Dialogical Knowing and the Self

When I was very young, I used to feel that I was someone else’s dream.  A dream in the sense of a created piece of fiction.  I would screw up my eyes and look into the light, where I would see sparkling, moving starbursts of light dancing between my eyelashes.  I imagined that these starbursts were people, the creators of the fantasy which I occupied.  There were everywhere, at all times, but invisible to ordinary vision.  They could be seen through squinting, or my favorite, through raindrops on a windowpane.  Now, I might say these light beings existed in another dimension or a parallel universe, and they controlled and created this level of existence.  When I would have a thought, I would feel it originate in some unfathomable depth inside me, becoming clothed in my voice as it neared the surface of my consciousness.  Layer upon layer would envelope the original thought that came from the abyss that was the deepest, most inner part of my mind. 
    I was a severe stutterer as a child, requiring many hours of work with a speech pathologist to teach me to make myself understood.  But the way I experienced it, the thoughts were arising within me so quickly that my vocal apparatus could not keep up.  I had an unusual vocal pathology.  Along with the usual sibylant S commonly found in young children, I also repeated the last word or two at the end of my sentences or trains of thought.  This was how I kept up with what I was saying, for my mind was a million miles ahead of my mouth, and when I realized this, I would automatically repeat myself to bring my mind back to my body. 
      I was also hyperactive.  Nowadays, I would probably be classified as ADHD.  Instead of putting me on the medication recommended by the doctors, my mother got me meditation lessons instead, further enhancing my interior bent and lending it form.  From this, I learned that although my thoughts originated from some unknowable deep within me, I could control the surface thoughts and slow them down at will.  Over time, I came to identify my self with those surface thoughts, but from time to time, I would dip back into those depths and renew the mystery that was within me.  I knew that those fleeting and controllable surface thoughts that claimed to be me were not the true source of my being, but most of the time, I would forget this self-knowledge in the rush of growing up.  But I never entirely forgot, and the star beings were still my constant companions, even though I ignored them most of the time.

    In his book, Stages of Faith, psychologist and educator, James Fowler speaks of a "Dialogical Knowing."  This is a type of communication in which one or all the parties are able to engage each other and the world in such a way as to invite the known to express itself in it's own way.  The Knower and the Known are joined in what philosopher and theologian Martin Buber called the "I-Thou" relationship.  Neither party is overwhelmed by the Other, each regards and respects the Other in absolute freedom, withholding nothing.
    This is a beautiful model, but one not applicable universally.  It presupposes a fairly highly developed degree of what Fowler terms "Faith."  Indeed, it is placed at Stage Five in a series of six.  Fowler calls this stage Conjunctive Faith.  For him, this is the quantum level of seeing, knowing and committing, where dichotomizing logic no longer determines the depth of the conversation and there is no difference between object and subject.
    Obviously, this is an activity in which people in conflict cannot partake.  But to be able to partake in Dialogical Knowing implies being beyond most (if not all) interpersonal disagreements or miscommunication.

Developmental Cycles

    Developmental Cycles are often used in psychology to set standards by which to judge pathology.  Some bold explorers of the mind use these models not only to explain commonplace development and its morphology, but also to project potential transformation given time and opportunity.  Fowler is but a recent writer to give voice to this emerging human project.  Fowler's individuating point is that of meaning and relationship, not just the motor/interpersonal skills of Piaget, nor the psychosocial stages of Erickson.  It is exactly this meaning and relationship that is what Fowler calls Faith.
    Other psychologists have commented on the importance of meaning to continued growth and maturation.  World War II Holocaust survivor and psychologist originator of Logotherapy, Viktor E. Frankl, MD., Ph.D., asserts that meaning is the principal search of post-modern humanity., and that it is the lack of connection to others and personal significance in life that is the cause of wide-spread depression and hopelessness.  Consciousness investigator, Ken Wilbur, uses the image of the Light Spectrum to explain and legitimize different states of understanding from both Eastern and Western cultures.  Even philosopher Martin Buber wrote beautifully of the social and religious dimensions of personality and relationship.  All these and others stress the importance of the need for a personal sense of meaning in and connection to the universe in order to rise above the morass of personal conflict.
    But for those of us not yet blessed to have evolved beyond getting pissed off, we can still make use of Developmental Cycles as a sort of template to see where we are and to what we can aspire.

