Archive for January, 2011

There has been a short gap between the last post (Day Twenty-six) and this, the final instalment in this month’s exercise, and that time has been filled with some introspection and some “off-air” discussion.

What to conclude?

1.  I have not had any revelations about any of the events I have drawn on. Nevertheless, doing this writing has helped me see some patterns. These patterns, which belong to that “thing” I call my identity, make up a map of my self. I can also say that while my understanding of my map has not undergone transformation, my understanding of how this mapping works is slightly modified. I see that my recollection (or anticipation) of my “life-story” takes on meaning only in its relationship with other things, other people, in short, with “the world out there”.

2. I found the task of writing as opposed to speaking did help me organise my thoughts, and perhaps led to a more eloquent expression of the various moments, feelings and episodes that made up the Life History. What’s more, writing is thinking, but a way of thinking that I found was quite firm and definite.  However, I was also aware the whole time that because the written word carries on and remains longer than our speech or just our thoughts, I was editing carefully. I was also aware of the possibility (and with over 1,000 hits on the blog this month, there is also some evidence) of an audience. This is important because it (the tension) illustrated for me something key about reflection.

3. Writing every day became, eventually, compelling.

4. Kolb’s learning cycle falls very far short of providing anything helpful in Personal Development. But, too, there is something missing in the otherwise much more helpful Atkins & Murphy model of reflection that I wanted to explore as part of this month’s experiment. What is lacking has something to do with the need to step “in” and “out” at each stage in the model.

5. Not sure whether reflection follows models of reflection, or models of reflection follow reflection.

6. Introspection is necessary, but not sufficient for reflection. Reflection also requires dialogue with the world, where the boundaries are. But for that you have to be brave and reach out to find those boundaries.

That’s it for now. Thanks for reading.

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And finally, my “Overall Life Theme”. 

If I’m right, then the big idea McAdams was making by this summary point, and other writers with variations on the same idea, is that we all have a story that we live by, a sense of our coherent selves (however constructed). More than just recounting, our narratives are an organising principle for our concept of self and of others, (synonymous, in fact, with human experience). They are our filter for what we take from past experience, what we expect, anticipate or hope for the future and how we conduct our relations with the world and with ourselves in the here and now.

Looking back not just across these posts, but just generally looking back, the “central theme, theme, message, or idea” I have for my life and, therefore, the clue to my identity boils down (distils?) into one thing:

Seeking to create an ebb and flow between myself and the world

Hope that doesn’t sound pretentious. On the other hand, who cares? It’s how I feel. I do feel a tension between the inside world and the outside world, and I do feel an intermittent creativity in my relationship with the myriad ways that we communicate with each other.

Well, at any rate, I will now give myself a few days to let that sink in. I will post one or two final reflections, or even meta=reflections before the month and this experiment is closed.


A couple of further thoughts in transit…

1. I find, for me at least, that although I know I lived my whole life fully conscious of all its present moments (that is, with one exception – in Israel – of a few hours amnesia following a fall and head injury on a country hike), there are a select number of key moments, or even episodes, which remain crystal clear when called to mind, or which some strong trigger invokes with the same immediate crystal clarity. On the other hand, some things are inaccessible to my memory, even when others tell me about them from their perspective. I find myself trying very hard to remember the thing they are describing, and failing, though the temptation to make it up from the other fragments which must have surrounded it. But those moments, memories, are gone.

2. The concept of narrative as I have referred to it several times by me over the past four weeks (i.e. our stories emerge in the present, but only in relation to the past and future) might seem to bear some direct relation to the narrative structure of “a beginning, a middle and an ending”. I’m not sure this is the case, though.

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In revealing to myself something about my own personal ideology, the topic of the last few posts in this sequence, I am now supposed to move to speak about my political position.

Should be quick, then.

As for Politics, with a big “P”, I only started voting in my forties. I could say that some of this was down to my living in another country, where I couldn’t vote, but I really doubt that I would have register to vote even if I had lived here.  I think my position on voting, on participating in the democratic process as it is here in the UK, has changed since my early adulthood. I do now think it important to take part. Where I live, also quite futile, since my village is in the Henley constituency, where no-one wins the election unless they are sporting a blue rosette. So I go with my history, and vote Green.

Other than being a vicarious but genuine supporter of democracy (which notable not for the principle of the right to vote someone into power, but for the principle of the right to vote them out), there is nothing about Politics that really moves me.

When it comes to politics with a small “p”, on the other hand, I think there is a chance of a much more interesting topic, but again not one I have ever wanted to do anything about (other than watch and gossip).

Perhaps I’m missing something. Honestly, I’m wracking my brains to say more… but….

Tomorrow’s entry is the final one in the agenda, or the formation of the narrative segments. It’s “Overall Life Theme” (fanfare).  All that will remain after that is whatever space I want to give myself for final thoughts and reflections, both on what I have written or written about, and about the writing of it.

