture it well. What are our relationships that exist where we live, with whom we encounter in physical proximity to one another.

Lacking an adequate terminology, I've decided to use a sacramental term that Presbyterians and other Protestant Christians use to describe the relationship of God to the eucharist, the sacramental meal that Christians observe in worship. That term is Real Presence.

I'm using real presence in a non-religious way. It is the relationship that develops between people who find their life and work connected at a deeper level of meaning and impact than with other people. The result is that they are drawn together in such a way that the traditional social media platforms are an insufficient for the purpose of the relationship. In other words, they find they need to be in physical proximity to one another often enough to advance their relationship's purpose.

To be really present, requires us to be open and vulnerable, attentive and willing to adapt to each opportunity as it appears. Real presence is living each day with intention and commitment. I realize that these are familiar words to people today. The challenge is not knowing the meaning of these words, but deriving our meaning of life from living them each day.

There are many people that I've met online with whom we now have a relationship of real presence. We are constantly in touch with the living our of our lives. We are not simply observing and commenting in a detached manner. Our relationships to one another matter. As a result, we are drawn to be with one another in a physical sense. And so we make the effort to travel to be with one another.

Let me return to my question from above. Why is it that we connect with some people and not others?  Is it because the place where we meet and develop our relationships is conducive for the kind of relationship we seek? Is it because there are certain values that we share that can flourish in either a virtual or a physical context?

This is a complex question. To understand it we must understand ourselves. To understand ourselves demands that we understand the kinds of environments that are most conducive to making the kind of connections that we truly desire.

This is an important question because so many of our connections are virtual, operating only within a digital context. Yet, we are not virtual people, digitized, pixelated images or text narratives on a screen. We are embodied persons whose whole selves experience the movement of desire flowing through us.

Developing Platforms for Desire

We are at the beginning point in the evolution of the digital world. What it will be in a decade or in fifty years is pure speculation.

I am convinced that because we are desiring beings (James K A Smith's term), that the structure of society and organizations ultimately adapt to who we are. It is never smooth, however.

Today, we are at the end of the industrial era, without real clarity about what is to follow. Current global social and political forces are aligned to avoid change as much as possible. Resistance to human evolution is futile. And at the heart of our evolution as a species is the drive our desires for meaning, healthy relationships and lives of impact.

As a result, there will always be a tug-of-war between those forces that seek to control the evolutionary course, and those who choose the freedom to adapt to change as it presents itself each day.

As social media platforms develop, change and die, new platforms will emerge to meet the opportunities that come from human social interaction. The challenge for the developers of these platforms as I've said previously in this series, is not really how to monetize the platform, but rather how maximize the ability of people of shared desires to collaborate to make a difference that matters. The mousetrap has been invented. Now is the time to make a better mousetrap.

There is much more that can be said about the relation of human desire to the virtual online world. For now, this is sufficient.


The Platform of Desire, Part 2

Desire or Rationality?

We live in an era created by science and rational thought. But the culture that we live in is not rational. It is sub-rational, almost primal, in its elevation of the expression of desire over everything else.

This elevation of desire is a two-edged promise. It on the one hand, a promise of engagement in all that life has to offer.

On the other a promise of total exhaustion, of even annihilation, if embraced without thought, direction and boundaries.  It is the power behind the passion of ambition and human connection.

Images of desire capture our attention, draw us into experiences that touch us, change us and can ultimately transform us into new persons. Our rational selves rarely do that. It is the passion of desire that makes it possibly for us to make the sacrifices to be people who create the goodness that lies dormant in the potential that we all have.

If that desire is let loose, never guided by our rational selves, then like Icarus' flight to the sun, we can crash and burn.

Desire = Love

I'm calling desire those inner drives that draw us toward what we love. Philosopher James K. A. Smith sees this love lived out in a sort of secular liturgy of worship. There are rituals that we observe because they reinforce the importance of our desires.

