Tapio Malinen, tapio.malinentathata.fi, Sundintie 26, FI 06650 Hamari, Finland

 

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Ratkes, 3/2006

Narrative vignettes
Part 6: The Power of Re-membering

Tapio Malinen


People become people through people.
Tutu

Re-membering conversations are practices of narrative therapy that allow us to reconnect our lives and stories with the stories of people that are important for us. The kind of people we grow up to be depends on how others see us, how we experience ourselves in relation to others, and how we participate in life with other people. In these conversations, we do not simply recall things that have been and still are precious for us; they also offer a membership to the club of our lives. In this club we can recognize who we are by seeing ourselves through the eyes of others.

The term ”re-membering” comes from anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff. She worked with an aging Jewish community in Venice, California. The setting for the community’s social life was a special day centre where immigrants would regularly come together to discuss their lives, their past experiences, and their roots. In a situation where the life of these senior citizens was fragmented, because they were surrounded by “strangers” in a new world and had no natural communities to maintain their identity in, Myerhoff observed how they daily “rebuilt” themselves and their selves. This defining happened in specific conversations where the identity of the participants was not constituted through one voice, but rather through relationships with multiple voices. Michael White realized the therapeutic value of these conversations and transferred them to the field of narrative practice.

Norwegian social psychiatrist Tom Andersen argues that words are universes traveling by. Some of them are visible, but frozen. These include for instance “low self-esteem” or “resources”. These words are often used as tools of manipulation, control and power. There are also words that are moving, but visible. For instance: “At the beginning of his lecture, he talked in a quiet voice”, or “she is helping a friend of hers with a translation.” However, the most interesting words in therapy are the words that are invisible, but living. They create an ecology of conversation, which holds mutual understanding and possibilities that are not yet real, but also not completely imaginary. They build zones of proximal development, where people can be themselves and simultaneously move toward the unknown and the possible. These words are characterized by flow, openness, improvisation, participation, unpredictability, and the presence of multiple voices.

The following words have, in the course of time, slowly unfolded into my club of living words. Their membership has been strengthened by numerous re-membering conversations where I have been the interviewer and sometimes the interviewee. They are not in any particular order. Defining me as an agent of narrative therapy, their power is divided fairly evenly at the moment.


Interbeing

The first word is ”interbeing”. This word points to the beginning. To those precious places and inner states we come from. And to connection, to the abundant networks where we are a part of the community of the important people in our lives. In a community like this, the feeling of togetherness powerfully breaks isolation, which is usually the most destructive companion of problems. Vietnamese Thich Nhat Hahn has written: “When you know that mountains are made of rivers and everything else and that rivers are made of mountains and everything else, you can use the words “rivers” and “mountains” without concern.”

Think of a person that has been especially significant in your life (as a child, as a teenager, as an adult). He or she could be a family member, a friend, a teacher, a neighbour – even a character in a play or movie, your pet, or your favored toy. How did this person dress? How did he or she talk? What was his or her advice for life? Why would he or she not be surprised hearing about your achievement and success in life? If you could see yourself with his or her eyes, what would you appreciate most about yourself, about your values, hopes, dreams and commitments.


Local Knowledge

The second word is ”local knowledge”. It reminds me of how we, when using words, are always on the boundary of releasing and objectifying. Therapeutic practices based on so-called scientific or universal knowledge are often covert or open practices of modern power. They are built on the separation between the knower and the object of the knowledge, where classifications as well as the development of different practices of diagnoses, interventions, and treatments maintain often the power relations related to expert knowledge.

Action based on local knowledge, on the other hand, is a conversational partnership, where people don’t relay ”facts” to each other, but instead meanings that describe their world of experience and the feelings that are connected to these experiences. Thus psychology becomes – in John Shotter’s words – more a moral action than a natural science explaining behaviour. Instead of curing, it is central to create a space and relationship where people can connect with each other so that good and real becomes described in a multi-layered way.

How did this person know that these are the values, principles, and commitments that mean so much to you? Could you tell me an example of something you did together that had an effect on your life? What did you appreciate most about this person? What do you think your interaction has meant to him or her?

