Category Archives: Narrative Practice

Weaponising Forgiveness

“The weak can never forgive…”  – I don’t know who said this, but it’s BOLLOCKS!

“You just need to forgive and move on!” How many times have we heard this? How many times have we said it? Forgiveness: one of the most central virtues of human existence. Religion, in all its different shapes and sizes, sings its praises. Psychologists and counsellors focus on its merit. Forgiveness, an internal experience that manifests itself in thinking, feeling, and behaviour of the harmed towards the one(s) who committed the harm. Unlike reconciliation, contact with the one who harmed is not necessary.

For those who have come from a religious background, forgiveness is an expression of God’s love towards humanity. Disciples of Christ have sought to emulate this stance of forgiveness – especially forgiving those considered enemies or those who have ‘trespassed against us.’

Forgiveness has been lauded as the pathway to healing, enlightenment, peace, and self-love. Psychologists have tied it to well-being in life in that the forgiveness of wrongs committed brings meaning and ties to values. The research and writing that are available on the benefits of forgiveness trace back into ancient history. I am not here to argue with these findings or undermine the virtues of forgiveness. Rather, my aim is to raise awareness of the shame and guilt that people experience when the ‘tribe’ demands their forgiveness or shames them into forgiving.

As I reflect back over the years I spent in a religious institution, I can think of countless times we had ‘altar calls’ for those who had ‘unforgiveness’. The front was always packed with people wanting to forgive and to be forgiven for holding ‘unforgiveness’. They didn’t really have much choice, did they? Sermons on this topic were often structured and delivered with great gusto around Jesus’ words of ‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sinned against us.’ The implication was clear – unless you forgive, you won’t find forgiveness. I certainly preached along those themes … in my young, idealist, zealot days, when everything was so very black and white.

Social media memes are consistently persuasive on the subject of forgiveness. In a sense, there is a subtle message that forgiveness makes the victim the ‘bigger, better’ person and also ‘your well-being will be stunted if you don’t forgive’. ‘Unforgiveness is the poison we drink, hoping others will die’ is one of those famous, pithy quotes we share. I certainly have. All these well-intended messages of forgiveness, coming at a person from every direction, are not always helpful because the path of forgiveness is not just a simple choice. It is complex and as different as the various stories that surround it.

There are many reasons why a person may not be in a place where forgiveness is their choice or option. To cliche this possible path of forgiveness into a simple decision that is waiting to be made not only minimises a person’s story and the impact of the harm done, it also assumes that a person can forgive by willpower alone. This is not always the case. Perhaps most challenging to the dominant forgiveness narrative is the thought that the socially-acceptable idea of ‘you need to forgive’ is not what everyone wants for their life. To allow someone that choice, without judgement, is confronting when ‘to forgive’ has been idealised in the way that it has in our culture.

When we pressure survivors to forgive their perpetrators, we again punish the victim. I have heard horrendous stories of people being told they will go to hell if they don’t forgive or that they should forgive their abusive spouse because it’s what ‘God requires.’ So, let’s just get this straight: according to this reasoning an all-powerful deity did not stop a person being harmed and now requires their forgiveness of the perpetrator or they, the victim, will suffer more harm? Sounds pretty screwed up to me!

In a recent story, I learnt how a survivor’s refusal to forgive has cost them their relationship with their immediate family. The people who meant to love and care for them were so angry that the person refused to forgive a grievous violation, they took the side of the perpetrator and now have broken off all contact with the victim until they forgive. As a result, vulnerable people are ‘blackmailed’ into forgiveness in order to gain peace and stability.

When a person feels extorted or blackmailed into forgiveness it has very negative effects on their life. There is incongruence with the anger, the resentment, the hostility they feel, and the forgiveness they have been made to profess in order to make others feel more comfortable! Weaponising forgiveness will only ever do harm in the long run.

