Pattern #5

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Bringing Understanding to Life

Credits: Earthrise – NASA-Wikipedia / Woman – Alamy

Dry, lifeless knowledge fails to draw people into dynamic understanding for individual and collective wellbeing. So nurture deep realization of important truths, and vitalize people and activities with arts, questions, reflections that draw people into energies and understandings that make sense of their lives and move them to wise action.

Some related patterns:  33 Feeling Heard   41 Groundedness   53 Multi-Media Engagement   64 Powerful Questions   79 Spaces for Dialogue and Collaboration   80 Story   93 Wholesome Life Learning

  • How can we bring more aliveness to our teaching, learning, and understanding?
  • To what extent – and in what forms and ways – does the pursuit of deep understanding – beyond merely practical or theoretical knowledge – enrich our lives?
  • How can we nurture it?
  • How can we help people actually experience what’s important about certain understandings so that it shapes the way they think, feel and behave?

Going Deeper …

This is an edited version of the video on this page.

The inspiration for putting this into our pattern language was the recognition that in the public sphere discussion of public issues, there are many important realities that people don’t actually understand much about. You watch the battles over issues and you realize that both sides – all sides – of any given issue are ignoring certain realities – either intentionally or just because they don’t think of it or don’t understand something. And certain people are totally disconnected from reality! (That is certainly an important thing to understand!)

How do you GET what’s really going in useful ways that you can use to think with and engage with. That’s a problem, if you’re thinking about collectively approaching our issues, situations, collective opportunities, longings, and so on, and you want to take into account what needs to be taken for long-term broad benefit (which is our definition of wisdom).

The fact that people can’t see or understand or welcome or engage with certain realities or ideas or information means that it could help if there were ways to translate those understandings so those people can say: “Oh. Suddenly this makes sense!”

Because it’s sense-making that’s going on here with this pattern. Very often it is not in the form of explanatory text. An awful lot of extremely important understandings try to get communicated through explanatory text. But I’m aware of the serious limits of that because I do a lot of explanatory text and I can see how people respond – or, rather, have trouble responding – to it. You need pictures and stories. Poetry sometimes can get at deep underlying dynamics. There are important roles for all these different ways of communicating.

The blessing and curse of multi-modal intelligence (which is another one of our patterns) is that the more different ways you can approach a particular piece of reality, the more you can understand about it. That’s fundamental to this pattern language and to the idea of wise democracy. Different people kind of specialize, they have natural inclinations and skills in different forms of intelligence: narrative intelligence, musical intelligence, bodily intelligence, logical intelligence, intuitive intelligence,… all these different kinds of intelligence. Getting them to fit together is quite a challenge, but these modes have lots of complimentarity, lots of things that they can help with that augment each other. That’s the multi-media engagement kind of thing, multi-modal intelligence kind of thing, these are other patterns in the set. All can serve this pattern of “bringing understanding to life.”

The picture on this card for this pattern is a young woman looking at the archetypal photo called Earthrise, which was taken from the other side of the moon. These moon astronauts took the picture of our planet. There’s a sense of our planet being this beautiful living entity – “a pale blue dot”, as it was once called – this Earth thing is precious compared to the barren moon. And this photograph created a shift about that. I was alive when it happened. I was alive when the first people went to space. I’ve been around for a while… ; – )

That shift in perspective was profound. Lots of people take it for granted now because pictures like that are all over the place. But it was a real shift and it brought understanding to life. Lots of people get it now, what’s going on with us and the rest of the universe.

I remember profound realizations that were evoked by these charts of what the wealth of the 1% is compared to the vast majority of everybody else. The wealth of the .01% or the .001% – the super wealthy – bas an even bigger revelation. Their wealth overwhelms everyone else’s, even the rest of the 1%. They’re billionaires and you can barely understand a billion or billions.

Indeed, you can barely understand millions. You can kind of understand thousands, but thousands and millions and billions start to blur together. You don’t really GET the relationship between a trillion and a billion. You think: “Oh yeah, that’s a lot more…”, but you don’t GET IT that a trillion has a thousand billions in it, and a billion has a thousand millions it…. Your mind simply can’t comprehend what’s going on there. So having a chart that actually shows it is mind-bending and revelatory. There is a whole field – which was sort of named and promoted by a guy named Edward Tufte – that’s called the field of visual presentation of information.

And then there is playback theater, which can take somebody’s life or a group or conference and reflect it back dramatically. They gather information about the person or situation or activity – or they watch it – and then they do a spontaneous play about it which is like this mirror revealing underlying dynamics. Watching them do their thing, you GET what’s going on, at a different level.

I don’t fully understand the idea of bodily intelligence, but one of the profound things that I’ve experienced along those lines was a movement a bunch of us did at a conference. It was a flocking exercise: We stood up and were told to move forward together and try and keep the same relationship to the people that were immediately around us, the same distance. Another rule was if we came to a barrier, we were to turn to our left. There were like three or four rules. I was mixed into this crowd of about 30 people and we walked together across the room. We came to a wall and everybody turned to the left and I suddenly realized that I was in front just by turning to the left – which I hadn’t been before. Suddenly I was in front as a “leader” and I got a visceral sense of how leadership shifts instantly in a flock. That came home to me on a very deep level, much deeper than if I’d just been told about that dynamic.

To the extent wise democracy takes off – to the extent you have citizen deliberative councils, etc. – and to the extent you empower those people to have an impact, they really have to know what they’re talking about. You are going to have, for example, fifteen or a hundred randomly selected people in a Council studying an issue and becoming lay experts in that issue. They are going to be recommending policy to the government or the citizenry – policy or mass action around something – and we want what they recommend to be wise. We want those people to get what’s going on, and to take into account whatever’s important about that issue for the longterm.

So it’s really important how they get briefed and how they talk to each other. Randomly selected people are not necessarily scientists, not poets or artists or whatever. They haven’t lived through X, Y, and Z that is relevant to the issue they’re looking at it. If it’s all abstract, it’s really hard for them to be wise. It’s really hard to get out of their own limited perspective in order to provide greater service to their community.

So some of us involved in furthering wise democracy need to become artists in the broad sense – of being able to take specific things that need to be understood and making it so that very different and ordinary people can GET it at a deep level. That is a big, big problem – and opportunity. So that’s the fundamental thing. There are many other dimensions you could have to this pattern that are just delightful – such as what should children’s books look like – but the most important thing here for wise democracy is this:

Not only does the citizen council or the stakeholder group or whatever need to achieve understanding of an issue or situation. They need to be able to relay the understandings that THEY have come up with – becoming lay experts through days or weeks or years of deliberative activity. Now they’re on the other side of expertise – they’re experts! How do they communicate what they’ve learned to the broader public? What media, what storyline, what images, what do they use for that?

So that’s what this is about. The understandings are being brought up out of abstraction or obscurity into something that’s alive, that means something for the people, for the players in a particular situation, so that they behave differently because they understand differently – they see the world with new eyes.

Video Introduction (11 min)

Examples and Resources

“Music, art, literature, dance and film aren’t entertainment, nor light relief, nor are they background noise: these are the means by which complex ideas and feelings are communicated directly to people’s souls; they are how you engage and move people rather than just informing them.” – https://goodcountry.org/