Simon Fowler's Blog

Posts Tagged ‘relational’

Encounter, Time and Place. Neighbors become friends.

Posted by Simon on November 2, 2012

Our neighbors are leaving.

A~ and K~, and their children, T~ and L~, are moving to North Africa.

We love them and we’re desperately sad they’re going.

Movie nights; pasta-making nights; sharing tools; shopping favors; book-lending; baby-sitting swaps; recipe-swaps; music-swaps; car-lending; taking both sets of children to the playground; doing multi-family yard sales together; kids’ sleep-overs; kids trashing each other’s places; sharing stresses of work or lack of work; easter egg hunts from the age the kids could only just walk; singing Happy Birthday in English, French and Spanish; A~ jabbing our daughter with an epipen to save her from an anaphylactic reaction to nuts; meals on their back deck; bbqs in our back yard; chats on their stoop; chats on our stoop; chats while snow-shoveling; chat’s beside storm-blown trees; chats beside fire/police/ambulance visits; chats about God, science, history, the future, family life, everything; sharing in grief of losing my dad; K~ sharing story of losing his dad; welcoming each other’s visiting parents, relatives and friends; keeping M~ partying to 4am on New Year’s Day; learning California Stars on the guitar. And so much more.

That’s the both the substance and the fruit of the friendship that’s grown over the years. Friendships are emergent. You can’t decide ahead of time who is going to be your close buddy. You’ll totally freak people out if you do. And not every person needs to become a ‘friend’. There is plenty satisfaction and reward in a simple, cordial relationship. But we’ve had the enormous pleasure of real friendship grow over the years.

It’s not that complicated. Friendship or just good relationship can emerge from simply being around – a combination of encounter (face to face meeting), time (frequency and continuity) and place (meeting in different contexts). That’s all we had really, none of us set out to make friends of each other. But encounter, time and place were the foundation upon which reciprocity, a bit of risk taking, reasonable boundaries, shared and divergent interests bore fruit in a deep affection for one another.

Along with our other amazing neighbors, they’ve given us such a sense of belonging to somewhere, of mattering to someone. It’s been so rich, and so unspeakably fulfilling, to live life on this street with A~, K~, T~ and L~.

God bless you, friends.


Posted in Continuity, Directness, Multiplexity, RelationalProximity, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , | 3 Comments »

rLiving Day 14: Meaning (Purpose/Commonality)

Posted by Simon on May 13, 2010

There’s a debate I’ve been wanting to have with anyone who’d be willing about whether ‘meaning’ is constructed or found/discovered.

I’ve always leaned towards ‘found’ because meaning necessarily means a story bigger than my own. If I construct it then I’m the author, but the author needs a story too. The other thing about self-constructed story or meaning is that it doesn’t fit with other people’s stories unless there’s a meta-narrative (uh oh, theology alert). And if it does fit then it’s not just my story, I have to discover how mine fits with others’ and all stories, which brings us back to what meaning means. Yet – and maybe I’ll contradict myself here – we do participate in its formation; meaning-for-us wouldn’t exist without us living, loving and creating as we do. But I think it’s derivative, like happiness. It comes out of the blue, when we’re seeking and doing something else.

That something else I want to say is ‘purpose’. And like meaning, it’s common purpose, something that involves me in other people’s lives.

Relational Proximity Dimension #5 is Purpose/Commonality: Our sense of connectedness and relationship is greater to the degree we have things in common or share a common purpose or identity. A good relationship has a direction to it, something that is common between the members that holds it together.

Despite my desire and advocacy for directness, the best relationships seem to consist in something external, something that compels us individually towards a third party, yet brings us together: a purpose or identity that somehow forms the relationship and makes it what it is. The absence of a third party, a common purpose – especially the absence of your conscious awareness of that common purpose – makes for a much harder relationship. It makes it hard to know what is worth fighting for, worth sacrificing for, worth dying for one another.

