Work and Love

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It’s almost impossible to speak about human consciousness without referring to Jean Piaget (1896-1980).  For more than forty years (from about 1930 to 1970), he conducted experimental research with young children in Switzerland, charting the stages of their cognitive development from infancy to young adulthood.  He published The Mental Development of the Child in 1940.  Relying on empirical evidence from years of experimentation and close observation, he traced the emergence and development of consciousness through a series of what we today call “tipping points”.  At regular, fairly predictable stages, he observed developmental leaps after which the child’s perception and understanding of reality was dramatically altered.

For example, Piaget noted that at around the age of seven, children enter a develop-mental phase where they become aware of the phenomenon of “point of view”.  To demonstrate this he conducted a famous experiment using a ball that was red on one side and green on the other.  A child was seated opposite Piaget and the ball was placed in the space between them.  Piaget asked the child to look at the ball and say what color he saw.  The child had no trouble doing so.  He then asked the child, “And what color do I see?”  Children younger than seven would always say the same color as they were seeing.  Older children would walk around to where Piaget was seated to look at the ball from the other side before answering the question.  It never even occurred to younger children to change their position, because the very concept of point of view was simply too abstract to be considered.  Only after having made a particular developmental leap was the child capable of this.

In an analogous way, when we speak of the leap of consciousness necessary to hold two opposing ideas or two contradictory domains in mind at the same time, we are also referring to a maturation process.  Just as with the emergent capacity for recognizing different points of view, it is possible to alter where we look from so that a new perception of reality becomes available.  This in turn leads to a new spectrum of experience and with it a new range of possible behavior.

Imagine standing in front of a tapestry, but so close to it that you can see only the individual threads.  You see threads of many different colors, some of which may seem to you to harmonize with each other and some to clash.  But not until you step far enough back does the scene pictured in the tapestry come into focus.  If we now consider the apparent contradiction between a commitment to performance and a commitment to people (i.e., between what we care about and the essence of that we care at all), we start to get an inkling of the distinction that has been missing.

We can call it “missing the forest for the trees” or better yet, “looking from the whole rather than looking for the whole.  In any event, rather than seeking a new answer to an old question let us ask a new question.  Instead of asking, “How does one bring work and love together?” let us take a few steps back and ask, “What is the whole of which work and love are parts?”

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