How Big Is Your Flashlight?

I teach a course on Family Life Education and one of the most important outcomes for students is that they learn to open their minds to a variety of diverse family forms, experiences, and belief systems.

They don’t necessarily need to change their own personal perceptions, but they do need to be able to work with a variety of families and individuals to help prevent problems and improve family life.


One of the first activities we do involves flashlights. I call two students up to the front and give each one a flashlight – one large and one small. Then I turn out the overhead lights (it’s a night course so it gets pretty dark!) I ask the student with the small flashlight how much they can see in the cast of their light – it’s a pretty narrow focus lacking a great deal of information about what is going on around them.

The larger flashlight reveals more information, but still cannot illuminate everything. At this point I ask the class how much we could see if we gave everyone a flashlight.


The main purpose of this activity is to highlight the importance of individual perception and how we can only take in as much of the world as our “flashlight” or “mind’s eye” will allow. Those of us with big flashlights are open to the experiences and perceptions of others and are able to learn more and experience more of the world around us.

Those of us with small flashlights can only focus on a narrow strip of life. Not only do we miss out on a lot of valuable information, we also have a hard time understanding others and appreciating their experiences.


My second goal with this activity is to emphasize how important communication and collaboration is. I can only experience life from one perspective – my own. For some people, that’s enough. But I wish to become fully engaged with life and enjoy all it has to offer.

To do that, I must combine my flashlight with the lights of others, appreciating multiple perspectives as alternates to my own (even if they conflict). The idea of creating a dialectical synthesis of understanding, integrating one perspective (thesis) with another (antithesis), means that together we create something new: a deeper and richer understanding that is unique from any one perspective. Consider the following 1960 passage from Gadamer:


“Understanding is always more than merely re-creating someone else’s meaning. Questioning opens up possibilities of meaning, and thus what is meaningful passes into one’s own thinking on the subject… To reach an understanding in a dialogue is not merely a matter of putting oneself forward and successfully asserting one’s point of view, but being transformed into a communion in which we do not remain what we were.”


When an intimate union is dissolved, for whatever reason, the parting is more dynamic than a simple separation of two people. It is a division of their shared perspective – a mutual sense of love and understanding that they have each invested in over time.

The value of ADR is that it helps these two individuals develop a new synthesis and create a new understanding between them. Although they are no longer in a union with one another, they will forever be part of each other’s lives and will forever be a piece of what makes each of them whole…if we are to believe that humanity is the culmination of experiences accumulated across the life course..



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