How do you make sense of two strangers meeting in virtual reality as they search for answers to how communities develop? In December 2016 I received an interesting e-mail from a college student in New York. She was writing a research paper on sustainable development, and more specifically, the development of Kingston, Jamaica. How did she know where to contact me? I had published research in international journals on the Jamaica Social Investment Fund’s work in sustainable development, evaluating their social impact in Jamaica over the last 20 years. Included with the published work is a brief biography and contact information. This is how she found me. We exchanged a few e-mails and she submitted her paper. But what was expected to be a brief exchange has turned into something more as we attempted to make sense of our worlds. I was so impressed with her finished product reflected in the paper and the presentation slides that she shared with me in January 2017. It seemed as if she had spent at least 3 months living in Jamaica in the way that she carefully articulated the issues that precipitated the current conditions of Kingston and why the work of the JSIF is so important. Additionally, she cited my work because there was no other such research that she could find on community development in Jamaica. What is Sarah’s purpose? What is my purpose?
I would like to borrow a term from the information technology field to explore the opening question above – it is sensemaking. Klein and colleagues (2006) define sensemaking as a set of processes that is initiated when an individual or organization recognizes the inadequacy of their current understanding of events. Each is forced to expand for meaning. Similar to social psychology, sensemaking acknowledges a dynamic two-way process of fitting data into a frame (mental model) and fitting a frame around the data. It is an iterative process where the data generates suitable frames and the selected frames select and connect data. When there is no adequate fit, the process begins again for us to make sense of the world. In developmental psychology we can think of Piaget’s (1972, 1977) work on cognitive development as a child learns to assimilate and accommodate the stimulus in the world. Sensemaking is evidently a process that begins in infancy and continues to evolve as we encounter new situations and different cultures.
So how do I make sense of this experience in light of the rest of my reality? I interpret the circumstances in light of the fact that as a researcher I had developed my skills enough to attain the approval of my peers around the world. They welcomed my sharing with them the lessons that I had begun to learn about sustainable development in Jamaica and willingly provided a platform for me to share it with the world. On Sarah’s side, she met me because she did due diligence and conducted research in an area related to my professional expertise. Then she wanted to understand more, so she found the contact information and used it. From our exchanges, she has grown to trust my responses, to know that I will not just give her answers to simply get rid of her quickly. But, I am paying attention to what she is asking and finding appropriate responses that bridge the cultural boundaries. When she responds again, Sarah makes sense for me by validating my role as a teacher. I know the process of inquiry, and the procedures necessary to facilitate the development of pertinent skills that a future professional will need. I see Sarah’s future and I am excited to be included in her exploration as she pushes back the boundaries of the world that she was raised in. Likewise, Sarah is causing me to look beyond the job that I had been hired to do and understand that a much larger world was consuming my meager offerings. This is sensemaking. This is assessing the data, selecting a frame, then rearranging the data to fit another frame. My question for you today then is this: What are your experiences teaching you? How are you making sense for yourself and for others who are in relationship with you? This can be at multiple levels – people you live with, your extended family, your coworkers, your social network? How do the resources that you have available become matched to your experiences? Answer these questions and you will find meaning in your life.
If you are actively engaged in sensemaking, then like Sarah and I, you will discover your purpose. Purpose is simply the rationale for the existence of a person or a thing. Everything that is created has a purpose. Trees not only provide fruits that feed us and flowers that feed insects, but they also provide the necessary oxygen for us to breathe on earth. Their respiration processes contribute to the water cycle and so we get rainfall. When we cut down trees, we have a purpose in mind for the wood – to make furniture like chairs, tables, and doors, or paper that we can write on and use to quickly absorb spilled milk or coffee. So too were we created as human beings. Our design is too detailed to be accidental. From our physiological structure and our intellectual capacity, to our need for attachment, there is no mistaking the fact that we have been intentionally designed. But designed to do what? Assess your body. What can you do without someone else’s help? Assess your thoughts in response to what I am writing. Who taught you to read words and make sense from their sequencing? Assess your social world – your family, your neighbourhood, and your school or workplace. What do you uniquely contribute each day as you engage your world? What do you do that others appreciate? Do they tell you that you glow when you share about your family, your job, or your new hobby? What do people keep asking you to do as a favour for them? That is a clue to your purpose. Your Intelligent Designer made you with innate abilities to perform certain tasks. As you grew and explored your world you began to perform those abilities in a more complex way. When you are at peace with what you do with what you have then you have discovered your purpose.
So, make sense of your experiences today through the eyes of purpose. If you have the ability to lead or to guide someone then you are a teacher. So teach. If you have the ability to give care to someone who is ill and you know what medicine to prescribe, then you are a doctor. So heal. If you have the gift of encouragement and you always greet someone with a smile, provide a listening ear, and send them refreshed on their way again, then you are an encourager. So, encourage. Whatever you do today, remember that your communities need you to make sense of the world that they share with you through fulfilling your purpose.