shape | picture | story
The way we see things determines how we treat them. The way we see things determines what we expect from them. The way we see things determines the objectives we set for them. If we do not see things properly we do not treat things appropriately, we do not have the correct expectations, we do not set the right objectives or goals. The systems we create are based on how we see things. Wrong seeing leads to wrong systems. The measures we use are based on how we see things, on how we conceptualise things. If we see things, even concepts, wrongly we will measure the wrong things. The way we define success and achievements and development and growth, and progress is also based on the way we see things – and the way we see things determines what we look for in evaluating growth and progress and development and progress. Our very definitions of these concepts all stem from the way we see things – from our picture of the world and how it works, from our picture of business and economy and society and community. From the picture we have of what is good, what is true and what is beautiful.
There are many, many things that we do not see directly. Things that we only can and will ever see indirectly, as ‘through a glass darkly’, from an angle. Many things are intangible, not seen but experienced in other ways. We see the clue to this in everyday conversation, whether this is in the home, the workplace or among friends. The way we conceptualise these many, many things that we cannot see directly, these things that we experience ‘at an angle’, indirectly is through pictures and stories. It seems that this is one of the unique human characteristics – to conceptualise intangible concepts as pictures or explain them as stories. The mechanisms we use are shapes, metaphors and narratives. We normally launch into metaphor or narrative with words similar to ‘it is like…’
Shapes are the simplest form of perceiving things. Psychologists have theorised that people mentally break down images into simple geometric shapes called geons – this includes cones and spheres (Wikipedia). The word shape however has an interesting history – and this elaborates how I want to use the concept of shape in this blog. The verb shape originates from the Old English word scapan meaning ‘to create, form or destine’ which comes from the proto Germanic skapjanan meaning to ‘create or ordain’. Alongside this meaning emerged the meaning of shape as a noun. Shape originates from the Old English sceap meaning ‘form, created being, creature, creation, condition’. It was unsed with particuar reference to the physical human body. Now the word shape simply means the outward form of an object defined by outline. This implies that shapes are distinctive and clear – there is a distinction between what is part of the shape and what is not.
We are shape-recognising beings. We distinguish things by their shape and we even interpret things using shape. Shapes contain and carry meaning. The basic level of understanding the world around us is through shapes and the meanings we attach to those shapes – and to the combination of meanings we attach to combinations of shapes.
This understanding of shape is also similar in meaning to the concept of posture or stance. The shape of a thing reflects a certain posture – posture reflects or can be interpreted as readiness or attitude or approach.
Metaphors, or pictures, are powerful, metaphors determine how we see things that cannot be seen directly, how we comprehend the intangible, the invisible, the difficult to comprehend, the stuff we can’t ‘put our fingers on’. Narratives (or our stories) are ways we can journey together through experiences, experiences past present and future without actually going anywhere. Our metaphors and our narratives intertwine. They work together to make sense of our past, to unlock the potential of the present and to pave the way for the future. The rhythm of Metaphor and Narrative are like the steps we take as we move through time and space. Metaphors help us to see more clearly, narrative helps us to go places together, to explore what we see and the way that we see what we see.
The primary tools for both metaphor and narrative are words. Words are the raw material with which we construct pictures in the mind. With words we create from nothing. With words we build things. With words we demolish, and we renovate what already exists. With words we construct environments. Words become the structure and the seeds – the field we plough and the potential we plant. Words create the steps we take in narrative, the milestones we pursue and pass by, the vistas we see, the destinations we reach, the landscapes we explore.
It is from the intangible that the tangible emerges. It is out of the invisible that the visible appears.
It is from the invisible past that our understanding of how we got to where we are today. We do not see the past directly, we only see it indirectly in records and accounts (written and spoken) and pictures (painted, photographed, filmed). All accounts and pictures provide a specific perspective, a specific view, a part and not the whole. We don’t see the person taking the picture, we don’t see what lies behind them or those things that are outside the frame. We don’t hear the other voices and their stories in the accounts and the records. We are already getting interpretation embedded in the data and information – be it visual or vocal or written. And yet we can build a picture by looking, through the eyes of a range of observers and recorders, those whose present is our past to see as completely as possible what they saw, to embrace the metaphors they used the narratives they told. Our access to the invisible past is a mix of picture and stories – these pictures and stories are from a different time and space. These pictures and stories provide clues to the metaphors and narratives that made sense of the past. To make sense of the past we need to explore, unpack and understand not just what we see, the visible evidence of the past, but also explore, unpack and understand the metaphors and narratives that lie behind this visible evidence of the past.
