This is adapted from a speech by Kimmage facilitator Frank Naughton on the launch of the Partners Resource Network in December 2013. Frank Naughton is an occasional lecturer in Leadership, Group Dynamics and Facilitation for both the MA programme at Kimmage DSC
Good afternoon, everybody. A month ago my colleagues asked me to say the “cúpla focal” at this event.
Yesterday, when we were finalising the programme, they changed the phrase” cúpla focal” to the rather more grandiose term of “keynote address”. They did that to scare me.
When thinking about today I realised that this is the third launch I have spoken at in ten years, I spoke at a launch ten years ago, five years ago and now today. So I am available in five years’ time. It will come as a shock to those of you who know me to be a loquacious person that I am under the impression that I have only given three speeches in ten years!
I am guided in my preparation by three texts. The Lord’s Prayer has 66 words, the 1916 Proclamation has 455 and the EU directive on the Import and Export of Duck Eggs has 28,191. I cannot hope to achieve the profundity or aspirational heights of the Lord’s Prayer or the Proclamation but I will try and avoid the length of the EU Directive and the sheer excitement that such a document generates!
“Say something about the resources on the website and the context in which we work,” said my colleagues.
A feature of our current context is the management of expectations. This occurs at Government level. Think about pre-Budget leaks from Government parties as a way of managing expectations . It also occurs at local level. Some months ago I phoned a statutory agency to inquire about a service for a family member. The person at the other end of the phone told me about the cutbacks in their funding, their increased workloads, the greater geographical area they had to cater for, their impending amalgamation with another service, the non-replacement of people who were on maternity leave or career breaks. This lasted some five to seven minutes, at the end of which I was unsure if I should proceed with my request or take up a collection for this woman and her colleagues.
She was trying to manage my expectations… down. I remembered a scene from the last few minutes of the film The Commitments. There has been a big fight and the band has broken up. Jimmy Rabbitte is walking along the Quays feeling disconsolate. He meets the trumpeter from the band, Joey “The Lips”. “We failed, Joey, we failed” says Jimmy. “No, Brother,” replies Joey, “you didn’t fail. You raised their expectations.” The resources on the website are about raising not lowering expectations; of ourselves, our groups and our communities, the society in which we live. The great American poet Emily Dickinson said:
‘We never know how high we are
Till we are asked to rise
And then if we are true to plan
Our statures touch the skies.’
The resources encourage us to be as big and as deep as we truly are.
A second feature of the current climate is the push to have us conform to certain expectations. I had an experience of this lately. I woke from sleep and found a questionnaire beside my bed. It was designed to ascertain whether I should get out of the bed or not. All questions had to be answered yes or no, a bad start! The first question posed was “Do you intend to get out of the bed in accordance with best international practice?” I slumped back on the pillow. The next question asked, “Will you be spending the whole day engaged in Labour Market Activation Measures?” I was stumped by that one. Next came, “Are you an entrepreneur?” I can’t even spell the word! Then followed the question; “Can you confirm that you will spend the entire day going forward?” I read on sinking further and further into the bed. Two poets came to my rescue, One a 13th. Century Persian mystic, Rumi, who said
‘Out beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing,
There is a field, I will meet you there.’
The other poet was one of our own, an file Máirtín Ó Direáin. Dúirt Máirtín, “Is mó mé I mise.” There are many mes in me. The resources are about bringing people to that freeing field of Rumi’s, beyond right and wrong, yes and no, correct and incorrect to a place where they can discover their diversity and difference, their own multiplicity, the richness in ourselves, our groups and communities. A place where it is ok to be contrary, even downright contrary.
Many of us here are involved in education and learning, whether formal or informal. Some years ago I read a paper which argued that the history of Western education was a movement from the cultivation of wisdom to the acquisition of knowledge to the management of information to the collection of data. There are definite signs of that in the sector with which I am familiar. At times it seems that the collection of data and information about participants and learners is far more important than accompanying them on a journey of sharing knowledge and cultivating wisdom. Statistics and numbers have priority over stories and narratives. “Statistics are stories with the tears dried off” I heard a friend say some time ago. The resources on the website are an attempt to reclaim the stories and the tears and the fun, the mud and the blood.
