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The power of context: Introduction

December 27, 2011

I’m starting to think again about how environments influence and eventually shape us. There are lots of examples of this in the wider natural world where certain species of  fish will only grow to a certain size if they are in one body of water but if placed in a larger body of water they will grow much larger. I’m sure there are many other examples but my knowledge of biology is quite limited…

I also wonder about retail spaces like malls (those hellish places!). Malls seem perfectly designed to get people to spend money. The way they are laid out, the music chosen to play in the background, the layout of the stores, the visual stimulation supported by the other senses of smells and sounds washing over the consumer. Sugary scents of Cinnabon coupled with shafts of light streaming in from transparent skylights.

On the opposite end of the spectrum I remember the first time I stepped foot in a monastery, The Abbey of Gethsemani in the rolling hills of Kentucky.

The candlelight.
The stone hallways.
The stark white walls.
The simple furnishings.
The silence.
The chanting.

All of these things worked together to transport me to what seemed like another world. The very environment evoked prayer and communion.

How do we shape environments that will ultimately shape us? How do we design our home environment in a way that naturally leads those who enter to feel welcomed, nourished, inspired and connected to God?

In short I’m interested in what Malcolm Gladwell calls the “Power of Context.”

I’m especially interested to explore three angles: the physical environment, the role of the leader/ abbot/ parent, and the rituals that are present there.

Are you game to explore this with me? I’d love to share what I learn but also hear what you already know about this.

How’s this for starters: What were some of the most formative aspects of your home when you were growing up?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 27, 2011 2:30 pm

    I am reading this sitting in the old “TV room” of the house where I grew up (visiting family for Christmas)…
    Physical: lots of books, a piano, images of Jesus and Mary and guardian angels and saints all around. A garden in the yard, trees in the city.
    Role of the parents: Mom at home during the day, Dad at work. A Mom who had been in teaching, who was observant about children’s behavior and who could direct her kids to opportunities that would meet their particular interests. The financial resources through Dad’s work to go to Catholic school where the classes were small enough and the teachers were committed enough to know our strengths and weaknesses. Lots of intellectual encouragement, not as much understanding of the emotional end of the spectrum.
    Rituals: Eating dinner together at the end of the day, gathering for breakfast Saturday mornings listening to comedy on the radio, Mom and Dad watching opera on Sunday nights, me begging them to tell me the subtitles when I was too young to read. Mass on Sunday, daily Mass during the school year. Mom and I taking turns reading out loud to each other washing dishes (found out later she did this to help me get over my stutter). All of us going to see the plays and musicals my siblings were in. Card games at holidays, visiting cousins.

  2. January 18, 2012 12:15 pm

    I think one of the more formative aspects for me was when we transitioned the existing garage into a huge family room. We let expert builders put a new garage in front of the old, but transitioning and crafting the old one into a “living space” we did together mostly as a family. I remember helping to paint and put up paneling and build the platform for the wood-burning stove we were going to add. Then, I remember driving out to the ol’ Mennonite country as a family and getting the wood-burning stove and installing it. The formative aspect wasn’t exactly the change per-se, it was that WE changed it and changed with it. We made it cozy, family space. And thinking about it right now I can almost smell the mixture of the wood-burning stove at one end of the room and my dad’s pipe at the other…

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