The Reception of Meaning:
New ideas, especially if they are worthy of serious consideration, are inherently troubling
Anyone who pays attention to the news cannot help but share in a feeling that there are challenges that we collectively face. Given that a lot of people listen to the news, and that the particular trouble reported in any given news cycle tends to show up in casual conversations, it seems that there is a general consensus on the general range populated by particular kinds of trouble. Or at the very least, there seems to be a widespread awareness that we face trouble. When faced with trouble, human beings look for solutions. This seems to be true whether the scale of the trouble is personal, shared amongst the small circle of family or friends, and various scales of collective trouble sharing. To some extent, we seem to get something out of the process of facing and working to resolve problems either vicariously or in our direct experience. The drama of human life appears to provide us with an endless supply of such entertainments from ghost stories around the campfire, to soap operas, to video games, to live coverage of unfolding real-life dramas on television. At one level, we enjoy games. We gravitate to the structure and challenges of facing and overcoming challenges. Even when we fail in the end, we still seem to find some satisfaction and entertainment value in the playing of the game.
Facing and resolving real-world problems has the added appeal of a sense that we are contributing something to the world around us. Mobilizing our problem-solving instincts and skills, we hope to come up with a solution. We aspire to articulate the solution in the form of action steps and gain his approval of others but articulating the proposal is risky business. Our life experience tells us that we should not expect a full enthusiastic embrace upon first utterance of an idea. The first challenge is the challenge of articulation. It is no small achievement to give expression, usually beginning as verbal expression, to an idea.
But as we struggle internally with our own capacity to articulate an idea, there is often one or more obstacles that arise to the idea’s reception. These obstacles share a common source: Sometimes, the mere presumption that a problem might have a solution at all is threatening. On top of that, even if a solution might exist, it is presumptuous of the speaker to think she has the solution, as in: “ if it were really that simple don’t you think someone would’ve thought of that before?” There are two types of experience that confirms that this happens: each of us have probably experienced firsthand the feeling that our ideas are being rejected not on its merits, but because one or more people appear unwilling to accept the possibility of the idea, or, in some cases, unwilling to accept the possibility that we might be capable of offering a useful idea. The second experience that confirms that this happens is that each of us at one time or another have been challenged to admit that an idea exists and that it is useful even though it has come from the unlikely source of someone who we think him capable of producing useful ideas. Even before someone hears and understands an idea, there are at least two obstacles: that a useful idea is even possible, and that the person presenting the idea might possibly be capable of offering it. The logical structure of these two categories of experience suggests a third: good ideas that we fail to embrace because of who the messenger this. It happens. There are many nascent good ideas out there that have been rejected because of the source. This is a heartbreaking squandering of valuable resources. There is much to be gained by getting a grip and developing our skills for hearing the kernel of good idea locked on the other side of a filter that tells us that this person has nothing useful to offer.
Is this just the reality of the human ego? Do we need to first alter the petty conceits of our comrades (and ourselves) before we can even hope to pursue an effective collective dialogue? What magic wand is there that can suddenly give our listeners a new set of skills? It is more likely that the listening skills of our audience is a given, fixed, we do not have access under the hood to rewire or reengineer the basic capacities of our comrades. Is there no hope? Well, there might be a little hope. When we come up with ideas fully cooked entirely on our own, they show up on this scene encased in a thick plastic wrapper of individual ownership. The self-contained nature of this packaged idea predisposes its reception as being of complete acceptance as is, or, complete rejection. The natural troubleshooting process that is the focus of human collaborations can not proceed until the container of individual ownership is broken open. Better still, is to share the seed of an idea before it is fully grown. Even if the seed was brought in by a single individual, by the time it is placed in the soil of collective attention, watered and cared for out of some shared concern, and germinated in the full sun of an open discussion, it has achieved the higher status of collective stewardship. The handicaps of individual ownership are transcended. The process of social cultivation predisposes a group to embrace it as “ours.” Its enthusiastic reception is thus much more likely.