A friend raised a helpful point by distinguishing between assimilating situations as cases of what I already know or have experienced versus accommodating / making room for the new by expanding our knowledge and re-mapping our categories of experience.
I wondered about the role of several factors in this process. The first one is recognition.
So on the one hand, certain new experiences / understandings simply impose themselves upon me. Such was certainly the case when it came to some of the experiences and knowledge about both God and myself that were pivotal to my return to Christianity. In this sense I was not so much faced with a choice of assimilating or accommodating but rather with a choice of how to accommodate, and to what end.
Thus I think that “the new” can overtake us and impose itself upon us. This was certainly the case for me in terms of my experiences at Swiss L’Abri in 1996.
However, on the other hand, perhaps there is something to having cultivated a disposition of enquiry or accepted that I have a degree of dissatisfaction with my existing situation. So in the case of the events and understandings which developed, again at Swiss L’Abri, in 1999 I had already had my experiential categories ripped wide open and was in a state of needing to resolve (or maybe better, reconcile) my understanding with my experience.
Specifically, this was not simply better to understand what I had experienced but to allow for the inherent message of these new experiences—that “the world is far larger and better that I had ever conceived”—to be put in motion as a form of ‘research project’ where the subjects were, quite literally, myself and the “meaning of life.”
So while I do not think that setting the stakes that high will always be necessary, I wonder if one must not always be willing to have these stakes at play, sometimes more and sometimes less. Stated differently, I wonder if we must literally be willing to put ourselves “in play” and also the meaning that we attach to life / what would constitute living it rightly.
This leads to the second factor I would consider in this process of assimilation versus accommodation.
Second, I wonder about the necessity of understanding myself (as self-awareness and self-understanding) and understanding what constitutes “the good life” or the purpose of living. Now surely my experiences and understandings can impact, and so alter, these understandings, but I do begin with a starting place. Further, this form of understanding is always embodied to varying degrees of completeness as I live out (or shy away from) what I believe.
Thus there is, or should be, a vibrant interaction between participating and observing—between theory and practice. Yet I think that this too, while not a technique that I can learn like how to prepare a meal from a recipe, is nevertheless a form of embodied knowledge that must be acquired. I would tend to use the ancient Greek notion of phronesis, or practical wisdom, to describe this integration of participating and observing, theory and practice.
Phronesis is not a matter of applying particular skills in a memorized sequence but, instead, requires developing one’s ability to perceive the subtleties in a given situation and to develop responses that are both fitting to that situation and, where appropriate and possible, create tension and / or resolution toward a richer integration of action and understanding, or a better understanding of oneself, the other, the situation, or some combination of these three.
Phronesis similarly involves assessing the outcome of engaging these tensions and / or resolutions. So it gauges “success” not according to how well one followed instructions but to what degree the outcome represents a “fit” with / an improvement upon (or perhaps even the least degradation of) the original setting. Nor is the notion of “success” simply my own or attributable to my action but is always potentially a shared reality. For example, the success of understanding life better, knowing oneself / the other more truly, having persevered (or relented) as was necessary, etc. Similarly failure is not necessarily attributable to me or even the other but is always potentially a mutual or general loss.
In this way, phronesis is very much about the importance of becoming sensitive to context, much like becoming a good reader in order to get the most out of a finely crafted and nuanced text. In this way phronesis is hermeneutical, and the results of phronesis are not often the binary yes / no of “success or failure” but represent outcomes according to a graded spectrum, as “better or worse” (and where the spectrum itself, and how it is graded, require re-interpretation and fine tuning according to the situation).