Creating A Self

    Most psychologists and social workers of any discipline agree that the goal is the creation of a self that is secure enough within itself not to feel threatened by conflict or others, yet connected enough to others to be compassionate.  An integral part of this process is the creation of and commitment to a personal sense of engagement and significance.  The creation, if you will, of a personal cosmology.
    I believe it would be a fair assessment to say that the vast majority of human conflict in Western culture is caused by social isolation and breakdown in interpersonal communications.  The post-modern culture presents unique situations to us and our old traditions and ethics do not tell us how to navigate these strange new waters.  In our emotional reactions and confusing lack of experience and diplomatic skills, we find ourselves in conflict, unable to explore our capacities for Dialogical Knowing.
    Dr. Tom Boyd, Professor Emeritus from the University of Oklahoma, hypothesizes that the major crisis our culture faces is not one of politics, economics or race.  Rather, the root cause of the majority of our social ills is a crisis of Cosmology.  The traditional ethics and values of Western culture are no longer sufficient to meet the needs of our information and technology-driven society.  After all, Jesus never had to address the issue of Cloning.  Science (through increases in technology, in communications and travel) is raising questions never dreamed of by the writers of the Old Testament, nor framed even by the Founding Fathers. The Templeton award winning ethicist Charles Taylor calls this "the Disenchantment of the World."
    The effects of this crumbling cosmology can be equally seen in increased prison populations and homeless shelters, as well as in the Militia Movement.  Whole segments of our society feel alienated - unable or unwilling to communicate with the rest.  In our unrestrained pursuit of individualism, we have forgotten how to relate to others, and as we are confronted with rising multiculturalism through increasing populations and technology, we must now deal with others of differing beliefs and traditions which challenge our own on an unprecedented scale.
    Our past training and experiences will not do much towards helping us explore these strange waters of other people and cultures.  To do that, we must be willing to listen and acknowledge the other's similarities, as well as differences.  In finding a grounding in the commonalty of human experience, we allow the other to unfold for us, as we unfold before them.  Through the realization of a common bond, we build the secure foundation of communication and community.
    But to allow the other to reveal themselves to us requires that we be willing to reveal ourselves to them.  This is where many people have difficulty.  In our culture, vulnerability and openness is not valued nor respected.  Indeed, in many cases, it seems sheer foolishness to expose oneself to what appears to be certain abuse.  Our culture pulsates with the lack of trust - from "strangers" to the Government and even our own mates.  Others are alien and often seem hostile to us, even (or especially) those with whom we live on a daily basis.  Fear and self-protection motivate increased isolation for security's sake.
    The cycle of fear and security seems perfectly logical: the greater the threat, the greater the need for security.  Yet, in reality, this is a self-perpetuated vicious cycle that grows more intense each round that's played, as the ante continues to go up.
    The answer to stopping this vicious cycle may be (surprisingly enough) a return to those traditional values or at least a re-engagement with others such as those advocated by traditional values.  But we can never go forward by going backwards.  We no longer have the old social structures of church, sex roles and tradition to govern our society.  Besides, these old values carried their own burden of ills.  In this post-modern world, the onus of determining connection and engagement to the world falls squarely on the shoulders of the individual.  We, ourselves, must create the values and beliefs by which we guide our lives, and be responsible for the consequences of our choices.  Our culture does little to prepare us for this task.
    The values that governed mass behavior for generations have broken down, leaving each of us on our won to choose.  To choose is to choose a cosmology - a whole world view, for as Jean-Paul Sartre pointed out, to choose is to choose for all humanity, because you are affirming the value of your choice.

The Choice

    To choose to engage others is the choice of self-disclosure.  To be willing to disclose oneself to others - to possible ridicule or pain - requires a strong sense of self, capable of withstanding rejection or challenge, yet malleable enough to see the Other's point of view with compassion.  And where does one get a self as resilient and flexible as this?  You choose it!  The only absolute freedom we have is to choose who we are and how we will respond.  This choice demands a certain level of awareness and commitment (Stage Four of six for Fowler).
    The first step in this discovery of Self is to become aware of this choice of identity and to choose who one wishes to be.  It sounds simple, but is not so easy in application.  In choosing to be a self is to choose a universe of personal significance - to fill the void with yourself.  As Dr. Frankl noted, humanity can survive any extreme hardship, given a reason to survive.  And that reason for enduring must be chosen, it cannot be imposed from outside for it to have personal meaning.  This choice of self must also include others, for as Martin Buber points out, others are the context by which we come to know ourselves.
    Although these are modern voices, the message is not new.  Similar ideas have been attributed to Socrates, Confucius, Buddha, Moses, Jesus, as well as a host of other well-known and lesser-know avatars.  Despite our advancing technology and growing population and multiculturalism, humanity faces the same question of individuation it has always faced.  The question appears to have become more acute in the pressures of post-modern society - there are so many more of us moving around, we're bumping up against each other like never before.  We must learn to cultivate an impervious sense of self, individually and collectively, if we are to survive the increase in conflict that the increase in contact is sure to spark.  Yet, we must also maintain sufficient connection with others as to avoid megomaniacism and isolation.

          Once we come to a secure sense of self, firmly rooted in a chosen cosmology, the beliefs and actions of others will not loom as great a threat.  Most intolerance is based on the fear of a loss of an era that has already passed away.  We are now living in a time of great transition.  If we choose, we can utilize this ubiquitous energy of change to transform our selves and our lives, to re-establish community and connection, and to engage in Dialogical Knowing.

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