Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World


Written by: on January 16, 2015

Last night while I was speaking in front of my class, one of my students did something that caught my eye. Tonight I can’t tell you what it was that my student did. It wasn’t anything significant or distracting. I just noticed it. It’s what followed that stuck with me. Without even directly looking at the student, I incorporated her action into my next statement. I didn’t think about it. There was no pause. I just kept speaking.

My student interrupted me. “You saw that?”

I smiled at her and said yes, because that’s what we, as social workers, do. We observe every little detail and use that data to inform our practice and actions. I said that I was a licensed stalker, in a good way.

The reality of this practice of observation is that it isn’t a conscious process. At first it may have been – teaching myself to pay attention. Teaching myself to question meaning and assess context. Over time, over years and perhaps decades, it has become a subconscious process. I don’t think about it. I don’t take notes. I just … do. I don’t write this to say how awesome I am. Rather, I feel more like I have little control over this process. It just is.

In “The Social Animal,”[1] David Brooks plows through an immense collection of research about the brain, social development, and human interaction to present a thought provoking picture of how human beings really learn and function. Brooks argues that the majority of what we do, say, and feel is guided not by our conscious, discerning mind, but rather our subconscious. The volume of information presented by Brooks is far too great to sufficiently address in a brief post. Instead, I will focus on the interaction of the conscious and the unconscious mind in learning.

In the class I taught today, we were discussing skills associated with spiritually sensitive social work practice. We talked about how in the beginning these skills can seem awkward and cumbersome. As we interview a client, we know we’re supposed to be listening, but at the same time we are formulating what the right thing to say next might be, and while we are formulating that information in our mind, we don’t hear what the client is saying. Over time, that conscious formulation becomes more and more relaxed and it just seems to flow. Brooks talks about how when we are learning a new skill, there is a great amount of brain activity happening. By contrast, there is a mere subtle blip of brain activity when an expert practices the same skill.[2] The initial learning is more present in the conscious mind, while at the same time the subconscious is drawing upon past experiences, training, and information, and creating new neural pathways. Once these pathways are formed, often through repetition and practice, the activity requires little effort. It becomes a function of the subconscious mind.

Brooks presents the dance between the conscious and the subconscious mind through a consideration of epistemological modesty, which is the “knowledge of how little we know and can know.” [3] It is the recognition of how little we understand, which Brooks would argue is because of the subconscious. Epistemological modesty is an attitude toward life. It is based on the knowledge or awareness that we really don’t know ourselves. It supposes that wisdom begins with an understanding of how little we know, and then using that understanding to learn and grow. It requires persistence, patience, and the ability to endure ambiguity.

In “The Little Gidding,” T.S. Eliot wrote:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

This resonates with the concepts of epistemological modesty and the Greek, “metis”. [4] Through our wandering and exploration, we arrive at a place of wisdom or balance that emerges from the dialogue between the conscious and the subconscious mind. Through practice, experience, time and billions of neurological processes, we arrive at a place of understanding both the conscious details and the subtle, subconscious innuendo of a situation, relationship, or life itself.

I loved this book. I brought up different aspects of the book in multiple conversations throughout my day. But it also does not address some greater questions, specifically, that of the spirit or the soul. Brooks doesn’t intend to address these. He focuses on the research about thought. But I might hypothesize that some of these subconscious functions that he writes of, morality, love, character, might have an even deeper place in our human experience. God says that He will write His laws in our inward being, in our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). In my experience working with people, I have become more and more convinced that most people know in their heart of hearts, what is good and true and right. I believe that this is greater than just our subconscious, but that it is the very fingerprint of God on our souls. And I believe that calls for greater exploration.

[1] David Brooks, “The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement,” New York: Random House, 2012.
[2] Ibid, p. 240.
[3] Ibid, p 245.
[4] Ibid, p. 249.

About the Author

Julie Dodge

Julie loves coffee and warm summer days. She is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at Concordia University, Portland, a consultant for non-profit organizations, and a leader at The Trinity Project.

10 responses to “Exploration”

  1. Telile Fikru Badecha says:

    Hi Julie! Great example you share how your practice of observation has become a subconscious process. It is fascinating how mastering skill frees up our mind. Like you say at the last paragraph, Brooks doesn’t talk about religion. But he highlights the pivotal roles of the inner mind and the importance of relationship for human flourishing, which is central to our faith as well. I love Jeremiah 31:33. Thank you for sharing your experience!