In re-membering conversations, through stories based on local knowledge, we co-create both ourselves and our worlds in a way that often opens up alternative possibilities and meaningful action.


Team of Concern

If this person is living in your work/life in some way at this moment, how do you know that? If you could see yourself with his or her eyes, how would this affect your work in the future?

The third word or concept is ”team of concern”. As a young psychologist, when I first started at my new job, I felt insecure, scared, and anxious. I remember holding the hand of an invisible ‘Big Tapio’ with one hand, and the hand of ‘Little Tapio’ with another. No one knew that when meeting me, they also met my inner team of concern.

While writing this, I only now realize why I have certain pictures and objects in my study. There is a picture that represents the wisdom of my grandfather. There is another where I am musing together with Elam Nunnally at the Family Therapy Centre of Porvoo. There are rocks and pieces of bark from the stormy and calm islands of Baltic Sea. I am curious as to how my relationship with my team of concern will develop while studying narrative therapy further.


Unfold

The fourth word is “unfold” (becoming constantly other than I am in the club of my life). I sometimes use re-membering conversations to direct my client into the role of someone significant to them. I then interview them from this role, asking details about the role person’s life, values, commitments and thoughts about my client. After the interview, my clients can tell me about their experiences and ask the significant person more questions. To hear the answers, they need to change roles again. In my experience, when we describe our identities again and again in this way, we feel like different people than before. This type of process also often leads to a new kind of action and an even richer experience of a person not being what he or she is, and being what he or she is not.

In re-membering conversations the ”self” is reconstructed over and over again in a constant dialogue. Now “resources”, “deficiency” or “the self” are no longer stable inner entities, but rather historically and culturally constructed ways of being and thinking. We do not find any stable and fixed ego substance under our skin, but rather the flow of ever-changing thoughts, feelings, and experiences. The self image that we identify with at any given moment is unstable and empty of a separate essence. It exists in a constantly changing world only in relation to other people and things. In Buddhism, this state of affairs is described by the Sanscrit word “sonyata”. However, we will not be getting deeper into the universe of this word in this article.


Injection of Hope

The fifth and final word or concept in my club of living words is ”injection of hope”. This concept has been directed into the club of my life by narrative therapist Lorraine Hedtke, who works in Arizona with dying people and their relatives. According to Lorraine, even death can be seen as a process of hope aiming at the future. In this process, “relationships, stories, language, and meaning intertwine to form the wonderful adventure called a life.” In re-membering conversations, identities and relationships are constantly changing, and death can also be seen as a rich event of rebirth.

• Antero, what do you think Kirsti would answer, if you could ask her, ”How has
Antero been doing after your death?”
• If Kirsti could give you a piece of advice for your decision, what do you think she
would say?
• What do you think it means for Kirsti that your daughter is graduating from high
school?

• Heikki, how would you like the members of your family to live after your death?
• What is the wisdom about life that you would like for them to remember about you?
• What would you hope that this mental legacy means to them?
• What kinds of useful stories would you like for your children to remember about you and your life?

In the club of life – through re-membering conversations – dead people can be alive and invisible words visible.


Further information on re-membering conversations:

Hedtke, L. & Windslade, J. (2004) Re-membering Lives. Conversations with the
Dying and the Bereaved. Baywood Publishing Company, New York.
Myerhoff, B. (1982) Life not death in Venice; Its Second Life. In Turner, V. &
Bruner, E. (Eds.) The Anthropology of Experience. Chicago: University
of Illinois Press.
Morgan, A. (2000) What is narrative therapy? An easy-to-read introduction. Dulwich
Centre Publications.
Russel, S. & Carey, M. (2004) Re-membering: Responding to commonly asked
questions. In Russel, S. & Carey , M.: Narrative Therapy: Responding to
your questions. Dulwich Centre Publications.
White, M. (1997) Re-membering. In White. M.: Narratives of Therapist´s
Lives. pp. 22-52. Dulwich Centre Publications.
White, M. (1997) Re-membering and professional lives. In White, M.:
Narratives of Therapist´s Lives. pp. 53-92. Dulwich Centre Publications.

www. rememberingpractices.com

 

 

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