Speaking with Robert Atkinson

What made you interested in studying people’s life stories?

Well, that really goes back to my childhood. One of the defining moments of my life was when my grandmother came to live with us for part of the year when I was 9 years old. I enjoyed having her with us and was intrigued by her routine for some unknown reason at first. But it became clear to even my 9-year-old mind that her commitment to her daily devotions and reading the Bible was something special and very meaningful. I didn’t fully understand it then, but this had a deep impact on me. Over time, I became even more curious about what it was that inspires and motivates elders to live life so deeply.

That was the seed of what ultimately lead me years later to a career in teaching human development and helping people tell their life stories. After majoring in philosophy in college, and studying comparative religions on my own, I went on to a master’s degree in American folk culture. For my thesis, I did a life story interview with a Catskill Mountain elder farmer-folksinger, and I was hooked immediately from the wonderfully moving story I was able to witness from his telling the story of his life. My dissertation was a series of life stories of elder tradition bearers from different cultures, and when I got to the University of Southern Maine I created what is know Life Story Commons to help pass on to others the wonder, satisfaction, and connection that comes with listening to another’s life story. But it has always been the deeply lived, transformative experience of life that comes through a well-told life story that has fascinated me.

As a professor do your students influence your work and what are some important lessons you have learned from your students over the years?

It’s always a matter of trying to find that all-important balance to life. For me, there is a very important natural dynamic to the learning process. There is always this give and take, ebb and flow, that benefits everyone, and I don’t think it’s any different in the classroom. This fundamental principle of life is just as strong and necessary in education. I believe very much in the original meaning of education, or the Latin educare, to draw out from within.

My courses are designed to support self-discovery and enable students to uncover things about themselves they might not have known or been aware of before. There have been so many instances when this approach to teaching and learning has resulted in some very significant personal learning, especially through the autobiographical exercises or life story interviews, that have either changed things for them or enhanced their relationships with others. I try to keep this flow going as much as possible, and have experienced so many confirmations of how vital this approach to education is for everyone involved. I am so often reminded by them of how vital being open to learning is, even about one’s self, and how far this can take one, that I have to keep applying this understanding to my own life experience, too.

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As a professor, author, and editor, how important do you think independent media is? 

Everyone has an urge to create something and share something of who we are with others, whether we are aware of it or not, and whether we have the opportunity to do so or not. But we all have this potential. And it wasn’t always possible for people to express themselves creatively or to get this seen or noticed by others. For most of our history, it was a very exclusive arrangement of art being created by the few for the benefit of the few.

Fortunately, we now live in a world that is much more supportive of this innate need, and at the same time we have many more outlets for this creativity, so it is much more accessible to so many more today because of the many emerging independent media outlets. If it wasn’t for independent media, we might still be living in a creatively exclusive rather than inclusive setting. Independent media levels the playing field and helps make it possible for everyone to have access to creative channels and outlets.

How do you see modern technology’s influence on culture? Are we looking into a future of discovery or avoidance?

The influence is huge, and this can have either a positive and negative impact. Our nature is such that we live to evolve, so we will continue to explore and discover forever, seeking to unravel the mysteries all around us. The only potential negative impact of technology is if it is used only for it’s own sake, or for some user’s personal gain, and not for the good of the whole. The much greater positive impact of our nature of discovery and where it has taken us in terms of modern technology is that we are now at a place in our evolution that it could have taken centuries or even millennia more to get to if it hadn’t been for the advancement of technology.

Modern technology, especially with more recent communication miracles such as the Internet, despite what some people see, has helped lead to the advancement of civilization, and this has brought us to the brink of oneness. We literally can not only instantaneously connect with people on the other side of the planet, we can finally recognize through this media that we are one human family. So, I see great hope and promise that, partially through the continued advancement of technology, we will witness the personal and collective transformation of the world that has been longed for by all sacred traditions. But of course this has to be balanced out with the equally important advancement of a spiritual civilization.

I see that you are also a photographer. There are stories about how some cultures believed that cameras could steal the soul…  Any truth to this? Is there a relationship between photography and the human soul? 

 I do think there is a very intriguing relationship between photography and the soul. Many traditional cultures did, and some still do, believe the camera can capture the soul. And beliefs such as this, and even more so requests to honor this belief, should always be respected.

But the interesting part is what this belief really means; it may be more often than not misunderstood. Rather than being true literally, the truth may be more in what the terms used really mean. This is seen in the very interesting connection between photography and psychology where C.G. Jung not only insisted on translating psyche as soul but also imago as soul, because the soul is really the reflection of the original divine Image (Imago Dei, or Image of God, the multi-faith belief that human beings are created in God’s image). The only way we can truly capture or steal this image of God in the flesh is with a photographic image. And that can be a good thing, too, of course, because other people then get to see the essence of the person (their spirit, soul, or energy) through a good photograph that captures well who they really are.

But I also believe photography in general can assist the development of the soul, in that beautiful images of nature can truly inspire one toward spiritual thoughts, qualities, and actions. There is unsurpassed beauty in nature all around us. We spend our lives in this world to develop our spiritual qualities, and the natural beauty captured in photographs can move the soul, and help it along on its journey. A good photograph captures and extends the wonder of this planet, and feeds the soul at the same time.


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