It happens on multiple levels and in a thousand ways: sports club, family, a project, a company, artistic performance, nationality, marriage, accident, a book … on and on. The thing that makes life and relationships so rich is the bazillion ways we find purposeful (even if frivolous) things to do with each other. Think of any relationship and I think you’ll find that its health, depth, significance, correlates with how strong your sense of common purpose is. It could be your work group, but if you’re closer one person than another, there’s likely something else that binds you, but it’s still something “else”.

And ultimately, maybe it’s someone else. I did give you a theology alert! In an ultimate sense, these smaller and greater spheres of meaning we experience and seek, do find themselves cohering in a big story. We want our lives to matter, to someone. Not just ‘matter’. So true meaning is derivative, it comes because of someone. And I contend, I think with many who have contended for thousands of years, that a personal God, who loves us, is the one in whom we will find ultimate meaning. We may not find it in this lifetime, but as a child can rest confidently in the knowledge of its mother’s love without knowing what everything means, so can we in God’s. There’s more to say about it – such as what keeps us from God and from each other – but it won’t surprise you to know that Scripture describes Jesus Christ as the mediator who paradoxically draws us closer than you could possibly imagine. So I’ll leave it here with the words of Dietrich Bonheoffer:

There is no way from one person to another. However loving and sympathetic we try to be, however sound our psychology, however frank and open our behaviour, we cannot penetrate the incognito of the other man, for there are no direct relationships, not even between soul and soul. Christ stands between us, and we can only get into touch with our neighbours through him. That is why intercession is the most promising way to reach our neighbours, and corporate prayer, offered in the name of Christ, the purest form of fellowship….

The same Mediator who makes us individuals is also the founder of a new fellowship. He stands in the center between my neighbour and myself. He divides, but he also unites. Thus although the direct way to our neighbour is barred, we now find the new and only real way to him–the way which passes through the Mediator. [Discipleship, 106-113]

Post-script: What led to this post was a prayer meeting at church tonight. Part of the prayer that I had to lead was “Prayer for the Nation” (i.e. the USA). I’m English, the guy who led it is Ghanaian-born, our church has people from 60 nations in it, our home is the USA for now; I have my family (siblings etc.) and family (wife, children); I’m involved in great projects at work; I live on my street here; I play guitar with a neighbor; I’m a Christian. In all these are layers and spheres of purpose and meaning. I’m clueless what they all mean, how they fit together. But in all the different ways these different purposes and commonalities explain my relationships very well.

Posted in first-follower, Purpose, RelationalProximity | Tagged: , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

rLiving Day 8: UK/US ‘Special Relationship’ (Continuity/Multiplexity)

Posted by Simon on May 7, 2010

You’d never know it – if you live in the US – but there was a general election in the UK yesterday, that resulted in a hung parliament. The last election was four years ago and the last hung parliament was in 1974. There was very little US media coverage of the election, so most Americans probably have little idea about it.

Image: screenscrape using Jing from

The US election, which seems to go on for four years even though it’s only held every four years, is covered by the British media head to foot.

Relational Proximity Dimension #3 is Multiplexity: a relation between two countries is better and healthier if they interact in two or three different contexts rather than just one. This is, essentially, about knowledge of the Other.

Relational Proximity Dimension #2 is Continuity: our relationship is formed and strengthened by the amount, frequency and span of time we are together. It includes a sense of shared history, and an anticipation of the future.

With respect to ‘knowledge’; the media is one way the US and UK ‘interact’, get to know each other as nations. So you can see from the example of election coverage that there’s a huge imbalance, not to mention deficit and distortion, of information and understanding between the two countries. Unless an American and Brit meet, or travel to one another’s country, the media is the only way the countries will build an understanding of each other as a people. The news media (let’s be specific here) is just one ‘context’. We need more (type, quantity & quality) if we’re going to have a better relationship.

With respect to continuity; a relationship anticipates a future, and a shared future (Dimension #5, Purpose). A relationship cannot rest solely on its past, shared history. It has a timeline but that timeline has to extend forward if it’s to be considered a relationship. The election coverage doesn’t reveal this, but I don’t get any sense of forward thinking between the countries.

Little knowledge, and little future planning. Doesn’t sound very special to me.

