Autopoiesis in Language and Meaning

Mes Belle Ondines

Mes Belles Ondines

 

I will begin this follow-up to my previous post with revisiting a definition of autopoiesis:

Planetary physiology is the autopoiesis of the cell writ large.

From Margulis and Sagan, What Is Life? (U. of California Press, 2000).

So the autopoiesis of self-production is a multi-layered process in which there are many different types of connections, depending on how and where we assign boundaries.  Do we see the aliveness beyond our own selves? Where our own boundaries of being are and who or what do they serve?  Two rhetorical questions which bring me to an examination of the nature of inquiry and the function of language . . . .

In the first chapter of Metaphor and Reality, Philip Wheelwright sets forth an equilateral triangle with the letters O (object), S (subject) and L (language) at each of the vertices, which he identifies as the “epistemological triad,” serving to illustrate the media of the formation of what might be called reality.  How we talk about reality, in terms of our participation in it, just as we participate in our own autopoiesis, is not simple to identify or describe when subject and object seem to change and the vertex for language is broad indeed.  How we come to describe this life each of us lives is no simple undertaking!

Further complicating this matter is looking at autopoiesis in the context of human consciousness, where autopoiesis is both a process as well as a presence, and the participation in our own autopoiesis is also participation in that of the autopoiesis of a larger context – a community, an organization or “the world” – which is constantly changing, evolving developing and if we acknowledge the evolutionary process of linear time,  this autopoiesis is constantly developing higher order structures.  This reminds me of Heraclitus’ observation – you can never step in the same river twice!

Sometimes we are invited to participate in something – before we know what it is or who it is that is being invited.  Often we are unfamiliar with the invitation and what it asks of us.  It is not known what it is – an event, a practice, a task, a knowing, an unknowing, a dance or simply play.  It seems that this participation is often like play, akin to a kind of music (which is older than language) that moves through us.  Makes me think of a previous blogpost about music, memory and dementia!

As with autopoiesis (and with the emptiness which is required for the process and which I described briefly in the previous post), within music and dance there are empty spaces, pauses, rests, hesitations – all of which serve to punctuate the content, organize the flow of expression and provide its beautiful uniqueness.  It strikes me that this is akin to the emptiness, the absence of something which the process of autopoiesis is dependent upon which I described in the previous post.  Sergius Bulgakov aptly noted:

      Creation is nothing that came to be.

In our autopoiesis, language is undoubtedly part of our creation, notwithstanding its essentially paradoxical nature of what and how “it” communicates, and which also means it can be revelatory and mysterious – just as it can be more literal and descriptive.

So back to my theme here about autopoiesis and that emptiness, which I would identify as the “longing” which keeps us moving through this life, in search of.   Perhaps here is an opportunity to look at two aspects of this longing, this quest of autopoiesis: for both knowledge and meaning.  Knowledge is defined by Google as: (1) facts, information, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject; and (2) awareness or familiarity gained by experience of a fact or situation.  This knowledge is essentially part of the world of the intellectual world, its academic nature is a collective and ongoing acquisition.  As such it is a community enterprise, one that builds upon shared connections and information and advances as a field.

Meaning, on the other hand, is not so easily defined for my purposes here. . .  Google’s definition offers this for the noun: what is meant by a word, text, concept, or action; and this for the adjective: intended to communicate something that is not directly expressed.  The root of meaning is from the German and the Indo-European root of the word is the same as that of mind, or the element of a person that enables them to be aware of the world and their experiences, to think, and to feel; the faculty of consciousness and thought.  Meaning, then, is the domain of the person and is necessarily constructed in relationship to the world and in particular to the world of experience.

These two aspects of knowledge (acquisition) and meaning (awareness) are connected and ought to be connected via autopoiesis although autopoiesis might not necessarily require the latter, but then I think of Nietzsche’s quote here: He who has a why to live can bear almost any how and would immediately reconsider that observation!  The connection between the two is manifold and one without the other is folly.  The more objective, spoken, literal and objective knowledge which is shared and makes so much of interpersonal communication possible is inherently rational and logical.  What often allows the understanding to be readily shared however,  is its rendering – which is that which means there is no life force within it and is devoid of that subjective quality of “spirit” in that it is an agreed upon construct.  Meaning is subjective and personal, it may come from the unspoken language of gesture, ritual or symbol, and it also arises from our human yearning for a language of understanding, of experience , for what lies beyond words, the emptiness required for autopoiesis.  “Significance” here is as unique as each one of us in any particular moment.

To come back to this clearing away, the emptiness of which is required in our  autopoiesis, I am reminded how the creating – or “allowing” is perhaps more appropriate – of empty space is essentially the maintaining of space for openness, possibility and creation of a new self.  If the stepping back and allowing for the creation sounds both like a process which is part of autopoiesis and also a spiritual practice, that is precisely the connection I make here.  The Jewish mystical term for this is known as “tzim tzum.”

Knowledge and meaning are entwined in meaningful ways and they need to be connected – otherwise the rational or logical knowledge is barren of any aliveness, spirit, or any significance beyond its desiccated literalness that can establish its connectedness with the rest of the person and with the human community and the autopoiesis of the world.  Stripped of any “need” for meaning or even any context for it, beyond the simple denial of any existence of meaning, we have what often appears in our present post-modern culture of death denial and questioning whether there is even any “need” for a meaning of life.  This form of “progress”” is an objective materialism that pervades our thinking about scientific “progress” and results in an intolerable reductionism, unless you are quite satisfied with that small black box of what might pass for “reality.”

©Barbara Cashman  2015   www.DenverElderLaw.org

Denial of Aging and Death as Source of Conflict

Centranthus or Jupiter's Beard

Centranthus or Jupiter’s Beard

 

Autumn here in the Denver metropolitan area is beautiful.  Some of our trees’ leaves have started turning while others have not.  The apple tree in my backyard is producing many fine apples, which I am happy to eat.  Her leaves are just starting to curl a bit.  The late tomato harvest is petering out as the nights get colder.  In between the two posts on the “time out of mind” theme I wanted to write about conflict and denial.  I haven’t written about this in a while and since October is Conflict Resolution Month, I thought the time was right!  I like the language from the Colorado Senate’s Joint Resolution (13-017) on this topic:

WHEREAS, These conflict resolution processes [mediation, arbitration, facilitation, etc.] empower individuals, families, communities, organizations, and businesses to foster communication and devise solutions that are acceptable and responsive to the needs and interests of all parties involved; and

WHEREAS, Conflict resolution is taught and practiced by citizens in many school systems, universities, and graduate programs throughout Colorado and the world as a way of solving disputes; and

WHEREAS, Community-based programs work to strengthen local relationships by fairly and equitably resolving neighborhood and community conflicts and opening community dialogues based in reason and mutual respect;

So you might be wondering what conflict resolution month has to do with fall, the inevitable changes in our lives and. . . . denial? Each of us deals with change and resulting conflict differently and our “conflict style” is often a pattern of responses of types of behaviors that we use in conflict-laden situations.  We often hone these skills in our family or sibling relationships.  How we manage our concern about conflict and how much we look at it a particular conflict as a “mine, yours or ours” type of situation greatly informs our response and participation in managing and resolving a conflict.  This is particularly so in the elder law context, in which there is often a challenge (usually a constellation of them) and difficulties presented when an elder begins to slow down or fail physically or mentally.  How family members and loved ones respond to those changes has a huge impact on an elder’s well-being.

The contemporary view of conflict styles lists five basic styles:

Avoidance (a/k/a denial)

Accommodation

Compromise

Competition

Collaboration

If you have already observed that these styles are a bit of a continuum, you are astute.  The most active and engaged styles are the last two – competition and collaboration, while the least engaged are the first two – avoidance and accommodation.  The whole idea of Conflict Resolution Month is to get people to think outside their comfort zone as it relates to conflict resolution, to educate people about the array of alternatives available to assist.  This can begin early – for several years I volunteered with The Conflict Center’s Peace Day programs in area elementary schools.  Many of us don’t otherwise learn these useful skills or get to see this modeled in our daily lives, let alone practice them with our peers.

In the interest of brevity, I will finish this post with a poem from a poet friend in New York who was a participant with me at a retreat last month.  Sometimes the most important thing about “owning” a conflict is to recognize how our lives would look without the existence of conflict.  This is often very difficult to consider – especially in the context of family relationships, sibling rivalries and unbalanced power dynamics.  This poem I just received from Richard, entitled “Yellow Birds” is about birds, space and the beautiful world we share.   So please read on.

Yellow birds, flocked to the earth,

fluttering to light, leaving to the air

her emptiness, as wind gives you leave

to land, brothers and sisters singing,

to the great green reception,

your welcome home.

 

Great space brings such joy, the

opening of the thick and heavy, the

beauty whose richness obscured, now

cleared—outbreath of the inbreath—to

breathe in without restriction, with

the freedom of the letting go.

 

So our angel unfurls her wings,

exultant in the wild air, beating as

breathing, lifting into the morning light—

soaring as walking, wide and wild, our

arms swinging, above and below

joined, one body beloved.

 

So I pick my way through the

Garden paths, past empty vines, under

the frosted purple grapes, hearing the

hawk’s cry, seeing his wings soar,

knowing as my feet trod every color’s

leaves, here I am in heaven.

 

By Richard Wehrman (with gracious permission from the author)

 

That’s all for now. . .  enjoy the fall, the ripening of grapes and the stillness it all can bring.

 ©Barbara Cashman  2014   www.DenverElderLaw.org

Disabled adults, Special Needs Trusts and Medicaid: the Importance of Planning

Storm near Barr Lake, August 2013

Life can be complicated, especially if you are a parent or guardian of a disabled person who receives government benefits.  If you don’t make any plan or make an estate plan which fails to adequately address a disabled beneficiary’s receipt of government benefits, an inheritance can jeopardize a disabled recipient’s qualifications for needs-tested (income or asset-based) government benefits.  Sometimes a parent’s estate plan will effectively disinherit the disabled adult child, leaving a request encouraging a nondisabled adult child to “do the right thing.”  At the other end is a devise or inheritance left outright to a disabled beneficiary.  This post-mortem planning can create a lot of stress for everyone involved, and it can interfere with the grieving process and put strains on the ties between siblings and other family members.  In my estate administration practice, I have seen both of these scenarios play out.  I don’t recommend either as a viable choice for a thoughtful planner.  So – what are the alternatives?

I recently read the June 2013 issue of Bifocal (a really interesting e-zine published by the American Bar Association’s Commission on Law and Aging), which had a good article about pooled trusts.  These types of special needs trusts offer flexibility for families of modest means in planning for disabled family members.  Read it here.

So what would “modest means” be for purposes of a pooled SNT?  I recently spoke with Megan Brand, executive director of the Colorado Fund for People with Disabilities.  (CFPD is the longest-standing, locally administered pooled trust in Colorado.)  Her rule of thumb for a disabled young adult is to encourage a pooled SNT where there is less than $150,000 set aside for such person’s benefit.  If you’d like to learn more about the different types of trusts and planning for the needs of disabled family members and loved ones, I encourage you to attend the Colorado Guardianship Association’s  next educational presentation on Tuesday, September 10, 2013 at Porter Place,1001 E. Yale Avenue from 8:30 am – 10:15 am.  Megan will present on Pooled Trust, Individual Trust, Supplemental Needs Trusts, Disability Trusts, Special Needs Trusts Income Trusts,  1st Party, 3rd Party… What does all of this mean?  How do they differ? How are they the same?  What trust is the best fit for my client or family member?  Once they have a trust, what can it be used for and how do we actually make the purchase happen?   To register online for this program, click here.

Here’s a link to another helpful article about the importance of planning and considering the impact on SSI and Medicaid qualification of the disabled person.  But don’t be fooled into thinking that special needs planning involves merely trusts!  Trusts are important documents but it is a good idea to look at the big picture and talk with someone (like an elder law attorney) about how best to devise a plan assist a disabled person with financial, medical and personal care planning.  Another good resource is Hal Wright’s 2013 book entitled “The Complete Guide to Create a Special Needs Life Plan.”  I checked it out from my local library.    This book is a thoughtful approach (by a Certified Financial Planner) about how to devise a plan for a disabled child to ensure access to services to meet those special needs to maintain emotional, financial and other important resources.  At the top of his list of importance are the following three components of an estate plan: preparation of appropriate legal documents; establishment of an SNT; and getting guardianship and/or conservatorship status in place.  If you’ve been thinking about what you need to do to put a plan in place for a disabled adult – please don’t wait until it’s too late to plan.

