Poiesis (formerly known as work)

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 Jim Cochrane and I are up in North Georgia for a few days before he flies back to South Africa and I fly to Loma Linda, California and then to North Carolina on Monday to begin my  life at Wake Forest.
If you follow this blog you’ll know that I spend much of my waking hours working in various ways to try to help institutions and organizations do the right thing, which is to lend themselves as instruments of God’s imagination for the health and wholeness of the world. 
At least that what I try to do. What actually emerges from all the constant flurry of activity are books, papers, memos, committee meetings, plans, budgets, programs and more programs, events and more events….and from time to time, something that even looks like…..change. It almost never solitary; almost always a team sport. Sometimes it is two or three as when Jim and I wrote  a really good book over a period of years (Religion and the Health of the Public: Shifting the Paradigm)(which you reallyshould stop and buy on amazon right now….). Sometimes it happens in formally constituted organizations, such as the 11,0000 employees of Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare. Increasingly today it happens in informally emerging networks such as the “health systems learning group” meeting in Loma Linda (18 health systems co-convened with the White House office on Faith and Neighborhood Partnerships). People form around things they fear and things they hope for. I am usually part of the latter.
To call that kind of hopeful activity “work” doesn’t quite seem right. It often feels every bit as much play, in the creative sense of generative delight and surprise. I probed Jim’s imagination on this and after consulting friends from Seattle to Africa, he suggested we talk about Poesis. That activity that so stirs soul, is work, but needs a new name to capture its radically hopeful and realistic nature.It gives energy; seems to create it. There is always laughter.
We can find no English word for this, but consider “Poiesis” from the ancient Greek term ποιέω, “to make”. The same root word underneath “poetry“, it was first a verb, referring to the action that transforms and continues the world. Poiesis is not just technical production nor creation in the romantic sense: poïetic work reconciles thought with matter and time, and person with the world.
Poiesis is, in short, what a great leader does with those he or she loves. It is helpful to think about past poïetic transformations other leaders like you have already been part of and to see the fruit of their lives as far more than an assembly of technical constructions. It helps us to hope for the fruit of our lives, too.

Jim teaches me that  Martin Heidegger refers to this kind of holy labor as a ‘bringing-forth’, using this term in its widest sense. He explained poiesis as the blooming of the blossom, the coming-out of a butterfly from a cocoon, the plummeting of a waterfall when the snow begins to melt. The last two analogies underline Heidegger’s example of a threshold occasion: a moment of ecstasis when something moves away from its standing as one thing to become another. It is the sprouting of an acorn that could be a great oak.No wonder our heart stirs when we grasp what is possible

And, oh, does the world so need just that.

Let’s get to poiesis!

About garygunderson

Vice President, Faith Health, Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC. Author, Leading Causes of Life, Deeply Woven Roots, Boundary Leaders and Religion and the Heath of the Public. Secretary, Stakeholder Health (Health Systems Learning Group).
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