The shiftN Papers
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The shiftN Papers

The Renaissance of amateurism, a symbol of self-reliance?

Photo by Evi Radauscher on Unsplash

The Lord’s Prayer is the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples when they asked him how to pray.

Our Father, who art in heaven,

hallowed be thy name;

thy kingdom come,

thy will be done

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,

and forgive us our trespasses,

as we forgive those who trespass against us;

and lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil.


Spirituality, the relationship of human consciousness to a higher reality, has many faces. In the top 100 ‘classical music’ of the Belgian radio station KLARA, around 25% of the selected compositions are purely religious which is remarkable in a society that is deeply secularised. The theme of death is also never far away in these choices bringing the resolution and comfort that usually follows death. What is also striking is that many of the non-religious pieces are characterized by meditative rhythms. In times of spiritual distress, people seek mental comfort, tranquility, balance and yes, perhaps, minimalism too. A search for the essence.

Below the surface, a less obvious, rather silent transformation appears to be taking place. For example, the former number one, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) with Matthäus-Passion, draws your attention outwards to God or at least to the music itself. In this way you can become transcendently absorbed in something outside yourself, even if you are not religious or pay scant attention to the liturgical texts. For Bach, music had two essential purposes: firstly it was made to honour God’s glory and to please the soul (Gemüthsergötzung). Bach therefore signed a large number of his Cantatas with S.D.G., the abbreviation for Soli Deo Gloria, which means All Glory to God.

On the other hand, the spirituality of the new number one on the list, Arvo Pärt (1935) with Spiegel im Spiegel, presents itself to us in a completely different way. Although his music is religiously inspired, it radiates a very different kind of spirituality to Bach’s music. Arvo Pärt’s works often have a slow, meditative pace and a minimalist approach in both notation and performance. Pärts music invites you to turn your attention inward. His self-devised composition technique, tintinnabuli, is world renowned, with English director Paul Hillier describing the tintinnabuli effect as ‘a single moment spread over time.’ That eternity is exactly what Pärt wants to express with this music style he has perfected. His title ‘Spiegel im Spiegel’ encapsulates this flawlessly because if you place two mirrors opposite each other and you look into them, you see a series of mirror images that is endless. The triad in ‘Spiegel im Spiegel’ seems to go on forever in the same way, and the long violin tones stand still in time, waiting for a finale that never quite comes and yet it doesn’t disappoint. The timeless and minimalist elements make the piece sound pure, fragile, calm and indeed reflective. For me personally, the 10 minutes and 21 seconds of the piece last endlessly. With a simple beauty, Pärt lets you glimpse the essence of existence, that which really matters. It is unadulterated simplicity as a balm for a world drenched in complexity.

What really does matter in life? Could the answer be inner growth? Can you transcend yourself by looking deeply inwards? Or does something lose potential by turning it into an ego moment? The search for the answer to that question is part of my own ‘metanoia’. William James (1842–1910), an American philosopher, historian, and psychologist, used the term metanoia to refer to a fundamental and stable change in an individual’s life. Peter Senge, an American systems scientist, uses the term in his book “The fifth discipline” to specify the change of mind that lies at the heart of a learning organisation where “real learning touches the core of our humanity”. By learning we reinvent ourselves, thus enabling us to do something we could not do before. Personal growth gives us a new view of the world and our place in it, which expands our capacity to participate in the productive processes of life. Surely we all crave this kind of learning? This generative learning is a big step beyond adaptive learning, which is a defensive approach to improvement. Generative learning is the ability to grow, to create and is more proactive in nature. It is the path to transcend oneself, as an individual or as an organisation.

In the past I considered ‘rising above yourself’ to be inseparable from ‘going outside of yourself’, so just as Bach’s music invites you to step outside can you also transcend yourself by looking hard inwards? Can it derive from inner growth? Pärt’s brittle triad seems to steer towards that and pushes you further and further inwards, forcing you to delve a little deeper into yourself. Incentivised by this seemingly contradictory premise of ‘inside and outside’, I sought answers by addressing my personal confessional. The inner eye can see things that the outer eye does not, and within there is still so much potential to explore, even for a systems thinker.