This desire for statistical precision is not new of course. Charles Babbage who was born in 1791, played a pioneering role in the thinking which led to the development of computers. He had an intense dislike of mathematical imprecision, He wrote to the poet, Tennyson, about some lines he had written: ’Every moment dies a man / Every moment one is born’. Babbage pointed out that this would mean that the population was static whereas it was increasing. To be accurate Tennyson should amend the line to read: ‘Every moment dies a man / Every moment one and one sixteenth is born’! Alas the Babbages of this world are alive and well and residing in Government Departments and European Institutions.
Let me offer an alternative approach to that of numerical precision. In Partners Intercultural Companion to Training for Transformation there is a story about Peter Elsass, an anthropologist who spent many years as a student of and advocate for endangered minorities in Colombia and Venezuela. In his journal Elsass wrote:
‘I have arrived with the film crew at the Arbuaco Indians’ sacred village, Nabucimaque. Before we get permission to enter into the village, I have to promise the Indians that we will discuss all aspects of the film with them. It is my ninth visit to the Arbuaco Indians, but nevertheless they keep asking why I have come and what my purpose is. We wait and wait, and over and over again we answer their question about why we are making this film.
The days go by without our gaining permission. We are getting desperate about time passing and our having to repeat the same explanations day after day. After a while, we ourselves, begin to doubt if the trip is worth the trouble, and at some point I utter in despair that I do not know why we are making this blasted film. Only when the Indians have heard me say this do they permit us to start filming. Apparently one has to acknowledge doubt in order to come into the Indians’ sacred village’.
Apparently one has to acknowledge doubt in order to come into the Indians’ sacred village. Humility and an acknowledgement of doubt might be better companions for us as we work with groups and communities. More discovery and less delivery, less covering and more uncovering.
I like the image of a wicker gate. A wicker gate is a small door built into a larger door. You can enter a building or premises through it without opening the bigger gate. The resources on the website are like wicker gates affording us small entry points into vast worlds. Patrick Kavanagh said “Through a chink too wide, there comes in no wonder.” The resources are chinks allowing us sight of the wonder of peoples’ lives. The resources are concerned with reclaiming knowledge and appreciating wisdom.
But knowledge and wisdom do not come without a cost. You may recall the ancient story about Fionn Mac Cumhaill agus an Bradán Feasa (Fionn Mac Cumhaill and the Salmon of Knowledge or Wisdom or indeed Awareness). As a young boy Fionn was sent to live with the scholar and poet Finneagas. Fionn was both student of and servant to the older man. Finneagas lived by the banks of the Boyne and after seven years of trying, finally managed to catch the Salmon of Knowledge. He gave Fionn instructions to cook but not taste the salmon. As the salmon cooked, a blister appeared on its skin and in order to break it Fionn touched the fish and burned himself. He put his thumb in his mouth and tasted the salmon. So it was he not Finneagas who gained the salmon’s knowledge. It is not by accident that knowledge and fire are linked in the story. Wisdom and knowledge and not easily purchased commodities. It is often through the fire of our experience that we become knowledgeable and wise.
Given the week that is in it, it would be remiss of me not to mention the death of a wise man called Nelson Mandela. In my mind I associate him with another wise person who died this year, Séamus Heaney. One a politician and the other a poet. It is hard to imagine parents rushing to tell their children to take up either profession. And yet they are indispensable occupations dealing as they do with power and imagination. The two men showed us what can happen when these elements are handled well. Mandela used power to help people transcend boundaries and reimagine the world. Heaney used the imagination to help people discover the powerful depths just below the surface of everyday life. The two men invite us to transcend and descend.
Writing about the poet’s occupation Heaney said:
“Usually you begin by dropping the bucket half way down the shaft and winding up a taking of air. You are missing the real thing until one day the chain draws unexpectedly tight and you have dipped into water that will continue to entice you back. You’ll have broken the skin of the pool of yourself.”
When we break the skin of the pool of ourselves, of the people we work with, of our communities we discover great depth. Grace and beauty, compassion and courage are everywhere around us. We don’t bring them into being, they are there. We can be witnesses. It would be wonderful if the resources we offer can play a small part in helping us be witnesses.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh.