For some odd reason, it seems that we human beings live through constructing stories composed out of the raw archetypal material presented to us in life. By this I am not just referring to how we tell stories to others to explain our experiences, or how we absorb culture through its various vessels, but rather I am also talking about how we tell ourselves a story as we meander through life.
This story is a composite of all the perceptions and paradigms we have constructed both consciously and unconsciously and is constantly being challenged, reworked, encouraged and discouraged. These perceptions have in turn been assembled by our constant inhalation of the values surrounding us, and the various experiences we have accumulated. This story influences everything in our lives from how we perceive ourselves in relation to the world and in turn how we relate to it. It goes a long way in determining the way we respond to others. It seems to be part of the human condition that we experience the world in such a subjective fashion, although I believe it is not entirely inevitable that we continue in this pattern. The author Anais Nin summarizes this idea well: “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.”
Take for example two people, one of whom was born in Boston, Massachusetts to a middle-class family and another who was born in tribal Bujumbura, Rwanda in abject poverty. It would be fairly safe to assume that both would be living by different stories even though they are each entirely human in the sense that they ask similar questions and struggle with similar quintessential problems inherent in human existence. The American might unconsciously believe himself to be one of the world’s privileged and with that could feel entitled to a certain position in the world. This might lead him to possess a sense of arrogance in regards to how this person sees himself in relation to others around the world. This sense of entitlement and idle superiority might also lead to an attitude of indifference with regards to the goings-on in the world, consequently leading to an insular existence. The Burundian in abject poverty would likely have a significantly different perspective. He might feel like an inferior citizen in the world due to the lack of affluence and status. His story probably would not feature the imperial mindset that America fosters; he also might place more emphasis on interpersonal relationships, family, and his local culture in comparison to the American. If he went to America he would probably feel quite out of place in the markedly more impersonal culture. Although this is more of a global example, I think the same ideas apply to our own lives. The makeup of our subjectivity goes a long way in determining the responses we will give to the world of internal and external stimuli.
Another question that comes up while thinking about the story of my life is whether we are free agents or whether we exist in the inescapable prison of determinism. Do we have the capability of making decisions contrary to the ways in which we have been scripted? On the one hand we have the notion of free will, the idea that we can make decisions based on something other than our prior experience. Then with the notion of determinism we are told that our actions and personality are both wholly derived from past experiences and other uncontrollable influences. My opinion would be that both apparently contradictory notions could be held together in a paradoxical fashion.
Considering these ideas, my life has been and probably will be partially determined both by the contexts I have been placed in and also by the conscious and unconscious choices I have and will continue to make. Like the American and Burundian, I think the context into which I was born has gone a long way in determining who I am. That context is diverse in its framework and consists of parents who have their own influential personalities as well as a community that emerged out of the turbulent breakup of an inner-city church.
Significant in my upbringing and formation was being surrounded by this idiosyncratic group, Watershed Community, who meandered through various studies including Tarot, Astrology, Literature (including Dickens, Poe, and Emerson) and settled upon an egalitarian, universalist, and intellectual type of Christianity. The essence of Watershed Community is difficult to explain because of its sectarian nature, but at its core is a deep sense of community and a focus on lifelong education. The deep sense of community is rooted in the vision of love, receptivity and community described in the scriptures by the different ancient communities attempting to follow Christ’s message. Out of this context comes Watershed’s focus on personal application.
Humour is also a fairly large focus because of how it can be so useful in relativizing the perceived magnitude of our predicaments. It also serves to explain the silliness of the goings on in the world in a way that words sometimes struggle to do. Once relatively trivial issues are brought into perspective, we can adopt a second person perspective (seeing from perspectives other than your own). This can lead to empathy and compassion, which can be quite effective in both understanding and loving the world.
