"Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark. 
In effect, the people who change our lives the most begin to 
sing to us while we are still in darkness. If we listen to 
their song, we will see the dawning of a new part of ourselves."

Rabindranth Tagore

Existential Intelligence is the sensitivity and capacity to engage questions about human existence – how we got here, whether we have a purpose, and whether there is meaning in Life. Existential intelligence embraces the exploration of aesthetics, philosophy, religion and values like beauty, truth, and goodness. A strong existential intelligence allows human beings to see their place in the big picture, be it in the classroom, community, world, or universe.

First proposed by Howard Gardner, existential intelligence is one of nine theorized intelligences and is considered to be amoral – that is, it and the other eight categories of human intelligence can be used either constructively or destructively.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Abundant Community

This week I am reading The Abundant Community by John McKnight and Peter Block. Twenty pages into it, the premise seemed simplistic. But by page forty-two the quiet defiance of the words settled into my chest.

Simple but radical: We have allowed systems to co-opt community, and by doing so, we are gradually losing our connection to everything that is meaningful and potentially rewarding in our lives.

The authors write:
“All that is uncertain, organic, spontaneous, and flowing in personal, family and neighborhood space is viewed in System Space (caps mine), and in Science, as a problem to be solved…”

To paraphrase: What systems do best is organize human beings in ways that we may appreciate as the public school system, government, or the ease of knowing exactly what will be on the shelves in a big box store – because each store is laid out like all of the others. It’s the purpose of systems to create a world that is repeatable.

Embracing systems also means we don’t have to trust our own instincts about what is right or wrong or healthy any more, because we have trained professionals who know better than we do how our children should be raised, how much exercise we need, and whether a diet would be a good idea or not. How we should deal with homeless people. Whether it matters when a developer clear cuts a hundred acres of woods, or dredges the beach, to build a bunch of new houses.

Life is automated. Maybe it’s a relief. Maybe it’s a side step of decisions we could make ourselves. Feeling good about the decisions you make – whether they are related to your children, your work environment or your diet – is the foundation of a healthy sense of self esteem.

So it’s a trade-off. On the surface systems keep the wheels greased. Read further in the book, and you’ll be on to how this is all about consumerism. How human beings can be managed and automated until they actually think there is never enough, that acquiring is the name of the game, and that it’s every person and every family, for his or herself. Not anything new. But exactly what seems to be breaking down, all around us, right now. Perhaps we have reached the end of the rope when it comes to substituting impersonal systems for the slower, messier task of relationship building - a few dedicated folks at a time.

I am still thinking about how this impacts my art world. Based on the ideas proposed by this book, I must consider whether I am living in the world of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Last week I wrote about systems and classifications. This week I fear I’ve contributed to a system that will only serve to erase the personal face on all that is reverent and intrinsically human about making. It’s the paradoxes of Life that keep me humble.

We can’t throw out the systems completely without initiating chaos. Watching the events in the Middle East this week is evidence of that. But like the King of Bahrain, our best bet is to dismiss the troops and keep talking. Offering flowers, while rejecting the most dehumanizing of the systems. Making at least one peaceful, defiant choice every day that defies systems.

What could you do this week – in or out of the studio – that would defy a system and return a little bit of humanity to the world around you?

I’ll post my choices and experiences if you’ll post yours.


