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Songs and Sermons

For this month's blog post, I am sharing the welcome I gave at NTI's fall workshop on Friday, October 13th, titled "Re-membering Michael White: Saying Hullo Again."

Thank you for coming to our 8th annual fall workshop! We have three distinguished guests joining us this year. Jill Freedman and Gene Combs from Chicago, who are bringing their dear friend Michael White from Adelaide, South Australia. I want to welcome you all this morning, especially those of you who are brand new to the world of narrative therapy. Today is about the art of helping and a re-membering of a craftsman who inspired so many of us.

Michael inspired us to recognize how taking our craft seriously—as a life-long apprenticeship—can offer us a sense of purpose and pride. So, whether you are just beginning to play with clay or you have shelves full of finished pieces, I know that, for me, watching artists who are deeply committed to their craft inspires me to stay committed to doing my own unique artistry, where the goal is never to do it like anyone else.

I sometimes fantasize about being a DJ. At other times, I fantasize about being a minister. I think I fantasize about these positions because I imagine they would allow me permission to be sentimental, which I understand has to do with lifting up tender emotions. This morning, I’m going to indulge both these fantasies by starting our day with a song, and then giving a short sermon.

We have a tradition at NTI of beginning events with music. Picking one song is always a challenge, but one I love. Any guesses about the artist I may have chosen? While listening, I invite you to fully settle in to this moment, and gently become present to this space, this community, and most importantly to your Self.

Following the song, I want to offer a brief sermon. So much of what I value about the Narrative Sorldview is its recognition that each person has a right to be the primary author in their own life. As a young person, I was introduced to words and concepts—like family, home, and church—and was told what those things meant. I no longer accept what I was told. I have taken over the meanings of those words. For me, Family is not biological, Home is not physical, and Church is not religion. I have my own meanings for what constitutes a sermon, which is not, and could not be the same as yours. To know the differences, we would have to ask each other questions.

Song: “My City of Ruins” by Bruce Springsteen


Earlier in the week, in between our full-time jobs, Ashley and I were scrambling to attend to all the details required to host an event like today, including trips to Costco, photocopying, folder stuffing, fruit-salad making, and so on. While scrambling, a question made itself known to us, uninvited, arriving in our minds without any outside help. There are two kinds of questions. Real questions and fake questions. Real questions are ones genuinely interested in our perspective. Fake questions are disguised judgments.

This particular fake question asked, “Why are you two doing so much unpaid work when you could be enjoying peaceful weekends instead with a cup of coffee and the newspaper, or going for a hike, or visiting your children?” I was not happy with this fake question for many reasons.

First, like all problems, this fake question attempted to establish its power by exploiting things we care a great deal about. We care a lot about our relationships with coffee, the newspaper, hikes, our children, and peace. So, I was pissed it took a position that these things were less important to us because we were not choosing to do them instead.

Second, this fake question exposes its link to a discursive position, which in this case is that what is always most important is money. This value is unbelievably degrading and disrespectful to all of us in this room who have made our lives about helping, and not only about financial reward. It is also ridiculously disrespectful to the countless hours that volunteers in this room have made to establish and sustain NTI as a deeply meaningful and supportive place for many people.

Third, the fake question doesn't seem to give a shit that people in our world are suffering on a scale that is beyond imaginable. I want to always remember that I was a boy in a white middle-class home, from everywhere USA, with class, race, and gender privilege, who endured abuse and suffered in ways the world didn’t give a shit about, and the helping profession failed. How many other people, young and old, tall and small, are suffering in the neighborhoods where we live without anyone’s awareness? And how many people around the world are suffering in ways so different than mine that it would make my personal history of pain laughable? This fake question supports the idea that doing nothing about the suffering surrounding us is neutral, like it would have no effects.

We have to keep trying to do something that makes a difference somewhere, no matter how small. I like Mr. Rogers' response when he was asked how much of a difference he thought he might have made in the lives of children after 30 years of being on TV. He said, “I don’t care how many, even if it is just one. What matters is being present with the one we are with.” But if I could continue the conversation with Mr. Rogers, I would ask him if he thought it mattered who we sought to be with, and how he thought people learned to be present with one another in kind, respectful, and accountable ways. I am profoundly grateful to the Narrative Worldview, and especially Michael White’s exploration of its implications for doing relationships, for helping me know how I to strive to be with people and do relationships myself. On behalf of that one person who you are there for, I am grateful to all of you. Narrative practices would have made a real difference when I needed help.

