Becoming the Witness

 

I’m an avid reader of Twitter for its political and epidemiological news, which often appear prior to (and prove more informative than) what can be made available under the rubric of conventional media. I continue to be struck by a story that Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nadja Drost shared on Twitter — moving in part because of what it says about the power of witnessing another’s struggle.

A Bangladeshi man named Ripon appeared at Drost’s front stoop in New York City. While she did not recognize him, he clearly recognized her and called her by her first name. Now delivering food by bike in New York, Ripon had made the arduous journey across the Darién Gap, regarded as one of the most hazardous possible journeys in the world for migrants.

The Darién Gap stretches from Colombia to Panama, connecting South America to Central America. Migrants from Asia, Africa and other parts of the world cross the 66-mile jungle and subject themselves to robbery, starvation, and death in order to flee conditions in their home countries. Drost’s Pulitzer Prize was for a feature she had written about Cameroonian and Pakistani refugees and migrants whose best choice was to brave it in their quest to reach America.

Ripon, a political refugee who had received death threats in Bangladesh, had recognized Drost on the basis of a PBS series that followed up on the initial story. Here, she embedded with a group of migrants crossing the Darién, undergoing the same immediate conditions they did. The work she and her videographer, Bruno Federico, did allowed Ripon to convey to his relatives back home what he had undergone in the jungle, including having been robbed of everything by bandits and seeing the skeletons of prior migrants who did not make it.

Here are Drost and Federico on her stoop with Ripon pointing to his photo in the original story. (It’s the same photo, shown closer up, at the top of this email.)

What If?

As far as I know, Drost’s story produced neither asylum nor work for Ripon. It simply gave witness to what he underwent. 

Having someone take in your experience, really take it in, is a gift. 

So here’s an invitation to a perception experiment: What if this day your job was to bear witness to another’s experience, no matter what it may be? What array of consciousnesses are offering themselves to your witness over the course of this day?  

 

“ They all loved the experience, and commented after how they feel more connected with each other and how they understand each other a lot more.

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There is Nothing so Wise as a Circle

There is nothing so wise as a circle.

What is the power of sitting in a circle, of breaking our very Western demand that one person be the focus of all the others?

From insisting that all the kids face the teacher, kindergarten classrooms have Circle Time, when community is emphasized and any issues that affect the group can be brought up.

From our face-front world, retreat center events conduct their events frequently in circles, and people jet or speed home, feeling they’ve communed with kindred spirits.

From the antagonistic, one against one (or many against many) world of street crime, young people may avoid incarceration in part by entering restorative justice circles, where they learn the power of speaking and being heard.

Even much leadership training breaks executives’ reticence down by placing them, too, in a circle formation. Despite their white-hot grip on their cell phones (which they may think invisible in a speaker-forward, kid-at-the-back-of-the-class formation) they must bare their hearts to the group … not through anything they say, but through their very positions, literally exposing the heart area to the whole group at once.

There is nowhere to hide in a circle.

There is also no way to dominate.

The circle demands that you show up, remembering that, as the saying goes, “You are not better than anyone, and no one is better than you.” The circle demands both radical courage and radical humility, the enactment of the noble belief that the singular human being is simultaneously everything and nothing.

In THE HUMAN JOURNEY®, whether our participants are facing the computer to participate with family or support group members from afar, or they are at bedside around a patient, in a traditional support-group circle, or around a dining or coffee table, the trained THJ® Conductor ensures their even participation, softening and equalizing the inevitable power plays, accreted baggage, and habitual ways of relating. With their skill (and yours with just eight hours of small group training), the power of the circle can bring its wisdom as they chart the future they want to have together.

In another post, we’ll share how the eternal form of the labyrinth — a very special kind of circle — found its way into THE HUMAN JOURNEY® … and how participants get themselves into … and out of it.

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What’s with The Hero’s Journey?

You may, as I have, noticed lately lots and lots of people connecting what they do with the “Hero’s Journey,” that famous archetypal story structure made famous by Joseph Campbell. In the past week alone, I’ve seen people hooking the Hero’s Journey up with everything from leadership training to how to network to strategies for getting through the pandemic. 

The Hero’s Journey has become the foundation of Hollywood films.

But that’s only because it already replicates what’s been happening in the human experience — way before films were a twinkle in anyone’s eye.
 
