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Lessons: Planning and the Spiral Nature of Experience

One of the most profound teachings I had a chance to be exposed to this semester (there was a lot of them) was the idea of experience as a spiral. The things that we think we’ve put behind us, both the joy and the happiness, we will encounter again, except they’ll present themselves to us wearing a different mask, and we ourselves will inevitably be altered from the last time. However we envision it — a demon on a road, an obstacle to overcome, a situation or a set of circumstances — there are triggers, tools, instincts, and that funny, emergent way in which details become stories that follow familiar arcs and turns; the various facets of myself peek out of the hidden corners of who I fancied myself to be.

We’re at the first day of 2011. I’m coming down the homestretch of this journey I started a year and a half ago with this master’s degree. I’ve been here before, and I will be here again. What would I like to remember for next time?

I often forget to work to my strengths rather than my weaknesses. It’s too tempting. I’ve heard it said that this could be conceived of as a form of perfectionism; I like to think of it above all else as a preference for beginner’s mind. This bumps up in interesting way with the concept of artistry:

The practice of inhabiting the edge in community engagement asks artistry to step forward and push us into new territory. Artistry is about many different things. It is about ingeniousness and it’s about prowess, confidence, and craftsmanship. Artistry is a superior skill that you can learn by practice and observation. In community engagement, it could be said that operating at the level of artistry means making your projects ‘sing’. […] The artfulness or practice of inhabiting the edge involves deep listening, nesting creative apporaches within a wider engagement process and ensuring that dreams are translated into appropriate action. (Wendy Sarkissian, Diana Hurford and Christine Wenman, Creative Community Planning, 2010).

Artistry also resonates with me as the highest form of what I cannot help but do or be as a consequence of my particular past and personalityrecognizing and owning my gifts and their implications, the other deep learning of this semester. The work — described above as community engagement, but spanning so many other things as it applies to my particular corner — is deeply satisfying to me; yet, as busy people often are, I am consistently and constantly pulled in many other directions. Some of these extend and enrich; others confuse and act as diversions. Sometimes it feels like I don’t quite yet have the strength to pursue the path of this particular kind of work the way that others have, or I’m simply not interested in wading in ear-deep in one particular thing and feel an urge to be bouncing back and forth consistently between some poles.

Despite this, I’m bringing what I have learned into the world I do know: engagement on and through technology, taking what we say and who we are online into who we are and what we do on the level of the everyday. Learning to harness the aggregate energy of what we already collectively do — our footprints through the data-snow — into healthier, more inclusive, more sustainable communities.

Make safe space for the ‘no’. This was a learning that came back to me, and it applies to both group situations and my own inner crowd of characters. The no doesn’t stop things from going forward; but it holds wisdom for more considerate and robust action. My ability to live as if this is true will determine the shape of my practice.

Sarkissian also points us to Meg Holden, who draws on William James’ examination of the philosophy of pragmatism for the balance and fusion of being simultaneously tough-minded and tender-minded:

To be tough minded, Meg summarizes, is to believe and trust in ‘facts’ and to learn through continuous testing and experimentation, whereas to be tender minded is to act on beliefs and intuition, be spontaneous, hopeful and ‘idealistic’. In sustainability, Meg argues the work of pragmatism is to bridge these ways of being through processes that develop new relationships of trust, respect and regular patterns of action, rather than specific one-time products or ‘outcomes’. (Sarkissian, Hurford and Wenman, page 6)

I’m happy to report that the project I will be pursuing for my master’s pushes me to maximize both these areas, as well as to continue strengthening the act of moving effectively between the two without losing the effectiveness of either. My instinct, faced with uncertainty, is to do more research; it helps but I can take it too far and never come back to the original challenge or need, or drag my feet on making the actual decision. This is where I find myself now in honing in on the actual question and tasks of the thesis. I remain hopeful as I sketch out what I am learning about the different interests in play, and the limits of what I can know in order to start doing.

While every part of my degree has been enlightening, this part — much of which comes from the class subtitled “Educating the Heart” — are the ones that make me most confident that I can find ways to make what I do useful and valuable to people. Looking forward to buckling down and doing the hard and delightful work of making that true.

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