Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Meaning In The Mist

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Last year I blogged this thought on problem solving:


There is no such thing as a root cause. Nothing has a single cause. Everything that happens is due to a unique combination of complex dynamic factors. The Chinese language does not encourage Western ‘causal’ thinking, but rather it encourages people to think in terms of connectedness: instead of asking ‘what causes X?’ they ask ‘what complex of things tend to happen together in time?’ Think in Chinese!


Now I ask: Are we thinking in Chinese yet? Are we asking what kind of things tend to happen together, what kind of things tend to coalesce in time? Or are we still mired in the childish futility of asking what caused this event or that, whose fault was this problem or that? 5 year olds ask 'why?' all the time: 'why is this happening and who or what is to praise or blame?'. Adults just read situations and act accordingly: 'what's the situation and how can we deal with it?'


And if we want to probe deeper we can call on our experience and maturity for wisdom, asking 'what sort of things tend to occur together in this sort of situation?' The Western habit of asking causal questions like 'why is this happening and who is to blame or praise?' has probably done more to undermine human development (through the kind of science and religion it begets) than to enhance it. For example, it forces us into value judgements we're not qualified to make about people and systems (e.g. 'who's fault is immorality?' 'why do communists hate God?', etc.) and it drives us towards feeling powerless (e.g. to answer impossible questions: 'why did the big bang bang?', 'who started the war?', etc.). All in all that whole childish way of thinking decreases our critical consciousness and renders us vulnerable to brainwashing by religious and secular propaganda. It lacks grace and aesthetic quality too.


By contrast, there is a certain maturity and composure about the qualities celebrated in Chinese thought, as epitomized in Buddha or Lau Tzu. It is no coincidence that the Western mind run riot celebrates the likes of Posh and Becks instead.


So lets a take a moment to think in Chinese and look at what is coming together in our world. Now we have tsunamis, nuclear meltdowns and earthquakes galore, financial coma, anorexic public sector shrinkage and pathological atrophy of education, social entropy across the Mid-East, climate polarity and brimming fundamentalist fervour in all three major monotheist religions (all merrily shining their nukes for the big party), and the biggest gap between rich and poor the world as ever known.


And our response to this bitter cocktail?


Trembling, the weak minded among us choose their best shot quick fix from a half-baked drop down menu of ‘end-time fatalism’, ‘2012 jumblemumble’ or ‘pixelated internet messianism’ (as if the universal mind or godhead might manifest better in digital pixels than in the face to face bonding of human souls).


Others with even feebler minds wander the catacombs of nihilism and despair in a numb state of shock. And the most benighted among these wretches resign themselves to impotence and resolve to seek comfort in short term gain.


Among these, the elites fiddle the books and crucify the people while Rome burns: bankers with their bonuses, local govt. leaders with their 4 X Prime-Ministerial salaries, business leaders with their short sighted max-profit destruction, media gatekeepers excluding all but the most meaningless talentless gruel. Small people in big boots!


And the not so elite among these lost souls seek escape though a similarly self-indulgent smorgasbord of celebrity-culture, gang-culture, drug-culture, cyber-culture, sport-culture, retail therapy, beauty therapy, spiritual therapy, nationalism, rationalism, charity, hilarity, profanity, insanity, politricks and anarchy. Ordinary people squeezed into squeaky boots!


But there is no need to crumple and turn mad, bad, sad or rad just because the walls are going wavy and the floor is turned to jelly. The more constructive people work hard at trying to restore and re-inspire meaning in a world that is long on information and short on inspiration. It is to these people that we must look for the maturity, buoyancy, resilience and creativity of what I call Chinese thinking! Big people who appreciate barefoot moments.


Nuclear catastrophy, natural disatsers, financial crises, public sector cuts, education collapse, social chaos, climate change, perilous religious extremism and mass poverty. If we understand that these kinds of things tend to coalesce in time we might not be too shaken when waking up to daily newspaper reports of profound global issues facing us: geological, geo-meteorological, geo-political, geo-economic, geo-cultural, geo-social and geo-communications shift. For anyone who has spent a good deal of time looking at coalescence will recognize such cluster patterns of ‘facts’ or ‘states of affairs’.


But should we interpret that shift as realignment or as derailment, as something that can generate positive change or as something that can only lead to further destruction and collapse? That depends on factors that lie outside the world of facts.


The philosopher Wittgenstein reminds us that all facts and states of affairs can be spoken about: “if all true elementary propositions are given, the result is a complete description of the world”. But he is most useful in pointing out that we must exclude from this all notions of value – which can only be shown (e.g. truth, beauty, ethics, meaning, etc.)


This is a very important distinction for anyone concerned with recovering actual meaning. The 21st Century is increasingly overloaded with data and understocked with meaning. I see it all the time in education and in business, where I work, and I know it rings equally true in other fields too like politics and economics.


The meaning comes through in story, and to manage that we need mythography – the science of constructing narratives that meet the challenges and opportunities of a given time or context.


The philosopher Heidegger reminds as that we can only build actual meaning on the language of poetry. We cannot do it with the language of facts or analysis. (For Heidegger language is alive, an autonomous life-form that uses us for its own ends, only poets can harness and use it.)


Put it all together: to recover and manage meaning we need to think more in terms of coalescence (i.e. ‘thinking in Chinese’) or clustering of events than in terms of causality, we need to focus on what can be shown not just what can be spoken about, and we need to underpin social meaning with a new mythology using poetic language instead of churning out endless information.


Where should we start looking for a theme, a direction, to poetically build this new mythology, this new foundation of meaning? Instinct says we need to look at collaboration. For the first time ever, thanks to communications technology, we live in a pluralist ‘global village’. And the upside of the global geo-this and geo-that is we face it all together: all ages, races, sexes, classes, religions and so on. For the first time ever, we can work together to co-create a more meaningful future.


All we need to do is find the right metaphors, then we can start to build that poetry of pluralism and with it our new mythology. And the metaphors we need will loom through the mist of values, and show themselves as we speak - in dialogue. Night horses through the rumbling fog of war? Angels through the sparkling haze of morning?


As a storyteller immersed in the 6,000 year legacy of human wisdom and experience I know well what sorts of things tend to happen together in time, and what kind of metaphors are most likely to emerge as the building blocks of a new poetic, a new mythology, a new paradigm and a new reality. Clues abound, from the archetype cycle to geometry to harmonic form. But it's not something that can be told; it's something that will show itself gradually, unfoldingly, but never completely shedding the swirling veils that preserve its modesty - and thus will it will dance, barefoot and balletic, through the mist ...


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