Yesterday, I was reading This Will Make You Smarter and thought that the concept of umwelt could be enormously helpful for my social work students and Dawn Farm’s counseling staff:
In 1909, the biologist Jakob von Uexküll introduced the concept of the umwelt. He wanted a word to express a simple (but often overlooked) observation: different animals in the same ecosystem pick up on different environmental signals. In the blind and deaf world of the tick, the important signals are temperature and the odor of butyric acid. For the black ghost knifefish, it’s electrical fields. For the echolocating bat, it’s air-compression waves. The small subset of the world that an animal is able to detect is its umwelt. The bigger reality, whatever that might mean, is called the umgebung.
The interesting part is that each organism presumably assumes its umwelt to be the entire objective reality “out there.” Why would any of us stop to think that there is more beyond what we can sense?
…It neatly captures the idea of limited knowledge, of unobtainable information, and of unimagined possibilities. Consider the criticisms of policy, the assertions of dogma, the declarations of fact that you hear every day — and just imagine if all of these could be infused with the proper intellectual humility that comes from appreciating the amount unseen.
I find two things very attractive about the concept. First, are these ideas of “limited knowledge”, “unobtainable information”, “unimagined possibilities” and “intellectual humility”. Second, it nudges us to consider the possibility that different clients may have different umwelt experiences. Clients with a history of trauma will pick up on environmental signals that others of us are blind to. Women or minorities will have different umwelt experiences and the fact that I can’t sense those signals doesn’t make them less real.
Maybe the concept of umwelt can help keep us out of the “expert” position and keep us in the role of curious fellow travelers. This isn’t simply a matter of attention and empathy. I may not be capable of detecting the signals someone else is experiencing, even if they’re pointed out to me. (However, if we’re tuned into the client, we may notice them experiencing something that doesn’t fit with what we observe and curiously explore rather than dismiss it as pathological.)
Also, we’re probably unaware of most of our own umwelt experience. And, even if we’re aware of it, language will probably fail us–how do you describe a scent to someone who can’t smell?
I recently listened to an interview with Nadia Bolz-Weber. There were a lot of keepers in the interview (even for a non-believer). She’s described as a recovering drug addict. Her recovery shines through in this, “fake it till you make it” discussion:
Ms. Tippett: So a sermon of yours I wish I could have heard is “Loving Our Enemies Even If We Don’t Mean It.”
Ms. Nadia Bolz-Weber: Yeah, I think meaning it is overrated. I mean, I think …
Ms. Tippett: I think this is profound. I really do.
Ms. Nadia Bolz-Weber: No, I’m serious. Like, my gosh, if God’s going to wait till I mean it, that’s going to be a while, right? So I think that the key is praying for them, not like feeling warm feelings towards people who’ve hurt you or towards your enemy. I don’t think it’s about feelings. I think it’s about an action.
That was kind of neat, but what she said next really leapt out to me. [emphasis mine]
…I think that’s what the sort of love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you means. I will actually ask other people to do it for me sometimes, like it doesn’t always have to be us. And so it’s like this thing like I don’t think faith is given in sufficient quantity to individuals necessarily. I think it’s given in sufficient quantity to communities.
Wow. It reminds me of my persistent despair many months into my recovery and Dave H. telling me, “It’s okay if you don’t believe it’s going to get better, just believe that I believe it’s going to get better for you.”
This reminds me of an aha moment I had when listening to Bill White describe the recovery coaches of Project SAFE. I remember listening to him and thinking of the clients in those stories as having no protective factors–none!–only risk factors. He went on to describe the assertive support and engagement that these workers provided. I realized that these workers were becoming and creating protective factors in the lives of these women.
It also reminds me something my friend Ben often says, “Too often I fail to notice how much of the time I’m carried by others.”
What a gift it is for our profession to have access to a recovering community that, a group and one-to-one level, provides so much hope, faith and tangible support.
From On Being, some insight on hope and how people can foster it or inhibit its development:
Ms. Brown: You know, one of the most interesting things I’ve found in doing this work is, you know, something the wholehearted share in common is this real profound sense of hopefulness. And as I got into the literature on hope, very specifically C.R. Snyder’s work from the University of Kansas at Lawrence, that hope is a function of struggle.
Ms. Tippett: Right. I think that’s one of the most stunning sentences that I saw in your writing.
Ms. Brown: Yeah, and that hope is not an emotion, but hope is
a cognitive, behavioral process that we learn when we experience adversity, when we have relationships that are trustworthy, when people have faith in our ability to get out of a jam.
