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Monday, March 21, 2011


What is your tolerance for no-sense?

What is your habitual response to being faced with situations or experiences that seem to make no sense and about which you want to – are desperate to—make sense?

I ask these questions as much of myself as I do of you, because I’ve found myself staring into the face of no-sense over and over during these past several weeks. (And not just these past few weeks, but these past few years, and by “few” I mean at least 40!)

I ask these questions because I’m almost at the end of grading my students’ work for the winter term courses we engaged in together.  I find myself rejoicing at the profundity of what each of them, to a student, has written about their learning this term in the face of so much personal and global tumult.  Writing sometimes helps us make a certain kind of temporary sense of complicated things; sometimes it is the medium through which we declare our near-certitude about some previous state of no-sense that now seems to makes sense; and sometimes it gives us a way to document our confusion, our anguish in the face of no-sense. And sometimes, writing is about all of these things, and other things, too. What an honor to bear witness through reading what my students have to write about the learning they are experiencing, and to get to write back to them, even if mostly in the form of my official “assessment feedback.”

Much of what learners – students and teachers, alike -- engage in when in formal academic settings is together trying to make sense of things. That is, in fact, what all formal, institutionalized, and codified ways of knowing are about, whether scientific, artistic, philosophic, or meta-physic (or, or, or…). Students get taught and learn about knowledge traditions, and hopefully how knowledge(s) are produced and used and their implications, and perhaps even go on to shape (dismantle, re-create, create anew) these knowledge traditions. And educators determine, model, and facilitate what should (can, can't, and might) be known, and the many ways to go about knowing.  When we assess how we are all doing in this ongoing, grand learning project, we look to see how well students are learning about different ways of making sense of complex reality, and how well we as teachers are doing in support of their learning.  We are all trying to make sense.

From a broader perspective, the human journey across the life course is fundamentally about learning how to make sense of no-sense. Which is really about trying to make meaning of experiences that are given to us, that we stumble into, that may or may not have “inherent meaning” in and of themselves, despite what we are taught to think about who we are and our place in the ever-emerging universe. 

We are all trying to make sense. Which is really about trying to make meaning of things that we may not understand, not now, perhaps, and maybe not ever. There are some things that are unknowable, or only partially, provisionally knowable. In the middle of, in the aftermath of, all that’s been happening in individual lives and within the larger human community right now (and always), we are all trying to make sense. Some of us call upon our spiritual or meta-philosophical practices to bolster us in the face of events and experiences that challenge our capacity to make sense of that which seems to make no-sense. And yet, and yet. 

Oh, wow—you know what I just realized as I'm writing this? No-sense can actually be a certain, sneaky kind of sense – Think about your own experiences: Have you ever had to conclude, after much learning and consultation with others and critical reflection and obsessive-thinking and spiritual practice, that something just didn’t make sense, and that this no-sense might, in fact, actually be its sense, its meaning?

Circling back to what I was saying about formal education, there’s always at least one moment in the course of facilitating a learning experience where I or one of my students meets the morass of confusion. And back to my question about our habitual responses to no-sense, I’d observe that I and many of my students almost always panic when we reach this place of confusion and lack of clarity, we resist it, fight it, beg for it to be over or to magically evaporate. (And in the case of my students, they may even become temporarily mutinous and claim that they shouldn’t have to be in such a muddle, that 1) the book is unclear; 2) the course is poorly designed; and/or 3) I’m not doing a good enough job explaining things!). (Also, I’ll admit that I intentionally build in moments of confusion into the learning experiences I facilitate; that’s how deeply I hold to the importance and transformative power of not-knowing, of no-sense.)

But when we really reflect upon how we learn and develop as humans we know that these moments or periods of confusion, or no-sense, are absolutely necessary, and without them, well, the process of learning – and of traveling through the human life course -- wouldn’t be as deep, meaningful, and interesting.

Of course, it is helpful – perhaps crucial-- to have someone in our life who has developed wisdom about how all this seems to work and holds the faith on our behalf that no matter how long it takes, something new will come out of the confusion, some sense will be made of the no-sense. I try to serve this role as a teacher (and a parent!), but I’m still learning, and what’s really beautiful is that my students (and my daughter!) often serve this role in my life; we are all in it together, you know?  Some of my elder friends at Mary’s Woods who participate in our collaborative inquiry group also serve this role in my life, and it occurs to me that this tangled matter of living in the face of no-sense would make for a great discussion topic. And, also, that I might thank them for serving this important role in my life.

So, what do we tell ourselves and each other about how to respond to and live with no-sense, how to make meaning of experiences and events that seem to defy coherence and rationality?  One of my students wrote early this morning, asking what I thought about the fact that she’d experienced so many losses – big ones, deaths – in the past month. She felt completely uncertain, worried, a bit superstitious, even – She wanted so much for there to be meaning for all that she and her close-in people and companion-creatures (two dear pets were amongst the deceased) were experiencing, a bright side to all of the darkness. And in pondering my potential responses to her questions,  I realized that often –always?--our desire to make sense of no-sense, to find meaning in what seems to defy meaning-making, is also about our yearning for permanence, for certitude, for the fundamental soundness of our own and others’ existence. I mean, this stuff that hurts so much, that scares us so deeply, it has to count for something, right? 

As I’ve written elsewhere, we make plans for a future we may not experience; we have one foot on the earth, and one foot in the stars.

I’m never sure what to say. Sometimes it seems the best I can do is to murmur sweet assurances that while right now it feels that absolutely nothing makes sense, that this crappy no-sense is a totalizing force, at some time in the future, maybe soon, maybe not, I promise things will feel more sensible, some things will start to make some sense again.  And this is actually true, right?  And sometimes it seems that the best I can do is to cop to one of the other true things that can be said: All of this loss and the no-sense and the enormous pain that is experienced in the face of it—it totally and completely sucks.  Wouldn’t it be nice to not have a creaturely-consciousness such that you are aware of what’s happening and how you feel about it?

But we do have such a creaturely-consciousness. And we are aware, more aware, even, than we sometimes want to accept. And, no doubt about it, there is so much that makes no-sense. And -- please try to get your mind around this -- that no-sense actually is a certain kind of sense, a fecund kind, the kind where you think all is lost, only to emerge, with the support of your comrades (who sometimes help, sometimes just witness) into a new kind of self-sense, with a new kind of understanding about and purpose – impermanent, tentative, temporal and glorious— as a human-creature on the ever-changing Earth, in the ever-emerging universe.

1 comment:

John said...

I am in the midst of making sense of how at this stage in my life, I came to live in a foreing country. While soothing myself through readings of books I carry with me whenever and whereever I move, I found a clipping of a cherished article from a newspaper in Fort Wayne, Indiana circa Labor Day 1997. I googled the author, who is now chair of Business programs at Huntington University, formerly Huntington College. I wrote him an email to express my joy in re-reading his wonderfully written article. He wrote back saying my email to him lifted his spirits since his beloved wife had recently passed away due to Breast cancer and other issues related to her many years of struggling with her disease and side affects from her treatments.
His email reply to me began with "will wonders never cease". He and I are both trying to make sense out of the mixed blessings of the events in our lives. Google him for more information: Jim O'Donnell at Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana.