A child is standing in the middle of a fair ground. Around her are the smells of hotdogs, sounds of laughter, stuffed animals hang low and are waiting to be won, there are rides and there are games. It’s an adventure waiting to be engaged. None of these experiences are unfamiliar. She’s read about them, anticipated them and experienced a few of them (in smaller doses) before. She stands there, turning, looking and wondering, yet is reluctant to trade her fear for the fair.
In an increasingly globally connected world, it is possible that identity, meaning and perhaps even truth are getting harder to define. Anothony Elliott, in his book Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction states that “the global challenges we face demand global solutions, and ones that are both future-regarding and geared to the actual needs and desires of others.” (p.350) The intricacy of our global relationships has in many ways granted the average person opportunities and experiences previously reserved for a select few. Rapid access to information and the capacity to transmit messages across multiple media platforms can leave us wondering what is truly significant and what is merely a product of publicity.
“The postmodern mind does not expect any more to find the all-embracing, total and ultimate formula of life without ambiguity, risk, danger and error, and is deeply suspicious of any voice that promises otherwise.” (p.261) Elliott’s words provide no comfort despite the many ways in which we trumpet the arrival of the newest, fastest and most compact means of transmitting information. It is possible that there is so much information that a person no longer is able to allow themselves the capacity to truly consider the implications of all the messages they are processing in any given day. The skepticism that Elliott alludes to may increase as we become numb to act on the truth when it appears, because we don’t want to risk missing the next thing.
So instead of actually engaging anything, the child in the fair ground, overwhelmed, takes her Ipod out of her pocket and snaps a few pictures of an “experience” about which she’ll convincingly, even excitedly tell others. Within she remains unchanged while the questions begin to echo in her mind. She’s traded the experience of the fair for surface knowledge of the fair.
The question that comes to my mind is simply this: if the pursuit of knowledge and the increased access to information is leaving us wanting in our social relationships perhaps there is a new yearning: to be known?
Elliott touches on this at the outset of his writings on social theory: “The more that human subjects reclaim the possibility of authentic existence through introspection and self-reflection, the more a social order based on mutual respect and autonomous activity will develop.” (p.28) The questioning that exists within a person, from Elliott’s social theory perspective, provides a definite connection to the inner-soul work of theology that we have been discussing in these spaces for the last few weeks. (Ford, p.148) In leadership, therefore, we ought to have a greater awareness of the unseen inner workings of the people we engage, recognizing their desire not simply for answers but for identity.
Jesus made an interesting statement to seventy two people that he sent out. He had previously been setting for them an example to follow, giving them instructions, providing them with cautions, releasing and empowering them to go about the task. He now, upon their return listens to their stories and the offers these words in Luke 10:20, “However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Their experience should not define them rather the fact that they were known to Our God was where they were to find their identity.
Elliott states that ”all societal structures, no matter how seemingly technical or administrative, must be anchored in the deeper symbolic textures of society.” (p.169) My contention would be that it is an imperative of leadership to help people clarify the stronghold of their identity. There is an unquantifiable aspect to the richness and depth of being known by Emmanuel, God With Us. There is a joyful freedom for life that extends beyond knowledge and experience. In an increased globalized world, there is also a growing hunger for the capacity to be known amid a steady onslaught of knowing.
Axel Honneth, a contemporary thinker in social theory is one who comes closest to capturing the need of people to exchange their emotions and their thoughts. Beyond that he notes the much needed, unquantifiable role of love in current times:
“It is from this interplay that individuals develop a positive emotional relation to their own identities, as well as self-confidence for acting in the wider world. Love, in Honneth’s opinion, fulfils the role of preparing individuals for the difficult emotional work of reconciling demands for recognition from others on the one hand with the desire for self-assertion on the other hand throughout life.” (p.178)
The same child stands in the centre of the same fair. This time the hand of her mom reaches down to her own. They talk about the things they have read about, heard about and recall previous smaller experiences. In those moments both excitement and fears are communicated. Then they go off together and take it in. They don’t have to do everything (somethings are too scary, others not really inviting) but everything they do has more meaning because its done in the loving context of being known. That’s a fair trade that will give her confidence in future circumstances.
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