Bear with me a moment

Why do we sometimes say “bear with me” as we begin a story? Why do we sometimes ask an audience to hold their questions to the end of a presentation? Why is it important in some instances to communicate without interruptions?

Or is it because we want to reach the conclusion of the story as efficiently as possible? Is it because we know we are about to tax the attention of the audience, and feel a need to ask for their patience, indulgence or forgiveness? Are we trying to avoid distraction or derailment that might cause the audience to forget some of the points? Sometimes one or all of these are true. However, I think there is often something else going on in these situations — something more important and also more interesting: many times when we say this what we are trying to convey is a holistic idea. Intuitively we understand this calls for special conditions around our communication, and it is these conditions we are requesting.

What is holism? According to Wikipedia:

Holism (from holos, a Greek word meaning “all, whole, entire, total)” is the idea that all the properties of a given system (physical, biological, chemical, social, economic, mental, linguistic, etc.) cannot be determined or explained by its component parts alone. Instead, the system as a whole determines in an important way how the parts behave.

The general principle of holism was concisely summarized by Aristotle in the Metaphysics: “The whole is more than the sum of its parts”.

Normally, when we try to understand something new, we come to the understanding one step at a time. At each point, despite the fact that the understanding is incomplete, what has been learned so far is clear. We can also break down the idea into its smallest parts, and this kind of analysis can clarify it considerably. These ideas are atomistic, or reductionistic. Wikipedia says this about reductionism:

Reductionism is sometimes seen as the opposite of holism. Reductionism in science says that a complex system can be explained by reduction to its fundamental parts. For example, the processes of biology are reducible to chemistry and the laws of chemistry are explained by physics.

Holistic ideas are much harder to convey than reductionistic ones. In the course of conveying a holistic idea, the idea might make little sense until the end, when it suddenly all crystallizes at once, in a  flash of insight. Until the “ah ha” moment comes, it is hard to see where it’s going. The whole is not assembled as a synthesis (syn- “together” + -thesis “place”) as reductionistic thoughts, but rather taken together, all at once, as a concept (con- “together” + -cept “take”).

To pull off communication of this kind, the parts must somehow be retained by the mind despite the fact that they are not grasped as a unity, so at the moment of clarity all the pieces can crystallize.

For this reason, the idea must unfold at the right velocity, maintaining flow, rhythm, tempo and momentum, until the understanding resolves. If something impedes the flow, if the delivery is broken up, if the pace is slowed or rushed, the meaning can fragment. And if someone jumps in and tries to complete the thought themselves but takes it in a different direction, or introduces a line of questioning that derails the line of thought, the communication of the concept can be severely disrupted. It can take a lot of effort to get things back on track.

It’s a somewhat like music. If you play someone all the different notes of a piece, one after the other, but disconnectedly, the music does not come across. Playing it very fast or very slow, or at a constantly varying tempo distorts it. Or if you break into the music after a few notes and develop the melody in a different direction it can completely change the experience of the piece, even after it the original music is resumed.

To ask someone to “bear with me for a moment” puts a fence around the idea until it unfolds and matures to viability in the minds of others. Then it can be considered as a concept, and not as a misunderstanding or a smattering of parts.

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