©Barbara Cashman 2013     www.DenverElderLaw.org

Who is the Real Beneficiary of a Spiritual-Ethical Will?

This title is a bit of a trick question – by ethical will I refer to a nonlegal document, a personalized writing by someone (usually a person who has written a will, as in the legally recognized document) also known as a testament or legacy letter.  It is often characterized as an aid to the estate planning process, sometimes with the assistance of slogans like “pass on your means with meaning”   or “identify your values and not just your valuables.”  So far in my practice I have had only one client, the mother of young children, include an ethical will as part of her estate planning documents.  There is no “form” for this kind of an endeavor – it is as unique as each one of us.

We make meaning in our lives in many different ways, and an ethical will is one means that has been used for many generations and has ancient origins.    From an historical perspective, there are five broad types of legacy letters ethical wills and they include:

1. Explanation. An explanation is most closely linked to the will, and can

explain the circumstances and logic behind an action or choice directed in

the document. It might offer a statement as to personal reasoning for

the will writer’s (a/k/a testator’s) decision to dispose of his/her assets in such a way. The use of

this type of testament remains somewhat controversial because it may be

closely linked to the will and may give rise to misunderstandings which may

create conflict;

2. Expectation. This is a statement – expressed as a desire – about how the

testator would like an inheritance used, to transmit values or guidelines

about how to conduct oneself, or what he or she would like the recipient to

accomplish. These can be particularly useful for parents and grandparents

who desire to pass along their values and indicate their support that such

values continue, and to state them in ways that are personally meaningful to

the writer;

3. Affirmation. These are the words that many grieving family members long to

hear because many of them have a need to know that they mattered to the

decedent. If they didn’t hear such words in life, such healing words in a

legal document may prevent conflicts among beneficiaries;

4. Historical. The historical statement can be a genealogy of family members,

expanded with personal traits, experiences or values, or might explain the history or background of a specific bequest such as a family heirloom or

other prized possession; and

5. Statement of Values. A statement of a client’s personal ethics and values is

often a reflection of his or her own life. Such statements often include

events that formed the client’s character, and can be combined with

historical statements as well.

Generally speaking, clients have the opportunity to think about their lives in the context of transmitting the meaning of their life to another – whether this is a relatively narrow, experience-based kind of wisdom or a broader approach relating to lessons and values.    You can find more helpful information about ethical wills here.

There are many different reasons to consider writing such a document and most would conclude that it is an aid to the estate planning process – even if relatively few of estate planning clients end up drafting such highly personalized documents.    So what is the real benefit to a legacy letter or a spiritual-ethical will?  The benefit is to the author of the document. It offers an invaluable opportunity to consider, to process and write down the important things – ideas, events, values, and other “intangibles” in one’s life so as to transmit to another.  But even if the writer doesn’t end up completing the document, or including it in his or her will, there are important benefits to consider.  Undertaking such an effort creates the space to think deeply about what  a life means, what is important, what you value and what you want to pass on to future generations.  There can be little doubt that the best way of ensuring those values live on is by actually living our lives consistent with such values, but the spiritual-ethical will goes beyond that (and it of course can be no substitute for a life that was lived accordingly to those articulated values).

Far beyond the human’s basic needs is the need to make meaning or sense of one’s life.  Perhaps Ernest Becker was correct when he offered the term homo poetica  or man, the meaning maker, for an alternate name of our scientific classification.  In the middle age of our lives, or perhaps much later at the ninth stage (as identified by Joan Erickson in The Life Cycle Completed), we can gain much from such an exercise, which benefits us likely more than those who read such a document after we are gone.  It can also help those facing terminal illness or anyone struggling with the meaning or lack of meaning in a life, in one’s existence.  Wherever you are in your life, writing a legacy letter or spiritual-ethical will can help process the meaning of your own life as well as validate the importance of love and connection to each of our lives and strengthening the fabric of community.  Each of us is here for a reason and each has something to contribute – writing a spiritual-ethical will can help put together the pieces of a life in surprising and meaningful ways.

©Barbara Cashman 2013     www.DenverElderLaw.org