Learning for a Reason. Stories and Science

by Amanda Harding


Recently I've been trying to learn about a whole new subject area. Given my education, professional experience and constant search for excellence and truth I turned first to the latest research, using the internet to start building up a body of references. I soon had the "science" under my belt and could quote one school of thought against another, one evidence-based solution neutralising the next, leaving me perplexed by this so called rational intelligence that gave me nothing that actually resonated with me.

Next, I turned to the stories, looking for personal experiences that somehow mirrored my own. Empathy and solidarity (and not sentimentality) gave me greater insight into the more standard search for "challenges, opportunities and solutions". Mapping my new found "hard" knowledge onto the "soft" - the real experiences of people whose journeys saw them navigating the very complexity the scientists find so hard to express - was a breath of fresh air. From a position of ignorance I grew more confident to take decisions from a position of knowledge and greater emotional maturity. I learnt the power of taming the "science" with the "story" and the story with the science. 

10 days on from the Paris attacks in my adopted home town (one thread amongst others connected to the downed Russian plane, the Beirut attacks, Kenya, Northern Nigeria, Tunisia, not to mention daily life in Mossul, Raqqa, etc ... and now Mali)  the fear and grief in the city is still palpable. There is tension in the air and a deep sadness. And defiance. Throughout the day you hear, "life must go on", "we must defend our values" and then an understandable backtrack with a preference to stay home for dinner, catch a movie next week not this ... Thrown into this we are inundated with phoney science. One specialist after another holds forth, a repetitive psycho-babble come socio-political analysis that we are meant to take as the "truth" to off-set the politicians who, authentic in their sentiment but out to maximise their political advantage, can certainly not be trusted. And so, in the absence of any truly informed analysis and with sentiment fed by fear and grief riding high decisions are made.

Holding onto our genuine fear is nevertheless fundamental. It is the source of our emotional solidarity and empathy with the thousands still living in fear every day, whether threatened by Daech, a repressive regime, or the abuse of a family member. For those of us fortunate not to live this fear everyday needless to say we also have a responsibility to inform ourselves and to act - locally with our families and communities, as well as globally as we too are threads connected together crossing boarders, crossing religions, crossing identities.  And so we need to triangulate. Combining rigorous analysis while giving credence to the stories we have a better chance of being able to navigate our way forward.

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If we could learn not to shoot from the hip but to really exploit our emotional maturity and intellectual curiosity we give ourselves some hope of emerging from a climate of reaction, quick fix solutions and sentimental exploitation. We move from a position of vulnerability to one of self-knowledge, strength, vision and action.