The Hero’s Journey gives a name to an eternal structure for how our folk stories become satisfying to listen to as well as to live.
 
But today let’s get small.

Why is that word used so da– much?

There’s the the grief journey, the customer journey, the band named Journey, the Journey shoe brand, the Dodge Journey, the mental health journey, the parenting journey, even the Girl Scouts Journey.

The word is plum everywhere. And why?

Here’s my stab at it: It’s one of our root metaphors for what it is to “go” through life. To experience something in time. To be in one “place” at one point and at a different “place” at another.
 
The image of the journey gives spatial reference points to the fact that we feel we’re different after something momentous has happened or after we’ve “gone” through a key process or after our consciousness has “shifted” in some way.
 
“I’m in a different place now.”
“He’s in a better place.” (whether mentally or when some people respond to news of someone’s death)
 
Calling something a journey is a way of giving placefulness to time-based events that seem linked.
It’s a way of making real.
 
When I use the word “journey,” I’m always reminded of high-school French, where I learned we inherited the word in English from “journée,” that distance one could travel in a day’s time.
 
That linking of time and space. A way to see and regard the invisible that one feels. A way to make the living one does a thing.
 
Pretty good for one word.

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Don’t Speak!

Hearken back to the 1994 Woody Allen film Bullets Over Broadway, set in the glamorous world of 1920s films (cigarette holder and all).

Late-career leading lady Helen (played by Dianne Wiest, who won an Oscar for this role) seduces the main character, a young playwright played by John Cusack.
 
Yet every time he tries to declare himself to her, Helen puts a halting finger to his lips and low-vibrates out the words, “Don’t … speak!” Here’s the scene. (Now, come back after, y’hear? There’s a reason I’m bringing it up.)
 
Helen’s proscription suggests words could only break the spell of the moment, even as needful as Cusack’s character, David, is of speaking.

Certain special words—“performative utterances”—actually have the power to accomplish something. If you’re in the right place, at the right time, with the right people, with the right intention, you can swear an oath. Or christen a ship. Or arrest someone.

 

 

Not speaking can be more powerful yet.

Think of the fierce gaze between expectant mother and father in the delivery room when the birth pangs are at their sharpest.
 
Or the glance of recognition across the aisle when you see the only other convulsed person movie theater who got the joke.
 
Or the silent holding of gaze and hands in the last moments of life.
 
It’s because not speaking is such a profound form of communicating and of knowing someone that in THE HUMAN JOURNEY® Conductor training, we teach you how to take support groups and families facing life challenges beyond words. Into the most powerful and memorable experiences of connection, support, and belonging.
 
We’d love for you to join us and make THE HUMAN JOURNEY® a regular tool you can offer those in your care. It’s not for every single group you work with. It’s for those families who don’t know what to say or how to start. For those for whom meaningful communication comes in many forms. For those who don’t yet know that they’re a family.
 
Join the growing group of THJ Authorized Conductors. We’ll be proud of the work you do.

Your Breath is a Testimony

“Your breath is a testimony,” tweeted Joél Leon, a Brooklyn-based poet a few days ago.
 
It’s one of those lines that hits, and hits deep. Especially when a lot is happening.
 
Just by living, by having a beating heart and a lifting breath, we are sacred witness at the same time to what goes on around us and to what happens within.
 
Our breath calls us to pay attention, to experience our aliveness. To not tune out because it’s too overwhelming or too painful or too confusing.

So what can we do, those of us who want to help others attend to their breath, to attend to the realities of their lives, if we hope to make paying attention more rewarding than tuning out?
 
For one, we can help them drop down and experience, rather than merely parrot, what is so much more than a truism — that what we tell ourselves about what is happening is an entirely different thing from what is actually happening.

  • What our five-year-old says happened between him and the other kids today at school may be the way he sees it, but we know it’s not what took place.
  • The causes of the life-threatening conditions so many have been facing in Texas may not be, right now, what they appear to be or than we can facilely say they are.
  • The automobile accident that takes two lives and causes untold pain to friends and family — likely for generations – feels “tragic.” Yet our calling it so may actually get in the way of our acting to improve the conditions that may have contributed to the accident. The very “story” may get in the way.

As we breathe, we offer witness to our being in time and we acknowledge our footing on a planet that also exists in time. We get clear of obfuscating tales about what is happening and move more directly into what is happening. We make contact with reality as fully as we can.
 
