Decentered and Influential
I feel some discomfort taking this space for my thoughts and musings. I both want the space and fear it at the same time. I want to believe it is okay for me to have a corner to speak as I want to support each person’s rights for spaces of their own. I fear this because of my history of being attacked for saying things people do not like or agree with or want to hear. I also recognize the privilege of this discomfort when so many people have their voice completely disqualified, demeaned, violated, and stolen. An ongoing part of my life intention is to claim my right to speak at times while simultaneously caring about how what I say affects those listening and what is precious to them. What supports my step in taking up this space for myself is my belief that doing so also offers you, the reader, a reflecting surface to connect with what you value, however resonant or dissonant it might be from what is meaningful to me.
Given this introduction, perhaps a fitting starting point for my first “Reflecting Surfaces” entry is Michael White’s description of the stance of the narrative therapist, which he titles “de-centered and influential.” What appeals to me about this description is its intersections of humility and responsibility. From a narrative perspective, we must acknowledge there is never any neutral place to stand when it comes to meaning-making or story development. At every moment in relationship, we are either centering our own meanings or we are centering someone else’s. Who gets to be at the center? How long do they get to be at the center? Who decides? How is it decided? A de-centered (humble, respectful, and caring) position is one where we intentionally put another person at the center of meaning-making for an extended period. An influential (responsible and accountable) position recognizes that while we are de-centered, our participation in conversations are never neutral. Thus, we have an ever-present responsibility for how we engage with someone, even when they are at the center of meaning-making. Narrative therapy, for me, has helped articulate this intersection of humility and responsibility in ways that help me know how I want to participate in relationships. I am deeply indebted and grateful for those understandings.
How readily does the ethic of centering another person in any conversation make itself available to us in our relationships? How often do we connect with a desire to show a genuine interest in understanding better what someone may want us to understand, even if it isn’t completely clear for them yet? I know for me there is a history of getting swept up with competitive ways of being when I feel or think strongly about something. I have a history of thinking what matters most is my perspective and that it is my right and responsibility to have that understood. I also have a history of having my perspective completely disqualified in relationships. I used to fight for my rights to have what I think matter first and most. I now try to care first about offering an interest in what the person I am with wants to have understood. While doing so, I reserve the right to have what I think be different and matter equally.
Despite this intention, problems inevitably find their ways into relationships. I remember enthusiastically telling classmates in graduate school how excited I was that we were going to have a second child. One classmate offered me an opportunity to know that my excitement was painful for her. The news left her feeling “less than” and angry. I assume this was because I was free to revel in my joy without thoughts about any potential negative effects. I wasn’t thinking about how my heterosexual, white, “nuclear family” positioned me so well on the terms of normative discourse. That is one way I make sense of privilege — freedom from thought or concern about how someone else might be affected by what you are saying or doing. I just expected everyone to be happy about my news despite how they might be discursively positioned as someone who is gay, single, divorced, and/or unable to have children, for example.
I am grateful for my classmate’s willingness to hold me accountable for my privilege. I am sorry it came through pain I helped produce for her. I also accept the discomfort of learning about her experience as an act of accountability. In welcoming the discomfort, I believe I am practicing a de-centered and influential ethic. I am taking up a de-centered position by not letting my discomfort be what is most important and instead centering her experience as something valuable and precious, worthy of respect. I am grateful for how narrative therapy has taught me to do this largely through genuine curiosity. To contribute to the legitimizing of her experience, I asked questions that assisted me in storying what is important for her to have understood. I see this as taking up an influential position. My response helps shape what is possible and what is not possible. By choosing to respond with an open and genuine curiosity about the pain I helped produce, I hope I also am influencing what it can mean to be a different kind of man. The kind of man who stands against patriarchal discourses that would position me to justify my right to be protected from discomfort and support my engagement with practices of disqualification, ridicule, judgment, criticism, rationalization, minimalization, and many more tactics that have been developed to keep men’s experiences superior to women’s and children’s.
What my classmate and many more people have taught me is to be more accountable and aware of the privileges that I take for granted and that were established through histories of injustice and oppression. I hope to keep positioning myself in ways that make it as safe as possible for me to learn how I am doing. I invite you to let me know how this or any of my speaking or acting produces negative effects for you. I hope you might give me the opportunity to take responsibility for those effects and that I do so in ways that you experience as meaningful. Doing so would help me have the chance to keep moving toward the person I hope to become.