If you are reading this and feeling forced into forgiving your perpetrator by your family, or community, can I encourage you to consider your own well-being first and foremost? You do not need to forgive in order to move on! Do not be rushed into any step that you don’t feel ready to take. If you feel safe, you may want to consider letting the people that are close to you in your ‘club of life’ know that any well-intended push to forgive is not productive.

Maybe it would also be helpful to replace the word ‘forgive’ as it is problematic for many people? I like the word used by Richard Schwartz – ‘unburdening’. You can begin to unburden yourself from the effects of trauma without criticism and expectations. We can begin to learn what these negative effects are actually protecting. We can appreciate their protection and ask to interact with the story that is being told in this internal space. Richard Rohr says we can begin to dismiss the loyal soldiers that maybe have taken a very heavy-handed approach in keeping us safe. Suddenly anger, resentment, hatred, etc are no longer seen or felt as our ‘enemies’ but something that we perceive in a very different light. We begin to tell a different story from this perspective – an unburdening begins.

You are the expert of your story. It is your story to tell, your journey to negotiate, and you are not being timed.

Finally on my way to yes
I bump into
all the places
where I said no
to my life

all the untended wounds
the red and purple scars
those hieroglyphs of pain
carved into my skin, my bones,

those coded messages
that send me down
the wrong street
again and again
where I find them
the old wounds
the old misdirections

and I lift them
one by one
close to my heart
and I say
holy
holy.
– Pesha Gertler (The Healing Times)

Grief Needs No Justification

“Today, in our “shut up, get over it, and move on” mentality, our society misses so much, it’s no wonder we are a generation that longs to tell our stories.” – Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, On Grief and Grieving –

 

 

It was a Sunday morning in 1997. The 31st of August, to be exact. I was attempting the impossible: clothe three rocket-charged children for church. The TV was blaring in the background when the reporter’s words sunk into my tired brain – “Princess Diana, her boyfriend Dodi Fayed, and the driver, Henri Paul, had all passed away following a horrific car accident in a road tunnel in Paris.” I sat staring at the TV, stunned … then the tears started.

I cried for days. Every day I felt stupid for my inexplicable sorrow for a person I did not know personally. I wept through her funeral, as her boys walked behind their mother’s coffin, heads bowed, their grief visible to the world.

Everyone had an opinion, not just about her death, but about the mass outpouring of grief. Here in Australia, two radio hosts suggested that the grief was ridiculous as none of us knew Diana. Our grief caused confusion. Why did her death affect us all so much?

Since Diana’s death, many celebrities and icons have left us. Most recently, we awoke to the devastating news of nine people who died in a helicopter crash. The victims included basketball legend, Kobe Bryant, and his daughter, Gianna. Yet again the tears were flowing … and yet again I heard the frustration as people tried to explain or justify their grief.

There are many, many reasons we grieve. Grief, in and of itself, is a huge burden – a guest that arrives unannounced and, often, unexpectedly. Grief barges in and takes over the dinner party we are hosting in life and it cannot be ushered away. When we attempt to justify or belittle our grief, it becomes all the more burdensome and belligerent.

I look at life as a narrative tapestry and that tapestry will have grief intertwined in so much of the picture it weaves. Grief is a ‘normal’ part of existence. There is no need to always explain its presence (unless, of course, we are particularly interested in studying our grief to understand our story a bit better). We owe no one an explanation for the tears that may fall for whatever reason.

Grief is best handled with care and tenderness. As you open the door to its loud, incessant knocking, invite it in, sit with it, offer it a cup of tea, listen to the story it wants to tell you. What is your grief telling you about what you value in life? Slowly we can learn to listen to grief, instead of those who find our grief awkward and personally challenging, and therefore attempt to silence it (and, yes, many of those endeavours are well intended … but good intentions are not necessarily ‘good’!) Sometimes it is helpful to ask, “What is it about the grief you observe in my life that challenges you so much that you feel a need to silence (mock?) it?” … It is surprising how that shifts the focus of the conversation.