In THE HUMAN JOURNEY® Experience, our trained THJ Conductors help family members move into, and then beyond, their “stories” to hold them just a little more lightly. You can watch their beings lighten as this starts to happen—and you can see them free up to be more present to the others in their families. They move from isolation and private pain to a shared exhale, and the crisis they face becomes something they can handle – together. Join us to learn to conduct THJ®You’ll help families dealing with end of life, addiction, health or care transition, isolation, alienation, or crises of meaning.

Turning Listening on its Ear

With THE HUMAN JOURNEY® Experience, we try to make listening easier.

To things that one family member saw one way, and another … well, another way. To beliefs and values that are different … but worthy of respect. To unspeakables.

Our process teaches that kinda through the back door. And, indeed, we were inspired to work on this as a design problem largely because of having been in “the “good listener” (which can sometimes be code for “frustrated listener”) position … for years.
 
But, short of learning to conduct the THJ® process for others, there’s a lot you can do, one on one, in your own life, especially as you’re listening in challenging circumstances.
 
You know when you’re stuck. They’re telling a story they’ve told before, a thousand times. It’s painful, and they’ve got how they tell it down. Now you’re the one who’s listening to it. It’s like the story got stuck in Times Roman, with an occasional drop shadow.
 
The thing is, they’re stuck, too. Most of us haven’t realized there’s more than one font to set a story in — more than one genre in which that story can fit. We’ve only learned to tell it one way.
 
And then the gifts in that story get clogged up in there, too.
 
You can help them shift the story, bring in Optima or Constantia or Futura. Or at least get them started with Century Schoolbook.

You’d do it gently, with the same simple strategy we share when teaching “story-catching” (a fancy name for interviewing). You ask a question.

One that asks them to re-see the world as it was at that moment, not as they see it now. You find a place to ask to take a pause so you can reflect on what they’ve said, and then you offer a question—something that you sincerely, and out of love, want to know — and you may break them out of crusty narrator mode, and re-settle them in a fresh view.

  • “Can I ask you to give me a second? I want to just sit with what you’ve just shared.” You wait and you genuinely dig down for the question that’s about what it was like for them at the time of the original story. Ideally (but it takes practice), the question will invite not a yes or no answer, but one that evokes the sights, smells, and perceptions of that time.

 

  • “Do you think he was aware that you were in the room, singing to him?” (Not bad — it’s yes/no, and it asks about someone else, not the storyteller, but it’s going to lead to a descriptive answer anyway about what his face looked like, what the signs were, how they were positioned in the room, and other things you can follow up on.)
  • “What do you think you were successful in communicating to her?” (Depending on the context, could be good — it asks for a descriptive answer, and also draws the person toward an owning of their inner life at the key moment.)
  • “For you, what’s the most memorable word or sound or thing you saw that seems to encapsulate the whole thing, or that’s strongest for you?” (Again, depending on the context, could be good: it drops the person down into the world of the original story and moves a bit beyond extraneous language to the power of the moment.)

The sincere desire to make listening an act of gently offering a re-formatting of a story — as long as it is presented as a desire to understand, not to judge, control, or change — can unlock what’s in there, once it’s freed from genre. Or font.

That’s one way to make of listening a gift.

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We can hold each other’s stories more tightly—and our own, less

We get caught up in the stories of who we think we are, what we’ve achieved (or not), and what qualities we think we possess.
During my grad-school years in New York City, I enjoyed overhearing over lunch what would become familiar patterns of one-on-one lunch conversations all
around me.

“Look, I’m not the kind of person who is quick to
anger, but …” began one woman as she launched, post-pastrami, into a tale of how her daughter’s religious-school director had provoked her beyond recognition.

“Who does that?” eked out another through gritted teeth, throwing her hands up in the air and into the arms of a scurrying waitperson, defining herself by the kind of
behavior she would never, but never, perform herself. Her companion rolled his eyes as the two of them in ready coordination scooted their curry dishes around
each other on the table to help the other sample them.

In both of these cases, the speaker conveyed a sense
that, in order to construct a self, she or he has to position before a friend a fairly rigid version of themselves, like the sculptural costumes of the modern dance company Pilobolus, a kind of personality into which to step and stand,
get sewn in, and only then be recognized.

