Stone Soup and the Wisdom of Not Knowing
Ward: We have a ritual that we’ve done, since the very first Chautauqua, and it’s called “Stone Soup.” I originally devised it as a ritual for the ritually impaired. Being myself somewhat ritually impaired, this was my defense against rituals that were too strange or I felt embarrassed by. So this is a very low-threshold ritual. There are a couple of parts to it now because we all have a tendency to embellish. Lulu would you pass this (basket) around, you can pick a large stone or a small stone out of the basket, depending on your predisposition. While she’s passing that around, this is a story that most people probably know. What I discover is that every year my interpretation of the story changes. I think something about stories, is that you can have the same story, but you can change your relationship to the story.
This is the story of a village that was starving. A strange shaman-like man walked into the village one day and noticed everybody was starving, and he called the people together and he said, “I have a magic stone.” He brought a stone with him, and he said, “With this stone I can feed the whole village. What you need to do is to get a big pot and put a fire under it, start boiling water, and I’ll put the stone in it, we’ll make soup for everybody.”
The villagers, given that they were starving, thought that was a good idea, and they built the fire and put the water in the pot and put the stone in the pot. And the stranger said, “You know, the stone will feed everyone, but you know what actually gives some flavor to this? Has anybody got an onion?” And one of the villagers raised his hand and said, “You know, I have an onion that’s under my house, it wasn’t any good for anything, we couldn’t feed anybody with it and we were saving it.” And so he went and got the onion and put it in the pot. And the stranger said, “That’s excellent. And what will even make this better is if anyone has a potato.” Well there was somebody that had a potato that they were holding back because it wasn’t enough to create a meal with, and of course this went on and we got some celery and a turnip and a carrot and so on. And by the time all this was done, and the soup was cooked, they were able to nourish the village.
As the story evolves for me, it is that when we come together, each question that we bring into the village is a form of nourishment. Because our not-knowing connects us in a way to reduce the starvation that we experience in isolation and separateness. We live in a fragmented world. We live in a world where we imagine that our welfare is not somehow inextricably connected with the welfare of others. I think one of the things on the South Africa journey recently with my students was that as we connected with people on the margins there, we discovered is how much they mattered to us and how deeply connected we were to them once the field of our humanity touched. I think this is a common story, that “connecting is healing,” and disconnecting is the ailment. So that when we bring our not-knowing, and we begin with our not-knowing, what we do is we are assembling in the name of the thing that makes us most essentially human. We’re assembling in our humility and our vulnerability, and that truly makes us human beings together. In the listening that comes from not-knowing, we nourish one another.
So the symbolic act of having a stone which has a question attached to it, is a way that we’ll nourish the village, because we will bring our questioning, we’ll bring our vulnerability, we’ll bring our humanity, and we come together as human beings, not as experts, not as people attempting to colonize other people with our good ideas. In fact co-opting others to our good ideas is one of the more pernicious things that we can do in our enthusiasm to make things better. Instead we can actually deeply listen to another human being, and to listen to their not-knowing without giving advice, without presuming that we would understand the complexity that each life is, but just to truly listen. As we are working together today we can to learn to ask questions of clarification rather than give advice. And of course one of the most important questions of clarification is, “Why does this matter to you? Why is this important to you?” And when we do that, we actually “listen” each other into our own answers. We know that any really true answer is going to come from inside.
This year when we were in India, we had the privilege of interviewing Samdhong Rimpoche who was the Prime Minister of the Tibetan Government in exile. We saw him in his final days of office after doing that for a number of years. The last question was, “Well sir, do you have any advice for us?” And his response was, “No.” (laughter) He said, “Advice is the easy way. This is something you have to reason out yourself, otherwise it can’t truly belong to you.” And so, in dialogue, we can reason together.
So, the exercise this morning is to think about a word that is central to your inquiry. This idea came from a conversation with Sara Truebridge who came down to visit me. She was the educational advisor to movie “Race to Nowhere.” We were having a conversation and I noticed that a word kept coming up, and suddenly it dawned on me that there are certain words that attract our inquiry. And those words change over time. What is the word that attracts your inquiry, the word that has a magnetic force for you around not-knowing or around aspiration and possibility and that’s the word I would like you to place on your rock. Now the really challenging part of this ritual is that after you’ve done that, the scary part is that you have to get up and put it in the circle, that’s the limit of your exposure on this, okay?
So take a few moments and be in reflection. Just sit and see what comes up and if it’s nothing, you may put a blank stone in there, and if you are really ritually challenged you can just stick it in your pocket, you don’t even have to get up. (laughter) So we have options here. As Peter Block says, “If you don’t have a ‘No,’ your ‘Yes’ means nothing.” So everybody has a “No.” here.
(musical interlude for reflection)
Chené Swart – Narrative Therapy
Chené: Thank you for giving me the space to speak. It is a privilege, and holy ground, always. My journey with the Narrative work started when my story was really stuck and I thought my world was so fixed, that I could not move. A good friend of mine said that he’s just come across this wonderful new kind of therapy, called Narrative Therapy. I said, I’m so stuck, just help me out. And it was the most wonderful experience to feel how my world opened and broadened, and how I could start to breathe again. So I was all in – and I thought, how on earth am I going to learn how to do this? The Narrative work is quite new in the world. It started about thirty years ago with Michael White in Australia and David Epston in New Zealand. At the Dulwich Center in Australia you can be trained as a Narrative therapist. I had a wonderful opportunity in South Africa to be trained.
