Joe DiMaggio, M.D.

The Power of Context and the Courage to Create

Joe DiMaggio, M.D.

Joe DiMaggio & Nancy Zapolski: Insights and Distinctions from Landmark Forum Leaders
Joe DiMaggio & Nancy Zapolski: Insights and Distinctions from Landmark Forum Leaders
Landmark Newsletter

The instant the ball rolled between Bill Buckner’s legs New England broke into a collective moan. Mets fans uncontrollably squealed with glee. Then it was over and there was only silence. Local taverns packed with people watching Game 6 of the 1986 World Series suddenly filled with malice and fans walked away leaving money on the table. Boston’s long awaited world championship was there—and then it was gone. All that remained for Red Sox fans was the grim certainty of an inevitable loss in Game 7 and more proof that this was not the year.

The Red Sox didn’t have a chance. This team and its fans didn’t recover from such defeats. Never had and never would.

Sports fans have a tendency to get attached to the games, the players, the seasons. The players, larger than life, are personal heroes; they pull the curtain back on greatness and let their fans play a part. But in Boston, that was not to be. For many years, whatever momentary hope Red Sox fans may have had—thinking perhaps this time they could win—was eclipsed by their team’s continual string of losses. It was the conversation in their neighborhoods, their schools, their families, even among their politicians. They knew they’d blown it in 1918 by trading Babe Ruth to the Yankees, and since then they just couldn’t get back to the top. The state of affairs for Red Sox fans was a hard, cold reality—the way it was. The context hovering over them was that “the Sox” weren’t winners. (Luckily, I was a Yankees fan.)

We’re defining context here to mean “a fundamental set of assumptions”—assumptions that are not recognized as assumptions, and that go unquestioned—in which the world happens. When people thought the earth was flat (an analogy that grows old but never dies), that was a context or worldview that limited perception and behavior—how those folks saw the horizon, how far toward the edge they sailed, and so on. Similarly, our way of being a man or a woman, and the possibilities available to us, are given by the assumptions embedded in our culture, our language, and times in which we live. A girl born in the U.S. today would likely inherit a very different possibility for being a woman than a girl born in the 1930s or ’40s—would she be a dot-com mogul or running for president?

So if you consider the premise that the whole world happens inside of the assumptions we hold true (and if you do the math), what becomes apparent is that contexts are a mighty and decisive force. Contexts come to us by default, and we live our lives essentially unaware of their existence and of their far-reaching influence. It’s like wearing blinders—we don’t see the contexts themselves, we see only what they allow. These default contexts determine our worldview: what’s possible and not, what’s true and false, what’s right and wrong, what we think we can and can’t do. They travel with us—wherever we are, they are—shaping our behavior, our choices, our lives.

Just as these default contexts can be what keeps us limited and stuck, created or invented contexts can allow for freedom and power. We’re not talking, however, about substituting one context over another, or finding a better context or the right context. Rather, it’s about becoming aware of and responsible for whatever context we are functioning inside of, and realizing that we have the power not only to invent contexts, but to move freely among them.

History is strewn with examples of times when major advances happened as a result of new contexts being created. Democracy, equality, relativity, human rights—new ways of understanding the world—were at some point, newly distinguished contexts. The Copernican revolution abruptly dislodged humans from the center of the universe, ushering in modern astronomy and the scientific revolution. Newton invented gravity (certainly, before Newton, there was a physical force, but he transformed the possibility of that force), enabling us to understand and interact more powerfully with the physical universe. Einstein created relativity—a context that catalyzed modern physics and tells us how nature behaves on the scale of apples, planets, galaxies, and on up. At one time, human rights, as we think of them today, simply didn’t exist. Kings had rights, priests had rights, and the ruling class had rights, but the majority of human beings—and often, certain specific groups within a society—did not. In each of these examples, some person or a group of people saw through or past “the way things were,” or the way they “seemed to have to be.” The act of doing so, and saying so, reshaped the course of events and redefined human experience from then on. And we then began living into those possibilities and the “truth” of the world was transformed.

And so it is with being human. We take for granted that things are a particular way; we think it is our circumstances, our cultures, the content of our lives that determine our experience. And if we want some kind of change in our lives, we usually go to work on changing the circumstances—essentially moving the content around. (Not surprisingly, we then end up living content-driven lives.)

Living from an invented context has just as much impact and command value as living from a default context—the difference, however, is the difference between a life of predictability and a life of possibility. The answer to the question “what’s possible in being human?” doesn’t need to be looked at through a default lens. Seeing past our old assumptions about “the way things have been” or the way we thought “they had to be” and creating a context of our own choosing alters the very nature of what’s possible—and the truth of “our” world gets transformed.

An invented context is essentially a realm of possibility. And we have the wherewithal to create that realm simply by our saying so. Language—what we say (silently or aloud, once or repeatedly, to ourselves or to others)—has the power to shape reality. When we know our conversations constitute who we are, it shifts our relationship to the world. The shift does not necessarily get rid of the lens or filters or mindsets per se, but what occurs is that those old assumptions simply stop defining who we are. Context known in that way is never inherited, never a matter of acculturation, never a matter of something we picked up, never a matter of accident—it’s always and only a matter of our choosing. Choice is a uniquely human condition. “The stone and the tiger have no choice of life: the stone must gravitate and the tiger must pounce. Only human beings are faced with the mind-boggling responsibility of having, at each and every moment of their lives, to choose what to do and what to be. It is both a necessity and an invitation.”*²

In 2007 the Red Sox became World Series Champions for the second time in three years—and had the most dominant postseason run in history.

*¹Glenn Stout, Boston Baseball, September 2004
*² Harry Eyres, “Tyranny of Choice,” Financial Times, 11/2/07 (citing Jose Ortega y Gasset, in his essay “The Mission of the Librarian”)

This article by Dr. Joe DiMaggio originally appeared in the LandmarkNewsletter.
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