I am drafting this post on the first anniversary of my very first public reading from Making Sense of Us: An Essay on Human Meaning, which took place at the Kitsilano branch of the Vancouver Public Library on April 27th, 2011.
Such an anniversary is very different from the kind that the word almost universally connotes: that is, a speciific birth date, for example. Making Sense of Us didn't have a specific birth date. Its text was in fact virtually complete more than three years earlier, but, since I needed a date that I felt I could logically celebrate, I opted for the date of the first public exposure of the book's content.
This post is in consequence a sentimental moment, but it is also a logical opportunity to take stock of the whole process whereby new ideas are enabled to make their way in the world, or are left to languish by the roadside.
It is undoubtedly too early to assess which of those possibilities is likely to be the outcome for the ideas in my book, but since the book itself focusses on the very manner in which ideas come to exist, and what determines whether and how they have an impact on our lives, there may be some value in analyzing the processes that have clearly been at work in a very specific case.
As I hope I made clear in MSOU, the various elements of which those processes consist combine in very different ways in different situations, but in all situations those elements are likely to be present. Attentive readers of the earlier posts on this site will need little reminder that, not only are there very many different ways to arrive at the beliefs according to which we live our lives, but probably also as many ways to deny validity to those with which we disagree. In an earlier post I also stated in no uncertain terms that I would not consciously take a position on the truth or falsity of particular opposing propositions, since I think it is more valuable to discern how it is that the common processes to which we are all subject themselves combine in such a way that what is engendered either alienates us from one another, or enhances our awareness of our interdependence. (It will also be clear, I hope, that I am not speaking of those situations where it is indeed possible to arrive at verifiable facts, but rather those in which opposing attitudes and opinion are the prime determinants of action.)
Now, it's clearly not advisable to sit eternally on the fence that divides one position from another, but it is possible, I think, to identify how such fences have come to be built, and in consequence bring about their dismantlement by those on both sides.
In that regard, I think it relevant to tell you about the incident in my own life that both triggered and affirmed my decision to write: the moment, in fact, when the fundamental conception of the need for a book occurred to me.
I consciously began the writing of what was eventually to become Making Sense of Us in the late nineteen seventies, at around the same time as the incident related to Susanne's concerns reported on in the post titled "Three marvellous moments: three remarkable people." The incident is best understood as a good example of what Susanne was concerned about.
I and my colleagues at the University of British Columbia were involved in a faculty-meeting discussion on plans for a revised curriculum in one of our programs. I believe some alternative recommendations had been put forward by a faculty work group. We were some twelve to fifteen people. (It was a long time ago, and my memory is fallible.) Very quickly the "discussion" degenerated into a "no holds barred" outright verbal conflict between faculty members whose own courses were likely to be modified in order to make room for other, previously less well regarded, and thus omitted elements. I feel sure that most readers of this blog will have had at some point similar experiences of such dyfunctional processes, particularly those that are characteristic of ostensibly egalitarian group decision-making.
What made this experience a particularly enlightening one for me, however, was that I suddenly realized that the dynamics of the process I was both a witness of, and a self-questioning participant in, had all the characteristics of the dysfunctional family functioning that I was familiar with from my work with "multiple problem families" in London's East End many years before.
It was at this very moment, I think, that I became aware that, if our very "best" minds were capable of functioning in a manner that they themselves might well describe as "pathological" if observed in the behaviour of others, then that manner could best be described as "normal" for anyone whose sense of personal identity was felt to be under attack. Such protective behaviour, then, while dysfunctional for joint decision-making, was self preservative of individual identity continuity; (or also, as in this particular case, protective of the identity of given sub-groups, who were united in their defence of a given segment of the curriculum.)
I don't want to oversimplify these matters, but I do remember my almost ecstatic realization that the processes I was witnessing are also characteristic of international decision-making, and possibly of every situation in which a given continuity of belief in a particular identity (as, for example, a national, ethnic, or religious one) is felt to be under attack. I realized, in fact, that the behaviour in our faculty meeting was symptomatic of humankind in its entirety, and not simply of those identified in any given society as disruptive and pathological by those in positions of power to determine that society's policies in relation to its citizens. The implications of such a view are, as I argue extensively in the book itself, ultimately critical to the potential future of our species, or its extinction.
I am sorry that such a brief summary can do little more than alert you to the importance of the content of the book itself, but such, I'm afraid, are the limitations of this blog . . . I suppose what I have been doing here, is not only celebrating, and giving thanks for a moment of great existential clarity, but also affirming my conviction that further insights are a possibility for us all. I very much want Making Sense of Us to be a contribution to that outcome.
Comments are welcome, regardless of whether or not you have read the book . . . We all need to converse about this!
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