Content and the Context


Just before Thanksgiving holiday, one of my friends called me asking “What do you think about this?” and then went on to describe what he had in mind. He said, during the Thanksgiving, when all the family is gathered together I want to explain, what I would like to be written in my obituary. “What a morbid thought” flashed through my mind. Why would anyone want to talk about his obituary at such a joyous occasion – the family gathering during a holiday break? Even before I could finish my thought, my friend chimed in, “The family members think that is a morbid thing to do or say at that time. What do you think?”

As I reflected on that, it occurred to me that we often get confused and hence mix up the content and the context. The thoughts, ideas, actions, events are all the contents. They are visible to all. But, how the thoughts are expressed, how we go about executing the action or how we frame the ideas are all influenced by the context. While the content may be the same, how we relate to them is a function of the context!

Something nice has been said about me. If the words come from someone I respect or admire, I take the words as compliments. I feel good about the words expressed. The same words expressed by someone I am not well disposed to, or someone I am suspicious of, then I receive the same words with apprehension! I would rather be left alone, than be praised by someone, who is not high up in my esteem. You get the idea: Content alone is not important. It has to be blended, to be in tune with the context, to achieve the right impact. This simple truth is missed by most of us some of the time and by some of us most of the time!

When there is a discord between the content and the context, we usually feel that as a negative experience. Whenever you are angry or upset or disturbed in any way, ask yourself, “Are you bothered by the content or the context in which it is delivered?” Our objectivity is always the highest, when we focus more on the content and look at it independent of the context. With such objectivity every situation is an opportunity for observation and learning. We become less influenced by context and better informed by the content. On the other hand, when the Contexnt and Context are in harmony, there is a resonance, a feeling of joy and elation.

So, I asked my friend, “What is it that you want to be written in your obituary?” As he explained to me, it was clear that he wanted an emphasis on some principles that he lives by. He wanted everyone to know of it and benefit from such principles, if they adapted the same.  Then I asked my friend, “What is more important to you? You want them to know of your principles for life? How you find them useful and hence of possible use for their benefit? Or do you merely want them to remember you by those principles?” “Of course I want them to be of benefit in their life. What good is it, on how they remember me or not?” I was perplexed. “I thought you wanted to share your obituary” I said. “Forget about that. I will tell them on what I have in mind as the principles for life and why they are important and how it will be of use to them”. “That sounds like a perfect Thanksgiving day message, go for it” — I did not have to say it. My friend had already moved on to put his thoughts into action! Having focused on the content, he found it much easier to change the context.

Of course there are situations, where the context matters as well. Many of us have been to Grand Canyon. Some of us have thought of going there. It is just like going to any other place of nature’s wonders. The content is simple: Visit a place of nature’s beauty and enjoy the scene and serenity. Earlier today I heard something interesting on the radio. A factory worker in Lowell, MA, has been talking about visiting Grand Canyon for decades. He had seen all videos, has read all the books and had even large pictures of the GC pasted on the wall in his bed room. As his boss got tired of hearing all the talk about GC, he told him, “Why don’t you forget about all that, since you have only been talking about this for decades”. The worker, a machinist by trade, handed over the tools to his boss and told him, “I quit. I am on my way to Grand canyon”. Then he set out to reach GC by hitch hiking. With about two hours of car ride left, he was picked up by a driver passing by, to whom he narrated his story. Moved by the context, the driver took him to Grand Canyon. The view with the serene beauty of the GC – which is viewed by millions each year – took on a special meaning in the context of this machinist and his lifelong desire.

It turns out that the content and context co-exist all the time. While the content is most often concrete and firm, the context is subject to variation with time, people involved and the circumstances. Reflecting on both – content and the context – and their inter-relationship is an aspect of Spirituality in Practice. Next time you are elated or perplexed, step back and ask the questions: Both the content and context – are they clear to me? If not why not? Am I at odds with the contect or the context? Or, am I diposed favorably to both, which makes me feel happy? In some instances both the context and the content can be changed relatively easily. In other cases it may need a longer term effort. In some cases it may be a life long struggle! But, once you know the nature of the content and context, you become more at ease with the situation and better informed on your next step! That is also part of “self realization”.

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3 Responses to Content and the Context

  1. Raji says:

    Wonderful ….thanks for writing these blogs again.

  2. chitra says:

    Loved the content and the context of the Grand Canyon incident!!!
    Did make me think -how the context like body language plays a vital part in our understanding and judgement.

    • sipractce says:

      Chitra: You are absolutely correct. So many of us – in fact almost all of us – carry on our life, with expressions and body language and other contextual aspects, with out ever being aware as to how they are affecting what we wish to convey (the content). This is often described in Human Resource managment language as “Impact of the self on others”.

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