the less travelled path of the learner’s journey

Al Smith
Feb 5, 2016

I remember feeling deeply bewildered for a good fifteen minutes or more whilst the aisle filled with people shuffling, as politely as they could muster, for the exit. I glanced at Sue and we shared a silent pause but before either of us could summon a word the slow, careful, deliberative movements and dysarthric drone of Herod drew us calculatingly back to the stage.

“Ttthhhee mmmooooooonnn hhaaaaasss aaaa sssstttrraaaannnggee llloooooookkk ttooooonniiiigghhtt. Hhaaass sshheee nnooott aaa ssttrraaannggee llooookk?”

I’ve always felt strangely indebted to Steven Berkoff, and the wonderful cast and crew of his interpretation of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, for an experience that remains the first to surface in contemplative thought whenever I’m feeling deeply uncomfortable in a public place. The feeling has to reach deep down inside me to conjure the memory but each time it comes it continues to surprise, delight and inform with every retelling.

On this particular time around I’ve come to understand with deeper appreciation the sheer beauty of what was executed on that stage in Glasgow some twenty years ago and the reason why it’s etched in my mind. In creating a vehicle of palpable theatrical power Berkoff invited his audience to experience in visceral terms the story that lay at the heart of the play — that of the cleaving of the patriarchal bond under several of its archetypal guises: between father and daughter; King and subject; man and woman.

By lulling his audience, at least those who could bear it, into an uncomfortable alliance where time slowed and senses numbed, Berkoff was able to deliver a blow filled with the sheer force of nature that must come to bear on that strongest of ties that subserves and sustains the patriarch. The ferocious intensity with which the prophet, Jokanaan, entered the scene was wrought large by the laboured pace at which the audience had now come to view the world. His wild gestures of arm and tongue bore witness to both the strength and fragility of Herod’s hold on his daughter as she sought to position her guile in the role of kingmaker by pitting her pater against his heretical foe.

You see I’ve been thinking a lot about identity of late and I’ve come to realise that patriarchal power is getting in the way of progress in both my inner and outer worlds. Some eighteen months ago I reached a crisis in my professional career and exited stage left to walk into the long grass and take a deep breath of fresh air. Amongst the revelations that were to follow this momentous upheaval was a growing awareness of my own latent patriarchy. In accepting that I was no longer the household bread winner and recognising my dependence on the woman who fills my life with love and kindness I began to surface an uncomfortable truth about my manhood.

Ever since my working class childhood in the west of Scotland I’ve carried within me a manhood that’s measured in strength and stoicism — an independence and invulnerability that belies deeper needs and begets an unnerving ability to be alone in a crowd. This functional facade has seen me through all manner of challenges but in so doing has also built a void of meaning that I can no longer contain. The emancipation of my patriarchal urges has been a hugely liberating experience that has opened me up to new ways of being whilst leaving an inviting space for a new manhood to fill.

Through this journey of self discovery I’ve travelled into varied and fruitful terrain that has prompted a reimagining of the purpose behind my passion for sport. For many, sport is the ultimate domain of the patriarch, although in this sense like many others I’d argue that sport is simply a mirror of wider societal dynamics. Nonetheless, at a personal level I’ve come to realise that my patriarchal urges were fuelling a desire for status that drew me up the food chain of high performance sport but paradoxically drew me away from the necessary discomfort and vulnerability that are crucial to the learning that sits at the heart of any journey to excellence. I’ll return to this tension between elitism and excellence at another time, but what this current revelation has brought squarely into focus for me is a growing awareness that the biggest blocker to progress for many in the sporting domain is the latent patriarchy that sits within our sporting organisations and keeps us from getting vulnerable enough to go into that space where the learning is — from getting comfortable with staying there no matter how much we realise that its never going to get comfortable.

So what exactly is it that we need to get comfortably uncomfortable with? Discomfort in itself of course is not the answer, although a great many leaders of the ‘rocket up the arse’ mould would have you believe otherwise. For me all journeys to excellence are journeys of learning, and at its heart there’s a necessary tension on the edge of learning between the known and the unknown — between the certainty of where we’ve been and the uncertainty of where we’re going. The trouble is that uncertainty doesn’t sit well with the patriarch and in too many of our sporting organisations the patriarchal urge for control leads to the ever more elaborate means of providing an illusion of certainty that secures the status quo.

With subtle sweep of hand the patriarchal organisation paints itself as upholder of greatness and champion of progress, whilst all the while stifling learning and innovation by ensuring compliance with the hierarchy through a careful coercion and control that serves only to protect the powerful. The allure of the algorithm is its latest enchantment with the beguiling promise of a future bestowed if only you’ll comply with the predictive power of its pejorative prose. For a certain future is an enchantment indeed that we seem destined to seek despite our better knowing.

But what other way might there be? If not the comforting illusion of certainty then how might we better face an uncertain future. I wonder if this is of those special moments where sport can offer up a lesson to life. For the very best of sporting champions and sporting leaders have grasped the paradox of performance and purpose. Theirs is the less travelled path of the learner’s journey — in putting the process of perpetual improvement in the service of their purpose they enable performance to emerge by being vulnerable enough to embrace the uncertainty and let learning lead the way.

And for organisations seeking to break the patriarchal bond and travel the learning path I would offer the thoughts of an insightful sporting leader who signalled the seeds of change when he described his challenge thus: “we need to change the perception that athletes need to earn the right to be part of this programme to one where the programme needs to earn the right to be part of the athlete’s journey”. In this I see hope for a better future and a place where my own maturing manhood might emerge.

Whilst not wishing to hold a mirror to the theatrical majesty I bore witness to in Glasgow, in some small way I think we’ve been trying to do something of this ilk with relearn — the learning events we’re running for those who share our passion for learning in sport. Whilst its jarring to see someone disengage from the stage you’ve crafted for their pondering, I take some comfort from knowing that such experiences, if they can be borne, can hold long in the fire and surface when the need arises to bring meaning to the emerging stories of our lives. I’m sure my evening with Berkoff holds many more mysteries that it is yet to reveal and hope to remain both able and grateful to receive them whenever they are bestowed upon me.