Then there is the whole notion that we should not grieve those we do not know personally. What a predicament! So here is a thought, icons like Diana or Kobe or Robin Williams or Prince, etc, etc, may represent a dream or a hope that was written into our life story. There was something about their story that resonated with ours. For example, for many young people, growing up in less-than-ideal circumstances, there is a memory of joy and stability that came with the gathering of the neighbourhood clan every afternoon to play basketball. Young players would plant their feet, jump and shoot yelling, “Kobe!” They were mimicking and honouring someone whose life inspired theirs. So, in a sense, Kobe became the neighbour, the family member, the brother, the source of inspiration in a bleak world, that they loved and looked up to. The loss of Kobe feels like the loss of a loved one because for many that’s exactly what he is – a loved one.

The death of celebrities is also a reminder of our own mortality and our attempt to come to grips with life’s impermanence. Freud said that the ego cannot imagine its own dissolution. Our heroes, in our eyes, are often ‘immortal’, so their death is all the more confronting as we face our fears of loss.

Ultimately, grief is all about being human. We live connected lives. We have the capacity to empathise with other people’s suffering. Grief is a dominant colour painted all through the human history mural. So next time you feel burdened by the need to explain or justify your grief, ask yourself ‘Why’? If it simply a response to shame and embarrassment, perhaps it’s time to dismiss those demands? The presence of grief needs no justification. Humans are shaped in a way that leads us to seasons of mourning and lament when we encounter loss. So let the tears flow freely, dear friend, and listen to grief’s stories, for this too, is part of life.

“So it’s true, when all is said and done, grief is the price we pay for love.” – E.A. Bucchianeri –

‘Just Be Yourself’: It’s Bloody Annoying!

“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man …”
-Polonius to Laertes (Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3)

 

‘Just be yourself’ – One of the most confusing things we tell ourselves and each other! In my youth, I cheered this idea from Western individual capitalism – an idea for the privileged. I thought is was an admirable and simple way to exist as a human. As I grow older, I find it not just a complex and confusing ideal, but cruel and dangerous.

You, like me, may have been part of some sort of tribe of belonging that had a habit of telling us to ‘just be yourself’ … However, if you observe closely, it is mainly when we stand up or resist or speak out about something they agree with – a form of praise. When our words and actions fail these tribal ideological constructs, the sentiment of ‘Just be yourself’ quickly dissipates. It is often replaced with hostility and comments like, ‘You have changed’ or ‘That doesn’t sound like you’. ‘Just be yourself’, I have found, can be another phrase that compliments conformity.

I also stand guilty as charged of throwing this phrase around carelessly. How many times have I said this to an individual who was questioning and processing their sense of self with me? In the past, I gave little thought of the price that this person may pay if they followed my sloppy advice. Advice given to them from a position of my own blind privilege. I shudder as I think back to my youthful arrogance, using my power and platform to propagate this lofty and confusing ideal. It is only in recent years that I have become acutely aware of how ‘just be yourself’ can not only be dangerous, but devastating for individuals whose sense of self or identity has been rejected and shunned by their family or community.

If you live as part of a dominant Western capitalistic culture, this notion has probably dogged you since you can remember. Like oxygen, the idea is inescapable – ‘just be yourself’. And like a blind herd we attempt to heed its call – going down every path of existential angst and despair. We literally exhaust ourselves trying to be ourselves! The problem with ‘just be yourself’ is that in order to BE yourself, you have to KNOW yourself … and to know yourself is a lifelong quest. Our concept of self is the sum of the stories of what other people, as well as our culture and history, have told us we are. It takes a lot of life, a lot of questions, a lot of listening, and a good dose of humility, and vulnerability, to begin to question these stories. Perhaps one of the first questions to ask is, “Am I ok with the advice – ‘Just be yourself’?”