  1. Jane, This is a subject close to my heart. I search daily for ways to bring myself out of this loop. I no longer use plastic bags to encase my garbage (wet, kitchen type) to then be placed into landfills, (the garbage inside may break down, but the plastic will always encase it), nor do I buy zip locks. I reuse bags that the food I buy sometimes comes in or wax paper or aluminum foils (which can then be recycled) I had stopped taking the newspaper and now find I need it. No problem, there are plenty of throwaway papers out there to wrap my wet garbage. I use my recycled shopping bags to store it until it goes into the trash. [this isn't a NEW idea].
    I don't always buy new articles, when I can purchase/acquire from(craigslist, thrift stores, garage sales...and in my neighborhood street donations). I purchased items off of craigs list for xmas presents for my grandkids this year.
    I listen to TedTalks quite a bit and found this video you might be interested in. Collaborative Consumption is the topic presented by Rachel Botsman and it warms my heart to see a movement in place that encourages you to not always buy new, but to share items or to buy used from others who are finished with them. Here is the link to her talk if you're interested. http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/rachel_botsman_the_case_for_collaborative_consumption.html
    Its only 15 minutes long.
    In my art I try to find ways of re-using. Here in SF there is an amazing place called SCRAP, it is in other cities as well. People, companies...donate items they no longer need, or can use and artists can stop by and get paper, fabric, metal, wood, glass, tile, and etc for thrift store price or less. I re-upholstered my couch with fabric found there that cost me 2$ per yard. If not for places like these (FabMo, SCRAP) this fabric would just go into land fill. In the process of searching for upholstery supply, I found a place (again in SF) that sells the fiber fill by the pound (which I needed for the couch pillows). With what was left over, I made bed pillows from some muslin leftover from another project that are better than any I've found brand new. They are exactly as firm as I like them and I used only left overs to make them!
    The point is that there are innumerable ways to do the same thing daily, in our 'making'

  2. Hi Jane! I haven't read the book so perhaps I am reacting to something that isn't there. But I read something recently that resonated with me -- that the greatest invention of civilization was cities. People do great things and make progress when they get together with other people, exchange ideas, figure out more efficient ways to get food on the table, etc. One of the benefits of cities is division of labor, which means we can all get the basics done in less time by collaborating (aka organizing) than by all being on our own. Without organization we'd each be spending 17 hours a day feeding ourselves, leaving precious little time for making art, to name just one worthwhile activity.

    Bringing it to the present time, do you really want to spend ten hours a day thinking about whether a certain property ought to be zoned for a church or a WalMart, or whether a certain street downtown ought to be one-way west, or which textbook should be used in sixth-grade math or whether the local grocery store has its meat coolers at the proper temperature? Wouldn't you rather delegate those decisions to some organized structure that represents you (I know, that may not be easy to accomplish...) and lets you spend your time doing more fulfilling activities? They had this system in ancient Athens, where every citizen was expected to show up for many hours per year to serve on juries, for instance. I believe the standard jury consisted of 500 people! Yes, it was participatory government in its purest form, but it sure wasted a hell of a lot of time.

    I like organization, and I like delegation of responsibility. On the global scale, it means I don't have to be an expert in nuclear proliferation or food safety or immigration policy or healthcare delivery, because other people are in charge of those areas. On the personal scale, it means I don't have to put away the laundry, just take the clothes out of the dryer and put them in a basket. On both scales, life is better as a result.

  3. I think systems are tools. They represent a certain kind of pattern that we can use in powerful ways. But any tool can be dangerous if not used wisely. The problem is when a person abdicates personal choice and responsibility within any system.

    All change comes with both gain and loss. Our society has evolved from the age of reason and this has cost us a lot in terms of trusting our own hearts and inner voices in the face of a lot of external information and noise. The internet exacerbates the volume, while also providing extraordinary resources and connections.

    One of the important skills for the future will be the ability to filter this overwhelming volume and still find one's own voice within it. I have recently read that the age of reason is giving way--left brain will be giving way to right brain dominating societal values. As an artist, I celebrate this, but as an analytical person who also values knowledge, I hope we find balance.

  4. its called sociology, you can learn about it in college. i dont see that people act as systems. most people i meet are friendly and personable and care about their individual "stuff." one of my ways to stay out of a "system" is to make friends with someone outside of "my" social "class." as for the larger perspective, the world is demonstrating to us that we as individuals need to speak up and keep speaking up. because we dont, the rich get richer and etcetera.

