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)
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.