I can no longer heed this notion. It is not advice I will be giving. My questions have changed. To assist me in telling the stories of who I am, I now have one very important question to ask: ‘What do I value?’ I have found this so incredibly helpful. Let me give you an example:

I value kindness. So does that mean that by ‘just being myself’ I am kind? Not at all! I have many moments of incongruence when what I value and how I behave or the things that come out of my mouth do not match. This shows me that kindness is not inherent. Rather, it is something I become skilled in harnessing. When we externalise both good and bad traits, we create hope! Just as I can become skilled at harnessing kindness, I can learn to discard for example, shame, or whatever trait negatively impacts my life.

When our mantra changes from ‘Just be Yourself’ to ‘What do I value?’, we begin to construct our life and stories in ways that align themselves to our hopes and dreams. Kindness as a value very quickly highlights any discrepancy of how I live my life. The value of kindness begins to weave itself into my life stories. I begin to narrate my stories and my actions from this value. Richard Rohr says that we do not think (or believe) ourselves into a new way of living (our preferred stories). We live ourselves into a new way of thinking. Values become like a compass – giving us direction and insight.

So next time you are glibly thrown the line, ‘Just be Yourself’, stop. Pause. Ask, “When you say that, what do you mean?” Most of the time, we don’t really know what we mean. Perhaps that person has seen a value from which you live your life that resonates with them. Discovering and discussing this can move us beyond annoying cliches to meaningful conversations and insights.

For you, dear reader, may you take time to consider what in life you really value. May these values be a light for your path and central to the stories you tell yourself about who you are.

“Narratives are the primary way in which we make sense of our lives, as opposed to, for example schema, cognition, beliefs, constructs. Definition of narrative include the important element of giving meaning to events and experiences over time by connecting them as a developing, continuing story.”

 – Jacqui Stedmon – 

What is your Christmas Story?

To perceive Christmas through its wrappings becomes more difficult with every year.
– E.B. White –

Christmas! It’s here again. I am quite convinced that 365 days a year speed up the older you get, and here we are in another Jingle Bell Season.

I wonder what Christmas means to you? Amidst all the festive fuss that this time brings, what is the Christmas story that is read at your table of life? For many people, this is a season of festive joy and hope. Happy memories arrive at the door alongside family members and friends to celebrate and remember the birth of the Christ child.

There are others who have a friendly relationship with Christmas, even though they may be of a different faith or none at all. For many, it is a story of connectedness and togetherness, of eccentric family members and ancestral storytelling – if Christmas was an emoji, for many people it would be a happy one. But that is not everyone’s story…

The Christmas story for other people is not as joyful. Christmas, for some, is a trauma stalker, an uninvited guest that rushes in to remind them of loss, violence, grief, betrayal, or loneliness. Maybe that is your Christmas story? At your table of life, Christmas is not decked with holly but shrouded in black. You stare at it and tell yourself that this is not a ’normal’ Christmas story, and in a way that makes you feel even sadder.

I find it helpful to reflect on the ‘original’ Christmas story. A story that holds a context of political uncertainty and dominance; a tyrant empire that places burdens on people that many cannot carry. It is the story of a poor couple that birth a child in squalor conditions, a story of terror and having to flee for their lives… refugees… displaced… outcasts. The original Christmas story was a far cry from Melbourne’s Myer windows.

In a strange way, this story brings me comfort. What is a ‘normal’ Christmas anyway? What does it mean to ‘celebrate’ Christmas? So much of what we say and do is a social construct of behaviour and expectations that are then branded as ‘normal’. And all those who don’t fit that caricature are reminded in a thousand different ways how they don’t ‘fit’.

So, dear reader, if you celebrate Christmas with gusto – Enjoy! Merry Christmas!

I especially want to acknowledge all those who are reading this who don’t have a ’normal’ modern Christmas story. Your place and space and story are as valid as anyone else’s. ‘Normal’ can be a bully … and sometimes our Christmas story is a sad emoji.

The stories of our life are multi-tiered. Like a rich tapestry, there are shades of light and dark. Remember, you are not the sum of your Christmas story – your life has many, many stories: Stories of resistance, of skills, hopes, and dreams for the future. Christmas will come and go. Right now it may dominate the world you live in, but it is not the world.  So as you acknowledge your Christmas story, also acknowledge the many other stories around your table of life … for they are a fascinating company.

