Allison Pinto: Unplugged

So it’s Wednesday morning and the sun is not yet up, and today is the day that I proposed that those of us who are members of the Complexity & Community Sustainability Brownbag Seminar share our “communiplexity position statements” with one another. Since others acknowledged and agreed to this deadline, it seems like I probably ought to get to work writing mine…at least before the sun comes up, so I when I retell the story someday I can at least say I got started “the night before” it was due J (And yes, I will be typing smiley and other facial expressions into this paper. I acknowledge that this might seem a bit too emaily/text-messagey for an essay I intend to share with colleagues, but at least it makes it possible to integrate emotion into a thought-dominant statement, which seems necessary and appropriate if the statement is about human complexity. It also serves as a feedback loop to myself…if I go for a while without incorporating facial expressions, it likely means I’m overly stuck in my head, and my feelings are not sufficiently integrated with my thinking. That’s not a space from which my best ideas are generated, so a monitoring system along these lines will hopefully facilitate the healthy development of the statement itself…)

I am titling this first iteration of my own communiplexity position statement “Allison Pinto: Unplugged” because “unplugged” seems to fit for a variety of reasons. This is, in a sense, a “live” expression of why complexity-and-community matters to me – an expression that at this point will not be amplified with quotes and references, or modified much for your listening/reading pleasure. (Yes, I know that complexity scholars usually work with the metaphor of jazz music; leave it to me to bring in the acoustic guitar…) In my “home field” of clinical psychology (which I’ll get to in a few minutes), we value raw, uncut expressions for the glimmers of the unconscious that they often reveal, and I believe that the integration of conscious and unconscious experience is central to a robust formulation of human beings and human systems as complex adaptive systems, so I’m going to give myself permission to let my Freudian slip hang out a little bit in this writing. Hopefully it will help me and us to make sense of the ideas we are exploring in ways that a more polished statement would not.

“Unplugged” is also an expression of a wish – I am hoping that by giving myself permission to write in a “freestyle” way, I will enter a phase transition such that the writer’s block that I have been suffering will dissolve and I will be able to enter the fluid “zone of complexity” in expressing my ideas in writing (Ralph Stacey’s “Stacey matrix” comes to mind…). It has actually become internally uncomfortable to have so many ideas swirling and congealing in my head, periodically making their way into the air space but not yet manifesting on the page, despite the words of encouragement and advice I have received from so many accomplished and successful writers. I am hoping this first take at a communiplexity position statement will help to unplug the internal blockage I am experiencing.

Finally, if I am honest about the current vantage point from which I am writing this statement, then I must also acknowledge the appropriateness of “unplugged” as a description of my location in community as of late. When I moved to Tampa, Florida from Los Angeles 3 ½ years ago, I unplugged from that which I loved in so many ways – from my neighborhood, my city, my faith community, my friendship network, and my profession. Since then, even though I’ve found myself “in” new communities locally (including northern South Tampa/southern West Tampa, FMHI/USF, MacDill Air Force Base, the Children’s Board, and the Tampa Bay early childhood network), I do not yet feel “of” these communities. I am hopeful that my sense of connection to community will change soon as I move to Sarasota (if all goes as planned I will be closing on a house tomorrow!), but for now, any expression of why complexity and community matters to me would be disingenuous if it did not acknowledge the disconnection from community, and the related sense of internal fragmentation, that has been my lived experience for the past several years.

OK, so here goes…I am now launching into my position statement.

Well, in the beginning…

So there’s one reason, or maybe a few, that this has seemed like such a daunting task…where do I begin? When did complexity start to matter to me? Certainly before I ever heard of complexity theory or science, but maybe I don’t need to go back to the moment I became incarnate in this world…so when did my existence begin to foreshadow the powerful attraction I now feel to complexity as a way of making sense of the world?

Oh, and it does not escape me that I almost just launched into this position statement with the same three words that launched the Bible. :P How’s that for audacity? Maybe there is something to it, though…I have begun to read “Eat, Love, Pray” (Sarasota Communiplexity Team Member Andrea Kenzig suggested that I read it [after my husband had been recommending it to me for over a year], and I agreed to do so in exchange for Andrea reading the Complexity-inspired “Getting to Maybe”…), and that book is organized into 108 chapters, in keeping with the 108 prayer beads that comprise a yapa mala, used for meditation in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. When I took a course on the Tanakh (Written Torah) at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles (My “Complexity Tour 2007”, which I will tell you about in a minute, was foreshadowed by a similar approach to religion when I lived in L.A. – back then I was all about exploring a diversity of faith traditions beyond my own Christian heritage), I came to appreciate the multi-dimensionality of the “Old Testament,” as a many-ways-of recording and communicating a faith culture and various approaches to contemplating and knowing the Divine. Even the New Testament might provide some helpful hints, given that the gospels present the same story from the perspectives of four different storytellers. Perhaps borrowing from the structure of the Bible to organize my thinking about complexity and community is not such a bad idea after all – a note to self for the future, though, as that for sure is not going to happen before the sun comes up! (And when I get around to this effort, I will revisit the work on narrative and complexity in the issue of E:CO devoted to that topic a couples years ago – Mike Agar’s ideas about living narrative, David Boje’s ideas about the “Storytelling Organization,” and Dave Snowden’s ideas about living oral history seem like they’d be quite relevant…)

OK, so where to begin then…probably makes sense to begin by introducing you to Allison Pinto the community-based clinical child psychologist with an emphasis on infant mental health. How’s that for a complex professional identity? It probably sounds like too-much-information, but in the field of psychology, each of those descriptors is necessary to communicate the coordinates of my perspective.

