In No More Secondhand Art, Peter London wrote that artists were custodians of issues larger than themselves. This is also true for those of us working in diverse areas of social change: our tasks our larger than we are. Our work isn’t simply a matter of expressing ourselves properly, fixing what appears to be broken, or making the right connections. When we feel passionately about something—local food, clean water, better government, art education, or any number of other issues—-we can assume that Spirit/Universe/the world is asking us to enter into a relationship with this thing that is outside of our “small” self.
Viewing our work as relational is important for two reasons. First, a relationship means that there is give-and-take, i.e., we don’t have all the answers. We are in relation to something that is “other,” at least somewhat unknown to us. We can’t solve or figure this out ahead of time; we don’t have all the answers; and we don’t know where the ultimate solutions will lie. All we can do is put something out there, see what comes back, and use feedback to alter course.
Second, when we form a relationship with something we deeply care about, a “space” is created. Hannah Arendt called this space an “in-between.” Theologians often call it a “Divine Third” and Martin Buber called it “Thou.” When we become bound up in relation to something, Buber said, the thing is no longer an “It.” Creating and acknowledging this “in-between” space is important, because we must have space for the expansion of our knowing to happen.
However, for most of us, our models for “learning” were developed in school, where the subject that we will be studying is laid out for us in tidy little boxes. We typically don’t learn how to enter into a relationship with the unknown. In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer writes,
Western culture has a million ways of reinforcing the illusion that the world consists of inert stuff out there and that we are the active agents of change whose education has been aimed at giving us the tools to exercise dominion over the earth.
Along those lines, I once heard a prominent science professor remark (off the cuff, of course) that Ph.D.’s were the ones who were destroying the earth. What he meant was that Ph.D.s are trained to think in narrow ways rather than expansive ways. Since I hold a Ph.D. from one of the best universities in the country, I believe I’m allowed to admit this truth: Ph.D.’s are expert at gathering and analyzing information. What Ph.D.’s generally aren’t trained to do is wonder and explore (think outside the box). Further, this professor was also referring to the fact that many of the world’s research organizations are led by scholars who hold Ph.D.s, thus further reinforcing the use of a narrow problem-solving style to resolve the world’s most intransigent problems. Instead of dissecting and analyzing our problems, cutting them up into little segments that feel neat and orderly, this professor was claiming the need for all of us to be learners, able to explore realms and issues that are bigger than our current ways of knowing. We need to learn how to not know, stepping forward into unknown space.
For most of us, and especially those of us involved in social change, our work is larger than we are.