Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Importance of Shared Context

Monday night, I sent my youth director a text.  "Missing you...," it said.

My youth director sent me a text back, "Are you texting the right person?"

She informed me that she believed I had really messed up.  She wondered just how it was possible for me to have sent such a thing to her.  Obviously, this sort of text was meant for my wife.  How could I possibly get the names totally and completely confused--my wife's name starts with D.  My youth director's with C.

I responded, "Yes.  Sitting around council missing my youth director."

I won't print her response here, but she did inform me she was on her way.

She had a rough day and had forgotten that we had council meeting.  Being the farthest thing from her mind, my initial text had caught her off guard.  It seemed strange, indeed, misplaced.  However, with a shared context, the meaning became very, very clear.  It was not misplaced.  It was not inappropriate.  It was the right words to the right person.

Too often, such misunderstandings govern our relationships with others.  Too often, the lack of a shared contextual understanding lead to all sorts of problems and arguments.  Fortunately, my youth director was willing to respond and ask.  Once we had a common ground of understanding one another, all became clear.

Unfortunately, many do not take the time to seek shared contextual understanding.  Many base their positions and understandings of another and that other's commentary solely on their own experience and contextual background.  This oftentimes leads to major conflict.

And it's not enough just to tell everyone, "You need to get a larger perspective on life.  You need to travel the world more and come in contact with others.  You need to get an education and have your mind broadened."

Why do I say this is not enough?

For the simple reason that I have come across more than a few souls who have a larger perspective on life; they have traveled the world; they have an education, and they are extremely contemptuous toward those who do not have that experience.  More than a few with such a broad perspective call those without such experiences, "narrow minded", "ignorant", and "myopic."  But in their name calling, are they not disregarding the experiences of others, no matter how small those experiences might be?  Of course they are.  They are projecting their own experience upon another even though it is broader.

Which leads me to ask: what then is the problem and is there a solution?

I think the problem is a very old one: self-centeredness.  It's the idea that my experience, my thought, my view of reality is the only one that counts.  It's the only one that is True.  It's the only one that reveals the reality of the way the world really works.

Postmodern thinkers point to this and say, "Therefore, there is no objective reality.  We are all governed by our perspectives.  No one perspective can contain reality and is always warped."

There is something to be said about the second two conclusions, but not the first.  The fact that each person has a different perspective on reality does not mean there is no objective reality.  For if there is no objective reality, then we cannot call things "right" and "wrong."  We cannot call someone "selfish" or "narrow minded" or "ignorant" or "myopic."  You have no basis to judge, and in the end, the only thing that makes something "right" is whether or not the surrounding culture considers it "right."  This is not a good path to be on.

And very, very few people actually walk it--at least with consistency.  Very, very few people walk a path of relativism.  The vast majority of people live as though there are objective truths in the world and that we can know them.  The vast majority of people believe and try to practice the concepts of justice and fairness.  They believe and practice the idea there is a right and a wrong thing to do.

But if this is the case, then why can't we seem to get along better?  Why can't we seem to bring about peace?  And justice?  And harmony?

We are too self-centered.  We tend to be more than happy to work for justice as long as we don't have to give anything up.  We are more than happy to work for fairness as long as it doesn't affect what I have.  We are more than happy to call for society to change as long as it is the other person who is changing and not myself.  My context is still the right one--after all.

And we are right back to where we began.

So, how does one break out of the contextual shell without giving up on the idea of Truth?  How does one welcome the opportunity to learn about another's context and become closer to the Truth?

I would make my case here for the Gospel.  For the Christian Gospel says that you are a broken individual.  You are self-centered.  You are myopic.  You think the world should bow down to your experience.  You would like to be God.

This is not something to be celebrated, by the way.  The consequences of someone believing this about himself is not good.  Such a person does not play well with others.  :-)

The Gospel confronts this attitude and calls it sin.  It calls it rebellion against God.  It calls this attitude a failure.  You are a failure.  Sometimes, it takes people a while to become convinced of this, but there is much more evidence that could be provided.  Once you realize you are a failure, it devastates you.  It brings you low.

And if you stopped here, you might become a bit depressed.

However, the Gospel tells you that in the midst of your failure, Jesus died on your behalf.  He lived as you should live, and He died the death you deserved.  Someone who is willing to die for you shows you that you are worth something.

You are a failure, but you are accepted.

This, theoretically, brings you to a place of humility--not too high; not too low.  Not feeling self-important, but neither depressed.  Not thinking you are perfect or your context is all important, but acknowledging it is limited and that others have such limited perspectives--and that one can grow by interacting with others; including those we perceive as "ignorant", "myopic", and "narrow minded."  For we realize we are narrow minded, ignorant, and myopic as well.  We don't share their experience, and when we interact, we expand our experiences and have a shared context.  And, of course, when we have a shared context and a shared understanding, we have much better odds of understanding one another and living together in harmony.

The Gospel may not be the only way one arrives at this conclusion; however, I am convinced it gives us the best ground and foundation for doing this.


1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you, I have been contemplating the same issue from a slightly different angle. I am quite aware of the problems in communication within our culture. And While I do really wonder how much of it is related to us as humans not having fully adapted our listening (receiving) skills to the changes that technology has brought to our world... It has helped us get our thoughts out into the world, but without the clues we used to pick up from the hearers of our proverbial wisdom, Such clues once afforded us clues which the wise among us would use the feedback from to more clearly articulate the message. (Personally, I think that it helped my maintain a certain air of civility.)

It is clear that the phenomenon is not new. I attended a reception on Monday for Rev. David Forbes, a Civil Rights Movement Pioneer and cofounder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He addressed a group of Students and community residents. He spoke to a mostly white audience and at one point misidentified the college as being Mennonite rather than Lutheran. He recognized the error as soon as he made it, and continued with his message. He emphasized the importance of first recognizing each other as children of God created in God's own image. And then "testifying"
about sin, injustice and our broken world, all the while recognizing our own brokenness.

I wonder how much of today's worlds problems may stem from our myopic perspectives in a world and culture moving at an ever increasing rate of speed, and rarely allowing for nuance and individuality...

Oh Well that is my .02 worth!

Carl