“…  we are primarily desiring animals rather than merely thinking things, I also think that what constitutes our ultimate identities – what makes us who we are, the kind of people we are – is what we love. More specifically, our identity is shaped by what we ultimately love or what we love as ultimate – what, at the end of the day, gives us a sense of meaning, purpose, understanding, and orientation to our being-in-the-world. What we desire or love ultimately is a (largely implicit) vision of what we hoped for, what we think the good life looks like. The vision of the good life shapes all kinds of actions and decisions and habits that we undertake, often without our thinking about it. ”

Our loves and desires are shaped by how we live in the world around us.  The social and organizational systems and structures that are the context of our life and work is a place of engagement where we either find our desires fulfilled or frustrated.  Our happiness is not so much about what we think, but how we intersect with the social and organizational places where we live and work. Smith writes,

So when I say that love defines us, I don’t mean our love for the Chicago Cubs or chocolate chip scones, but rather our desire for a way of life. This element of ultimacy … is fundamentally religious. But religion here refers primarily not to a set of beliefs or doctrines but rather to a way of life. What’s at stake is not primarily ideas but love, which functions on a different register. Our ultimate love/desire is shaped by practices, not ideas that are merely communicated to us.

Or to put it another way, our real world context is both outside of us and within us. The  connection between our desires and the physical places where we spend our days is intimate and integral to every aspect of our lives.

If you are like me, there are places you go to find restoration and perspective. For me it is the spiritual geography of wild places. Remove the technological noise and perspective returns. At these places, we reconnect with the desires that drive us toward what we love.

When I go to a place like Max Patch (below) I find myself standing on a high mountain bald with a 360 degree vista of mountain ridges.

Max Patch Edge

The vastness of this mountain scape, like that of this panorama of the Grand Tetons of Jackson Hole (below), touches me deep inside, reminding me of vastness of the opportunities that we each have each day to make a difference.

Jackson Hole Valley

The desires of my life and work resonate with the bigness of these mountains. It is why I constantly return to them, where I find balance and proportion between me as an individual and the bigness of the world in which I live and work.

Smith presents a compelling view that contemporary consumerism is set of liturgical practices that both inform and form us as people. He writes,

"Because our hearts are oriented primarily by desire, by what we love, and because those desires are shaped and molded by the habit-forming practices in which we participate, it is the rituals and practices of the mall - the liturgies of mall and market - that shape our imaginations and how we orient ourselves to the world. Embedded in them is a common set of assumptions about the shape of human flourishing, which becomes an implicit telos, or goal, of our desires and actions. That is, the visions of the good life embedded in these practices become surreptitiously embedded in us through our participation in the rituals and rhythms of these institutions. These quasi-liturgies effect an education of desire, a pedagogy of the heart. ..."

What is true of the mall's impact upon us is also true of the social and organizational structures where we live and work. They are not inert, neutral, artificial places. They are living contexts which engage our desires, and where our lives take root in a real world.  These "places" affect how we develop as human beings. 

It is this deeper truth that lies behind the design development of office space between those of an open plan and the closed kind advocated by Susan Cain in her book, The Quiet.  The architecture of space in social and organizational structures affects who we are and how we perform. This is the tangible representation of the role that human desire has.

A Structure for Desire?

We don't look at the way we organize our businesses and organizations from this point of view though. We tend to see space or organizational systems as just a place where work takes place. We think of organizational structural design as primarily about creating efficiency and production. We don't think of them as a determining factor in how people connect to their inner desire for meaning and impact.Three Goals of Life-Work-CircleofImpact It is the same reason we don't see people, but rather human resources. It is the utilitarian mindset of the industrial age that cannot see what is evident when one stands outside of that context.

The effect of this mindset is to diminish our understanding of human potential, reducing it to whatever is needed for the task assigned. Consequently, any connection to human desire is lost all together.

It was James K. A. Smith who provided me the insight to see something in my work with clients that had been evident all along: three human desires that everyone has. Desires for personal meaning, healthy, happy relationships and to make a difference that matters.

