Last week wasn’t very amazing for me. Still, I had a few pure moments of feeling like I am not insane nor am I alone. The purity of these moments made it feel like peace as it ought to feel. And everything to combined into one glorious moment of feeling understood. A moment of forgotting why Soren Kierkegaard ever resonated with me, when he wrote “People understand me so poorly that they don’t even understand my complaint about them not understanding me”.
Upon reflection, it was also a moment of awaking to my own lack of appreciation: it seems to me that in my struggle for recognition I easily take for granted the core people that form my support system. What does this say about me? Not quite sure but I will trouble this shortly.
First let me put it on the record that I am grateful for all the support I have. I forget on many occasions to overtly express my gratitude but it doesn’t mean I am unappreciative. I know exactly who to count on for support. Just as I know that aside from my family and friends, I have people like Alfredo, my supervisor, who support me and accept my view of the world as sane.
I called out Alfredo by name for one reason: his presentation this past Wednesday was the source of my dear moments of being and awakening. The presentation was titled “How blue is the blue sky? A reflection on a research and (social) engagement”. It was a basic demystification of what is qualified as true and (by implication) false research.
Before I go any further about the presentation, let me make a disclaimer. I strongly believe that my research embeds my own biography in very nuanced and non nuanced ways. As a consequence, the slightest of things said in the academic arena, especially those that make me feel understood, tend to matter a lot to me. I put emphasis on a lot because I also view the academic space as one of my few areas of success; I am actually at that point in my life where it is no longer absurd that I can be married to the life of the mind – a life which with hard work, I can possibly flourish.
My disclaimer noted, I will proceed with the presentation details. Then, I will reflect on my precious moment(s) of awakening.
Salient points of Alfredo’s presentation
In my mind, there were two main points to the presentation. These points were weaved together by a number of examples that ensured you see them as strongly intertwined.
The first point spoke directly to the title. It’s all a fallacy that a dichotomy exists between “blue sky” and “ grass-roots” research. Blue sky research, as he qualified it, is believed to be “basic, fundamental and curiosity driven” while grass-roots research is “applied, directed and (possibly) community engaged”. According to Alfredo, the fallacy has been perpetuated by many claims left implicit about innovation; claims that unfortunately have a strong influence on how funding is channelled. He reminds us that we are society that loves hierarchies. That we assume blue sky research is “up there”, therefore it is much more innovative and deserving of funds comes as no surprise. What comes perhaps as a surprise, is that we fail to recognise that innovation doesn’t happen in vacuum. What may seem as fundamental and curiosity driven endeavour may in actual fact be a product of several well directed endeavours, which, without doubt, were curiosity driven. Curiosity, as he reminds us, drives everyone. To embellish a bit, curiosity is not a commodified resource, which some lucky few can afford while others cannot. Sayings like “necessity is a mother of invention” exist for a reason and, indeed, speak directly to a drive that is akin to how curiosity is used in blue sky research.
Now moving on to the second point, which is linked to the first, but stands by itself because it problematises funding and we all know that money matters can be tricky to deal with. Anyway, the point made –putting it as delicately as I can — is money doesn’t constrain a person to the point where we can imagine it adds/removes the possibility to innovate; money or no money, what remains fundamental is for the person to apply themselves (wholeheartedly) to the task at hand. To unpack this point, I will use one of the examples he made, but frame its interpretation on what he said as well as in what I believe he meant based on my own understanding of who he is. The example was, while it remains true that Michelangelo was paid to paint the ceiling of St. Peter’s Basilica, he applied himself and the result was ‘pure work of art’. Many researchers, especially those doing blue sky research, tend to be funded for their work. Like Michelangelo, they have a brief with all expectations outlined, but, as Alfredo reminds us, it doesn’t mean there is absolutely no room to innovate for the masses. That is, produce something “on the side” that may potentially be appreciated by the masses. The key however lies in how one applies themselves to the task. To truly grasp what I think he really means, one has to understand the following:
At heart, Alfredo believes while one may not receive a Nobel prize for their work, no contribution is invaluable. He believes creating hierarchies that suggest that some fields, area of expertise or any form of work is superior than others, is a fallacy. To him, any work done honestly and with the necessary effort that it deserves is worthy of recognition.
Back to my moments: what was the trigger?
Again, let me put yet another disclaimer. It’s almost always about me when I choose to pen anything down in this platform. To me, this a meditative platform that I can ‘trouble’ questions like ‘how do I easily forget that I have an awesome support system?’ And, of course, the question at hand, ‘what was the trigger for my precious moment(s)?’
My answer is simple yet difficult to articulate. I fail on many occasions to accept that while all people matter as human beings, not all matter within my small space of existence. This said, my moment put in context was also a moment of rejection. A rejection of those who think my work doesn’t matter. And a rejection of those who maintain hierarchies at all cost.
In my moment, I had the language given to me and I knew it was absolutely imperative to stop concerning myself with those in my outer circle, because, by so doing, I lose the plot and end up thinking that I am not understood. Worse still, I end up taking for granted people in my inner circle; the very people that cheer me on, fight with/for me and generally provide me with plenty of space to be me.
Only through rejection I realised that I had the opportunity to reclaim myself as a unique being. With my strong support system and warped sense of humour (that cracks me up but also lands me in trouble) I can never be alone nor feel misunderstood. Understood even in those moments when I am the only one laughing because those are the “I am, I am, I am!” moments. Moments, I repeat, of reclaiming myself and remembering that it takes me to understand who I am, before expecting that understanding from others.
I am, I am, I am! Grounded in self and being; a being that also includes engaging with what lies below the blue sky. This is who I am. And I am because I believe once each of us begins to be, then in our collective being, we can all contribute to something significant. Who knows? That something could be a world without hierarchies. Just imagine that, and for a moment, meditate on being by considering, for example, Ghandi’s words: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world”.