The Middle Domes

The middle domes of life absorb most of our daily attention. By the middle domes I mean those that lie between the smallest – my individual skull – and largest – a horizon of universal reality approachable by faith or by science, depending on one’s disposition.

The middle domes therefore comprise groups as small as a pair of individuals or as large as a culture, but less than all, that form the subject in we-sentences. Examples include friendships, marriages, families, churches, schools, bowling and other sports leagues, clubs, local and state politics, nations, business groups, hobby groups, news and entertainment media, professional societies, military and public safety forces, and charitable organizations.[1]

About 150 years ago an ill-named tide of modernity began to overrun the place of the middle domes. Modernity began to insist that truth governs every event in life, and modernity recognized only universal truth.

Truth might be gained through science or faith, but under the influence of modernity all agreed that only a single brand of truth could prevail. One truth alone could be right; all others were wrong. It always seemed to happen that the ideas of our group were right, and the ideas of others wrong. The world became a battleground for warring truth.

As leaders of modern thought fell under the enchantment of truth, the middle domes of our subjective life declined in relevance and impact. But today modernity is fading. Can the middle domes be revitalized?

Consider the proposition already stated, based in modernity –

Truth governs every event in life.

If truth governs every event, then it leaves no room for the operation of will.

Thus far the individual psyche has strongly resisted the dictum that truth overrides will. I still think that I make choices, and I take responsibility for my choices. Most people will agree with this individual stance. However, modernity has provided less and less inclination to accept the role of will expressed in the middle domes. We hyper-analyze group dynamics and suppose that the outcomes of group consensus-seeking are somehow scientifically determined rather than chosen.

In some circles what used to be called will may now be called the English professor’s narrative or perhaps text. Diogenes Laertius ascribed to Aristotle the aphorism that friendship means “a single soul and two bodies.” A soul has a will; a soul chooses. For Jacques Derrida, the meaning of friendship resides in a text which must be hyper-analyzed. What we once considered friendship now vanishes in a cloud of words.[2] We may continue explore shallower themes of friendship in movies, sometimes in novels and other literature, but these themes arrive with goals of entertainment more than edification.

Middle Guyton Reunion doorway_0383 2
Family reunion

Today the influence of the middle domes may be cast in terms of power relations over which we have no control and for which we have no responsibility. Yet our real job is to analyze those power relations, then to make choices together and do our best to implement the choices.

Roy Baumeister and John Tierney have written a wonderful book called Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.[3] I found the book exhilarating and motivating.

I even made a quicktext phrase to recommend it to numerous patients in my lipid clinic for help with lifestyle changes. But my patients rarely seemed to respond to the book as I thought they might. Why not? I think there are 2 possible reasons.

First, the authors disown any philosophical position about the will. Why do they talk about willpower if the will is not real? Perhaps the authors have a subliminal goal of preparing the way for re-introduction of a philosophic understanding of will, but my patients unaccustomed to scientific discourse may not see it that way.

Second, the book mostly aims at individual self-fulfillment. Philosophy slips in anyway, but it’s a philosophy of individualism. My patients may not particularly respond to the self-fulfillment goal.

The focus on individual willpower in the book may reflect the anticipated audience more than the authors’ own view. Baumeister and Tierney in some instances describe the power of looking beyond the individual. They note how the great explorer of the Victorian age, Henry Morton Stanley, “established lifelong bonds with his African companions,” and they attribute his extraordinary self-control in part to the strength of the group. The authors describe rock guitarist Eric Clapton’s emancipation from substance abuse via Alcoholics Anonymous and religious commitment.

In medical practice the power of relationship can promote healing. I recall a medical newsletter that described a study of effective smoking cessation counseling methods (unfortunately I cannot cite the study). Gruesome descriptions of cigarette smoke blackening the lungs and lengthy recitations of grim mortality statistics had little impact on patients, according to the study.

Instead the most effective type of advice was some form of the following sentence:

I urge you to stop smoking.