In the present we are faced daily with things we see and things we do not see. The visible and the invisible. Some things I can observe, many things I cannot. The present is where the potential lies. The present potential is a mix, an amalgamation of visible and invisible, tangible and intangible. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts – the present we experience is not simply the visible PLUS the invisible, the tangible PLUS the intangible it is something far greater, for wider, far deeper far longer. The present is where the potential lies – this potential is in the mix. We make sense of this mix through a combination of observation and imagination. We use words to do both. Words describe both what we see and what we do not see. We use our eyes to see what we can see. We use our imaginations to see what we cannot see. The language of the imagination is metaphor and narrative. The way we act in the present is based on what ‘makes sense’ to do based on observation and imagination, based on the visible and the invisible.
We are ‘sense-making’ beings. We act based on what ‘makes sense’ to us. To ‘make sense’ we need to ‘sense’. We ‘sense’ the present in which we act through observation and imagination. We interpret (’make sense of’) both the observed and the imagined using metaphor and narrative. Everything we see and everything we imagine we express using the raw material of words – the way we engage with the past and the present (and the future) is through words.
Part of making sense of the present is to look back into the past. Looking back, we can see to what extent the metaphors and narratives of those who observed and described another time and place, as well, in some cases, who described our own time and space were helpful or useful or valuable. We can see how metaphors and narratives change over time and in different spaces. We can examine our own metaphors and narratives, our own ‘sense-making’ instruments in the light of the help or use or value of those used in the past. We can adopt past metaphors and narratives, or we can adapt them or even abandon them and construct or adopt new ones.
Looking into the future is done using, almost exclusively, the imagination. Tomorrow is invisible. Tomorrow is intangible. We cannot touch it, we cannot feel it, we cannot observe it – but we can begin to see it. We see the future, we see tomorrow, using metaphor and narrative. We draw pictures of what we we expect the future to look like. We tell stories of what we desire the future to be like. Some of our pictures are wonderful, some of our pictures are terrible. Many of our stories describe dreams – to many unfortunately also anticipate nightmares. The future is plural. It is different from the past that is fixed – we cannot change what happened. The future is different from the present which is a dynamic mix of the observed and the imagined. The future is plural in the sense that there are many, many possible futures that lie ahead of us. We can, to some extent, choose the future. However, we can only get to the future ‘through’ the present. What we do in the present already determines, to a large extent, the future we will experience. What ‘seeking for’, ‘looking at’, ‘exploring’ or ‘trying to see’ the future does do for our present is it aligns us. The future aligns and informs us. It provides direction and it aids in decisions we make today since it is the decisions that we make today that move us towards certain futures and away from other futures.
When we look back from the future we get to, our past will be the journey we took to get there – and our present will be part of that journey. As the future becomes our present, our present becomes our past and the metaphors and narratives which guided our decisions and actions, the pictures and stories through which we observed and imagined the tangible and intangible, by which we made sense of things will be ultimately tested. Looking back, we will be able to really say whether they were helpful, useful or valuable. Looking back from today – from the future that was imagined in the past – enables us to test the metaphors and narratives used to plot the journey, to decide and act, that have resulted in where we are in the present.
If we examine the current ‘state of things’ in today’s world the metaphors and narratives of the past and the present need to be thoroughly examined, rigourously tested and urgently adapted. It seems that in the present we cannot simply continue down a path that is increasingly being recognised as unsustainable, inequitable and in many ways downright dangerous. It is time for us to re-imagine things. It is time for us to revisit the shape of the world as we see it, revise our metaphors/pictures, rewrite our narratives/stories and realign ourselves based on a re-examination of the futures that lie before us.