    • Julie Dodge says:

      Thanks Telile! I think part of what Brooks offers is that inclusion of how human relationship fosters our brain development, as you note. We are incomplete apart from one another. And we are incomplete apart from God. We are not designed to be alone.

  2. Miriam Mendez says:

    Julie, practical and insightful post! You bring up a good point when you say, “the initial learning is more present in the conscious mind, while at the same time the subconscious is drawing upon past experiences, training, and information, and creating new neural pathways. Once these pathways are formed, often through repetition and practice, the activity requires little effort. It becomes a function of the subconscious mind.” Well put, Julie. I wonder how that would work when it comes to our emotional responses.

    By the way, you are awesome! Thanks, Julie.

    • Julie Dodge says:

      Awww, Miriam, YOU’RE awesome! I think developing those emotional skills is a similar process. But the catch is first learning to recognize our emotions. Sadly, many people are not very good at this. We project. We even act on them. But we may struggle recognizing this. This past week I’ve spent a good deal of time with people who aren’t so good at that first step of recognizing their own feelings and then they make a mess of their interactions with others. They say they aren’t angry (because they think it’s not good to be angry), but they are and their hurt and anger just seeps into everything. Feelings are hard because we attach so much more to them, we feel vulnerable, and they are less tangible. But I believe it’s possible to learn healthy emotional skills too.

  3. Julie, as always, top-notch post. Thanks for sharing.

    I love your ability to “pay attention.” I believe that this is a learned skill, not one we are necessarily born with, one that develops intentionally over time with lots and lots of practice. I think indigenous people do this better than white people. The cool thing is that they pay attention to everything, especially to nature (creation). I don’t do this well, but I am realizing that there are often more lessons in the dailyness of life then there are in all the books in the world. Sometimes I get weary of knowledge but not of wisdom.

    I interviewed a Native-American elder last month in central Washington. One of the most fascinating parts of this interview was when after he would share something, he would go silent for several minutes. So we sat in silence together, which was more comfortable for him than for me. What was the silence about? It was about a lot of things, but I am certain that it was a simple lesson for me. We can learn a lot from silence, but we are not silent very often. This silence was about taking the time to think and taking the time to notice carefully what just happened. It was a silent call to pay attention. We have so much to learn; at least I know I do.

    Thanks again for the reminder to pay attention to the little things.

    • Julie Dodge says:

      Yeah Bill, that silence is something, isn’t it? One of the listening exercises I sometimes have students do is have one student share a story while the other simply listens and does not speak. For two minutes. It’s amazing how hard this is for both students. But in many Native communities, it is the best way. To sit in silence while the other speaks, or just in silence. And in that manner I think they model a way of being that fosters both thought, learning and relationship. Silence creates trust and respect. It’s kind of cool, no?

  4. Ashley says:

    Julie, I love how you continuously remind us that God is a missing link in many of these books. As Shel Silverstein would said, He’s the missing piece!

    Also… just to let you know… You’re one of the most observant people I’ve ever met. Walking around with you in London and Capetown, I was amazed at what you would see that I wouldn’t. It makes me even more thankful that you did the driving!! 🙂 That brings me to Stefania’s post about community. So many of us are inwardly and individually focused. We neglect to see all that is happening around us, nor do we see, really see, those around us. Hmm…that’s something to ponder.

  5. Julie Dodge says:

    Ashley, you are a wonder and an encouragement.

    As for the observation thing, I was talking about this with a dear friend yesterday. Yes, I’m pretty good at noticing what’s happening in the world, but if someone flirts with me I’m perhaps the most oblivious person you will ever meet. Funny the things we learn to see or not see. Perception matters.

    Peace, my friend.

  6. Richard Volzke says:

    I strive to seek God each day, first, before I make any decisions. I also seek counsel from my wife and close friends when making decisions. Proverbs 19:20-21 says, “Listen to advice and accept instruction, and in the end you will be wise. Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails.” When I was in the business world, I learned early on that a wise leader understands that he or she does not know everything. I try to surround myself with individuals who are smarter than I, especially in the areas where I am weak.

  7. Michael Badriaki says:

    Dear Julie, great post. Your students are well served to have you as their teacher. Your style of incorporating the things you are able to observe in your students is thoughtful and indeed captures some of the topics Brook is talking about in his book.

    I agree with you that Brook did not intend to cover the theological aspect of his topic. In fact he says so in a Ted talk, however Christian have the liberty to exercise a Christian worldview as they interact with any material.

    Thank you!

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