In other words, you are a person whose value I recognize. Part of me in this moment commits to your solving a problem that is meaningful for us.

A friend of mine, Ellen Davis, recently retired nurse and Certified Diabetes Educator, names the following as the most motivational words a provider can say to a patient:

I think you are onto something!

Notice the personal pronouns again. The statement says – I give you credit for a good idea! – as well as – I’m pulling for you!

An individual is never an individual in isolation. Individual autonomy, held to be an inalienable right and a measure of freedom, becomes a prison when pursued to the fullest.

José Ortega y Gasset said, “Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia,” which translates, “I am I and my circumstances.”[4] With thanks to the Spanish philosopher for expanding the subjective viewpoint, we might modify his sentence to read, “I am I and my participations.” My individual will is not the only will that I own, because of my participation in domes larger than my skull.

Vaught-Hemingway Stadium Alabama Ole Miss 2007
Football at Ole Miss

I googled “group counseling” in a search for evidence of revitalization of the middle domes. At first, I found the search disappointing. Social support groups on university campuses led the list of responses. In the following, an appeal to the nurture of the individual self and a reliance on transactional analysis remain evident:

Barnard College – “Group is an ideal setting for exploring social or interpersonal difficulties – and most of the concerns that bring students to counseling have an interpersonal component. The group experience allows a person to better understand her interpersonal concerns, and to develop new ways of relating to people.”[5]

Duke University “Understanding Self and Others:  Group members learn more about themselves and how to connect with others through their interactions with one another.”[6]

Iowa State University “Group is a therapy format that approaches issues of personal growth through the use of interpersonal interaction – to interact with others to identify and understand our maladaptive patterns and how to change them.”[7]

Looking deeper into the Barnard College description of group counseling, I found some hints (boldface added by me) that the group can be more just a collection of individuals:

“Feedback involves expressing your own feelings and thoughts about what someone else says or does, or about what is happening in the group as a whole.  This kind of interaction between group members is encouraged, and provides each person with an opportunity to try out new ways of relating to herself and others. It also provides members with an opportunity for learning more about their own interpersonal styles.

“Group work usually begins with a focus on the establishment of trust. Members work to establish a level of trust that allows them to talk personally and honestly. Group trust is enhanced when all members make a commitment to the group.”[8]

In the history of civilization most human interest rises from the middle domes. You can speak of advancing science and applaud the grand community of those who agree to agree, but even science actually moves forward in smaller groups who share a field of study, who stimulate, compete, and cheer each other on, and who often resemble a club where friends meet.

Middle NLA meeting 2
Medical society

 At the other end of the spectrum, following the example of Søren Kierkegaard we find interest in individual struggle and attainment. Yet the very statement that “we find interest” captures the importance of an audience and of participation.

Mostly we live somewhere between individuality and universality – that is, in the middle domes. The great majority of choices happen there, giving shape to our lives together.

Why give attention to the middle domes? Because that’s where life meets and challenges us. That’s where it happens.


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Header image:  Homecoming picnic on the grounds at Yates Baptist Church, Durham, NC, own photo. Guyton family reunion in 2014, own photo. Football kickoff at Vaught-Hemingway stadium, by Crassic, Wikimedia commons, CCA-by-SA 3.0. Annual sessions of the National Lipid Association, May 2017, own photo.

[1] David Brooks expresses this well at (accessed 4/12/2016).

[2] Derrida J. Politics of Friendship, American Imago, 50/3 (1993:Fall) Extracted from PCU Full Text, Proquest Information and Learning Company, p. 359.

[3] Baumeister R.F. and Tierney J. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Penguin, New York, 2011.

[4] Sobrino, O. Freedom and Circumstance: Philosophy in Ortega y Gasset. Self-published by Oswald Sobrino, 2011.

[5] URL: < > accessed 1/2/2016.

[6] URL: < > accessed 1/2/2016.

[7] URL: < > accessed 1/2/2016.

[8] URL: < > accessed 1/2/2016.

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