The value of ambiguity and experience

A few years ago the following quote really struck a chord with me.  It is from Donald Levine in a book that explores the loss of capacity in the modern world to deal constructively with ambiguity, he explains that:

  • In their quest for precision, social scientists have produced instruments that represent the facts of human life in one-dimensional terms.  They have defined concepts with rigour in order to represent dominant traits and tendencies univocally.  They have constructed scales in order to measure the strength of specified variables on one dimensional continua.  Investigations that rely on such instruments produce representations of attitudes and relations that strike us time and again as gratuitously unrealistic.  For the truth of the matter is that people have mixed feelings and confused opinions, and are subject to contradictory expectations and outcomes, in every sphere of experience (Levine, 1985, p8).

  • It must be of an event that happened very recently, preferably within the last few days.
  • It must be of something that matters; there is an important stake in the outcome, an outcome that has yet to be fully played out.
  • As for style or length, that matters little, other than the importance of congruence with the writer, the nature of events and those that will read it.

In working with their narratives, reading them aloud in small groups, re-writing them important details emerge.  Details that people can ‘do something with’ in terms of future actions.  The ambiguity is not lost; it becomes an important opportunity for reflection.  Here is some feedback:

  • ‘I found it completely fascinating … the relationship between thought, writing and the people here today’.
  • ‘I think the social process definitely helped because I got feedback that I probably wouldn’t have thought of on my own.  There is only so much you can work out by yourself however long you think about it’.
  • ‘I found the process of being met, my story being understood and response at an emotional and intellectual level was important for me.  … I understood the essence, a lot was washed away, and there was something really significant’.
  • ‘There was so much going on in the tiniest of interaction’.
  • ‘It feels that it has been quite special and surprising actually; more akin to a supervisor relationship … that they understood me and were interested in what I had to say … it seemed very important’.
  • ‘We all went about the task of re-writing narrative differently, one person edited and added something, another shortened the story and I came up with new questions’.
  • ‘This re-writing prompted a creative unsettlement’.

The point I am making is this: there are rich opportunities in dealing with the complexities of personal experience in order to make effective decisions.  Ambiguity should not be lost to the siren voices simplicity; experience if just too valuable.

Ref: Levine, D (1985) The Flight from Ambiguity – Essays in Social and Cultural Theory, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press

Ref (Picture): Jastrow, J (1899). The mind’s eye, Popular Science Monthly, 54, p299-312


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