Being My Word

By Jim Selman | Bio

I was working with a group of people last week in Mexico. The session was about planning and they chose as their theme for the year “I am my word”. The idea was to emphasize ‘count-on-ability’ and the importance of delivering on plans. I spoke to them for a bit and shared the following reflections.

My work is about ‘Being’. It is an inquiry into who we are as human beings that is grounded in a great deal of theory, practice, rigorous philosophy, biology and more recently in some of the implications of what we’re learning from quantum physics. This ‘ontological paradigm’ claims that whatever ‘reality is’ (including who we are) is a matter of interpretation—and all interpretations occur in language. Language is to us what water is to a fish. It is the medium in which we exist as human beings. Without language, there is no world, there is no ‘us’.

“In the beginning was the Word”.

When I say language, however, I mean more that just words. I mean anything that ‘speaks’ to us: music is language, dance is language, mathematics is language, and even deep emotion is language.

The bad news if we accept this premise that it’s all interpretation, then we can’t keep blaming reality for everything. We need to confront the fact that most of what we take for granted or assume to be objective is just our point of view. Moreover, we can observe that the only thing that we as human beings have to work with is our commitment.

Do our commitments (our word) determine our reality or does our view of reality determine our commitments?

For the better part of human history, people looked each other in the eye, gave their word that something would happen or that something was ‘true’, and then coordinated their actions based on each other’s ‘honor’ and commitments. Not keeping one’s word was almost unthinkable and when on occasion keeping one’s promise was really impossible, people would move heaven and earth to apologize and make amends or hopefully provide other means for satisfying the commitment.

Somehow in the last 100 years or so, the size and complexity of modern organization and the rational (cause/effect) worldview of our contemporary paradigm have generated all sorts of interpretations that have displaced the power of our word, turning many of our commitments into gestures and blinding most of us to the fact that human beings created this ‘reality’ and we have the choice to change it.

Change happens when enough people commit to another view of how things should be and then ‘walk their talk’ until their vision becomes the ‘new reality’.

We not only describe the world through language, but we’re also creating the world in language as well. For example, when we say “I can’t do it”, we are declaring ourselves and evoking a ‘reality’ that if we repeat and believe it, then it is, for all intents and purposes, ‘true’. Each time we commit to do something that we think we can’t do and then act on our commitment, we either achieve it (have a breakthrough) or we fail and learn something to build our competency. Eventually, we accomplish the commitment or declare that we are no longer committed. Either way, we are being responsible, we are acting from our vision and commitment, and we are in charge of who we are in the moment.

When we appreciate that we are always swimming in conversations—whether in meetings, reading, writing or just talking to ourselves—then we can also appreciate that we have the capability to design the interpretations that organize what we say and how we listen. We can begin to design a world in which barriers and constraints become the raw material for change.

We are now confronting very difficult and complex situations almost every day. Most of us would agree that we’re in new territory and if civilization as we know it is going to survive, it will require all of us to change our actions and behavior. For if we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we’ll end up where we’ve been. Changing our ways is like breaking old and counterproductive habits and creating new habits that support our vision, values and commitments. I say that our way of “being in the world” is mostly habit.

© 2009 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.