A graduate school colleague of mine once remarked that we live in a moment of great tension in the world. On the one hand, we marvel at the globalization of our lives, the breakdown of boundaries, the ease of communication and travel, the wonderful richness of life in various countries and cultures. On the other hand, he pointed out, this also is a time when we are fixated on our differences, the things that separate us from each other, the ways in which we are not alike. How ironic that as we are more and more able to participate in a global community, we also are more and more fragmented by our differences.
I have learned much about how I think about difference from the elegant writings of Mary Catherine Bateson, an anthropologist whose parents were Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. Mary Catherine Bateson’s works include “Composing a Life” (Reissued in 1990, Plume Books) and “Peripheral Visions: Learning along the Way” (1994, HarperCollins). In “Peripheral Visions,” Professor Bateson explores how “the quality of improvisation characterizes more and more lives today, lived in uncertainty, full of the inklings of alternatives.”
Dr. Bateson spent many years living and teaching in Iran. She talks about her initial visits to the Persian gardens of Iranian colleagues and how she learned to improvise in the gardens: “That day in the Persian garden has come to represent for me a changed awareness of learning pervading other activities. Meeting as strangers, we join in common occasions, making up our multiple roles as we go along—young and old, male and female, teacher and parent and lover—with all of science and history present in shadow form, partly illuminating and partly obscuring what is there to be learned…We are largely unaware of speaking, as we all do, sentences never spoken before, unaware of choreographing the acts of dressing and sitting and entering a room as depictions of self, of resculpting memory into an appropriate past…What I tried to do that day (in the Persian garden), stringing together elements of previous knowledge, attending to every possible cue, and exploring different translations of the familiar, was to improvise responsibly and with love.”
Improvising and learning—responsibly and with love—what a remarkable way of thinking about how we respond to diverse situations and people. Read the passage again and again, let it sink in—it describes a way of life that looks a lot like reflective practice.