Reflecting, my mind returned to the special times that I had with my grandfather Cyriel, something I often do when seeking inspirational comfort. Being around him was synonymous with my first meaningful experiences with the Creed. Grandfather Cyriel was a man of deep faith and righteousness. A traditionally, coarsely built man with a heart that, above all, beat for others. He was generous, kind, humble and always willing to help others — just as grandfathers should be in our imaginations. My grandfather was a man of faith, less in an evangelical way and more so in the spirit of Jesus our saviour. According to the New Testament, people who have lived their lives according to the teachings of Jesus Christ are not ‘lost’ and can live with God for eternity*. We had differences in our expression of faith, for whilst my grandfather followed a very traditional religious path, for me the free spirit was more central. Despite this, I loved and respected him deeply. Perhaps I overstepped the mark on occasion, and in hindsight am tinged with some regret that I unsettled him. Together with my urge to shine in the here and now, an unease settled in my mind over that inevitable halt at the end of the life because with death life ends. That was what I believed. Grandfather Cyriel was not afraid of death, instead he just found resignation in his final days and an acceptance of what was to come. Or so it seemed.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

My grandfather passed away in March 2010 and I spent much time with him in his last days of life. Unfortunately, his head strong character could not prevent an increasing distance between us. Away from those closest to him and left to his own devices, I heard him muttering the ‘Lord’s Prayer’. One more time, rising above himself, never to return. I gently prayed with him, hand in hand. Out of respect, but also out of a common search for strength and fortitude in the uncertainty that lay ahead. I realised that I had misunderstood my grandfather’s conviction in the afterlife and saw that believers too have despair when faced with death. After all, did Jesus not quote Psalm 22 on the cross: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.’

A lesson in humility.

My grandfather is Bach looking outwards to God, all glory to God with a serving heart that beats above all for others.

Now I look at my family — my wife and four children, and my thoughts draw them close. They are the reflection of what I do, of how I think, of the ideas I put forward, of my very existence. In a whole of reciprocity, they in turn feed my reflections. Not only in the sense of an endless series of mirror images, as a gateway to infinity, but also in the sense of reflection and comfort. They are my ‘circles of trust’, clear and comprehensible, the very core of my existence. In a fragmented societal landscape where we are all searching for a new narrative, I look inside not to escape but to challenge convention and habit so as to open up the mind to change , a contribution of constructive resistance. In an era in which civil rights, societal duties, democracy, solidarity and privacy are at stake, it is important that we find and take responsibility not only as a society but also individually. We are part of systemic structures, though we tend to see ‘structure’ as something from the outside, as an invisible hand imposing restrictions, something that can hardly, if at all, be adjusted. Such rigid thinking not only keeps the system in place, but also fuels frustration. From this frustration, change can be sought and developed. To enable transformation, we are both the problem and the solution. If individual behaviour is shaped and directed by a tough structure, this conversely means that structural change can lead to new patterns of behaviour. The American cartoonist Walt Kelly expressed this powerfully in a poster he created in 1970 on the occasion of the very first Earth Day: ‘We have met the enemy and he is us.’

‘We can’t just blame the big bad corporations for the environmental problems we face. Most of the time, they are just giving us what we ‘demand’ as consumers at a cost we are willing to pay, and abiding by laws created by politicians we elect. We all need to do our own small part, as consumers and voters. If we do, we can collectively have a significant impact on addressing the environmental problems that threaten our local communities, our country and ‘Spaceship Earth.’ — Walt Kelly

Systems thinking teaches us that we can sometimes achieve significant improvements with small, well-targeted actions, if they are implemented in the right place. This is less obvious in ordinary life than it is described on paper as a theory and is often accompanied by individual frustration and uncertainty. Frustration because change is not introduced quickly enough and insecurity because of the feeling that one cannot stand up to compelling group interests.

