Eyes to acres: On Person and Community

The first purpose of organisational life is to support human flourishing.

To flourish or thrive is a natural consequence of any living thing that is able to grow and develop in conditions appropriate to it. Good crops are the natural result of good soil and an understanding of the seasons, planting times and so forth. What grows well does so in relationship with the surroundings that support it and the development of human persons is subject to these same natural principles.

There is a great deal of difference in the principles of education and understanding that lead to the development of individuals rather than persons, a collective rather than a community. Underpinning the direction of that process is a founding principle of relationship or connection. Real connection is based on our viewpoint or vision-put otherwise-how we see the world ,which in turn is subject to our understanding of life and its purposes.As William Blake wrote, ‘the eye altering, alters all’, and it is through the eye  as Blake meant it that we make sense of the world as essentially interconnected or divided.

The development of the whole person as distinct from the individual, and its consequential expression in community is underpinned by the incorporation of the principle of unity in its developmental philosophy. To be more precise it is the experience of unity in distinction which reflects our capacity to see and know what is unique within what connects and to learn to value or at least tolerate that uniqueness or difference based on an understanding that the balancing principle that makes our uniqueness possible and so important is that which connects us fundamentally as One.

This understanding takes us beyond the experience of the collective or the individual which experiences its world as fundamentally separate, distinct and disconnected. A sense of separation is the fruit of the dominant assumptions of western thought based on Cartesian logic and of course the persuasive sense of our daily experience which imagines it’s self as separated from everything else and sees that conclusion mirrored in the society and culture all about it. Einstein said that this view was an ‘optical delusion’ based on our inability to see the underlying unity of the universe but it is a compelling narrative and it takes work to challenge the appearance of things.

The consequence of a philosophy of separation in our lives is to be confronted by a hall of mirrors that reinforces the image of separation in whatever we see and do and encourages behaviors that exacerbate that experience leading to the dreadful sense of isolation and alienation which is so prevalent in western society today. Our hurried, searching lives cannot engender wisdom. Despite our remarkable attempts to create connection through technological systems we are, it seems, lonelier than we have ever been and we might ask why that is.

One explanation is to suppose that when attempts at connection are made from the philosophical and psychological point of view of the individual in a collective world, the hard or perhaps better put-more subtle work of real connection is omitted and overlooked. This is why technological connectivity based as it is on superficial notions of relationship, is ultimately trivial and frustrating so much of the time. Deep connection which is at the heart of personal formation and community requires among other things, time, courage and vulnerability. Upholding the principle of Unity as primary or causal in our experience is no easy thing because it demands that we accommodate and integrate the worst excesses and most unfamiliar aspects of ourselves and others in the process of becoming whole persons.

If unity is a causal principle of the universe then an effect of that unity is the act of caring. We care about what we feel connected to. Upholding the principle of care requires that we care for ourselves and others and that we practice the art of caretaking within community settings, projects, teams and organisations that are appropriate for the purpose, which is to say human,  in size and scale.

In his essay The Deserted Country, Wendell Berry refers to the principle of ‘eyes to acres’. Applied as it was to proper land use, in traditional farming practice there was an understanding that there was an eyes to acres ratio that was ‘right and necessary’ to save the land from destruction. By eyes to acres, Berry meant something he described as competent watchfulness. Connected to this idea was an awareness of the nature of the place and its history, an ability to be constantly present to the landscape and an awareness of what harm meant and what were signs of health in that ecosystem. The purpose of competent watchfulness was to ensure the continuing health of the land for the long term, something we now call sustainability but that was once simply built in to the logic of human-economic/ecologic systems. At heart is the notion of caring as Berry put it;

People who don’t care, or know enough to care, or care enough to know, don’t watch.

Competent watchfulness has much to do with the eye that sees and the care with which the eye sees- its deeper vision. Competence means knowing in the sense not only of techne (skills) but also poesis (making) and Berry makes an important connection between the ability to know and to love. Describing what he refers to as a practical and practicing live he writes;

How likely impossible it is to know authentically or well what one does not love and how certainly impossible it is to love what one does not know.

Any landscape, agricultural or organisational, requires careful watching and careful is the correct term here. Care is a matter of the heart and thus the art of caring is the business of the heart and the business of love and cannot rightfully be separated from other forms of business in any sustaining notion of the world. The concept of economics has it linguistic root in the principle of good housekeeping. It is deeply connected to the principle of ecology –the intelligence of the household-but in its modern rendering, divorced from its ecological responsibilities it has misinterpreted and underestimated our relationship with the earth solely on its own terms. Disconnected from the heart felt awareness that would mitigate the worst excesses of a human misunderstanding of what ‘resource’ actually means, this misreading of our responsibility and duty has come at a devastating price. When a forest becomes merely so many cubic feet of timber or cattle become so many kilos of meat we have crossed a line that has consequences that we see everywhere today.

In his reading of what it meant to educate a person rather than an individual Thomas Merton distinguished the true self from the false, describing the false self not a separate in any real sense but as an incomplete understanding of what it means to be fully human. The development of true self and wisdom which is the fruit of right understanding requires first of all and above all the renunciation of our obsession with the triumph of the individual and collective will to power. A logical consequence of this reading is that no constructive change in a person or group is possible if we continue to see the world and draw conclusions about what success means solely through the logic of the individual and collective eye.

Related to this  concern Martin Buber, made a simple but profound distinction between ways of knowing the world as I-it or I-Thou:

I-thou can only be spoken with one’s whole being, I-it can never be spoken with one’s whole being.

To see the world as I-thou is to transform and be transformed by it. This is the perspective at play when Berry speaks about competent watchfulness and it is what distinguishes and saves any community from the mono-cultural indignity and uniformity of the collective mind, it is what allows the human being to grow and mature into what he or she is meant to be, not homo economicus but homo sapien, a lucid, valid and contributing member of the eternal dance of life.

The true self, wrote Thomas Merton,

‘ Is the mature personal identity, the creative fruit of an authentic and lucid search, the ‘self’ that is found after other partial and exterior selves have been discarded as masks, this inner identity is not ‘found’ as an object but is the very self that finds’.

Put another way, unity is what we discover ourselves to be when other partial understandings fall away through the process of self-discovery. Unity by definition is not ‘elsewhere’ and cannot be separated from what we ourselves essentially are. The subtle work of personal formation, its consequences and responsibilities for what forms community as organisation or in any other way we care to imagine are deeply implicated in this understanding of what at heart it means to be fully human.

Organisation as community, based on the principle of care and connection renders a future whose outcomes are profoundly different from those of the collective. This shift in perspective knows to reckon the economic value not just of the money economy but of the wider ecological economy, which in human terms has to do with things such as knowledge, memory, familiarity, imagination, sympathy and neighbourliness.  These are perennial, timeless means by which communities have historically been able to balance the value and need for the provision of quantities of goods and materials with that of quality of life. They are also means by which we have traditionally imposed limits on our own behaviours. Freedom with limitations is at the heart of what actually empowers and sustains people and communities to act well; countering a model based solely on growth with one that seeks a balance that again is based in long term thinking.

Reckoning these things as part of the hidden economy is to define or redefine what we mean by value, the values we uphold and the value we place on the life we share with all that lives in this world. It gives a perspective that practically acknowledges the hidden unity that lies behind the appearance of things.

The purpose of organisations is to support human flourishing at human scale which is the most beautiful expression of the human being where conditions allow. It is a good that encompasses economic need but mitigates economic greed and thus encourages flourishing as a universal good. As we learn to care so we see differently. As Blake said, the eye altering, alerts all.

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