The last reason the fake question was not okay with me is because it does not do any justice to what I know about how the members of this community are actively helping to create a world that links caring and justice. I have the unbelievably distinct privilege of being in relationships with so many of you here, who show me Hope as an action, not only an idea. You heal me personally, and I am deeply heartened by the stories I witness where what is featured is your commitment to your intentions, ethics, and skills to help people. The position of receiving help is one of the most vulnerable I know. Help made things worse in my life, not better.

So, my response to the fake question that showed up earlier in the week is, “F*** off, unless you are interested in having a more respectful conversation.”

In case you don’t know me well, and haven’t figured this out yet, I am ridiculously and unapologetically sentimental and idealistic. Our mission at NTI is to help grow the legitimacy of the Narrative Worldview and its social justice orientation to relationships, problems, helping, and people. It is my strong preference to acknowledge the contributions everyone here today is making to help us with our mission. Before that, I want to recognize all the people who were not able to come today who I know wish could be here. They could not come for various reasons, from having died, to not having the money, to conflicts with work, and I want to recognize them.

As I recognize those of you in the room, please stand up, and remain standing until I am finished with all my acknowledgments. Please also hold your applause until the end.

I want to first acknowledge Jill and Gene. Without their contributions, especially through their writings, I think its very fair to say narrative ideas and practices might not have stayed alive in the U.S. I’m confident their book, Narrative Therapy: The Social Construction of Preferred Realities, is the one mostly widely used by subversive teachers in graduate schools around the country, who are trying to use whatever nooks and crannies they can find to offer students an alternative to the Normative Worldview that currently dominates our culture generally and the helping professions more specifically. Only a handful of people were clear-eyed enough to be pioneers of narrative therapy in our country back in the 1980s, who sought out and put forward Michael White here in the U.S., and Jill and Gene were two of them. They have continued to inspire people with their passion and knowledge—in the U.S. and around the world—ever since, even after Michael tragically died in 2009.

I want to acknowledge the early builders of NTI who are here today. If you were part of the original group I turned to for help to build NTI back in 2009, please come stand next to me. If you were on the NTI advisory team or board at any time in the past, or now in the present, please come stand next to me.

There are a few people I want to individually recognize, who currently do a massive amount of work to help NTI's efforts to contribute to a more socially just world. Greg, Amanda, and Lauren can you please come stand next to me? I only met these three amazing people two years ago in a course I taught at Boston College, but they have dedicated themselves to learning about narrative ideas, and the craft of narrative practice, in ways that are just remarkable to me. I want to especially thank Greg for agreeing to volunteer to be our Director of Community Relations and develop initiatives that help people stay connected to narrative ideas and practices at low or no cost. Thank you all for your support of me and NTI, and the critical reminder that what is most important is the next generation of narrative leaders.

Darcey, will you please come stand next to me? Darcey is our Managing Director and the only person we pay a small salary. While profoundly valued, she also is profoundly underpaid. I can say with absolute certainty that NTI would have died if Darcey had not come on board as a friend and partner, bringing her vast organizational, narrative, and relationship skills with her. She not only helped us stay alive at a very low point, she is helping us realize our original dreams. Thank you, Darcey.

Ashley would you come stand with me too. Everyone should recognize I’m a bit biased when it comes to Ashley since she is my favorite person on the planet. Beyond doing as much work as anyone to help keep NTI going, somehow after both parenting and working full time, for the past 25 years she has made who I am now possible. I believe individuals are relational achievements, both to the good and to the bad. In whatever ways I offer anything of value, it is only possible because of her. Thank you, Ashley

If you are a current or former "Napper" in our Narrative Apprenticeship Program (NAP), please stand up. If you are a one of the first "Certies" currently in the Narrative Certificate Program, or helping to teach in that program, please stand up. If you have ever taken a Practice Intensive, please stand up. If you have ever taken any NTI course, or been to a previous workshop, please stand up. If you are a member of our Social Justice Bruncher community, please stand up. Thank you all for your commitment to the serious responsibilities that come with deciding to offer help to another person help.

Let’s see, who haven’t I acknowledged? Who might get tricked into thinking they are less valued than those people now standing? To those of you still seated, your presence here today, and all that has led you to think this might be an okay way to spend your day, I want to acknowledge how critical your presence here today is to NTI. Your presence allows us to continue taking steps toward our mission to grow the Narrative Worldview. Your presence helps us sustain our commitment to try and do our part to make the world a better place for more people. Please know how much everyone standing wants you to feel welcome in our community and become as much a part of it as you want. Please also know I value intimacy so the chance to be in relationship with you is also is a wonderful gift to me personally. Please stand up so your contributions can be recognized.

How about a warm NTI round of applause of appreciation for everyone standing!

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