Wednesday, May 22, 2024 #53


No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.

Emily Dickinson:

Much Madness is Divinist Sense

Much madness is divinest Sense-

To a discerning Eye-

Much Sense-the starkest Madness-

‘Tis the majority

In this, as All, prevail—

Assent—and you are sane—

Demur---you’re straightway dangerous—

And handled with a Chain—


The relationship of the individual to the world, to his family, to his community, to his co-workers, to his God and to himself has and will continue to be a perturbing, provocative, energizing, motivating, frustrating, enervating and enlivening question throughout each person’s life. Framing the concept of relationship(S) between words from Heraclitus and Dickinson, in this way, offers a kind of coalesced ‘lens’ that speaks to the ‘river’ outside each of us, into which we ‘step’ and ‘swim’ each day, (if we do make that choice) and also from ‘inside’ the notion of the ‘madness’ (that is divine) and the ‘majority’ (that is sane).

Reconciling the slight, and often epic, changes from one moment/day/week/month/yead/decade, in everything, requires both an acknowledgment that the ‘river’ never ceases, even though, on its surface, it seems perfectly still, sedate and peaceful. And that ‘river’ flows, not only in its recognized channel between the rocks and the trees and the twists and the turns of topography, temperature, winds, and whatever dams have been constructed to ‘control’ its flow, but also within each of us.

And curiously enough, those dams that we and the beavers have erected, some for our capture of the energy, some for sheer protection, often fall into our gaze even more than the ‘flow’ of the river. Indeed, from an economic, political, social and even a survival perspective, those dams are considered not only essential, but actually necessary. Indeed, we do need the energy that comes from the much more dramatic, dynamic and powerful rush of water over a dam, and we feel justified pride, not only in the accomplishment itself, but in its sustaining physical energy for the sustainment of human life. The formal study of hydrology embraces both distribution and movement of water on and below the surface of the earth, as well as the impact of human activity on its availability and the conditions of its state. Also examining water, from a variety of perspectives, are legal experts, water quality professionals and watershed management specialists. Hydrogeology, specifically, studies groundwater.

From a scholarly perspective, we might counter with the study of dams, by civil engineers, in conjunction with those hydrologists, and the hydrogeologists, on the earth’s surface and its potential to bear the weight of such dams. Internally, from the human perspective, there are numerous professionals whose focus is on the ‘dams,’ the obstructions’ that somehow enter the ‘flow’ of the many rivers of water, blood, oxygen, carbon dioxide, nutrients, waste, not to mention those more abstruse things like thoughts, images, visions, dreams, hopes, and those other even more ephemeral things like emotions, senses, beliefs and attitudes. Medical professionals are trained to discern any ‘change’ from what is considered ‘normal’ in any of the various systems, all of them dynamic, at least from a benchmark base line, up or down a scale of measurement devised by those whose lives have been dedicated to such pursuits. Indeed, as the sophistication of the measuring instruments rises, so too does the detail of diagnostic perspicacity of the diagnostician. And like the proverbial snap-shot, previously a static hand drawing, diagram, sketch, each numerical piece of data is contiguous with, and expressive of a frozen moment in time. And taken over a period, then a line of numbers may show a trend line, lead to a projection and even help with a diagnosis and an action plan.

In a culture hungry (starved?) for special moments, ‘aha’s, they’re called, we have a strong desire, if not obsession, to know the ‘right number’ for ‘getting better’ or for ‘no hope’ and very often we, without even learning the numbers, jump to one end of the spectrum of hope or the other. Our emotions, in fact, are like buoys in the river, far ahead of the precise moment of the pain, the assessment and the diagnosis. We are not only ‘existing’ in the interior ‘river’ of our thoughts/sensations/feelings/opinions/perceptions/beliefs/ at any (and all) given moments, we are also engaged with the information that comes from those with whom we interact and the expression(s) of their respective thoughts/sensations/feelings/opinions/perceptions/beliefs…which are also in some dynamic ‘flow’ whether calm or turbulent, or somewhere in between.

Taken collectively, from each individual’s complex, systemic, ideational, cognitive, emotive, social, ethical, moral, religious, spiritual identity, there is another ‘river’ of the group into which models, examples, we have been learning to swim from a very early age. Intuitively, each of us has acquired a repertoire of images, like an interior moving picture, of social interactions, engagements, specifically with groups, teams, families, classes, choirs, hobbies, of how groups ‘tend’ to form, grow, operate and even erode. Such images, whether based on a representative sample (to borrow a statistical term) or not, comprise a portion of our identity and our relationships with any group.

Within each group, we have learned that there are those to whom the group consensus has conveyed ‘respect,’ ‘trust,’ ‘authority,’ and something more abstract we call ‘leadership’…whether in the formal or the informal sense. In each and every group, there is a ‘normative’ and conventional set of expectations that help both to define and to sustain the group. Over time, with various incidents, experiments, risks and successes, the determining ‘current’ of the group’s ‘river’ has been established, and the consciousness of this ‘current’ has enabled new participants to ‘swim’ successfully, socially, politically, ethically, morally, and eventually nudged their initial anxiety about ‘entering the water’ of the group into a mutual ‘acceptance,’ ‘welcome,’ ‘embrace’ and more predictable participation. Swimming, effortlessly, confidently, and eagerly in the ‘river’ of the group is one of the primary goals of many individuals who cross the threshold of entry. Indeed, for many, that state of ‘mutual flow’ in which the river’s flow and the person’s personal ‘flow’ each support, sustain and enhance each other is one to be so treasured, valued, and sought after, that, whether the group intentionally, or consciously, or deliberately knows, or not, is one of the primary goals for discerning the success of the group.