Posted in Continuity, first-follower, Multiplexity, RelationalProximity | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

rLiving Day 7: Connectivism & Education (the Relational Imperative)

Posted by Simon on May 7, 2010

In a world of rapid change, astounding technological advancement and exponential information growth, how do we educate our children to be better citizens, better members of society?

This is a question that drives George Siemens, with whom I spoke today in the context of Forum Corp’s Principles of Workplace Learning (which I’ll likely blog about some time). With Stephen Downes, Siemens has spent several years exploring the context and characteristics of knowledge and learning. That exploration has resulted in a learning theory they call connectivism.

The premise of Relational Proximity: The foundation of human flourishing is relationship. Ultimately, the foundation is love, but love is predicated on relationship. We flourish to the degree we are connected or rather, proximate.

Essentially – as well as I can articulate a fairly sophisticated and still developing theory – connectivism moves the focus of learning from a linear, structured, controlled method rooted in an industrial age, to a distributed mode of learning rooted in networks; more specifically, rooted in the connections between the nodes in a network. That’s how the brain works, and it’s now how, thanks to technology, the world’s body of knowledge is stored, built and accessed. But it’s not just about knowledge. And it’s not just about a post-modern fragmentation of knowledge without a coherent narrative or framework. In his book, Knowing Knowledge (2006, also available on pdf), Siemens says:

We exist in dimensions beyond pure cognition. We are shaped by social interactions. We are influenced by our emotions, our motivations. We require transformative (spiritual) knowledge for novel recombinations (to rethink and recast information).
We want to belong. We want to be a part of the many, but only if we are ourselves. We do not want to fade and cease to exist as we meld with the crowd. Our tools are about individualization and personalization, but we individualize so we are a (unique) part of the crowd.

He recognizes that the new media revolution is causing fragmentation, but believes that it is possible to “create a centralized outcome from a de-centralized process”. In the video below, Siemens explains (at around 10 mins) that whether it’s dealing with H1N1, or pulling together information that will identify terror suspects before they maim and murder, “we need to distribute our cognition and connect it in such a manner that allows us to address and meet the needs of the individual problems or challenges that we face.” And with respect to education in general he says that with technology, “we can understand how my interaction with you [can result] in conceptual advances on my part”. His talk is about changing education with a view not just to produce people ready for corporations (that are still highly structured and largely ill-equipped to respond to the rapid changes taking place) but to produce “better citizens, better members of society”.

Connectivism has its critics, and I have many questions of my own. It’s not a comprehensive theory – “Better citizens, better members of society” require much more than better ways of finding knowledge – but as change in the way we educate children, it holds a lot of relational promise!

Posted in first-follower, RelationalProximity | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

rLiving Day 6: facebook Nation (Purpose)

Posted by Simon on May 6, 2010

Is Social Media a fad? Is facebook a nation?

Social Media Revolution 2, the new video by Socialnomics says No to the first, and implies Yes to the second. The first video, uploaded in July 2009, received over 1.8million hits. I’m viewer 534 of the new one so I feel, like, way cool and on the cutting edge (but actually I’m just following Marcia Conner who’s the one on the cutting edge!)

Is Social Media a fad? Well, no. Given the numbers in these great videos, it’d be like asking if the automobile is a fad. And facebook is usually the prime example of the nonfadness of social media.

This statistic may be true in terms of numbers, but the comparison with countries is a category mistake. facebook isn’t a country or nation. [I know it’s a comparison just made for effect but I’m still going to exploit it for my own purposes!]

Relational Proximity Dimension #5 is Purpose/Commonality: Our sense of connectedness and relationship is greater to the degree we have things in common or share a common purpose or identity. A good relationship has a direction to it, something that is common between the members that holds it together.

facebook is ‘simply’ a tool, an affordance for connecting people with each other. But by itself, it’s just a computer network. It’s the connections between people that matter. And those connections are rooted in either identity (Red Sox!), commonality (city, college, Captain Sully) or purpose (Protest facebook’s privacy changes!!). ‘facebook’ doesn’t have any of those elements.