I sense that frustration and insecurity, that is precisely why I focus on those things that I can influence and from which I derive satisfaction. I consider my purpose is to increase awareness among my most intimate circle of the challenges that lie ahead, convincing them that we each have a guiding role to play. By teaching them to think in terms of processes rather than events and conflicts. Part of the solution starts with self-reflection and an awareness that our behaviours and decisions influence others. By trying to sharpen their interest in solution-oriented thinking, we stimulate them to carry this forward to their choice of study and how they conduct themselves. In doing this and setting a new example, it may encourage others to engage in the same process of self-reflection and awareness. This gives a new dynamic to the old African saying — ‘it takes a village/community to raise a child’ — evolving into ‘it takes a (conscious) child to raise a village/community.’ Of course this takes time, time that we often lack, but that should not prevent us from trying to look beyond our immediate views and needs. In structural solutions, time and space are often far apart and that makes it challenging in today’s frenetic and emotional world to stand up to a knee jerk policy awash with fire-fighting and symbolic politics. A flickering streetlamp may keep us more awake than global warming.

In my own way, I also try to bridge the distance between time and space and to accommodate cause and effect within a broader context. By placing my personal “here and now” in an intergenerational context, in which I test my actual decisions in the future world of my (grand) children.

In his book ‘On time and water’, the Icelandic author Andri Snaer Magnasson illustrates by means of a simple calculation how, from our personal window on the past, we are in a direct relationship with our future: ‘Imagine that. Two hundred and sixty-two years. That’s the length of time you connect across. You’ll know the people who span this time. Your time is the time of the people you know and love, the time that moulds you. And your time is also the time of the people you will know and love. The time that you will shape. You can touch 262 years with your bear hands. Your grandma taught you, you will teach your great-granddaughter. You can have a direct impact on the future, right up to the year 2186.’

‘Up to 2186!’

People say the future is intimate and flexible. Small circles of trust that flow into broader circles of commitment, bound by a strong core.

With my gaze turned inwards, I feel more akin to the triad and the vision of Pärt. When the Dutch director Paul Hegeman made the film ‘That Pärt feeling — The universe of Arvo Pärt’, he showed us that Pärt’s music consoles, confronts, inspires and suggests that there is more between heaven and earth, between the head and the heart, than the hellish rhythms of the transactional world imposed on us. He suspects that Pärt’s world is small-scale and connected to nature, where people are treated warmly, righteously and directly. I would like to believe that and be immersed in it myself.

Photo by Wesual Click on Unsplash

In addition to the head and the heart, I also put my hands to work with ever-growing enthusiasm to bake bread each day. Give us this day our daily bread — for my family, this fulfils a need to provide food and yet by persevering in the boring simplicity of baking bread other factors emerge. Baking bread requires planning and effort, through the need to think ahead, estimate, weigh, knead, rest, bake and have patience. The result of all this effort is a deep satisfaction, at least that is how it works for me. The thanks of my oldest children every morning are not obligatory phrases to please their father, but instead they are inspired by the feeling that baking bread goes beyond fulfilling a basic need. No two loaves are the same. Never even. Always with a raw edge. It is real and there is family time in it. The intoxicating smell of bread that greets them every morning mingles with activity and creation. My younger son likes to help during the ‘making process’ and intuitively tells us in his toddler tongue that his daddy made that bread with his own hands. This is generative capacity, because baking bread is about caring, taking responsibility, passing on values ​​and above all about ‘giving’. It’s about tribal solidarity, connection and shared pride. It’s about developing a common identity and moving together through life. Bread ís religion.

Baking bread is my ‘caring for’.

It is my symbol of ‘servant leadership’.

It is my ‘act of rebellion’.

From a heart that often beats for others.



Reflections and testimonials on first-hand shiftN experience.

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Christophe Kempkes

Hi! Fascinated by the current zeitgeist and seeking for anchors in this liquid society.