“Fitting in” is a phrase all of us learned in high school, when the respect and friendship of our peers was tantamount to our self-respect. And ‘fitting in’ is a social, political, and even ethical and moral minimum standard expected by most groups. By fitting in, we are able to demonstrate that we are dependable, trustworthy, approachable, negotiable, willing to co-operate, purposefully collegial, and thereby welcomed and embraced by various members of the group, including the ‘leadership’ and at least a cross-section of the members. There are significant advantages to fitting in in addition to acceptance, tolerance, respectability and comfort and security of both the individual and the group. These include a growing interest in the thoughts, opinions, attitudes, perspectives, of the neophyte, by a growing number of members. As this process continues, there are usually opportunities for new challenges and responsibilities and the satisfactions and success from achieving new goals, in co-operation with others. Status, while not openly discussed, is conferred to those who have demonstrated a capacity and a willingness to ‘fit it’ and to adopt the mores of the group, at least to a degree that permits and enables a mutual decision to join together.

There is another perspective to ‘fitting in’ with the group ‘flow’ that may not be as highly valued as conformity, compliance and mutuality. And that perspective, although highly risky and even dangerous for both the individual and the group, is the ‘irritant’ the pesky inquirer, seeker, questioner, provocateur, who, while bringing a serious interest in, and commitment to the group, also brings a kind of ‘interior river’ of ‘restlessness’ and ‘challenge’ not only for him or herself, but for the group. And the initial predictable and likely inevitable intersection of this individual and the ‘group-norm’ is one of anxiety, almost as if, without warning the group feels and even believes that it has encountered some unpredicted ‘white water’ and the group has neither prepared for the white water, nor even recognized the need for a vessel in which to ride through the rapids. Individuals who are perceived as ‘white water’ to a group that considers itself a calm, inland, spring-fed lake, surrounded by forests, and filled with small forested islands, will be analogous to the ‘motor boat’ that presumptuously launches into a ‘no-motor-boat’ declared lake. He/She will upset many on first encounter, and will be considered so obnoxious and even dangerous, not only because of the ‘noise’ of the motor of ideas, questions, enthusiasms, or suggestions, but more importantly, because of the ‘arrogance’ and the ‘presumption’ and the ‘impatience’ and the ‘unpredictability’ that has been signalled just by the launch of that motor boat.

Without the ‘benefit’ of the ‘historic,’ and ‘traditional,’ and ‘conventional,’ and ‘expected,’ probation period of trial, usually without mentorship, guidance, or especially support, the public declaration of ‘welcome’ in which the group identity is proclaimed, is challenged, perhaps even threatened, as indicative of the unlikelihood of eventual mutually beneficial relationship. And the individual who might consider himself/herself a misfit, or at least an iconoclast, a searcher, an inquirer or a seeker, re-visits a theme that might have accompanied much of his journey.

Inevitably, and predictably, the interactions of an individual with an organization, irrespective of its purpose or agenda, and irrespective of his/her history and motivation, will continue to be determined more from the perspective of the ‘group-mind’ and the ‘group-attitude’ which itself has been determined by those who have already subscribed to the stated purpose and its delivery. Power, within the group, and in its interactions with ‘newbies’ (rookies, recruits, freshmen/women, temporaries, interns) especially, is the component that, like the phantom uncle alcoholic in every family, is never spoken of, recognized, or even considered to still be alive.

The “power of the individual” in relation to the over-weening power of the group that is determined to ‘protect and to preserve’ whatever it considers its ‘established and appropriate’ modalities, is like the feather of a bird that merely flew over the river, in relation to the rush and the flow of the river. Of course, it will be picked up and examined with the question, “I wonder what kind of bird it was!” and then either dropped or retrieved for a personal artistic experiment in which it might be included.

Those ‘in power’ irrespective of the determination and the commitment to ‘welcome’ the new, the innocent, the naïve, and especially the searcher, are left in the position of having to ‘uphold’ and ‘support’ and ‘sustain’ the history and the long-term members of that group. Those of the ones who have demonstrated their loyalty, their dedication, and their concurrence with the approach, attitudes, beliefs and goals of the group. And there is really no established, effective, even desired, process for formally or informally getting acquainted with those who might be stretching their ‘wings’ ever so tentatively, and ever so riskily and ever so deliberately, in the hope that, this time, they will find acceptance, tolerance and perhaps even a glint of interest in learning ‘who’ they are, not only by the leadership but by those who adhere to the principles advocated by leadership.

Not all of us can of will be Mandela’s or Gandhi’s, as leaders of revolutionary groups; not all of us seek that kind of public acknowledgement, accolades and responsibility. However, in an age when everyone seems more and more anonymous, lost in the digital and the actual ‘crowd’ of mixed and dangerous messages, ‘seeing’ and ‘really getting to know’ the other, formerly taken for granted in small families and small towns, seems to be one of the ‘manifest destinies’ of which we are in danger of losing both sight and grip. And, it is the responsibility of the leadership of all groups to pause and to reflect on the question of how the ‘group’ ‘sees’ ‘the other’….irrespective of the ethnicity, nationality, gender, racial or even age identity of that ‘other’. And that ‘other’s “newness” to the group ought to have an equal relevance to the tolerance of the group as does any of the above demographics. Newness need not be a disqualifier, as a starting point for tolerance, acceptance, and even potential membership by the group.

Pluralism, as an objective study, will never replace the deep subjectivity of its deepest implications. Getting to know the ‘other’ irrespective of the identity of the ‘other’ brings with it the mutual responsibility of both ‘the other’ and ‘the group’ behind which many can and will hide.


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