Football World

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Sorry this is not about Arsenal and the World Cup or about football hooligans.1

Footballs get booted about by forces beyond their control and they are made up of parts. They have a definite inside and outside. If you are on the outside you can’t see the inside and if you are inside you can’t see the outside. Imagine if you can, living inside a football. Over the years of studying people, bringing up a family and running businesses and so on, I find it a helpful ‘working hypothesis’ to think of each person as a football.

You can’t see out and no one can see in. You are totally dependent on the information that percolates through the skin of the football and you have to make sense of it as best you can. Fortunately we are equipped with the ability to see relationships and patterns and we can reason about them. So from birth (some say from the womb) we each create for ourselves a world inside our football that makes sense of the information we receive. We use symbols to represent the patterns and relationships and gradually create a complex and subtle world to live in. This world has many different mental spaces and one space need not be consistent with another. We move from one space to another effortlessly like Star Trek people beaming around the universe.

The human football is not entirely passive, there are things that I can do: levers and buttons I can operate in my football that cause the football to do things in its environment and which directly affects that world’s input to me. So from the beginning, (but with increasing power, precision and sophistication) I can affect and interact with my football’s word; I live experimentally. Perhaps a Darlek would have been a better analogy. The success of Dr Who’s Darleks might have been due in part to the extent to which Darleks are a sort of cut-down, attenuated human being. Another especially fruitful analogy is driving a car – isolation from people in other cars and attenuated behaviour (turn signals, position on the road and so on).

What is important for me about this analogy is that when I interact with other people, communicate with them, cooperate with them, get them to work with me or help me, I am insulated from their thoughts and feeling, by the double barrier of my football and their football.

I assume that everyone else is pretty much just like me and that the world they live in is just like mine. They have the same structures, compartments, symbols and so on as I do. This means that I can easily fill in the gaps (voids even) in the information that I receive about them. In fact I can interact with them without having any information about them at all. Since my assumptions might be wrong or even wildly misleading, there is a wealth of opportunity for errors, mistakes and misunderstanding of all kinds. This is why habits, stereotypes and prejudices are so useful and so important –and so much of a problem.

Receiving information associated with someone else is difficult. The fact that it happens at all is a tribute to the genius that is humanity (I’ll get to the God bit later). The fact that it happens with the speed that it does, is amazing (but not fantastic or miraculous). The last thing that happens is that I receive information in what ever part of my world I happen to be in at the time and I interpret it in terms of the symbols and structures that I am using at the time. I can only hear or see what makes sense to me, otherwise “It does not compute”. The information that I can compute has traversed and been conveyed by my football. As a furniture conservator and restorer I have been working with ultra-violet and infra-red light and I have seen how different the world is when my vision is expanded into regions that my football does not process. My football doesn’t just transmit information, it manipulates it. Compare a conversation that you hear at a party with the audio recording of the same party and you begin to get a sense of what I mean. So information about a person’s activities, actions, body language and facial expressions is filtered, interpreted, tagged for meaning and emotion before it arrives where I am aware of it and can understand it.

Before information arrives at my football it has come through whatever medium separates me from the other person and connects my football to theirs. The information might have been blocked, filtered, distorted or even completely inverted by the medium. Telephone and email are both attenuated and distorting media. Television news is highly selective. Theatre is live face-to-face communication but it is not real. A soap-opera masquerades as the life of real people, it is completely fake but addictively entertaining.

The information in the medium is created by the other person’s football. It is limited by the means the football has of altering the medium. Basically we are limited to altering patterns of light and mechanical vibrations, speech and movement including writing. Chemical information of taste and smell are very important and are among the most primitive of our senses, but they are not generally under conscious control and we do not use them for communicating articulated or sophisticated messages. The football has limited ways of transforming thoughts and feeling in to broadcast information, including speech, gestures and lifestyles. Have you never had a word, an expression, a movement or action that did not come out as you expected?

Lastly there is the gap between my inner thoughts, feelings understandings and beliefs, and the messages that I want my football to send out, quite apart from the messages, like smells, that it sends on its own. There are things I don’t want to send at all, things I want to send to get a particular reaction or to alter my world in a particular (usually more comfortable or convenient) way for me.

This whole model is reflexive with both sending and receiving aspects. Communication requires both listening and speaking. Now think about the complexity of the system and the opportunities for error, distortion, corruption and simple misunderstanding that it contains. It is a wonder that anyone ever communicates with anyone else and that we do it so easily and so quickly. Having worked through this exercise I now understand as never before why we Quakers place so much emphasis on living our beliefs, behaving with integrity (honesty, openness, consistency), listening humbly, speaking plainly.

I said this is a working model. You don’t have to believe it or use it. I do not claim that it faithfully represents reality, although I believe it is broadly consistent with what we know of human physiology, psychology and social behaviour. What I do say is that I find it useful model for working with others, especially when it comes to making decisions, and discerning the will of God. I believe that you might find it helpful too – otherwise there is no point in talking about it. For me the model summarised, organises and coordinates much of my education, reading and experience so it has explanatory power. It also makes interesting and useful predictions about present and future situations, so it also has predictive power. This does not mean that it has truth only that it might be useful.

Just as I have internal structures for the people in my life, past, present and future, I have a similar structure for God and I (necessarily, since I am human too) interact with the reality that I represent by a God-football in the same way.

I have footballs for each of my children and for each member of my Meeting, but I also have more amorphous, less coherent footballs for ‘my children’ and ‘my Meeting’. In the same way there are footballs for companies, charities, institutions, governments and so on. All of them are person-like but they are not as much of an entity as the individual-footballs. The God-football is a bit different from individual-footballs. It is even more incoherent but, unlike the other person-like footballs, the God-football has a paradoxical, simultaneous inside-outside duality. It has an Alice-Through-the-Looking-Glass-ishness about it.2 It contains all the other footballs including my own and yet is contained within my own football. The inside, contained aspect is the bit that I interact with and experience in a person-football-like way.

My own football world is to me reality: its where I experience, feel and think, where my spirit is and where I live. The danger is that I will mistake it for objective or absolute reality. I can easily forget or not realise that the people-footballs (and the other symbols in my world) are only my symbols for real people and things in the objective world. That way lies various forms of social misbehaviour from the mild to the psychotic or the politically dysfunctional – but that’s another story. There are many other aspects of the football world that I think are interesting and worth exploring in psychology, art, science, craftsmanship and so on – but not in this essay.

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