Ms. Tippett: Right, which is different from this pattern of having faith in us which means telling us everything we do is wonderful and shielding us from pain as long as they can.
Ms. Brown: Right. And, you know, I’m literally — I don’t even know how to talk about it. It really just floors me that, when I go out and I do a lot of talks for big corporations, you know, Fortune 100 companies, how many people tell me — like the HR folks who I end up — luckily, I love them and I get to talk to them a lot, who will tell me how often parents call to go over the performance evaluation of their children or to find out why they didn’t get a raise or a promotion.
Ms. Tippett: Really?
Ms. Brown: Yeah, oh, yeah.
Ms. Tippett: I mean, I just took my daughter to college and we got this lecture, the parents and the families who were there, from like the Dean of Students and it was so clear that they were dealing with that same thing, right? I mean, they basically said I need you to understand that we’re going to take great care of your gem and also that my relationship is to them and not to you. We got this lecture, which was clearly based on parents still trying to control. You know, again, it’s like, boy, we know this, don’t we, this desire that you have to create a beautiful world and life and experience for these people you love?
Ms. Brown: But you know what? I think we lose sight of the beauty. The most beautiful things I look back on in my life are coming out from underneath things I didn’t know I could get out from underneath. You know, the moments I look back in my life and think, God, those are the moments that made me, were moments of struggle.
Ms. Tippett: Or I look back at things I did where, if my parents or I had understood how crazy it was, like if it had been me, I would have tried to intervene and rescue?
Ms. Brown: Oh, for sure.
Ms. Tippett: And you’re right. Those are the moments you become who you are.
Ms. Brown: You know, and I’ve seen how this research has really changed, you know, like I’ll give you just a very specific example. My daughter decides, you know, that she wants to try out for something that she’s really new at. You know, a sport or something that she’s just taken up.
And I think before, maybe even three years ago, before this research, not only before I wrote it up, before I started trying to practice it and live it, I think I would have been the parent who said, you know, either let’s get you in 34 camps before you try out so you’ve mastered it, or I don’t think you should try out for that because there are girls who’ve been playing this sport as long as you’ve been playing soccer …
Ms. Tippett: And you want to shield her from disappointment.
Ms. Brown: Right. And I want to take away that moment that I had. You know, it wasn’t the moment. When I think back and I talk to parents a lot about this, it wasn’t the hard moments that we don’t want to expose them to. It was the isolation and shame we felt around those moments because a lot of us didn’t have people to process them with.
Like I think when I went out for something and didn’t make it, I don’t think my parents were ashamed of me, but I think they were ashamed for me. I don’t think they knew how to talk about that. I don’t think we had a conversation. I know we didn’t have a conversation that I can have with my daughter today where I say, you know what, I’m so proud of you not only for trying, but for letting the people around you who you care about, you let us know how much you wanted it, and it doesn’t get braver than that.
Ms. Tippett: Right. Right. Well, I mean, here’s this other sentence that’s a corollary to the sentence hope is a function of struggle. You say you look at a baby, your newborn baby is hard-wired for struggle. It’s built in us that that is how we are going to shape, that that’s what we’re going to encounter, that’s how we’re going to shape ourselves. That’s actually a really hard thing to take in, you know, as a parent, especially thinking about those moments early on when you first meet this being that is going to have dominance over your life.
Ms. Brown: Yeah, because I think we look and think I can make this right. I can do for her or him what wasn’t done for me. I can protect them from the things that hurt me. I think we are so much more hard-wired for who we are than what people, especially parents, want to believe. And I don’t think our job as parents is to make everything right and perfect and beautiful and true. I think our job is, during struggle, to look at our kids and say, yeah, this is hard and this is tough and you’re hurt.
Ms. Tippett: And you’re not alone, you’re not alone.
Ms. Brown: But you’re not alone.
Ms. Tippett: I’m not going to fix it, but you’re not alone.
Ms. Brown: Right, you’re not alone and I want to make sure you understand that this doesn’t change the fact that you’re worthy of love and belonging.
They interviewed a guy who wrote a book and gave a TED talk on the topic.
During the interview he discussed the concept of the adjacent possible and it’s importance in forming new ideas. During the interview, he described it as the building blocks of new ideas. Without the right building blocks, any innovation is not possible. He described it another way in a WSJ article:
The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.
The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations. Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven’t visited yet. Once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand-new room that you couldn’t have reached from your original starting point. Keep opening new doors and eventually you’ll have built a palace.
