Tuesday, January 11, 2011

another path

In Australia, I ate a piece of kangaroo flesh and then - because it was tasty and because I could - I ate another.

I am not sure, but I think that if that was all I got from the trip, it would not have been enough to justify the whacked-out sleep patterns and near-constant fatigue I have experienced over the last week. Sure, it was eye-opening and spirit-expanding to see the little metal markers on street-corners indicating that the cobbles there were laid by convicts, but I tend to think that traveling across the planet is just another exercise in narcissism if all you do is look at stuff and say, "wow, that sure is different." What really matters, I believe, is being able to interact deeply with other people - to get a sense of how someone very different from yourself views the world, and to incorporate that into your own way of thinking.

Fortunately for me, the people I went to see (Jon and Sarah) are a couple of smarty-pants intellectuals who make my brain nervous whenever they open their mouths, forcing me to struggle to keep up. This struggle makes me step momentarily out of myself and therein, I think, lies the value.

Amazingly enough, Jon and Sarah have parents - parents who are just as smart and do just the same things to my  brains. On Christmas day, I got into a long conversation with Sarah's dad, Tony, and he ended up giving me a few articles he's written explaining some of the thinking behind his very successful Business Design company, "Second Road." I've just finished reading/puzzling over the first of them. As expected, it made my brain work - hard. Here are some of the thoughts it got me thinking, in the form of an open letter:


Dear  Tony,

Unlike you and your family, I am not an intellectual - or at least, I have too much of the artist in me to ever see myself that way. There are times when I think this may grow from a fear of the rigors of real scholarship, but for the most part I prefer to think that I'm just wired to court the truth by intuitively playing with the beautiful, rather than chasing it down a more linear, analytical path. The boundary between these two approaches is no doubt a porous one, but I say this at the outset to excuse what I suspect will be a somewhat disjointed, meandering response to your essay, "A Letter to my Daughter Sarah: From Business to Bethel."

So why respond at all?

First, because as I read your words, they began to link themselves in my mind to other words and make patterns that I think are interesting and beautiful and worthy of exploration. And second, because it is rare to read something that does this to you while having such a direct pipeline to the (living) author. I am a tireless advocate of the value of the eternity-touching Creative Conversation, and am glad of the chance to speak directly back into that conversation. I feel as though your ideas (as I have understood them) link up to a larger movement in the thought-direction of peoples all over, and I want to explore that a little.

The way I see it, everybody is writing a story - a story that contains a lot of smaller stories that are perpetually interacting with the small stories of everybody else to create other, bigger stories that are all part of one incomprehensible (to us) and ultimately (I believe) beautiful Story. Most of our stories are lovely, and fragile, and very precious and small. And yet there are people who write stories so powerful and gripping that they are lived out by a great many other people: I think of notables like Jesus, Genghis Kahn, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Hitler, Winston Churchill, and even Mark Zuckerberg.

One of the greatest stories that people have ever written together was the Renaissance. I do not think it is possible to fully understand all the elements that played into the maelstrom of creative re-imagining that happened during the first few years of the fourteen hundreds - how that led to the re-birth of Greek culture and provided the spark that lit the fire of the enlightenment - but I don't think you have to completely understand where a story came from to know that it has a problem.

The problem with the Renaissance, I think, was that it re-birthed only a part of Greek culture - the brainy part. People began to see their rational minds as their most direct link to God; but as they nurtured that link to the exclusion of other things, they perpetrated a grandiose folly and eventually convinced themselves that the link was not necessary.

In Madeleine L'Engle's book "A Wrinkle in Time," protagonists Meg and Charles Wallace Murry face off against just such a misconception of humanity - a giant, disembodied brain that through incredible feats of Reason has equalized and made sense of the world. As Meg and Charles Wallace discover, Mind without Heart may make sense, but it is a sure path to something so much less than human. This is a major theme in a great number of distopian novels; mostly, I think, because it is so very true.