What we love drives us towards these desires. And we need to structure the social and organizational systems of our lives and work to enable these desires to find fulfillment. 

In part 3 of this essay, I will look at how we can create organizational structures that enable people who work within them to find personal meaning, healthy, happy relationships, and to make a difference that matters.


A Culture of Alternatives

IMG_6398

Some times transitions can be smooth, sometimes difficult. As a global economic community, we are in a difficult transition from the modern industrial age to what will follow. 

Modern organizations share a common assumption. This is true if you are General Motors or the old Soviet Union. Efficiency is the route to an economy of scale and scope.

The problem with efficiency is not what it gives us, the ability to do more with fewer resources. The problem is what it takes from us.

Robust, sustainable cultures are those that have many competing alternatives.

I'm not here writing to advocate for the free market as many conservatives and business people do.  The free market is an ideal, while inviting, it cannot exist while there are powerful institutional structures that can dictate the terms of the market. This is where we are now with the relationship that exists between Washington and Wall Street.

I'm also not here to simply denigrate governments as the overseer of efficiency on a global scale. Governments are important institutions for providing a basis for alternatives to grow and develop.

We are at a transition point because with the elevation of efficiency to its preeminent role, control over the economic and organizational systems of society must also grow.

Over the course of my lifetime, close to 60 years, I've seen the control of society grow to the point where virtually everyone of us is breaking some rule of efficiency every day.

I have been persuaded by Joseph Tainter's thesis that societies collapse when the diversity of alternatives diminish and a one-size fits all culture develops. This is the course our society has been moving along for the past 50 years.

I'm not making a political statement to say the course that the Soviet Union took should be instructive for us today. In many respects, their economy failed because they lacked alternatives. Central planning did not create a robust, sustainable society. It created one of fear, not just fear of impoverishment, but fear of those who control the institutions of society.

The United States is not the Soviet Union. Our histories and founding values are different.

What we do share is a belief in large, supra-national, global institutions guiding the course of society by persons selected by some criteria of elite status.

Whether that control is by law, or political coercion or moral condemnation, the effect is to create a culture of efficiency by removing alternatives that may fail, inconvenience some person or be financially costly.

Our society is no longer robust and sustainable because we are quickly squeezing alternative ways of doing things out of our economic system. As it has done so, it has also squeezed out the benefits of efficiency.

Is there an alternative course?

If Tainter is correct, then we are headed towards an economic collapse. If so, then alternative ways of sustaining society must be developed in parallel with our current system.

I see this, for example, in the rise of local buying initiatives. When farmers are connected personally to those who buy their produce, the relational conditions for an alternative economic culture grow. I hear more and more about bartering between people who have services to provide. And possibly, most importantly, I see it in local efforts to develop cultures of entrepreneurism that create both for-profit and non-profit organizations that provide alternative ways for local economies to function.

The Conditions for a Culture of Alternatives

For an alternative culture to develop three things are needed.

First, individual initiative.

This is what I saw a decade ago as the starting point for all leadership. Individual initiative focused upon creating impact. This initiative is about how people take personal responsibility for their lives and of their families and communities.

Second, community collaboration. 

Consulting with a wide spectrum of organizations over the years I see how institutions force collaboration upon people. It is often seen as a way the old institutional barriers are being brought down. Collaboration can certainly do that, but it must come from the collaborators themselves.

Third, open culture of ideas.

All alternative approaches begin as an idea that needs to be tried. Openness to new ideas, and a willingness to test and fail with those ideas is essential in creating a culture of alternatives.

The End of an Era and The Beginning of a New One

For the past 18 months, I've been writing about the end of an era of industrial capitalism and utopian progressivism. Each was born out of the Enlightenment hope for a better world. Each was a product of, or, reaction to the industrial culture that elevated efficiency as a core societal value.