  5. I've had a lot of fun thinking about this topic, thinking about system words in the natural world, colonies, hives, flocks,gaggle, herds, etc. And in human-created systems: families, clans, tribes, communes, associations, department/bureau of, guilds, etc. We are surrounded by and part of all sorts of systems whether we like it or not, or whether we are aware of it or not. We play various roles in different systems, "team player," "outsider", and other kinds of roles, each important to maintaining a particular system. Systems are governed by formal and informal rules. Once a system is well established, it will inherently resist change. It strangely becomes like an organism seeking to perpetuate and protect itself to resist change. What comes to mind is an old Star Trek movie about the Borg ("resistance is futile...you must assimilate or be destroyed")--science fiction yes but a far out example of a human system gone awry . Group-think is one of the most powerful, insiduous yet unconcious rules in human systems. Group think can turn ugly in a minute, usurping one's sense of self and humanity as evidenced by the most tragic and extreme historical examples.On a smaller scale, say a group or organization that one is part of in one's community, it is still has repercussions. It takes a lot of guts "speak up" with an opposing point of view or an idea that doesn't fit in with the pre-ordained plan in a group with a strong group-think dynamic. Such a group could be one where its members have an unconscious, unspoken agreement that certain members voices count more than others, or a group with informal but rigidly held social hierarchies. Speaking out against the corporations that may be trying to usurp government, or against the culture wars in our country, or on behalf of the union employees in Wisconsin is easy. But do it in an up close and personal group, any little ole' group-think- driven system that one may belong to in one's own community, that my friend is the slow and questionable beginning of softening those rigid edges--maybe bringing a bit of humanity to the picture, maybe not. But at least one holds on to one's own. By the way, did I say I did this? Sure did.

  6. Thank you, Jane. I will read this book.
    The systems you speak of are dehumanizing and methods of control in large part. I grew up in a small midwestern town of about 20,000. We didn't have TV until I was 11 or 12, and if anyone is in my age bracket, you will remember that TV programs didn't start till 4 pm. We continued to play and interact with friends in the great outdoors, read, spend time with neighbors, take a class at the local art center or daydream with vivid imaginations.
    In the 50's and 60's consumerism raged as people hummed and whistled the jingles they heard on last night's TV commercials - it was "keeping up with the Jones" time. The 60's were also the golden era of liberalism and actual Democrats! Much changed for the good, it was a push to rethink and continue toward a more just community of people.

    Oh, but the glow of the TV beckoned and like sheep, more and more minds were shaped to conform to the way of thinking and doing espoused by the TV preacherman, the commericial messages that scream buy-buy!, the corporate paid news shows. Stereotypes of foreigners were readily accepted by those in front of the tube and through the years other media. "Ideal" society was redefined to benefit those who had something to sell, be it a product or idea. The end result, the chaos we have today.
    I see hope in the recent protests worldwide, spread now to America. Perhaps the tipping point is now.
    I would also recommend any of Bill McKibben's books--most recent is "eaarth" (yes spelled that way); Amy Goodman's "Exception to the Rulers;" LinkTV which sponsors TED Talks, hosts many excellent programs and is NOT corporate owned.

  7. sometimes systematic thinking can be useful, it saves time, can be efficient etc as others have pointed out. But when the systems are based solely on Free Enterprise, rather than the Common Good, then things go wrong. If the system is designed solely for people to gain power and money, then we are all dehumanized. There is a tremendous push right now towards anti-intellectualism. why? the system does not want us to think, for if we think, we might choose not to follow. So, one thing I try to do is make people think!! (including myself of course...after chocolate!)

  8. P.S. this is a good website for inducing thought:

  9. Oh dear, I thought I could just learn how to make marks on cloth and play with paints and dyes, and sing gently as I nicely ripened into old age. Now I see that I will still have to think as well. Thanks Jane.

  10. Thanks, Jane,
    Keep writing
    Keep inviting
    Keep creating
    Keep challenging...
    and keep demonstrating the promise of
    "our abundant communities!"

    My visual parable of the subtle tyranny of the comfortable, buy-a-happiness-solution, systems world is:
    The bottle of Extra Strength Maalox,
    that sits on the corner of my office desk...
    attached around the top is a little coupon that came with it, for:
    Free Pizza!

    That says it all.
    And even a non-artist like me can see it
    and know... and not go shopping!