Writings"Philosophy in Practice"

By Peter Berliner, Professor of Community Psychology at Ilisimatusarfik (University of Greenland) and visual artist Tina Enghoff

Introduction to the book Collaboration, Dialogue and Trust

Published in 2019 by Ilisimatusarfik (University of Greenland)

Over a century ago people travelled here from far-away places to measure the skulls of people already living here. These outsiders were in the surprising habit of holding strange events, which included measuring the heads of the people who turned up. This extraordinary behaviour was met with generosity and cooperation, since nobody wanted to make life more difficult for the visitors. People let them measure their heads, most of them out of sheer kindness, others in exchange for a token gift. Slowly but surely, however, the people discovered that this habit was not based on the particular heads of those that were measured, or whether they were particularly beautiful, thoughtful, radiant or sad. The sole interest of the outsiders was measuring heads. Apart from being different in size, all heads were the same to them. There was no Aqqaluk or Paninnguaq, no Nukapianguaq or Aviaaja. Only heads and skulls.
The people also discovered that this obsessive need to measure heads was a habit the newcomers had developed elsewhere, far from here. And it had stuck, almost becoming part of their soul. But that is what made it an echo. An echo of something somewhere else. It was not based on the heads here. It was a reverberation of something the travellers had already talked about in other places, in other buildings, in other countries.
The outsiders left again, taking the head measurements home with them to the buildings and countries where they had talked about measuring heads before coming here. In some cases they also took the skulls of the dead with them and put them on display far away. There the dead could face eternity in museums, surrounded by dust dancing in the rays of the autumn sun coming through the windows.
Today we measure what is inside the skulls, inside heads large and small, long and round, happy and sad. We measure thoughts, we measure emotions. Outsiders arrive by helicopter and plane and immediately start measuring and evaluating, taking the results back with them to other places, other buildings, other countries. They have a job to do. Their job is measuring: the land surveyor out in the mountains measuring in the pouring rain, the teacher weighing and measuring and quantifying human efforts, hunched over a desk in the dwindling light reducing the hopes and longings of children and young people to numbers on a scale. All this measuring consists of calculating the development of life using units of measurement that already exist: centimetres, litres, light years, exam results, and degrees of vulnerability. Human worth measured in numbers and grades.
Human beings apparently enjoy measuring, or else do it because we are told to. We believe we can give a performance in class a number, and that there is a scale for measuring emotions. We would rather measure than celebrate the life that pours over the edges of any measuring glass, immeasurably boundless and free.
We like to measure, but does it make sense to measure a boy’s pride at shooting his first reindeer in the mountains and carrying it down to the boat? Does it make sense to compare his pride and joy with another boy’s pride and joy in a similar situation? Does it make sense to measure who is proudest? Does it make sense to measure joy in small units and compare the joy of one person out on the glassy fjord on a hot summer day with another’s at seeing their loved one walk towards them? Angaju’s happiness was a 9, and Aqqalu’s an 8? Angaju’s happiness was 17.2 cm, and Aqqaluk’s 15.3? Can we give experiences marks and still see people’s uniqueness, see their singularity?1
This makes no sense to us. We would rather experience joy, reflection and community and make them visible than spend our time making measurements. Our approach is that of the arts and social sciences, striving for em-pathy through presence, a shared point of view, and insight through dialogue. But none of this is anything we can give marks or put a figure on. When we measure we evaluate, and what we see is evaluated in relationship to something else – an echo from another place.
The writer and Arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen once said that people are not coins that can be melted down and recast in the same currency. Yet throughout our lives we encounter endless schools of knowledge that try to recast us. The aim is results, improvements that can be measured on a scale that measures and weighs in the same currency. But results that consist of self-referential repetitions leave little room for new departures, presence, and surprising and wonderful life projects. The new, the remarkable, the very flow of life, cannot be contained by set ideas. If the animals take another path, the hunter who only knows one route and sits waiting as night falls will starve to death in the winter.
In Siunissaq we do not sit and wait. We head out into the landscape, not knowing where the tracks will take us. What we do know is how to travel. We know what the process is, and that only when we know that we do not know best are we capable of listening. In the silence – where we listen – other voices can be heard. It is by being open to everything we do not know that we can find the courage to travel into unknown territory together. We know how to travel together – but we never force each other to travel the same path.
Siunissaq is a journey into the unknown landscape of the future.
In Siunissaq we do not work with people, we work together with them. We are not interested in moulding people. Our focus is the meaningful aspects of the lives we share: hope, joy, capability, having values, and looking after each other in a strong network that provides protection from violence and abuse. We do not want to change anyone, but together we hope to generate more hope, joy, resourcefulness, values, care, and protection.
We like everything in people’s lives that generates joy, trust and collaboration. That we would like to see repeated, see expand and grow. Repetition, echoes and the replication of violence, disrespect and humiliation we meet with liberation – by finding new voices and new departures.
Our job is to try to create life together. Work can be creative, but so can play. What matters is being in a creative process that challenges our preconceptions, ideas and impressions, and from there to create something new – out of the present moment, out of reciprocity, out of matter, out of the crystal clear air above the fjord on a summer day. It is to create worlds of ideas, possibilities and wonder. It is through this kind of creative play with hope, with joy, with values, belonging and mutual responsibility that Siunissaq travels.
It is a journey, but a journey into an open landscape where we build using the tools and provisions each of us brings, and where new paths into the future open – a future of new tools and the gifts granted by the mountains and sea en route.
Our job is not criticising what already exists, but a supplement – making life broader and richer at a human level by opening the possibility of multiple destinations. We just have to trust that we find new supplies on the way, that we can repair the tools we have, and that the journey is meaningful – or at least exciting and fun – and introduces us to new people and places. By travelling we can make the world bigger and meet new people without having to abandon those we love and the values that give our life meaning.