Frank Fisher passed away peacefully on Tuesday 21 August 2012, in the loving company of his family.
While I haven’t previously highlighted the centrality of Frank’s influence on my work here at Beyond this Brief Anomaly, the inquiry is inspired by—and, I hope, imbued with—his unique presence and wisdom, his deep kindness and generosity, and his unwavering commitment to response-able being.
In outlining my own background, I made passing reference to my experience as a post-graduate educator in sustainability thinking and practice, and energy futures. Since 2004 I had the great privilege to work alongside Frank at Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia, first in the Graduate Certificate in Sustainability offered by the National Centre for Sustainability, and more recently in the Faculty of Engineering and Industrial Science’s Master of Civil Engineering program. At the National Centre for Sustainability, Frank and I co-designed and taught together the subject Energy for the Future. After the course’s inaugural year, we also took over the teaching and ongoing development of the core subject Principles of Sustainability. In 2011 we introduced an updated and adapted version of Principles of Sustainability to the Master of Civil Engineering program. Our work together at Swinburne continued Frank’s previous quarter century pioneering post-graduate education in environmental science at Monash University. He was Director of the Graduate School of Environmental Science at Monash from 1990 until 2005.
It was through Frank’s friendship that, in 2003, I had the good fortune to link what had over time become for me a naturally adaptive way of seeing and making sense of things with the field of systems, and in particular, with a social constructivist approach to dealing with the environmental and health implications of how we are as a humanity. Frank originally trained and worked as an electrical engineer; at Monash, he worked with a number of the academic staff in the Engineering Faculty who had taught me in my own studies ten years prior. This shared background, and our similar motivations to explore beyond the boundaries of our original profession by inquiring into its social contexts, formed the foundation for both our friendship and our work together over the past decade.
After designing and writing the subject Energy for the Future together in 2004, Frank suggested that we use the substantial original content that we’d developed as the basis for a book. At the time, he was working on his own major project, Response Ability: Environment, Health and Everyday Transcendence, and so the book concept was shelved for the time being. As things go, life intervened in its various ways to keep it off our respective priority lists, though I did keep the idea incubating in the background as my thinking on sustainable energy futures continued to evolve. It wasn’t until 2010, with the prospect of teaching Energy for the Future in the Faculty of Engineering and Industrial Science at Swinburne then emerging, that I started to sketch an outline for a book that would encompass and expand our thinking and material from Energy for the Future.
Frank, having lived remarkably with crohn’s disease for fifty years, was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour in December 2011. With the likelihood waning that we might still collaborate in some way on the book project, I decided to change direction a little and pursue the work in the form of this blog-based inquiry. That way, at least some part of the work would be available in the public domain, even if in a more raw form, while Frank was still with us. I wrote Beyond this Brief Anomaly’s introductory post just as Frank was starting an initial course of chemo and radio therapy.
Frank’s influence on the inquiry to date has, fittingly, been at what I learned from him to recognise as the meta-level—the level of knowing about our knowing and doing. This is especially reflected in the thinking “tools for engagement” that I’m attempting to put into practice. The extent to which the inquiry embodies its specifically systemic intent is thanks in large part to Frank, and the opportunities he made available to me for learning together. All shortcomings are, however, attributable principally to me. In terms of the content though, the emphasis so far has reflected more the ways in which my own particular interests, concerns and understandings have emerged since we wrote Energy for the Future together. In particular, the comprehensive treatment of what energy is “all about” in the inquiry’s initial phase is based on extensions of our work that I continued alone—though there were opportunities over the years to keep Frank up to date with where this seemed to be heading. As the inquiry has unfolded, it’s turned out that so far I’ve drawn directly on our original material on only a couple of occasions. It’s with much sadness that I realised this week that the phase into which we’re now heading is where Frank’s presence, and the fruits of his and my original thinking together, will start to come more prominently into the foreground. And when the inquiry shifts gear again, from looking into the nature and origins of humanity’s present situation as inherently constructed by us—and the ways in which we know both ourselves and our world—to also considering our best avenues for response in such terms, we will be walking often in Frank’s footsteps. I’m sorry that we now won’t have the opportunity to have him with us on the journey, at least in the flesh—but I’m so very grateful that I traveled (or perhaps more appropriately, cycled) this far with him.
Earlier in the year, a small editorial committee of colleagues and former students, including Eric Bottomley, Louise Kyle, Fran Macdonald, Ian Thomas, Anthony James and Kate Auty, “formed to bring together an e-collection (of course) describing Frank Fisher’s impact on our personal and professional lives or, put another way, our thought, practice and ethics.”
The original hope had been to present the collection to Frank while he was with us. I saw this as a very fitting opportunity for those of us whose lives he influenced so much to express our gratitude to him in person, for his friendship, support and love. We will still have the opportunity to share this gratitude together, when the collection is launched in the near future. It will be hosted by The Understandascope, the centre Frank established to continue his work, now under the leadership and care of his and my friend, Anthony James. I’ll include a link here to the collection, once it is launched. [The collection is now available here for download as a pdf]
The short contribution that I offered for this initiative is presented below. This may provide some sense of how Frank’s presence will guide Beyond this Brief Anomaly‘s inquiry into responding well to our situation.
Reflections on a way of being, embodied by my friend Frank Fisher
From my friend, Frank Fisher, I have learned love.
I’ve tried to take some care in expressing this: it’s not learning about love, or about how to love that I’m pointing to here, though along the way I expect I’ve learned something of that too. I’m not trying to say something like, “prior to our friendship, I didn’t know love.” And I don’t know that Frank actually set out to teach love. It’s more along these lines:
Walking awhile with Frank,
Love is embodied.