That efficiency demanded institution control by those who were designated the leaders of the system. It worked as long as the means of production was limited to the industrial plant; as long as advanced education was limited to the few who could afford it; and, as long as the means of communication consisted of the distribution of the information that leaders wanted people to know.

Today, all that has changed. In many ways, the opportunities that we have today are like a return to a pre-industrial era, or as some would call it a pre-modern time. In the past, cultures of alternatives always existed. Today, they are found where people recognized that they must develop new ways of living and working to provide for their families and community. Then, it was understood as the culture of the frontier, today, as sustainable, local cultures. 

The frontier that confronts us now is a world of failing institutions. If we take the perspective of alternatives as a guide, then we'll see that all approaches have a life span. They begin, grow to maturity, and then devolve to extinction of irrelevance. We are in that third stage with the institutions of the modern age.

What will the next stage look like at maturity? It is anyone's guess. I am fairly certain, however, that we will see greater individual initiative, more collaboration and a renaissance of ideas. This is what a Culture of Alternatives will look like.


Still Waters Still Flow

Snake River Swimming Hole

In my previous post, Leading by Vacuum, and in my two-part presentation The Flow of Leadership and Community, I use the concept of flow as a way of understanding how change "flows" through our life and work. The flow of a stream follows the path of least resistance. It is persistent in finding that path, and renews itself everyday for that journey.

If we speak of flow in human terms, as Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi has done by bringing this important idea to the world, I believe we will understand how people and by extension, the world, may find peace.

Peace is not the absence of conflict, for I do not think that is possible. Rather, peace is the ability to be one's true self in the midst of conflict. To live with integrity is to be at peace, which creates one of flow. This peace is the product of love finding its completeness in our life and work.

Flow = Love

The ancient Greeks had four words for love. They are:

Agape - unconditional, sacrificial love

Eros - physical, erotic love

Phileo - friendship

Storge - affection like a family

In our modern world, we have split these loves apart, treated them like separate loves. As a result, we become people split, fragmented, with too many tributaries seeking their own flow. This is what it means to be a broken person, and to lose the conditions for peace and genuine flow.

As my title suggests, Still Waters Still Flow, we must find a depth of life experience that gives us a clear sense of purpose to each day. Then we will not be in conflict, but in the flow of life. Being complete, as whole persons, flow brings the peace that we need for a world in the midst of conflict.

To pick and choose between which of the four loves I am to use to express my relationship towards people means that our relationship will be incomplete, ultimately unsatisfying and disappointing.

When flow happens, we discover a kind of wholeness or completeness which brings fulfillment and contentment. This is a depth of life experienced that is expressed in stillness and peace.

This is what lies behind our loss of and desire for community. It is why our virtual relationships are incomplete, never fully realizing the potential that exists in any relationship. If we are not complete people, how can our relationships be whole and happy, and how can the world in which we seek to change also become whole and healed of its conflicts?

As I've said many times, as human beings, we desire meaning, and healthy relationships, and ultimately for our lives to make a difference that matters. Without each of the four loves functioning in our life, our relationships and our work, it is not hopeful that our desires in life will find fulfillment.

Affection and Friendship

There are many people for whom I have affection. I care about them, appreciate who they are, and wish to be with them more than I am presently able to be. There are hundreds, may more than a thousand people who fall into this category for me.

I wish for many of these relationships of affection to become friendships, where we identify a certain common or shared desire for one another's happiness. It is the sort of thing you see in bars as friends gather. There is connection and happiness because the relationship transcends simple appreciation.  There is something shared which links each person together in a meaningful, fulfilling way.

My guess is that many of our relationships are like this. People who are acquaintances, who transcend a shared affection to become genuine friends, often only for a short period of time. Like old high school buddies reconnecting on Facebook or at reunions discovering that those shared experiences in high school produced friendships that have survived even the disconnect of time and place.

Or the deeper connection that takes place when someone becomes ill with cancer, and the care of neighbors pours over in affection and genuine caring. We step forward to care in these moments partially believing that if we were in their shoes, people would care for us in a similar way.

