This is the sixth in a planned series of posts on Worlds, as understood by Descriptive Psychologists.
So far we have been talking as if a person has one and only one community in which they participate and thus only one world to make sense of.
Ah, if only everyday life were that simple! In fact, each of us participates in multiple communities, each with its own world that makes sense in its own particular way. Usually we switch from one community to another smoothly, without much effort, and we have no trouble keeping track of who we are in which world – that’s part of our core competence as persons and we’re mostly really good at it. Sometimes the shift is incomplete; we find ourselves a bit wrong-footed and have to focus more to make sense of what we’re up to right now. And from time to time we find ourselves in an impossible situation, called upon to participate in two communities simultaneously. This can require a quick and sometimes hard choice – which comes first? Or can you literally live in both worlds at once?
Consider, for example, Jane, an academic economist who loves playing chess over her lunch break. As an economist she is conscious of a world of numbers expressing supply, demand, monetary velocity and other measures of economic activity, and she relates these in processes defined by quite precise equations. As a chess player she is conscious of a world of pieces, players and moves that are bounded by the rules of chess and the board. She does not make sense of her moves using precise equations or measures of any kind; instead she looks at the pattern of pieces for potential lines of attack or defense. Crucially, she does not see the chess board or think about it as an economist; she does not look for or even notice economic facts, and she thinks as a chess player. If economic talk spills over to the chess board, she recognizes it as purely metaphor and may find it amusing: “I have to question the marginal utility of that rook move.”
Jane is also a wife, mother, member of her church, director on two corporate boards, enthusiastic Zumba dancer and big-sister to three underprivileged girls. She moves among these communities smoothly, recognizing who she is at any given time and being conscious of and as what is appropriate. She navigates these various worlds effortlessly (doing justice to them all may strain her time and energy resources, but that’s another matter) because that’s simply what is involved in being a person. This is a powerful, necessary core competence. Further she has no problem keeping track of who she really is in all this navigation; she is always “me”. And “me” is not yet another place in some ultimate, superordinate community: What holds everything together for “me” is my life. Persons live their lives in communities: The worlds of their communities make sense to them, they experience Ultimate Satisfaction from participating in their communities, and the ultimate significance to the person of all this participation is, “It’s how I live my life.”
So far, so good. Consider your own life, and the communities in which you participate. Notice that you move from world to world mostly effortlessly, and find that at any given time your world and your place in it makes sense – although you might be hard pressed to say exactly how because you rarely need to. Fish live in water; people live in worlds. Both need to know how it all works, in order to continually act successfully on it. Neither needs to be able to articulate it. (Fish don’t even try …)
Most of the time we have an informal sense of which worlds take precedence over which others. This enables us to make on-the-fly decisions: John can participate with his children as players in a first-person shooter video game and thoroughly appreciate the way that world makes sense, but when one of them in the heat of action uses language that goes over the line for their family, John as Dad steps in.
But some people consciously organize and commit to specific priorities among their worlds. I saw a recent example in an op-ed piece in the NY Times, which referred to a small private business in St. Louis with an unusual motto: “Faith. Family. Dogs.”
Their business involves taking care of and walking other people’s dogs. The name of their business tells you that, and more. The owners live their lives as part of a community whose world makes sense via the ultimate satisfaction of their direct experience of faith. This world comes first for them. Next is the world of their family, whose practices are largely derived from their faith community. And finally – dogs! You can be sure they treat dogs as their faith community requires and as part of their family, while still doing justice to their essential doggy needs and nature.
People whose lives have always been essentially secular may find this an odd or even alien way to live, but for many people of faith it is a requirement for a life of integrity. And people whose lives change from faith-based to secular often retain a deep interest in organizing their worlds in ways that have a similar integrity.
Consider, for example a, friend of mine (let’s call him Levi). Levi is a renowned organization consultant, born into a large and devout Mormon family, who spent the first 35 years of his life as a practicing member of the church community. Eventually he and his wife left the church because they no longer experienced ultimate satisfaction in participating; in the end the world as they experienced it did not correspond to the Mormon view. Levi found himself voraciously exploring, adopting and then moving on from a series of conceptual frameworks; he has a driving passion for systems that make deeper sense of what goes on in the world. He finally settled into mastery of a framework that has been referred to as “the Theory of Everything.” Levi is an honest and self-reflective man; he recently observed to me, wryly, that he notices himself reading intellectual books and rigorously applying the Theory to them in exactly the same way his father used to do with the Mormon scriptures. His community and world have changed; the ultimate satisfaction has not.
Finally let’s consider Bill, a policeman from a family of law-enforcement officers and father of Kyle, a 15-year-old student whose parents have just discovered he is selling marijuana to his friends.
As a cop Bill sees clearly what must be done with Kyle – the boy needs a wake-up call from the criminal justice system. He has seen too many boys escalate from dealer to career criminal. He is also a loving and supportive Dad, who has spent considerable time, with the active support of his wife Linda, ridding himself of what he calls the “toxic residue” of how his own Dad treated Bill. As a police officer, he is proud when someone says “You remind me of your Dad”; as a father, Bill would take that as a devastating criticism and a reminder to watch himself more carefully. As Kyle’s father he is horrified at the thought of turning his own son in, even if he does get off with juvenile detention – he has seen too many young men who have been permanently scarred by “juvie”.
Bill is caught in an intractable world collision. The collision is between worlds in which Bill himself lives important parts of his life. He faces an intolerable choice: he can be a good cop, or a good dad, but he can’t be both.
This kind of intolerable collision is fortunately not a day-to-day event for most of us, but when it happens it can be difficult to resolve. If not resolved it can constitute a pathological condition, in which the individual is significantly restricted in their ability to participate in the social practices of their community. And as we shall see in later posts this is only one way in which ultimate significance is involved in pathological life conditions.
Next: What ultimate satisfaction is not.
(An exploration of Bill’s dilemma and some possible resolutions can be found in my paper When Worlds Collide.)