“As we become aware of ourselves as storytellers we realise we can use our stories to heal and make ourselves whole.”  (Susan Wittig Albert)

Life Atlas Therapy and the Reclaiming of Precious Memories (Part 2)

“There are, of course, many forms of memory, some of which are constructive, some of which are destructive and some of which are redemptive.”
-Fr. Michael Lapsley (The Healing of Memories: An Interview)

Dear Reader – if you have not already done so, please read Part 1 of this BLOG post in order to understand the context for Part 2.

Life Atlas Therapy is a method that was developed in collaboration with a team of people who were prepared to explore with me how this approach re-engages a person with their life stories in a ‘way that makes us stronger’ (Aunty Barb Wingard, Kaurna Elder). I am indebted to their generosity in sharing so many of their life stories. There were many ‘Aha’ moments along the way. One of them was the discovery and reclaiming of precious memories.

Over 90% of these collaborating cartographers of Life Atlas participants began to have memories that they had totally forgotten. Comments included:

“I had totally forgotten that.”
“I just need to sit here for a moment, it feels like waves of recollection are coming to me.”
“Working on this timeline … I think my subconscious thought it’s time to ‘burp’ this memory up.”
“This dream brought back so many forgotten moments … they are filling the gaps.”
“This memory came back – I suddenly don’t feel so ‘lost’ anymore.”

The memories and/or dreams surfaced shortly after a Life Atlas therapy session. Trauma has many diverse effects on an individual’s (or community’s) life. It can become the dominant narrative that, like a schoolyard bully, shoves the many multi-tiered, mosaic stories of someone’s life into the corner and demands silence. Trauma is also a thief. It steals the key to the filing cabinet of meaningful memories, leaving a person feeling ‘lost’ or ‘confused’.

As Fr. Michael Lapsley points out (above quote), there are many forms of memory. Whereas precious memories that align with our preferred narrative are often ‘hijacked’ by trauma, traumatic memories can often become ‘timeless’ memories. “These memories are apart from the storylines of people’s lives which are constituted of experiences linked in sequence across time according to specific themes. Being located on the outside of the dimension of time, these traumatic memories have no beginning and no end … These traumatic memories are re-lived as present experience and the outcome is re-traumatisation.” (David Denborough, Trauma: Narrative response to traumatic experience, 2006, p. 78). In Reclaiming Heimat, Jacqueline Vansant focuses on nine memoirs by seven Austrian reéimigrés. She observes how traumatic memories seem to have ‘a life of their own, dictating themselves’ (2001, p.70). This escalates the power of trauma memories.

Life Atlas Therapy can assist an individual (or community) to reclaim the key to the filing cabinet that holds the memories that speak to their preferred sense of self and identity. One client had a specific memory that showed her she was not a ‘shadow child’, but that she was happy and skilled at resisting the trauma that visited her childhood home. Another client was extremely surprised at the positive memories that began to emerge of her brother and their childhood relationship. The trauma that visited the family after a horrific accident and that negatively affected her relationship with her brother had her convinced that it had ‘always been like that’. The precious memories that returned to her of ‘funny, silly’ childhood moments dramatically changed her perspective and the story about her brother (and herself).

The research and discussion surrounding memory and how they shape our sense of self is extensive. This short post is simply to have the reader consider that Life Atlas can be useful in reclaiming precious memories that the individual (or community) gives shape to and invests with meaning as the expert story-teller of their own lives. These precious memories serve as a witness to the person’s preferred story, their skills of resisting trauma and connect them to the hopes and dreams they hold for the future.

“The past beats inside me like a second heart.”
-John Banville –

Nicole Conner is a qualified Narrative Therapist working in Elsternwick, Victoria. Nicole’s work is built on the premise that the stories we hold to shape who we are, what we do, how we think and how we feel. In other words, our stories give meaning to our lived experience. For more information visit the Defining Stories webpage.