Spontaneous combustion in conversation

To our good friends–

Yesterday morning I was thinking of the parallels between conversation and spontaneous combustion. Greasy rags, hay and coal can spontaneously combust. It is a matter of oxidation and containing the heat until it reaches ignition temperature. Oxidation is simply adding oxygen to something, and often it reacts with that thing, actually burning it. Hmmm…. What is oxygen in conversation? It is something that changes, like another human being. It might be openness. The spontaneous nature is emergence—something unexpected happens. But if we know the process we can prevent or enhance it.

So for combustion we need heat, oxygen and fuel. Oxygen tends toward the openness—air, in other words. Heat comes from people in a confined place. Fuel is the inviting question. A triangle. Maybe they all play all three roles. But see what is going on—the oxygen combines with the fuel and both are changed into something new: energy, ash. And so too with people: they are bodies which are changed into actions by the conversation. They are changed too as persons, since they are not the same after the event. In the very least, they are like the outside of a car rusting or they become more durable like anodized aluminum. Is the oxygen the fuel, and the wood, coal, oil or metal the reactive agent? Does it matter how we define the term fuel? Oxygen is at least the common factor in the uncommon fuels of fire. So too people are the common factor despite the questions in front of them. So perhaps people are the oxygen, questions are the fuel, and meeting is the heat.

Note that it is people in the plural; singular does not do it.

This idea of spontaneous combustion is a way to explain or make a metaphor for emergence. Something happens that was unexpected and not predictable. You pile up the hay or coal and you get fire. It is predictable once you know about it, so that might not be the best way to define emergence. Something comes out that is not like the things you put in. You put in people and a question and give them space to work (the field) and you end up with fire.

So perhaps that is a useful metaphor. Can it take us new places? Or at least open some mind-doors?

:- Doug.

Published in: Conversations | on January 1st, 2007 | No Comments »

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