What was the Context? Context, Love, and Empathy

What was the context?The past two weeks I’ve been reading and giving feedback on a manuscript for a book about context and design. Context means “the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.”

The book will be aimed at people who work in product development, technology, and user interface designe (user experience); think smartphone apps, websites, etc. Its purpose isn’t to explain ‘how to design an app,’ but rather how to think about context — everything around (and inside) the app — so that you can be inspired to design good, high-functioning stuff. The book takes a fascinating deep dive into how to think about context.

Clearly the book he’s writing has nothing to do with dysfunctional families and intimacy, and yet — wait, as I was reading the rough chapters, I realized, “hey this has relevance. This is fascinating.”

Here are a couple excerpts from the book — and these are the questions I had in mind while I read them, “When we’re getting to know someone, what does it do to our knowing when we see them in their environment? Can I know someone truly without having observed them in various environments, in a variety of contexts?”

The book is tentatively titled Designing Context by Andrew Hinton. These are the excerpts that struck me and inspired this meditation/post:

We understand context because of information we perceive about the object and the circumstances. The foundation that undergirds our comprehension of things in the world comes from our evolutionary history as animals in environments, perception that’s grounded in physical information.

In modern life, many of us don’t encounter a lot of wild animals, but we’re familiar with pets as independent agents in our midst. Other humans “interface” better with us than animals (usually…) because we share more of an umwelt with them, including the full capabilities of human language.

That was a bit of a setup; I mean, the question is rhetorical — no, we can’t know someone devoid of their environment and in captivity. Imagine trying to study wildlife in a cage in a lab. Nothing doin’. Could you really get to know your lover without seeing their home? The books on their bookshelves? How they experience food, the act of preparing and eating it? Without meeting their family? Without taking a stroll down the street in their childhood neighborhood? Without eating at a restaurant in their hometown? And vise-versa — sharing your contexts informs the ones who love you about who you are. The process of getting to know someone, truly, deeply, must involve context. (Have you ever tried to date someone whose house you’ve never been to? If so, you might feel at arm’s length and for a damn good reason.) Environment, context, and situation all inform our actions – and it’s fascinating to see how it does so. We think “I don’t know who you are” when we see a new side of someone, how they behave at a party which may differ from the “them” we knew while planning a camping trip; yet, what was the context? What can we learn? We’re dynamic — show we a dozen contexts, and I’ll show you a dozen sides of an individual orbiting around a solid core of Self.

The message I took away is this: we must share ourselves.

Share yourself in your best context. Share yourself in a variety of contexts. Visit other contexts. Visit the contexts of others. The act of experiencing the contexts of others cultivates compassion, it cultivates empathy. It is an act of intimacy. Intimacy is the holy grail, folks. Peer into those you love and are getting to know (that new love interest!) in different contexts. And try it with your eyes, heart, and mind open.

–be kind to yourself


  1. Donna M says:

    Hi Amy – Thanks for your dedication to Recovery & all your hard work.
    I’m passing this on to my readers.

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