"Life is pregnant with stories. It is a nascent plot in search of a midwife. For inside every human being there are lots of little narratives trying to get out" Hannah Arendt (Narrative Matters)
So this was clearly my error and I'm only writing this because I suspect somehow I'm not alone. In the field of Conflict Resolution, long-standing, painful, deeply complicated and seemingly unresolvable conflicts are often called "Intractable." For over a year now, I have stood on my soapbox mostly in private and occasionally in public irate with the audacity of someone to call a conflict "intractable." So defeatist, I told myself and those who would listen. Well, this was because I was under the impression that "intractable" meant "unsolvable." So of course you can see, in my defense, why it would appear odd that Conflict Resolution practitioners and scholars would call a conflict "unsolvable."
Something led me, however, to finally look up the word "intractable." Well, you see, it's not unsolvable. It simply means difficult to manage. Well, I cannot deny that Israel-Palestine is hard to treat, relieve or cure. Apparently, the word comes from 1555 , a time in which there was clearly plenty of difficult to manage conflict. It meant not "tractable." Tractable means manageable.
So there you have it, energy wasted on a rant. I could have been reading more or enjoying friends. Instead I was making a mountain out of a molehill. Unless of course the rest of you also think that "intractable" means unresolvable. Let me know.
In her book "Death Without Weeping" anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes challenges through lens distant mother love in rural Brazil the possibility that are feelings are innate versus cultural. Emotions, rather, come from our we speak in our culture. Our emotions have been dictated by our language and our language by our culture.
“emotions are discourse; they are constructed and produced in language and in human interaction. They cannot be understood outside of the culture that produce them. The most radical statement of this position is that without our cultures, we would not know how to feel .”(1992)
She found that the women who lose so many "little angles" during their first few years and even weeks of their lives do not experience grief that we might expect they would. They have beliefs that their tears might dampen their wings so they have a harder time getting to heaven. They believe that the little soul did not want to stay. They believe they will soon have another. Many babies do not receive names their first year of life and are seen as kind of non-human. Such poverty and such chronic loss seems to have crafted a way in which women speak about and experience grief so that they can continue survive emotionally and perhaps even to keep impregnating. Oddly too, the little children do not play with dolls, she posits because they have too much experience will babies in boxes (coffins) or lifeless babies.
While it could be too easy to write off these women as cold and uncaring, the gift of Scheper-Hughes is that she instead shows us how adaptive we are into the world in which we find ourselves and how language helps shape this world and inform how we ought to feel within it. The feeling of "strangeness" that many of these women seem to feel towards their newborn, aka indifference, might not be that foreign in more prosperous cultures, though we speak less about it. British studies have found that 40% of first time mothers in middle-class prosperity feel indifference towards newborns. But this is not part of the discourse of this culture. It is rarely spoken of and those mothers experiencing this emotion are often told they have post-partum depression which is just another name perhaps for this estranged feeling. So their expression of these feelings might be stuffed down..."you are depressed" the friends will say. Not necessarily so helpful. Surely some great discourse work has been done around postpartum depression. Suffice it to say for this short blog, the reminder that not just what we think but what we "feel" can be dictated by the language of our culture. Perhaps we feel different things that we cannot voice or perhaps we just have emotions based on the stories our culture has about what things mean....hmmmm...That photo is me at Tiananmen Square a place where one can reflect a long time about how discourse can frame emotion.
This week Dr. Samantha Hardy visited S-CAR (George Mason's School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution). Dr Hardy lives in Australia and does Conflict Coaching. We specialize in a "narrative approach" to conflict resolution and she worked with us on story "genres." I was fascinated to learn how she broke down the "tragedy/melodrama" while clients could come in to talk about their comedies or romances, frankly most people come to a coach with drama. She distinguished melodrama from tragedy in the following way. Note please this is a summary- please contact her for the full scope...
When people are in a space of recounting this genre, they tend to portray themselves as the passive protagonist, dependent upon others, and submissive to outcome. We are in this state when we say to others "Tell me what to do!" When we talk about others we make them one-dimensional and our quest is for certainty! We want a sure outcome and we romanticize the past..."Ah it was so much better before" we tell ourselves when recounting the melodrama. We almost pray for a kind of "dream justice" -- divine justice is what I would call it. "Conflict" for one in a melodrama is an aberration- it's upsetting the moral order of things.
This state of melodrama reminds me of Thich Nhat Han's note about suffering.
“People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.”
When we are in melodrama we hold on to the suffering because we are seeking certainty.
So what is the option when we find ourselves faced suddenly or even at our own doing the pains of life?
Dr. Hardy offered the alternative of the "tragic hero/heroine." What's the difference? Doesn't tragedy always end in pain?
Well for the tragic hero/heroine there is still pain. Pain is part of life, but the pain is more internalized. It isn't used to suck people in. Finally we have our active protagonist! Our hero who will face life's challenges head on, take the risk of making decisions and being interdependent. There is risk in decision making and our heros/heroines are not infallible but they are fascinating to watch and accompany because they are capable of self-determination. They have more interesting internal experiences- they are complex internally and their stories reflect this. When they tell of the situation, they acknowledge the complexity of themselves, others and the situation.
In her work, Dr. Hardy wants the Conflict Coach to help move the client from melodrama to tragic hero/heroine. But be careful if you try this with your family and friends. They often want you to jump into the story and be on their side. Her point though is a powerful one, we don't want to leave our clients, ourselves or our loved ones feeling the lack "agency" (in our lingo) or personal power (in coaching lingo), or self-determination (in philosophical terms).
I can remember many times telling a story to someone about a pain and leaving feeling without power to act. When I take the scarier road of owning life in all its complexity and not trying to making things simple to fast, I may not leave feeling "great" but definitely more whole.