Healing the world vs. relishing the world, Maggie Carey wrote on a large newsprint pad on an easel between us. That’s I how I named the problem I wanted to address when Maggie asked me last week. I was sitting in a chair across from her, the Vermont countryside on view through windows on four sides, and 34 other workshop participants looking on, taking notes. Maggie was leading a master class on “Finding your way in a narrative conversation”, part of the series Refreshing the Spirit of the Work, sponsored by Peggy Sax and Re-Authoring Teaching and I had the lucky privilege of being interviewed.
I think of Maggie as one of the preeminent narrative therapists in the world, someone who had met Michael White as his gardener then studied with him for over twenty years as she mastered the medium and made it her own, ultimately joining him in creating Narrative Practices Adelaide. No nonsense, playful, rigorous, curious, unapologetic, warm, caring, compassionate, Maggie had built her own house with her husband in the outback around Adelaide and had been doing social justice work with Aboriginal people and with women for decades.
At the workshop, Maggie interviewed me in a stop-start interview, in which she paused and asked the participants to think of what they would want to ask if they were the therapist, and invited a few of them to share their questions. So as the interviewee, I had the benefit of hearing all kinds of questions.
Here is what I learned about doing narrative therapy: The problem is not always the problem. I said that I had been feeling that things were out of whack (she wrote out of whack on the paper) in terms of healing the world versus relishing the world, and when Maggie asked about moments in which I felt in balance, I named a personal retreat I had taken during the previous month as an example of giving relishing a full measure of attention. She put a star on the landscape of action timeline, and asked me a bit about the retreat, then paused and asked the audience for questions.
I realized in considering their questions that I actually had lots of examples of relishing, and anyway healing was also deeply satisfying most of the time, and in fact I had a rich history of both relishing and healing with accompanying rich narratives, such as this workshop itself, and of all the questions, I wanted to look more at the problem, at what was “out of whack.” Maggie taught us a deft way to name a problem in an externalized way in the words of and near to the experience of the person with the problem without belaboring the naming process, and that was by simply adding the word “thing” to the end of the word or phrase they were using to talk about the issue. So we lingered a little more to understand the “out of whack thing.” In pondering her questions, I realized that the out of whack thing brought on a drained and exhausted feeling, but not so much because I was either healing too much or relishing too little but because there was an accompanying voice that said, “You’re not doing it right.” It was that voice that was the real problem; it was what was draining and not the balance of healing or relishing at all. So Maggie paused again to ask for more questions, while I sat and listened. And my thoughts got to follow each question, and it was easy to tell which were most interesting to me.
The questions “What is the it?” and “What does SuEllen mean by right?” were easy to answer, too easy. The question I really wanted to explore was, “What is the intention of that voice for SuEllen’s life?” And so with Maggie’s help I did. I realized that the intention of the voice was to help me live according to my most cherished values, and that I was happy, more than happy to try to do so—and I also realized that even if one were wildly successful at doing it right, of course our lives have 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows (Maggie wrote this out, including the “of course”) and that the problem, the thing that was draining and made me feel out of whack was not having some of that inevitable sorrow nor even in asking Am I living my life according to my most cherished intentions?, but rather in the fact that the voice that was asking was doing so with unneeded harshness.
And another round of questions, in which I did not choose to explore why the harshness nor to find counter-examples to harshness but rather to consider what color the harsh voice was (red) and what shape it was (foggy and blobby) and what stood in contrast to the voice (kindness, golden sun on blue water) and that I could in fact invite the harsh voice to take a long lovingkindness meditation retreat, a three month silent retreat, and that I could with great kindness continue to consider the question, gently, what is most precious to me? How might I best heal and relish the world?
This post was corrected on July 1, 2014 to remove reference to a conversation that Michael White spoke of that had increased his awareness of discourses of heteronormatively that I had mistakenly attributed to Maggie. Like me, Maggie recalls Michael’s telling of the story of how a participant had raised her hand and said she couldn’t hear him once during a presentation on couple’s therapy, and he asked if he needed to adjust his mike, and she said, no, what I mean is, I can’t hear you, because you say couples but you are referring only to heterosexual couples. I could hear you better if when you meant heterosexual couples you said heterosexual couples and when you said couples you meant all kinds of couples. For over ten years I had thought that story referred to Maggie, and getting to know her better made it seem all the more like her, to speak up against dominant discourses and to make diversity more visible! In correcting my misattribution, Maggie wrote, “I do remember well his talking about this event (and it has always stuck with me in a really strong and helpful way), but I believe it was a gay woman who made the comment to Michael in a workshop. So it may have got confused in the telling and re-telling along the way, but it was not me.”