From Useful to Helpful


Before this last Sunday’s conversation Jeppe shared a link to Anthony McCann and Dougald Hine’s talk in Västerås, Sweden on Anthony’s Politics of Gentleness. It proved to be a useful… shall I say helpful prod. In no small part by the way in which delving into Anthony’s language provided a different way to look at our own considerations. Case-in-point, the distinction he makes between useful and helpful.

This is not the place to analyze or explain Anthony’s work in depth.  But I would like to delve into a few points and how they influenced our dialogue.

Anthony looks at violence. He also looks at what he calls gentleness, as an approach to our predicament. Born, as we are, into a condition of violence endemic and self-perpetuating, he sees a need for us to find ways to break these cycles. A cycle he presents as a dynamic growing out of a confluence of heightened emotional intensity, an insistence on certainty, and the way these factors amplify each other so as to not only promote and escalate violence but to accelerate it as well. A truly vicious cycle!

He proposes we can counter this accelerating escalation. Not through grand schemes to “Save the World!” But by practicing gentleness in our lives, sharing this approach with those we encounter, accessing what he calls our power – what I would term, our strength – and bringing quality to the lives of those we share our lives with.

This is a crude oversimplification. Please delve into his work directly!

Anthony makes a distinction between useful and helpful. These are “his terms.” He talks about how we may evolve our own language. That is, search out what words, terms, concepts mean for ourselves. Not just adopt a received language, but how we may forge a language that makes sense to us.

This will not “build consensus.” Thank God!

We can see this as a helpful – we’ll get to that soon! I promise! – look at consensus versus dissensus. The next step is not to cram our newly discovered language down anyone’s throat! By the experience of carving out our own sense we are ready to find points of convergence and distinction with the language of others. We can communicate with subtlety and nuance. Instead of remaining in the traps laid by an expectation of a superficial agreement within a contest as we fight to negotiate between who’s “with us” and who’s “Ag’in us!”

This creative tension between our own language and another’s keeps us from falling into the common error of accepting a fossilized insight trapped within an ideology. How we “confuse the map for the terrain,” as Dougald often says.

This is how we came upon his distinction between useful and helpful. To be “useful” can be taken as an expression of accepting current assumptions about cause and effect, and the need to control, to achieve planned outcomes; that mire our contemporary world of action. To be useful is to be a “team player!” To be useful is to provide “answers!”

To be helpful, on the other hand, is something else. I relate Anthony’s term to how I use effective. To be helpful is to find ways to bring attention to all that is usually left unsaid. To address the elephants-in-the-room. To focus on the tangle of assumptions and stereotypical reactions that clog our sense of what it means to act, and address them directly.

This is not only far from what is meant by useful. It is – almost always – taken as decidedly un-useful by those who want to “get busy!”

What came to mind Sunday was how this is a great way to look at the difficulties in our attempts to gain traction around what we do here. Not just here on this site, in our fledgling on-line dialogues, but in all of our activities in our efforts to be helpful.

This illuminates the confusion we are so often met with when we attempt to explain what we say and do.

So long as we fail to address this disjunction, we are not helpful. If to be helpful is to address what is commonly left unsaid. Then, unless we address it, we have failed!

This provides us with a moment of clarity. This is what it feels like to arrive at, to discover, an insight. Confusion, as it presents us with an incoherence between what-is and what we perceive, is illuminated. In its light we can see what blocks a way forward. In this light we find a moment of joy. What had been muddled is now clear.

Of course, this is just a moment. We tend to expect to be able to put an insight in our pockets. Drag it out anytime we are confused! Insight becomes fossilized in this way. Light turns to stone unless we understand that all we can take forward from a moment of clarity is how we came to it. And even then, only if we do this with the lightest touch.

We’re back to the dynamic between useful and helpful.


We also talked about quality….

Jeppe talked about improvising a meal from an “empty larder.” How this illuminates the difference between technology and craft, between following a recipe and having a working knowledge and familiarity with materials. How a reliance on a recipe-driven technological attitude would have left them hungry while facing a lack of quantity with a creative attitude brought them to an appreciation of quality.

Within our zero-sum rhetoric quantity is the only acceptable measure. And quantity under such a regime will always diminish. As the earth is devoured by wealth pumps generating scarcity and destroying abundance. Within this logic there is no way out but to double-down and fight for certainty, to touch again on Anthony’s helpful language. As Anthony demonstrates, this leads to an escalation, a spread, and acceleration of the violence destroying everything in the first place.

This point often brings to mind for me the story of Stone Soup. A story that illuminates our predicament. It shines a light on the role of the artist, the outsider, the person laboring to be helpful.

Stone Soup, or Jeppe’s shoestring dinner, show us a way past this trap. Awakening a sense of creativity and improvisation in us – us as a community where before there was only a scattering of atomized and frightened isolated entities. This catalyst of helpfulness brings us to the realm of quality.

Within a paradigm of scarcity there is only one kind of “quality.” Scarcity, a function of some thing’s relative unavailability, brings about an escalated demand for this item. Notice how this introduces one of Anthony’s elements for escalating violence, a heightened emotional state. This creates a condition labeled “quality.” Such things are recognizable by their “price.”

For a long time in our descent into a reductio-ad-absurdo, following the precepts of our modern superstition, Economic Theory, there was some correlation between a price-derived sense of quality and what people have always recognized as actual, helpful qualities. No longer.

One of the advantages of our moment of clarity is that it has become impossible to continue to insist that expensive equals quality. Just look around!

Yet, caught-up in an expediency of usefulness we tend not to notice. We increase our levels of underlying cognitive dissonance. We feel an added stress, but since we only expect to find results by seeking a useful response, we never notice how the stockpile of unintended consequences continues to grow as our inability to do anything helpful escalates exponentially.

What is helpful?

Perhaps introducing quality into our lives would help. Quality not constrained by quantity. Quality that takes scarcity as a challenge to be met, not a limitation to be fought over.

What a difference this attitude-shift brings. We no longer strive to convince. We don’t chase after agreement or consensus.

David Bohm’s concept of the holographic nature of the Universe is helpful here. A creative response needs to be holographic to engage us. Opening our awareness to the tacit. An understanding that powers a flowering of the Explicit from out of our foundations within an Implicate Order. These concepts provide a context for how we may develop what is helpful. They form a philosophical framework for the kind of direct and truly tacit understanding found within Anthony’s pragmatic approach to the useful, his Politics of Gentleness.

In either approach – and they come to a point of intersection – we find that acting holographically, that is, in ways that embody what it is we seek to find and spread within the form of what we do, we take attention away from a fatal zero-sum usefulness. We increase attention held within an approach of gentleness. An approach discovering helpfulness. We take pressure off that insidious accelerator while adding our small, yet direct, influence. We spread helpfulness among those we touch.




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