Tag Archives: narrative

When Global Crisis Comes Knocking at our Door …

… you can say “it’s a hoax” and “it will go away”, but like world leaders have found out, this was not the case for COVID-19. A crisis does not go away because some demagogue wishes it so. A crisis like a pandemic knocks at the door, then bashes it in and unleashes hell.

COVID-19 has crept in like an invisible terrorist that has taken the world hostage. Randomly, it chooses victims, and with heinous cruelty, it focuses on those already weak and vulnerable. The rest of us are required to co-operate. One wrong move might mean the death of another. Suddenly, words like ‘independent’ and ‘individual’ are exposed for the fraud they are. Our individuality means little if we cannot collaborate with or recognise the importance of ‘all’. Solidarity is what COVID-19 fears the most.

Solidarity can only truly emerge when we deconstruct the barriers that have been set up through toxic narratives. Toxic stories that, sadly, have been propagated through the clever messaging of some politics or the fear-mongering of some religions. Toxic narratives that divide humans into those who matter and those who don’t. Toxic narratives that create a Messiah-complex for the powerful, and diminish those seen as ‘weak’. Toxic narratives that divide us by race, nationality, gender, age, ethnicity, religion … Toxic narratives that do their very best to blind us from one of our great skills of resistance: Love.

When crisis comes knocking we have a choice to make – selfishness or love? A hard choice when we have been conditioned to listen to an alluring and embedded cultural story. A story that attempts to convince us that the pursuit of our own needs and wants is the most important activity if we want to survive. Crisis builds its devastation on that idea. COVID-19 is reliant on selfishness for its survival.

So when Global Crisis comes knocking at our door we have some decisions to make. Each of us decides what meal we serve this viral terrorist. Its favourite meal of human selfishness and greed? Or a lethal dose of sacrificial love?

Love that washes its hands often, so as not to spread the disease to another.
Love that buys just what it needs, and maybe just a little more to give to a neighbour in need.
Love that stays home instead of indulging itself at some packed venue.

Love that goes to great length in order to stand between this terrorist and the vulnerable and says, ‘Not on my watch’.

Love that picks up the phone and checks in on family and neighbours.
Love that gathers the table of life participants with tenderness. It speaks to Fear, Grief, and Anxiety, not with irritation and anger, but gentleness and kindness, recognising their role in protecting our lives.
Love that speaks to all of us in times like this from a sacred text written long ago … that there is nothing greater than love (including a terrorist virus) … that nothing separates us from love (including a terrorist virus) … and that in the end, all things may fail but that both in death and in life, love endures …

Selfishness in these times may bring us momentary comfort until we realise how we have enabled a pandemic and contributed to another person’s heartache. Love, on the other hand, calls us to choose the narrow path, the difficult path, of loving our neighbour as ourselves.

So what do we do when a Global Crisis bashes in our door and interrupts our peaceful lives? We respond by unleashing a virus of our own – a virus of love, kindness, compassion, respect, and consideration. The rest is History … because Love Always Wins.

 

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)

‘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.

Disturbing the Ant Nest: Let’s Talk About Expectations!

“Expectations were like fine pottery. The harder you held them, the more likely they were to crack.”
Brandon Sanderson – The Way of Kings

When I was a child, my parents and I would take walks in the forests that grew rich and lush around the little village we called home in Northern Germany. Ants were amongst the many forest dwellers that set up house along the paths we trod. Their elaborate architectural mounds were taller than I and a never-ending source of fascination. As a small child, I confess to ignoring ant etiquette and poking a stick into the anthill here and there. Thousands of alarmed and indignant ants would come swarming out to inspect the damage. The mound literally came alive.

Our life is one big story that has been shaped by history and culture. Like the ant nests in my childhood forest, we have built our own extravagant narrative by which we live our lives. Expectations play a major role in our constructed memoir. When those expectations are poked and prodded … well, the ants they come swarming!

Expectations assume things from the life we live. They inform us that something will happen or be the case and therefore they determine our reality. We are all Pavlov’s dog salivating at the sound of an invisible bell. It’s called the Rule of Expectation. The expectations we carry of ourselves and others affect our behaviour. The mere suggestion of an expectation influences people. This has been used and abused by everyone from politicians, religious leaders, parents, supervisors and all of us! There is a myriad of books and presentations on how to work (manipulate) people’s expectations through the power of suggestion. I am not saying they are all bad. What I am highlighting is that we need to be aware of how expectations influence our lives.

The expectations we have of life and each other affects our being in this world – our joy and sense of peace. If I hold expectations that life should be fair and just, that everyone should like me, that friends will always be true, that I will not fail and that I will not face pain and suffering, then I will be one giant ball of disappointment. There is a desperate need to critique our expectations and perhaps it is time for a giant spring clean?

I am on a continual mission to live with less. Over the last couple of years, I have given boxes of ‘stuff’ away. I cannot begin to describe the therapeutic effect this has on the soul. I have been challenged to also minimalise my expectations. Learning to do that is learning to let go. In order to accommodate an ‘expectation declutter’ I had to first recognise and deconstruct a whole lot of assumptions I had of myself and others. I invited disappointment to the table.

Disappointment is not an easy guest to listen to. It is the stick we use to prod the ant hill. However, if we refuse to allow it to speak, pretending it’s not present, we will never discover what a gift of liberation it holds. Disappointment pointed out the many boxes of expectations that had grown mould in my life. Expectations of doing things right, of people being ’nice’ and liking me, and of being in control of my life. There were many boxes. It made me realise I did not want to live like this. Disappointment can lead us to wisdom.

Wisdom tells us that hoarding boxes of expectations will only bring misery. Wisdom orders the rubbish skip and gently prises our fingers off the expectations we are clutching to. But it doesn’t leave us empty-handed. Instead of hundreds of boxes of exhausting expectations, it gives us a perfume bottle that says “Gratitude”.

Learning to spray Gratitude instead of placing yet another box of unrealised expectations on some shelf, takes time and reflection. We learn to live our way to a whole new manner of being in this world. Of course, there are expectations that we should not let go of – an expectation to be safe in our environment, an expectation not to linger in toxic places and spaces, an expectation of self to be kind and tread gently in the world we live in. These kinds of expectations are helpers and guardians in our lives. But you may discover that so many of the expectations you have in your story are unnecessary and only wear you down.

A wise man once said that we should go to the ants and consider their ways. I invite you to do that. I also invite you to consider the role Expectation plays in your life. Are you happy with the power it holds? Does it add to your life or take away? Consider the voices of disappointment, wisdom and gratitude. I wish you the blessing of living a ‘light’ life, dear friend. Decluttering is good for the soul.

Live your life, sing your song. Not full of expectations. Not for the ovations. But for the joy of it.”
Rasheed Ogunlaru