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Still on the subject of personal ideology, and following from yesterday’s post, I wanted to say something about what I believe, and how I got there. I think the connection to reflection is more apparent than any connection to the PhD, unless I start to see my chosen subject as just another facet of a much more core idea of looking for completeness in life.

I suppose we all have our own stories to tell when it comes to faith, belief, religion and so on. I was taken to Catholic church when I was young, attended a Catholic Primary School, and had a strong but inculcated belief in a very traditional version of God until about age 11.  I recollect walking home from that school one afternoon and, having earlier realised that one could make up one’s own mind about these things and, that being the case, I could see no reason for believing that there was a God.  End of. Hardly a road to Damascus, but just as decisive, for me at least (not sure how God took it).

I don’t recall how that idea of being in charge of one’s own decisions in these matters came about, but I suspect that a teacher in the Primary School may have mentioned the fact that as you get older you become responsible for your making your own mind up about stuff. They probably were thinking in terms of the temptations of post-Primary education. A strange doctrine for them to produce, considering how up until that point there had been no hint of this in the way that religion and belief had been presented. I mean none. I think this is what Christopher Hitchens, who is a delight to watch in full flow against the lies told to children in the name of religion, had in mind).

Since then I have never wavered, and never felt the need to. I have enjoyed the beauty of churches, cathedrals, mosques, holy places, and I know that you must understand that in the past many things we see one way now had meanings in their original context that made sense – then. What’s more, I have always understood that some people who are religious have great wisdom and compassion. But equally I have found compassion, wisdom and wit in others for whom the world is here and now.  As I have got older, I have become more and curious about the way that societies have constructed their beliefs around metaphor over the millenia but feel no compunction to restrict my time in the world by adopting a belief that our universe requires a maker.

You don’t have to go far in our society to find values. They’re all over the place. People have them, organisations have them. McDonald’s, for example, has seven, some more edible than others, I’d say, but all speaking more to the “how” of what that organisation does rather than the “why”, and surely values are the why.

As for me, I find my values are hard to express. I prefer to think that values are really messy things, they’re pre-linguistic, ancient, and evolved and communicated over a long period of time across countless populations and social acts. It is evident that we like to seek patterns in things, and then extrapolate explanation from those patterns, and also that we have a give for categorisation. More than a gift, a need. We end up, through language, with labels, but sometimes we like confuse our labels with the thing they are labelling. If I were pushed, I would include “balance”, “care”, “love”, “empathy” and “hope” as values, but with the caveat that they are just labels, not the thing itself. Nevertheless, these are the sorts of things that give me pause for thought, reasons to be cheerful, and an inner happiness when they are attainable. In other words, I think they are important. But the problem comes when you want to project these fuzzy concepts onto things, events or, worse, people. Values should be expressed and measured indirectly; as metaphor, as poetry, as art, as humour, as “something understood.” But then we’d have to know how to read the labels differently.

Felt good writing this. Tomorrow I get to tackle politics. Not sure I’ll have too much to say on that, though.

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When you start to think and write about something called “Personal Ideology”, there must be a need to question the assumptions behind the words. An Ideology is, according to dictionary.com, “the body of doctrine, myth, belief etc., that guides an individual, class, or large group.” It apparently dates to end of the 18th Century and was coined by Antoine Louis Claude Destutt, comte de Tracy. But you knew that…

Personal conjures an image of something that belongs to me, is mine and not anyone else’s. Private, in fact.

But it’s not so easy to reconcile these two ideas. None of us makes up our own guide to life from scratch, without reference or in isolation from everyone else’s personal ideology. Surely, regardless of where we end up, all our guiding principles, values and beliefs are inculcated in us (knowingly and unknowingly) by the world we come into and which we tend to become conscious of only with reflection. It just feels like it’s private because that’s just how we encounter the world, as agents in it.

So, first off, I my guiding principle is that whatever belief system I have, it is there because of all the inputs I have had from and with other people and theirs are the result of all the belief systems and values that define them.  Whether these things are expressed as the result of a rational thought process or the poorly articulated attempt to express something that is more basic than language, that is something I have started to reflect on more recently.

I know that this step in this reflection (and we’re getting to the home straight now, with only nine postings left) starts by asking me to relate my fundamental beliefs (or values, which are the bedrock of beliefs) around the existence of a god or deity, or force in the universe. But actually I have a question  – “why do so many people have a belief in a deity?”

This is not to criticise them (or you), but to wonder why. What is it about us and our ability to abstract our thought that has created in us the need for myth, for religion, for belief? Even the counter-argument to theism that has grown in eloquence and force over the last 200 years at least, seems not to dent in otherwise intelligent, thinking people the wish to believe in something more than the blink-of-an-eye that each of our lives constitutes in universal terms. It’s not a blink of an eye to us, of course. The idea of a life-span, fully lived, is apparently enough for some people, but not for most – so perhaps there is something in what makes us humans that demands we reconcile the self-knowledge of mortality with the self-belief in the worth of living, and that we do so by calling in an exterior agent.

