Speaking oneself into existence
A short essay on the nature of God
**Note that my aJAR article this month is an abridgment of an essay from a book titled Are You My Listener? that I’ll be publishing this summer**
I Am Speaking
In previous essays, I’ve discussed the criticality of Experts and the work of Calibration for which they are responsible (see The Art of Decalibration, Parts 1 & 3 if you’re interested). In the context of Expertise, there is a premium on effective and efficient Speaking: one’s expertise is valuable only to the degree to which it can be communicated in a way that has impact in the domain of the expertise. ‘Speaking’ is not simply words or verbal communication. One can Speak through speaking (i.e., verbally or in written form), one can Speak through nonverbal channels, and one can Speak through speech acts (i.e., behavior/actions). Speaking, as I’m using it here, is a state of being and is expressed through behaviors of speaking, writing, physical action, etc. In a Grad School classroom, I Speak as an Organizational Psychologist and Professor - it is a state of being from which I generate and communicate reliable, stable frameworks for thinking about, for example, organizational design. Not the ‘right’ way to think about org design, not the perfected or certain way to design an organization, but a stable and reliable framework from which students (or, in the past, clients) can begin to form their own Speaking relative to the field of org design.
To be a clear and reliable Speaker is critical to maintaining the systems we rely on to live day-to-day life. One of the forms that malpractice can take in a profession is that an individual speaks without having done the work to Speak - they pick up the words of the discipline, and often even some credentials, but fail to do the work of embodiment required to Speak. Gather a group of 1,000 people who speak about Leadership, for example, and you’ll be lucky to find one or two who have done the work to Speak.
This is also one of, and perhaps the most common, form of blocks in the development of an individual as a human being: they train themselves - or are trained by their family, society, and/or teachers and coaches who haven’t done their own work - to speak about themselves and never to Speak as themselves.
In classrooms and board rooms, I also Speak as a.m., as ‘the genius of myself’1. I have spent a lifetime developing this genius, this Speaking as myself - and will spend the rest of my life further deepening that Speaking.
To be fully human is to be a Speaker, to be the true source of one’s Word. To further quote Carse, one of my earliest Educators: “I am the genius of myself, the poietes who composes the sentences I speak and the actions I take. It is I, not the mind, that thinks. It is I, not the will, that acts. It is I, not the nervous system, that feels. When I speak as the genius I am, I speak these words for the first time. To repeat words is to speak them as though another were saying them, in which case I am not saying them. To be the genius of my speech is to be the origin of my words, to say them for the first, and last, time. Even to repeat my own words is to say them as though I were another person in another time and place.”
Said more concisely: As human beings, we Speak ourselves into existence.
And yet, most of us are Spoken into existence by others - Speech that we then take on as our own and in so doing, become not the genius of oneself, but the echo of Script that we have long since forgot was Script.
I Am Listening
I was going to die, sooner or later, whether or not I had even spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silences will not protect you....What are the words you do not yet have? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?
We have been socialized to respect fear more than our own need for language." [Audre Lorde]
Whether it is in the classroom or as parents or managers, in the role of Teacher it is our job to Speak. It is our responsibility to be experts in our field, to transfer the body of knowledge that sits at the core of our discipline or life to the next generation of practitioners (or family members, or employees). Much of the process and infrastructure of our formal academic programs and T&D functions in organizations is in support of this responsibility. Curricula / instructional design, and grades / training metrics serve to ensure that we, the Teachers, are heard and that in hearing, the students / employees / children are able to take on and eventually expand our speech and the speech of our profession / organization / family / society. All very valuable and in fact, when ethically and intentionally applied, necessary to ensuring the stability of critical aspects of our lives, organizations, and society as a whole.
As Educators, our job is different: our job is to Listen. Not to listen for anything, but to Listen To the individuals who show up in our classrooms and workplaces and lives. The work of Listening To is not the work of extracting opinions from our students / employees / children, of creating environments where ‘the shy’ feel comfortable speaking. While these outcomes are certainly valuable in the context of Teaching, as Educators we are accountable for something different. We are accountable for creating the kinds of space in the classroom, workplace, and home that the Buddhists call Noble Silence, the silence in which the other is not ‘retrieving’ their thoughts (which, by their nature are artifacts from the past and often the reflection of what has been said by another), but rather engaging in a free and playful way with their thinking, their own voice, their own power of creation. I have found that students (and corporate clients and individuals I meet in my personal life) have had shockingly little access to this space, that the intense pressure to be Taught has left them with precious little awareness of what it is to be Educated.
The nature of Listening I am pointing to is not behavioral, there is no way to “do it”, let alone do it well or correctly.
Like Speaking, Listening is also a state of being.
And no common state of being, but a sacred state of being. If, for a human being, to Speak is to generate oneself, to bring oneself into existence, then a human being requires a space of Listening within which to Speak. More to the point, the individual’s capacity to Speak is gated by the depth and breadth of the space of Listening they find themselves in.
In the spaces of Listening you find yourself in in the world - and in your own head - can you Speak yourself in a way that extends beyond your habitual past? In a way that is ‘dangerous’ or odd or a discontinuity relative to who you are supposed to be and have always been?
Odds are high that you are in spaces of Listening, even within yourself, that allow only so much of this before ‘help’ or ‘support’ of ‘feedback’ is offered. Which is fine and appropriate for the work of Training. But, in the context of ontological development / transformation / innovation, help or support or feedback or any of the ‘listening behaviors’ we emphasis in Training work are an indication that you have reached the boundary of the Listening space you are in.
What would it be for this space of Listening to be truly without boundary…and yet still highly rigorous? For it to be a field of endless expression, but with a very high standard of commitment?
This question is connected to a core principle in my community of human development practitioners at DAE, U of Next, and the M.A. in Leadership & Change. But, this essay is not about the practice of human development - it is about God. And I believe I have now put enough distinctions in place to address the concept of God, as I conceive of and experience it.
All the world loves you,
but you are nowhere to be found.
Hidden and yet completely obvious.
For a number of years, I did pro bono Advisory work for the national leadership of the United Church of Christ. One of UCC’s core beliefs was that God is Still Speaking.
When I was with them, I introduced a parallel thought: God is Still Listening.
But, as an expression that has a noun (God) engaging in an action (listening), even this was a watering down of my faith, which I would more accurately express as:
God IS Listening.
Again, I’m not pointing to an entity engaged in movement, in an action. I’m pointing to an entity that is itself movement - and a kind of movement that is itself an entity. Listening - not listening - is the generation of a Space, and is itself a space, within which Life can emerge, within which original Speaking can emerge.
And so, to summon the divine is quite simple, though perhaps, given our habituation, not easy:
(And I suppose it's worth noting that Religion is not primarily concerned with Listening, but Speaking - when done well, it is a Speaking that is a useful developmental tool for the formation of an individual’s own Speaking on the subject. When done poorly, it robs the individual of Speech and instead inserts its own Speech about God and Life into the individual to repeat.)
James Carse, Finite & Infinite Games