Intimacy

The physical love of eros is more than sexual. Unfortunately, it has been reduced to this in our society. Erotic love is embodied love, a love of the whole person towards another. It is something larger and deeper, more significant and difficult to achieve. It is what we call intimacy. 

This kind of love shatters the illusions of appearances. It is openness and vulnerability, a desire that we all want, but too often find difficult to achieve. It is why we can still be alone or lonely while in the midst of a crowd of friends. It is a question of the depth of intimacy that we share with one another.

We want all the physical benefits of intimacy. Yet the emotional, psychological and spiritual openness that is required is something we often resist. This is why, in my estimation, pornography is such a powerful force in our culture. It presents the illusion that intimacy can be achieved without the other three loves. It is purely erotic, without a foundation of relationship, or genuine affection and friendship. 

Sexual intimacy touches deeply our physical desires for relationship. Yet, it can be incomplete if that openness is not feeding our shared affection and friendship. It is why the current popularity of having "friends with benefits" is really not surprising at all.  It makes perfect sense to desire intimacy with those with whom you already share some personal meaning and friendship. What is missing is the commitment that is needed for intimacy to be complete.

Understand, I'm not advocating for all our friendships to have a sexual side. I am saying that our desire for intimacy goes deeper than our sexuality to the very core of our identity. It is about being known as a real person by another real person, not by someone who is playing a role in the virtual reality of the appearence of intimacy.

Complete Love

It is the fourth love, agape, which is the most powerful. It brings completeness to the other loves through which peace and flow are discovered.

It is by far the most difficult love to live fully. It holds within it the highest ideals of human relationships, of love at its most complete and fulfilling. Yet, it is the hardest because it requires the greatest sacrifice to give it.

Agape love is self-giving love. It is sacrifical and unconditional. It requires great maturity to love someone, not for what what it means to me, but for what it means to the other. It is where our affection, friendship and intimacy find their complete flourishing.

This love is not a love of convenience. It is a love of commitment.

This is why agape is a love which is the most powerful and transformational. For it to become the love between two people requires a laying aside of our individual right to be fulfilled, so that we might together find it as a shared fulfillment. It is a costly love through which we gain the best of all loves.

This is why this love is usually associated with romantic love. It is the love that throughout human history has been associated with marriage. Yet, it is more than that. It is also the love associated with a passion or calling to service. It is the love that makes it possible for the other three loves to find their wholeness and connection.

The Impact of Love

Am I setting up an impossible scenario for our relationships? Of course I am! For without a standard, an ideal, or a vision of the highest in human experience, then there is no clear direction to the flow of our lives.

When the love I describe becomes complete within us, and seeks out others who also have found a completeness in the love within them, then a depth of relationship results that changes us. We are transformed by loving, not simply by the idea of love.

All these human characteristics that we celebrate and honor, like Respect, Trust, Confidence, Responsibility, Courage, Empathy and Self-sacrifice find a ground upon which to grow. For ultimately, flow rises from our own capacity to be the person we wish others to be.

I wish I could say that all this can come without pain or suffering but it can't. In fact, it is the very comforts of our modern life that stand in the way of a fulfilled, complete and flourishing life. Those comforts present the appearance of strength and completeness. But too often they are the curtain that blinds us to harsher realities of the world.

For still waters to run deep requires the dredging of the stream bed of our lives to remove all those barriers to flow. The more courageous, the more willing we are to raise the standards of our life and work, the more willing we are to be committed to do the hard work of changing our lives, the more willing we are to defy fear, and move into unknown territories of discovery, the more we will discover that still waters still flow bringing peace into a world of conflict.

This is not simply about our individual experience of flow. It is also about developing the capacity to create flow for our families, our businesses and communities. For this to happen, we must become complete in our capacity to love. What more could we say than I have found love's completeness in my life and work, I am satisfied, fulfilled and at peace.