The first movement into this identity was into psychology as a field. Upon entering college, I had narrowed the space of possibilities major-wise to psychology, marine biology and religious studies. In retrospect, it seems these fields represented to me different ways of exploring that which lies below the surface and can only be known by moving beyond the chatter of words. Sort of along the lines of the phrase Dave Snowden is fond of saying: “People know more than they can say, and say more than they can write down.” I have always been interested in that which, if knowable whatsoever, is so vast and deep and complex that words alone are an insufficient means of exploration or communication. I found a poem when I was a teenager that has resonated ever since (and this one I will include, as I have committed most of it to memory):


I keep my answers small and keep them near;
Big questions bruised my mind but still I let
Small answers be a bulwark to my fear.

The huge abstractions I keep from the light;
Small things I handled and caressed and loved.
I let the stars assume the whole of night.

But the big answers clamoured to be moved
Into my life. Their great audacity
Shouted to be acknowledged and believed.

Even when all small answers build up to
Protection of my spirit, I still hear
Big answers striving for their overthrow

And all the great conclusions coming near.

Elizabeth Jennings

It seems to me that my academic, professional and personal pursuits so far have been a continual response to the ongoing internal experience of big answers clamouring to be moved into my life. Psychology offered models and methods for responding to the clamour, and now complexity too, but first a bit more about my formation as a psychologist.

Although I was taught as an undergraduate that psychology is “the science of human behavior,” I was glad when a decade later one of my mentors, child psychiatrist and integrationist-extraordinaire Dan Siegel, reminded us that the psyche is so much more than our behavior – the psyche is the soul. This is truly what attracted me to the field of psychology. When I entered a doctoral program in clinical psychology, which is the “applied” realm within the discipline of psychology (other areas of emphasis include developmental, cognitive, social, and industrial/organizational, and more recently health and community), the cognitive-behavioral perspective was dominant. Although nowadays cognitive-behaviorism is critiqued for being less holistic than earlier models that grew out of psychodynamic and existential-humanistic theories, I found the general cognitive-behavioral definition of mental health -- the coherent, internal coordination of thoughts, feelings, behaviors and physiology -- to be an elegant and useful description, in both understanding and intervening to restore mental health. I also resonated with Bronfenbrenner’s ecosystemic theory, in which individuals are recognized as embedded in networks of relationships and conditions in families, classrooms, communities, and cultures over time. The biopsychosocial theory that was quite popular while I was in grad school seemed to extend this systems perspective by zooming in (along the lines of “Powers of Ten”) to connect to systems within the human mind, brain and body. So the notions of scale and context have always been among the "givens" in psychology, it seems to me.

In clinical psychology, I also saw value in the system laid out in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) – a system often criticized as a categorical over-simplification of human experience. Although I acknowledge that it is too often used in this way, it does provide a means of articulating a coherent, multidimensional conceptualization of an individual human being’s experience – a way of describing entrenched patterns of thought, emotion and/or behavior in the context of physical health, development and environmental stressors, and in relation to daily social and occupational functioning. That seems (and has proven) valuable to me, and seems like it might offer something useful as we work to explore (and hopefully find) ways of representing the multi-dimensional, dynamic and evolving nature of human systems at various scales.

(By the way, I confess that I just sneaked a peak at some material on ecosystemic theory available on the internet to make sure I wasn’t revealing ignorance in my brief description of that theory [afterall, it is one thing to let one’s unconscious slip out, but offering a quick peek at one’s incompetence seems an altogether different matter...or so the world has sought to convince me] – and stumbled upon an article by applied ecologist Daniel S. Fiscus titled, “The Ecosystemic Life Hypothesis,” which compares and contrasts this hypothesis with what Fiscus refers to as “the predominant organismic life approach.” I know I said I wouldn’t incorporate quotes into this position statement, but I gotta at least share this quote in the hopes of enticing you to check out the paper for yourself []:

“Reading broadly in pursuit of a conceptual bedrock basis for health, I eventually hit the question, "What is Life?" Since confronting this question (and driven to close up those infinite regresses in space, time and ecological interactions to make ecological health a meaningful concept) I have arrived at a place I did not expect - I have pieced together a suggestion of a fundamentally different understanding of life than that with which I began. From this alternative set of assumptions, I now see monitoring and assessment of ecological health in a different light.”

I am including this reference and quote because it seems like an example of somebody else taking a similar approach to big questions bruising the mind, but from a different field and vantage point…seems like the “great conclusions” he arrives at might offer us some hints in our collective exploration. I am also including this digression because it more accurately presents my “unplugged” thought process…this is one way serendipitous discoveries are happening for me these days, when thinking is supported real-time with the technological assistance of the internet.)

OK, getting back to psychology…clinical child psychology.

[…so this is as far as I got “the morning of”…when I tried to resume writing in my office at USF, I discovered that the block I tend to experience in writing about complexity & community was back in full force, so I will wait until I return to my office in the community, or return home, before picking this up again. Obviously it is just a start at this point…I hope to foreshadow in the telling of my “pre-complexity” perspectives and experiences those ideas and actions that created a “potentiating environment” in my mind and self for complexity theory / science, and then to speak to the web of complexity concepts and approaches that have resonated since, as they inform my understanding, decisions and actions relative to life in community. I anticipate that after several iterations this will evolve into a more succinct and coherent position statement, but for now, here it is, in all its unbridled glory…]