Perspective matters. Take the field full of manure above, for example. We could view it as an overwhelming amount of shit, or as a rich source of fertilizer.
A friend was bemoaning the state of her workspace, which was full of unorganized piles, both physical and digital. This happens to me as well--I'm not a natural organizer, I have to work to stay on top of the information streams in my life, and sometimes I simply have more important things to do--so shit piles up. This isn't optimal, and I've learned that I need to find a balance between maintaining order and allowing myself some freedom, and if I let things go for too long the clutter becomes a source of distraction. But my friend was beating herself up for her disorderly space, and it occurred to me that she was viewing these piles not merely as a failure of organization, but as character flaws, as signs of some fundamental incapability. She had transformed them into monuments to her inadequacy.
We should view ourselves with clarity and hold ourselves accountable, and sometimes this requires a self-administered kick in the ass. But it's important to do this with care and compassion for ourselves, because when a kick in the ass turns into habitual self-criticism, when we view evidence of our shortcomings as monuments to our inadequacy, we tend not to respond well. We either rebel against the critical voice, rejecting its prudent but poorly-delivered advice, or we feel defeated by it, losing hope in our ability to overcome the difficulty. In either case, the transformation of evidence into monuments is counter-productive.
Evidence is the starting point of an investigation and invites our curiosity. We may choose to accept the evidence and act upon it, but we retain our sense of agency. Monuments are finished products, indifferent to our inquiries and impassive in the face of our efforts. We cannot choose to accept or reject a monument--its existence is a fact that simply imposes itself upon us.
So when assessing our own effectiveness and exploring the possibility of change, we should by all means gather evidence and inspect it closely, while taking care to avoid constructing any monuments. Those piles of shit just might be rich sources of fertilizer.
Thanks to Stowe Boyd, whose post on Erosion, Streams and Piles planted the seed for this one, which sprouted just seven years later.
Photo by NIOSH. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.