During the interview, he pointed out that it doesn’t matter how smart one is, it was not possible to invent a microwave in 1650, because the building blocks, the adjacent possible, just wasn’t there.
One factor is that the physical building blocks did not exist. The other factor is that the imaginative/inspiration building blocks did not exist.
This reminded me of a metaphor Bill White once used when talking about hope-engendering relationships offering kindlingfor hope.
I think this helps explain the resistance some recovery advocates have to interventions focused on something other than drug-free recovery. There’s a sense of how precious this adjacent possible is, and how easy it is to imagine a world where drug-free recovery is not possible because the adjacent possible has been lost.
It’s nice to see a victim of addiction be remembered not just for their talent, accomplishments, personal drama or whatever else, and instead be remembered for his goodness.
It’s being widely reported that Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a drug overdose. He was found in a West Village apartment with the syringe still in his arm and several bags nearby.
He had 23 years sober before he relapsed on heroin last year.
In “Almost Famous,” as legendary 1970s music critic Lester Bangs.
The news literally knocked the wind out of me and I cried, the way I cried the day I heard David Foster Wallace (another addict) topped himself. My first thought in both cases was selfish: Now we never get any more of their brilliant work.
My second thought was for their partners, and Hoffman’s kids. Hoffman had—has? had?—three kids. “Young children,” they are described in the New York Times story. Village residents who saw him around the neighborhood are describing him on Twitter as a generous dude who was kind and unpretentious when he brought his kids to the coffee shops.
23 years? Damn. Just goes to show that is you’re a real addict (not just a heavy user), you can never stop maintaining your recovery.
Thanks to Jennifer Matesa for sharing her reactions.
[UPDATE: The first sentence was edited based on a commenter suggestion. It originally read, “It’s nice to see someone die of addiction and be remembered…”. It’s never nice to see someone die of addiction.]
Ted Pillow has pulled together a collection of Roger Ebert quotes about addiction. I loved Ebert and this is a great read. Here’s a taste:
“Alcoholics or drug addicts feel wrong when they don’t feel right. Eventually they feel very wrong, and must feel right, and at that point their lives spiral down into some sort of final chapter—recovery if they’re lucky, hopelessness and death if they’re not.24 Drunks always think that if they could fix all the things that are wrong, then they could stop drinking. It never occurs to them to stop drinking first.25
The practicing alcoholic is familiar with a gnawing feeling in the pit of the stomach—the guilt at letting other people down, the remorse at letting himself down. Criticism in any form is likely to be met with anger, because nothing you can tell him will make him feel worse than the things he tells himself.26
Every drunk considers himself a special case, unique, an exception to the rules. Odd, since for the practicing alcoholic, daily life is mostly unchanging, an attempt to negotiate daily responsibilities while drinking enough but not too much. When this attempt fails, as it often does, it results in events that the drunk thinks make him colorful. True variety comes only with sobriety.27
Most documentary projects about addiction expose someone else’s self-destructive behavior, but Graham MacIndoe took a very different approach: He photographed himself during the years he was addicted to drugs. He’d place a cheap digital camera on a table or bookshelf, set the self-timer to take a photo every so often, then turn his attention to the rituals of his habit: filling a crack pipe, cooking heroin, shooting up. Over time, he became more deliberate about lighting and composition, but the point was not to glamorize what had become a solitary existence, the monotonous repetition of an addict’s daily life.
These images offer important perspective in light of the recent discussion about treatment and responses to addiction. There’s been a lot of discussion about natural recovery. I think it’s important to distinguish between problem drinking or drug use and addiction.
People with drug and alcohol problems, even serious problems, stop all the time without help. For them, the drug is just a drug. It may feel really good. It may have a pretty strong pull. But, they’ll quit once they have a good enough reason—a child, incarceration, loss of a job, divorce, etc.
This looks like addiction, where the drug is no longer just a drug—it’s survival. The brain of the addict treats the drug as it’s most basic survival need. It’s not a learned behavior. It’s not a lifestylechoice. It’s not secondary to a crappy environment. Few addicts will be able to initiate and maintain recovery without help. (There’s no doubt that, historically, treatment providers have done a lousy job differentiating between addicts and problem users.)
The good news is that Graham is in recovery now.
I posted about tough love earlier this week. Here are his thoughts on tough love:
People need to be nurtured out of addiction. That tough-love thing of turning a blind eye because you think you can do nothing is really destructive. Because you’re getting somebody at the lowest ebb of their life who just needs something, and they don’t know how to do it.