Nothing to remark about.
Let me try to give a more concrete sense of this love via two short anecdotes.
Early in 2007, Frank was seriously ill with a hospital-acquired infection. He’d exhausted the entire antibiotic armoury, and was being treated with the option of last resort, when the microbes finally responded favourably (at least from the perspective of Frank’s health) to the pharmacological discouragement. As a result, he wasn’t able to be present in person for the first day of our Principles of Sustainability subject. Naturally though, Frank’s orienting conversation with the students proceeded—he phoned in from the hospital. We discussed the CSIRO’s Total Wellbeing Diet. He pointed out that it’s not quite what it purports to be, and some students expressed consternation with his pointing out—it was in their eyes unfair on the authors. In response, Frank pointed out the circumstances of his own present being, and the consequences of this for his understanding of total wellbeing. He offered a wider opening within which the students might see what he was seeing—without requiring that they “see his seeing” in order to know that they were seen by him.
Towards the end of 2008, Frank, in coming to rest following an unorthodox bicycle dismount, broke his neck. The morning he was discharged from the hospital, his head encaged in stainless steel scaffolding, happened to coincide with the final session for our subject ‘Energy for the Future’. The day commenced with a class visit to the Essential Services Commission. With Mairianne’s assistance—and travelling on this rare occasion by taxi—Frank, responding to the opportunity, proceeded directly from the hospital to our excursion venue in the Melbourne CBD. If my memory serves me, he was a little late…
This isn’t a matter of heroics or a suggestion of wavering faith in others’ response-ability when break-downs arise. This is simply alignment of Frank’s purpose and being, expressed through being together. There’s no question of being somewhere else, or, as many of us might find entirely fitting, shifting focus in such times to “more important priorities”. I think for Frank, there are often no priorities more important than where he is. So when the weather turns, there’s no need to be some where—or some way—else. I’ve learned through my friendship with Frank that when a way of being is motivated by and oriented towards the expression of love, then work can become effortless.
A few years ago, I discovered Marcial Losada’s translation of a poem by Humberto Maturana titled “Plegaria del Estudiante” (“Prayer of the Student”). Given Maturana’s influence on Frank’s and—through Frank—my own thinking and practice, it was perhaps natural that we found our own hopes for the expectations students might hold of us well aligned with the poem. In this context, for a number of years we offered it to students in the Graduate Certificate in Sustainability course at Swinburne University. We introduced it as a poem that captures the essence of our intent, noting that in our experience constant vigilance is needed to remain true to this intent in practice, and asked that students make allowance for our shortcomings in that regard.
So, I’d like to conclude by presenting Maturana’s “Prayer of the Student”. I think it conveys something of the love that I’ve learned through walking with Frank:
Don’t impose on me what you know.
I want to explore the unknown
And be the source of my own discoveries.
Let the known be my liberation, not my slavery.
The world of your truth can be my limitation;
Your wisdom, my negation.
Don’t instruct me; let’s learn together.
Let my richness begin where yours ends.
Show me so that I can stand
On your shoulders.
Reveal yourself so that I can be
You believe that every human being
Can love and create.
I understand, then, your fear
When I ask you to live according to your wisdom.
You will not know who I am
By listening to yourself.
Don’t instruct me; let me be.
Your failure is that I be identical to you.
 “Plegaria del Estudiante” (“Prayer of the Student”) by Humberto Maturana, translated by Marcial F. Losada. From El Sentido de lo Humano, Dolmen Deiciones, Santiago de Chile, 1994.
Losada’s translation appeared in Reflections: the SoL Journal, 1999, volume 1, no. 2, p. 66, as part of a commentary on a feature article by Humberto Maturana and Pille Brunnel titled ‘The biology of business: love expands intelligence’, pp.58-66.
Thank you very much for this Josh. It’s a beautiful tribute to our friend that has warmed my heart, particularly valuable at this time.
As you write, “I’m sorry that we now won’t have the opportunity to have him with us on the journey, at least in the flesh—but I’m so very grateful that I traveled (or perhaps more appropriately, cycled) this far with him.”
Me too. Life seems a little less without him, but so much richer because of him.
Thanks again, and all the best with your continuing contributions. I’m very glad you’re there.
Anthony and Josh, thank you for expressing so well your sentiments. I too will always be grateful for having met Frank and being exposed to his wisdom and way of teaching a greater understanding of the world around us. Indeed his legacy will live on through his many students and people that came to know him through his work. My thoughts are with his family and dear friends at this time.
I’ve just found out Frank had died. I heard Robin Williams mention it on Radio National this morning. I met Frank in October 2011 when I asked him for an interview for a book I’m writing about people being leaders in the world. Really I met him much much earlier when I heard a man speak on the radio (RN again!) many years ago about growing up as a male in an often brutal Australian society.
The program had a big impact on me, and years went by and I used to wonder about that man and who he was. One day in 2011 I was unwittingly browsing the website of one of Frank’s former students and I saw his name and something told me this was the man I had often thought of. And I got in touch with him and he kindly gave me a wonderful interview.
He shared many marvellous insights and anecdotes with me. One in particular affected me. I asked him if he’d had a personal experience of transformation. His response was instantaneous. He told me about the father of a boy he’d been studying with in Europe when he was in his late teens/early 20s. It was when Frank first realised his illness, and ill and alone on the far side of the world, this man took him into his home and cared for him. As he talked of the man, he cried.
I knew I was in the presence of a very special human being. Who he was being shone out and moved even the waiters in the cafe. They too got that here was someone very special.
Thank for your beautiful, loving tribute to him. Please accept my condolences.
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