But in case you needed convincing not to think that facebook is actually something to form an identity around, consider this excellent quote that my friend Dana (male) left in a comment on yesterday’s post. The quote was from Ernest Renan’s famous speech attempting to respond to the question, “What is a nation?”

“A nation,” said Renan, “is a large-scale solidarity, constituted by the feeling of the sacrifices that one has made in the past and of those that one is prepared to make in the future. It presupposes a past; it is summarized, however, in the present by a tangible fact, namely, consent, the clearly expressed desire to continue a common life. A nation’s existence is, if you will pardon the metaphor, a daily plebiscite, just as an individual’s existence is a perpetual affirmation of life.”

What is your common life? What is the identity or purpose that maintains and feeds your relationships?

Is social media a fad? Watch this:

Posted in Purpose, RelationalProximity | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

30 days of relational thinkin’ and livin’ (First Follower)

Posted by Simon on April 10, 2010

I’ve decided on my First Follower 30 day project! Not sure why I didn’t think of it sooner; the subject is what I mostly think about.

The premise: The foundation of human flourishing is relationship. Ultimately, the foundation is love, but love is predicated on relationship. The more “proximate” one person/entity is to another, the better/healthier the relationship, therefore the greater flourishing. “Proximity” doesn’t necessarily mean physical/spatial, although in most contexts it’s an important factor in relational health.

There are at least five factors that strongly determine Relational Proximity*:
1. Directness (the degree to which the relationship is unmediated and truthful)
2. Continuity (the degree to which it has a history, the parties meet regularly, and it has an expected future)
3. Multiplexity (the degree to which the parties know each other through different contexts)
4. Parity (the degree to which there is a symmetry in power)
5. Commonality/Purpose (the degree to which they agree and share a sense of common purpose or identity)

It’s important to recognize that you can have all of these and be devoid of love or commitment. These are not about feelings. But try love and commitment without them. And a deficit in any of these may at least reveal why the relationship struggles.

The project: 30 days of Relational Thinking and Living.
This project goal is to to gather data about, and to encourage, the health and vitality of relationships between: individuals, groups, institutions, even countries. The tasks will be twofold:
1. Build a virtual database of articles, stories, videos that illustrate the dimensions of relational proximity (positive or negative).
2. Select one relationship (of any type) and within 30 days develop a habit of relating that improves on each of the five dimensions of relational proximity.

I still need to work out how I’ll do this, how to socialize it, and when to start. The first task could be accomplished simply by posting something every day for 30 days using or Diigo or Evernote with tags for each dimension; then using some kind of aggregation or API to pull the info together. The second task could include having to blog or post an example of what you’ve done to improve the dimension. I’ll flesh this out in the coming days, probably quite a few days. I’ll also need to provide more detail and explanation on each of the dimensions so everyone who joins fully understands them.

One handy tool may be available soon from Andrew Wicklander, whom I’ve never met but is a major reason I’m doing this. Andrew is building a 30-day calendar; an idea created and given away for free by Andrew Dubber. Dubber was inspired by David Sivers after Sivers produced Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy! See this graphic from a previous post that illustrates the First Follower line of inspiration.

*Relational Proximity
The terminology and model are not mine. I’ll say more about the source and thinking behind it eventually. But for now just indulge me and go along with it. I’ve been thinking about this model since I came across it in 1992, but only in recent months has it started to finally gel in my mind and have I come to see the power and applicability of the framework. The model has in fact been used and applied for 20+ years in contexts as varied as conflict resolution in South Africa, Rwanda and Sudan; in inner-city employment schemes; in health-care management, and in economics, business and leadership. I will argue in future posts that it also provides a very useful language and analytical framework for the ‘social’ part of social media, and for building social capital.

So recall the two tasks above for the 30-day project. And for now think of a relationship that you or your organization has and consider how healthy it is with respect to these dimensions.

Let me know if you’d be interested in taking part in the project. Also, what do you think of the concept and the five dimensions?

Posted in first-follower, RelationalProximity | Tagged: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

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