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Only We Know a Cup Is a Cup


Nothing can be more abstract than, more unreal than what we actually see. We know that all we can see of the objective world, as human beings, never really exists as we understand it. Matter exists of course, but has no intrinsic meaning of its own, such as the meanings that we attach to it. Only we know a cup is a cup, that a tree is a tree.

Giorgio Morandi, 1965


Giorgio Morandi’s works are part of the permanent collection at the Hirshorn Museum in Washington, D.C. The above quote was displayed alongside his paintings that captures the way we name things, and how narratives, beliefs, behaviors are developed. For humans to communicate and connect with one another, there must be a common frame of reference, a shared understanding, a shared meaning, and a belief and trust in that understanding. In addition, there must be a significant group of people who share that common frame of reference, thus validating the narrative and creating a process and common language for communication.


As we begin 2022, we are looking at a country in tumult. Right now, it is a challenge to feel optimistic about what the new year will bring. It is evident that we as a people with a shared country, do not share a common understanding or common frame of reference. We just experienced the first anniversary of January 6 when the Capitol was attacked. One cable news outlet had this as their news headline: Unhinged Elmo trends online after epic Sesame Street cookie meltdown resurfaces. Another cable news network: Today marks one year since the deadly Capitol insurrection. While in the Washington Post the title of an article read: Rival Jan. 6 vigils reflect deep divides over insurrection. These views are SO divergent, that significant groups of people take oppositional points of views so there is no mutual, significant narrative that can propel us as a country to engage in effective, public, beneficial endeavors.


Perhaps we are in the midst of a power struggle as to how our country will navigate all the daunting challenges we currently face, whether it be a global-wide pandemic, vaccines and masks, climate change, economic inequality, social justice, voting rights, and so on. Or perhaps another perspective might be that all the illness, pain, and suffering of earth and humanity are manifesting itself as to what we are currently bearing witness. Do we have the ability to regenerate and to interact with people in a healing, helpful way or are we facing a truly uncertain, perilous future? There are no easy answers and because of that many feel unsettled, unsure, anxious, and fearful. It is from a place of fear and anxiety that we often make unwise, and unhealthy choices.


Perhaps we can take some lessons from trauma pedagogy (from Keeping Up with Trauma Informed Pedagogy by Desirae Zingarelli-Sweet) and put these lessons to practice in our personal and professional lives:


  1. Physical, Emotional, Social & Academic Safety. Foster an atmosphere that respects individuals' needs for safety, respect, and acceptance, including feeling safe to make and learn from mistakes.

  2. Trustworthiness & Transparency. Establish trust by making expectations clear, operating transparently, being consistent and reliable, and maintaining appropriate boundaries.

  3. Support & Connection. Facilitate peer support and connection with appropriate resources.

  4. Collaboration & Mutuality. Create opportunities for input, power-sharing, and cooperative decision-making.

  5. Empowerment, Voice, & Choice. Build in flexibility and choices where possible so learners can build competence and confidence making decisions for themselves.

  6. Social Justice. Strive together to be aware of and responsive to intersecting dynamics of privilege, power, and oppression to honor each person's experiences and identities.

  7. Resilience, Growth, & Change. Emphasize strengths and resilience over deficiencies and pathology. Provide feedback to convey optimism and facilitate growth.

The above recommendations seem doable with great potential for making a difference in our personal lives as well as in our workplaces. People will thrive in an environment where everyone is respected; genuine support, trust, and transparency are readily evident; and opportunities for individual empowerment are proactively practiced. I especially like the concept of power-sharing and cooperative decision-making. In power-sharing and cooperative decision-making, all those involved will have established a common frame of reference and a shared language and narrative that enhances mutual interaction with each other. There is also an established community of trust and reciprocal behaviors. It is a different way to accomplish goals and outcomes. It is a way to engage in the dynamics of power and privilege in a collective fashion with the potential to maximize benefits for all who are involved. Playing to people’s strengths builds resiliency and solidifies the foundations of an organization.


If significant numbers of us can interact with people in a healing, helpful way, history tells us that we can find a path to renewal and regeneration. As Persian poet Rumi born over 800 years ago wrote: "Friends, we are traveling together."




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