But isn’t the existence or not of a deity (what Heinz von Foerster would describe as) an “undecidable question”?  That is, all our stories of origin must remain conjecture.

My own guiding belief is that, for us, this is it. I experienced oblivion before I was born and I will experience oblivion after I die, and the two states of nothingness are exactly the same. I should be bloody grateful for the chance to spend a lifetime wondering about it all in-between. I like the expression ‘a system is the best explanation for itself” and I feel no need for a teleological explanation of why we are here. I think the “how” of us being here is pretty fascinating and important if we are to see what we can do for our children and other generations, but not the “why”. There’s no why.

And yet, I am really interested in understanding this fascination for belief, and I won’t deny that something of who I am is a result of a very long history of these ideas. I’ll try to reflect on my own history with all that tomorrow.

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Yesterday the task should have been to speak about a current problem or a stress. I didn’t. I weaseled out of it with a little bit of wordsmithing and some extra smoke and mirrors around the topic of time, and the connectivity of past in present and future in present, and the weird nature of “the present”.

The reason it was so difficult, when all the other tasks so far had been relatively simple, I think has something to do with the need to acknowledge fallibility. People keep their problems hidden, and if someone offered to swap you theirs for yours, you’d be wise to refuse.  One of mine is “the fear of not pleasing others”. 

It should be therapeutic to admit something like that, and the fact that I can shows me that it’s not the mountain it used to be, though I still get out of breath walking up its hill sometimes. All fears and phobias (except, apparently, the fear of falling and fear of loud noises, with which we are born) are learned.  Luckily, this is no phobia, more an occasional social ailment. Its effect? Usually a combination of reserve and accommodation and a patience that can drive some people nuts. And, of course, a frustration sometimes that I’m not doing what I want to do. Its source? Well, Dr Freud, ich habe keine annung… except perhaps that as a facet of one’s interaction with others it can make one seem charming.

I’m glad to say that I have got over it at work, though. I really enjoy setting up and then teasing, or needling participants in workshops to make a valuable learning point.  The antecedents of this imbalance (I think that is what it is) are contained in my past, always construed in the present and recursively connected to my interaction with my context, but the consequences of this lie in the future. Perhaps that is the only thing which makes it a problem. It limits what I can be, my possible future selves, and therefore is a problem?

This all feels like talking on self-indulgent thin ice, to mix up the metaphors a little. Perhaps the task tomorrow will feel more solid and straight-forward. I get to write and reflect on my “Personal Ideology”, fundamental beliefs and values. What could be more fun?

At any rate, the “what just happened?” effect from yesterday made me go back and look again at the Atkins and Murphy Reflection model. I think what’s missing is the dimension of “going in-going out”. If all reflection is dialogue, then the model needs to acknowledge this. Just an early thought.

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The topic now is “stresses and problems”.  I am supposed to highlight two, providing descriptions, details, source, case history and my plan for dealing with it. It’s 10:46 and I know that this is asking me to focus on something quite signficant in my life, but I can see where this is going.  It’s a commonplace to say that time causes stress, but that’s because we place time in a context where one of its properties is measured by “stress”. You can only come up against a deadline when you have set yourself a deadline. “Disappointment takes planning!”

Where are the stresses in my life? Well, I had a nice little wake-up call from one of my Supervisors, which ought to be stressing me (in a good way). I had sent one of my occasional “up-dates” which is intended to show whether I’ve moved along. Yes, came the answer, you have, but where is the indication of contribution to knowledge? This is, after all, a PhD, and while I have done a good job of creating an idea in a very practical project on Learner Identity, I still have to frame its worth within some dark and dusty corner of academia. I totally get the point, and it’s one that has been nagging at me as I leapt from academic discipline branch to academic discipline branch in my reading.

[As an aside: stress seemed to be a common denominator this evening in feedback sessions at Henley with the two teams of Executive MBAs I’m personal tutor for (who had themselves spent the day alongside the even more stressed out Full-Time MBAs). Not surprising, really, given the nature of the course generally, and the specific tasks of two big assignments immanent for submission.]

Is stress, like everything else, entirely contextual?  Is it viral, passed between people? Actually, “stress” must be the name for a collection of feelings. Something in and of itself cannot be stressful. It becomes so by defining the meaning of that “thing” as a member of a class of things.

Contextual or not, I do think I have “stress and problems”.  For the first time in writing these entries, though, I don’t think I can bring these up on such a public forum. This is an odd feeling. Aha, a “what just happened?” moment. I wonder whether this is because to do so will involve talking about characters and events that have not yet happened, and this is sometimes the most difficult part of reflection (assuming that reflection involves thinking about past, present and future).

Pause, while I think.

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