January 7, 2022

Don't Miss the Trees: Finding Connection in the Details

We tend to put so much store in the “big picture.” Whether a new initiative or a large-scale strategy, keeping your eye on the larger goal helps you stay focused and make progress.

In fact, you might get frustrated with a colleague who gets lost in the details - who “can’t see the forest for the trees.” These are rarely words of praise.

But in our zeal to skip over the trees, might we miss something important?

Let me illustrate with - a picture. In the early fifteenth century, Netherlandish painter Rogier van der Weyden painted a breathtaking Descent from the Cross.  With nearly life-size figures, this masterpiece portrays one of the defining events of early Christianity. Polished and detailed, the piece inspires awe.

Rogier van der Weyden, The Descent from the Cross, 1435, Prado, Madrid

But the hands tell a more intimate story: Mary’s pale hand against the deep blue of her robes mirrors the lifeless and battered hand of her crucified son. These very human hands transform a watershed religious moment into a private experience of loss.

This loss is immediately understandable to anyone who has ever lost a loved one - we feel Mary’s pain. By inviting the viewer into a more personal connection, the hands soften and personalize the whole picture, inspiring deeper reflection on beauty, love and loss - a little closer to home.

Like art, good literature uses detail to catapult us back into our own lives, to make relevant even the most distant stories. Small details become the basis for deeply thoughtful and personal connections, even around stories that seem caught in an earlier time or a different context.

Consider Gabriel Garcia MarquezThe Handsomest Drowned Man in the World, a frequently-discussed Reflection Point story.

Published in 1968, Márquez’s dreamy short story chronicles a tiny waterfront community’s response when a drowned man washes up on its shores. The dead man is a stranger, bigger and more beautiful than anyone they had ever seen: “even as they were looking at him, there was no room for him in their imagination.”

Failing in their attempts to identify him, the villagers prepare the drowned man for burial. They imagine his past and weave him a story. They give him the name “Esteban.”

Immediately his name transforms the almost magical god-like stranger into a human, deeply vulnerable man worthy of their love and their tears.

This plot detail is a turning point for many Reflection Point groups.

Esteban’s name introduces a new conversation: the power of a name to make a stranger more familiar. We empathize far more with the plight of an individual than the struggles of a group, and feel instantly more connected to neighbors or coworkers once we know their names.

But the stranger in turn makes the villagers question the familiar - their lives, their customs, the dreariness of their village. As their imaginations expand to adopt the stranger, they begin to see themselves in a new light. By transforming him, they permanently change their sense of community.

Quietly, Esteban builds a skill in the villagers and in the Reflection Point groups discussing this story. They begin to explore the strength of community and the impact of even the most unlikely change agents. The details of Marquez’ story invites contemporary groups to examine their own assumptions and the limitations of their own imaginations.

In this way, Marquez’ story (and so many others) pave the way for reflective and open discussions of business and social obstacles at work - moderated by personal reflection on the impact of small details. Like Mary and Jesus’ hands, they force us to pause and look inside, to deepen our sensitivity to others' experiences and enhance our understanding of the larger challenges we face together.  

“Everyone comes with a different lens. When you put all those things together, you see this prism of new light and experiences,” described one Reflection Point participant.  This prism of diverse perspectives helps colleagues to see the trees (and even the leaves) through deepened empathy and common ground, to find new connections and see the “big picture” in a whole new way.

Image Credit:
Ben Neale on Unsplash
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