The fact that this problem is identified so often in art and literature provides a valuable suggestion as we try to figure out how to reconcile Mind and Heart: we can create our way into a re-fusion of Mind and Heart, with love. Creativity is an act of love. This is exactly what Meg discovers in L'Engle's book, and exactly how she ends up defeating the disembodied mind.

The Enlightenment, with its focus on the human mind as the center of the universe, had no room for love. As a result, it morphed gradually and perhaps inevitably into the cold calculations of modernity, a largely soulless state that trashed humans and their environment with equal contempt. This provoked the kickback of postmodernism, which uneasily favored the heart over the head but offered little hope of reconciling the two as everyone stood around scratching their heads in befuddlement and endlessly parsing the details. It told no great, beautiful story... only an infinity of small ones. The Christian church, mired as it was in the warped presuppositions of the western world, had little to offer and tended instead to do its own mindless, heartless parsing, ignoring the human and natural damage occurring all around it.

Yet out of that morass there began to arise something different, as people began to connect to each other in ways that unlocked the human potential for seemingly endless creative corporate storytelling. Perhaps we can blame the internet - that vast hive mind - where, for example, in less than seven years a social networking site called Facebook could link together a twelfth of humanity in previously unthinkable new ways. Human stories began to interweave on an unprecedented scale and at an unprecedented pace. But the questions still remained: What is the story being told? Where is the love? How does all of this play back into the integration of heart and mind?

These are heady and terrifying times, because the potential for creative individuals to write their way into the stories of millions is expanding exponentially. Traditionally, people with power have used that power to garner more, manipulating the basic fear and selfishness and pride of the masses and giving them just enough leeway to trample all over the weakest and the most vulnerable. But something somehow feels different in all of this. Could it be that the sheer scope of this conversation has engaged humanity to the extend that it is no longer willing to allow itself to be manipulated into the (sometimes horrendous, sometimes wonderful) stories of the few?

At the risk of falling victim to the same unfounded, narcissistic optimism of the Modern Era that has led to so much environmental and societal destruction, I have to say that I tend to believe that there is a movement rising in much of culture that has me tentatively hopeful. It is a movement away from solutions and control, towards a spirit of play, freedom, and creativity.

Corporate creative re-imagining is popping up everywhere: from the democratization of the arts through the internet, to the human-creativity-unlocking marketing strategies of Seth Godin, to Sir Ken Robinson's now-famous TED talk, to your very own applications in the world of business. My own first piece for GOOD magazine was called "Dancing Towards Uncertainty" and has done the rounds of the internet, provoking a good bit of talkback and quite a few re-postings. In it, I argued that we need to balance our human desire for certainty against a creative unknowing, allowing our ignorance to inform our decisions as much or perhaps more than our limited knowledge.

It seems to me that this sort of creative, curious approach to the world is meeting a hunger that could not be satiated by the cold constructs of modernity or the amorphous, emotionality-driven fracturing of the postmodern mind.

The downside of all of this, of course, is that it is the sort of work that has to be done by people - people with a seemingly endless propensity to fall victim to their own pride and fear. But I believe, as I think you do, that just as this pride and these fears are common to us all, we also all have within us the desire to overcome them and create, together, something that is beautiful and good. We want to tell a story together that resonates with the good. One of the best ways to make this possible is to attempt to give people the tools necessary for real, soul-to-soul human conversation and connection.

For my part, I encourage this engagement through Art and Art Education, because it is there that I feel the walls are lowest against a brushing encounter with the things we all yearn for the most: connection, purpose, and the True Love found in extending and receiving the Grace that, I believe, comes from God. I am glad that you are attempting to bring this conversation to the world of big business, and only hope that in some small ways you'll be able to guide the power elites of the world towards a more loving, grace-full path that relies less on riding brutally over the backs of the weak and more on empowering them to become a part of the glory of sub-creation. We can, with love, write a beautiful story.

Gratefully yours,

Josh Barkey

post script: I realize that I have not done what I'd intended - which was to offer a point-by-point response to your article. But perhaps that is the point - a coming together of minds in an ever-expanding movement towards something that is different and (hopefully) greater and more loving than what any one person could have intended at the start.

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