Our work, in becoming more human and more mature, is to hold our own stories—including such stories of our “selves”—more lightly, allowing for more flexibility in our responsiveness. Our stories and experiences still exist but, paradoxically, we both have and transcend them in
order to become less bound to a single concept of who we are.

Spiritual teachers such as Byron Katie (and many
others) advocate questioning the truth of the stories we tell ourselves. Katie even instructs students of her method to turn a story into its opposite and to gauge its truth, which may be as great as, or even greater than, the original story.

What helps with the process of lightening up is
listening to another’s deep story. Just as helping others can lift our own moods, listening well to others can be an experience of releasing our hold on our senses of self. If we can hold the reality that someone else is living with
and lighten up on the tightness of the grip we place on our own, we stand the chance of developing compassion. Our heart is truly light enough to be able to “go out to” them. And, when we are being truly empathetic, the sense of ourselves and others belonging to each other in quiet equivalence grows.

Maybe try an aspect of this idea out for yourself. You could determine not how you want to “be” next time the occasion calls on you to listen well to help a family member or friend, but what you want to provide or do. Do you want to provide a “safe space” for them to share whatever they need to? Do you want to listen for what they are feeling but haven’t said yet and ask gentle and appropriate questions? Do you want to reflect back to them what you think you’ve heard?

None of these strategies has anything to do with
putting forward “the kind of person you are,” like my pastrami-saturated eavesdroppee. Yet you will likely find that you feel more centered, more solid outside the bounds of personality and story. And your bond with the other will feel that much deeper.

Our work with the two-hour, facilitated experience
called THE HUMAN JOURNEY® situates members of a group or family right within their history and their stories, and then, with a graduated method of listening, interaction, and the cultivation of a sense of the group as being larger than any individual, brings participants to that point of lightness with themselves and substance with each other. It’s proven useful for families deepening their sense of belonging in hard times and is now in practice in the healthcare
setting.

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The Non-Black Story of THE HUMAN JOURNEY®

THE HUMAN JOURNEY® is owned by a white woman.

Before releasing the THJ® game experience and Conductor training to the public, we tested and went back to the drawing board to refine the experience — painstakingly — over and over again.

But we did not test with families with Black members. We invited them but were not successful in signing them on. We did go forward with the families outside of a white Judeo-Christian cultural paradigm we could get—Latino, Muslim. (They were by no means as heavily represented as those within that paradigm.)

You could say, well, you tried. You tried to recruit Black families. You did your due diligence.

But we did not then examine why Black families were hard to reach or hard to get to agree to test.

Since then, African-Americans have participated in training to conduct the THJ® experience. One suggested we apply what we know about the design of group experiences to the hard issues of creating long-term Restorative Justice in our communities. Since that suggestion last fall—which seemed entirely right—we began investigating both the field of RJ and how communities and police build relationships. We have a lot yet to learn as we build and test THE HUMAN JOURNEY® edition with communities.

This is not about white guilt. It is about white responsibility. THJ® is examining the networks it has, the organizations it seeks to do business with, and the services it provides so that they better address the needs of a wider swath of the public seeking ways to build peace and belonging both small-scale within families and support communities, and on a bigger scale between groups.

We want to hear from those who are interested in helping us do that.

We also want to encourage the majority of businesses in healthcare, home care, and other fields serving the public that are white-owned, but Black- and immigrant-staffed, to listen, to take the risk of looking foolish by asking genuine questions, and, with us, to seek out one thing on this helpful list that they can begin to do to address the power differential that allows them to own such a business. It is no accident that so many of us are white.

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Sara K Schneider

Becoming the Witness

  I’m an avid reader of Twitter for its political and epidemiological news, which often appear prior to (and prove more informative than) what can be made available under the rubric of conventional media. I continue to be struck by a story that Pulitzer Prize-winning

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Culture
Sara K Schneider

Your Relationships (By the Numbers)

Even though our relationships might seem like the least quantifiable things we have in our lives, that doesn’t seem to stop people from thinking of them as sums. I’ve seen that play out a few ways.  I’ve met people who talked about their “A” list and

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Activities & Tools
Sara K Schneider

Pop the Question!

Losing someone you love brings with it a kind of wistful mystery: who was my loved one … really? What do I wish I knew about them that I didn’t even think to ask them while I could? What would I give up chocolate for the rest of my

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