Although the ideal values we would like to hold are helpful to speculate upon, it is not too surprising that a lot of the time 'Watersheddian' values are comfortably shoved aside. It is easy to forget the sense of personal intentionality that is at the heart of Watershed spirituality. Being distracted with other stories, desires, and patterns is detrimental to the health of the synergistic and symbiotic community. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus describes this forgetfulness well when he writes, “If a person gave your body to any stranger he met on his way, you would certainly be angry. And do you feel no shame in handing over your own mind to be confused and mystified by anyone who happens to verbally attack you?” It seems like an innately human characteristic to give our minds over to the plethora of stories circulating around us. It is unchallenging to simply “become where you are”, which can lead to negativity and a lack of focus. To help with this, there will often be encouragements given by Watershed participants when someone is struggling with an issue, and confrontation directed towards people who have been living in illusion to some extent.
Aside from all the influences in my life that have been outside of my control, my decisions have played an undeniable part. Decisions made prior to my early teenage years unfortunately are difficult to remember. It seems to me like my main bouts of transformation and development have come about fairly recently. Even though recent events seem to be the most significant in my life, these transformations have been spread out over months and years as opposed to happening in single life-changing events such as a murder or a disaster. The dominant trajectory encompassing the following events is the opening of my mind and a greater emphasis on the creative and communal side of life.
Possibly because of the near-divorce my parents went through when I was a child, I have tended to be more on the quiet side in answering questions and discussing things, at least on matters that are not immediately interesting to me. This includes answering questions and engaging in conversation. This started to change when I began visiting Paul, a friend from Watershed, at the end of the school day. During these times he became like a mentor to me. His intention was for me to become more expansive in the way I expressed myself and to give more than “one word answers” to questions. If you take Ken Wilber’s theory of the Quadrants into consideration (in which you have four quadrants: the right quadrants holding an objective view of reality and the left quadrants as subjective, and the upper quadrants as personal and the bottom as communal or societal), my mind moved more into the upper left quadrant as opposed to the literal, objective upper right quadrant. This transformation was one of sizable proportions. It led me to see life more through abstract concepts and also helped me to see my life in a more conscious light by examining the things I dealt with on a day-to-day basis. It also was (and still is) simply a context in which I could learn about new ideas by talking about the books he was reading or events that were happening around the world.
Photography brought me to another inner transformation. Like many catalytic happenings in life, taking photos was not originally something that I thought would significantly change the way I perceived reality. Instead it was just something I did primarily because I was interested in technology and the equipment was available to me. As I spent more time with cameras, my perspective on life started to change in a similar manner to how my way of thinking started to change after talking to Paul. My mind was again changing from being focused primarily upon the upper right quadrant into one focused somewhat upon the upper left quadrant. Reality was no longer just reality as I had learned to see it; it was something that became an entity that could be engaged and formed into unusual things. Instead of perceiving it as it was presented to me, I began to literally experiment with which perspectives I took in perceiving it. This outlook helped me to see the importance of paradigm. The camera became a primary metaphor for perception, symbolism and interpretation.
These metamorphoses are not fixed ones, but instead are marked by many regressions to earlier stages of developments in which I refuse to see and converse “photographically”, expansively and imaginatively. It is easy to slip into this earlier state as it has been well trodden.
The next point on my developmental trajectory came when I started to take part in the studies and events in Watershed Community. In addition to other events, the main source of guidance in Watershed comes from our scriptural studies in which we focus on a contextual/historical understanding of the texts and seek to apply the resulting guidance to our lives. This is possible because the scriptures are full of stories with which to compare and contrast our lives. For example, in entering university I have been looking at my experience through the story of discipleship told in the New Testament and seeing how they can interact with each other beneficially. A similar process occurs while watching movies or reading books: we look at the themes and character progressions to see how they compare and contrast to our own equally storied lives. Like talking to Paul and practicing photography, this too has helped me to be more receptive to ideas about transcendent reality, community and my place in the world. No doubt being surrounded and influenced by a group of people on similar but unique paths has been helpful.
Although my life up to this point has been full of various progressions and regressions I would still be foolish to seize an understanding on its ultimate course. During my childhood, I remember having a conversation with my mother in which I asked what my purpose was in life. The answer was that sometimes it takes a long time to figure out. I am learning to trust that my life does intrinsically have meaning, particularly as it gets caught up in a larger story.