Another good friend of mine said, “This work sounds lovely. Why don’t you try it in corporate world?” Oh, that was and still is a wonderful learning journey, because they would ask me, “Can you do de-briefing for our executive team?” And I thought, “What’s in a word? – A world…” I would say, “Tell me about de-briefing. What does that mean for you?” And then I would listen and say, “ok, I think we can do that.” And so this whole new world of organizational (O.D) development opened up for me. There were words like ‘change management’ and ‘team building,’ and ‘check-ins and check-outs.’ This whole idea of “What is in a word, a world,” has been part of my exploration in the O.D. field. I find the world so fascinating and every opportunity an opportunity to learn from, or to be transformed by the other, by whoever’s in the room.
I’m going to give you a quick explanation of the Narrative work which I have been challenged to do by Peter Block often times in situations where I would have only ten minutes. I’ve been taught in my training within Narrative therapy that it takes a long time for people to understand these ideas. It is complicated and difficult. Explaining these ideas within a limited time frame was a wonderful challenge for me, because I had to deconstruct the power of my own field and training to rework and explain what the ideas are about.
In Narrative therapy, we believe that human beings are interpretive beings. We cannot but make meaning of our world. So if I asked you, what comes to mind when I say the word “blue”?
Participants: Sky. Ocean
Chené: What kind of ocean? A blue ocean; a kind of Caribbean blue, or a more Atlantic? Caribbean blue?
Participants: Judgmental. Jeans, velvet, sad, blue notes
Chené: Can you hear all the meanings in this room made of only one word? Can you imagine what happens when we think we’re having a great conversation and everybody’s on the same page; and we’re assuming that we know what we are all talking about without verifying our own assumptions?
The Narrative approach is a not-knowing approach – never assuming that we know what the other person is saying or meaning. And we never assume even that we can understand fully. We are on the way of understanding. That’s all part of the practice. Events happen in our lives and we as human beings connect the dots by making meaning of these events. When we tell a story, we tell the story of the meaning we made of a bunch of stuff that happened to us.
There are also things that we are not telling in the story. And sometimes these stories are hidden. As Narrative therapists, we are curious about the stories, and the evidence, and the things that happen that have not been shared yet. And so, why are these incidents that tell a different story hidden? They’re hidden because of power; because we authorize people to speak about our lives. This is also true for teams, for organizations, nations… We give over the rights of this story to other people. We’re saying, but my parents think this is what I should do. When we have a conversation around our nation, and who we can become, it’s the government, or the president that needs to bring the change, we give the storytelling rights of our story over to others that are powerful figures. Who else are powerful figures that we can authorize to speak?
Participants: God, and the three Rabbi’s. The experts.
Chené: The experts, who are they? Teachers, parents, scientists, leaders, are all people we authorize to speak into our lives, our community stories, our nation stories, and our organizational stories.
In addition taken-for-granted beliefs and ideas also hide the alternative stories of our lives. So what are the taken-for-granted ideas and beliefs we have about young people?
Participants: They’re naïve, selfish..
Chené: Definitely, that’s a loaded one in our culture
Participants: Limitless potential.
Chené: Is that a common theme, a common story – a common taken-for-granted belief and idea in our society?
Participants: Here it is a story, a belief, an idea that we have about young people. Impulsive, adventurous; children should be seen and not heard, and hurt.
Chené: Can I hear some of the voices of the teenagers in this room? I would love to hear more about the things that you’ve heard people tell you about who you are.
Participants: Fix what your generation of older people messed up. Unreliable-
Lulu Haltom: That we should know what we want to do for our lives.
Quincy Mitchell: Here to continue our parent’s legacy.
Participant: Multitasking. Glued to technology; connected; the future. Enjoy this while you’re still young. You’ve got no problems; one day you will understand what this real world is about.
Chené: Those are the ideas and beliefs of just one topic we took to explore. But if you look at your own story, there are also taken-for-granted beliefs and ideas that can limit and inform your story. If we look at a problem story like anorexia, what are the taken-for-granted beliefs and ideas that keep anorexia alive? Women should be thin, and a certain kind of thinness – and the media tells us that story as well. Do you think in certain countries in Africa, anorexia would make sense? So anorexia is kept alive by taken-for-granted beliefs in a certain society around thinness. A black man on the mines, whose stomach was standing like this, said, “I am rich.” So what does that mean? Tell me more. He says, “Look at my tummy. I am living the good life.” And in certain other cultures, you would say, no way, you have to see a doctor, you’re not in good shape. We have a lot of ideas in society that make us think the way we do. And that informs this world that we take for granted.
In the Narrative work, we work with alternative stories, and we ask questions around these stories that are not told. We assume that these alternative stories are there, always. That is the assumption we work with.
We also invite people to re-author their lives. These same principles in understanding the stories that inform us are used in working with teams, organizations and companies. I’m currently involved in work in some of the operations at Anglo-American Platinum Mines, and these communities of workers are re-writing and re-authoring the story about who they are as a company, and it’s just fascinating to be a part, and to be privileged to see the transformation happening right in front of my eyes.
So the principles and the assumptions that we work with are the following: when you sit with somebody, you are curious. You ask questions that you don’t know the answer to. We do not use questions that assume that we know the answer, like “Don’t you think you should be?” These kind of questions say that I’m putting myself up as the expert; asking a question, but I already have the right answer to that question. We work with a not-knowing approach. When we are inquiring around these taken- for-granted beliefs, people would say, “This is just the way it is”. We would be curious and say, “Oh that’s an interesting idea. Where does that idea come from? And what is the story telling you?”
Part of this whole process is also naming our stories. When we name our world, we can decide about the relationship that we want to have with the name and title of our story. The naming is invited for both the problem story, and the alternative story. When we name the story, we can distance ourselves from it and say, “Is this the story that I want to live into or not?” In addition the Narrative ideas work within a community. When a person has decided and named an alternative story that they want to live into, the community is called in. This community is selected by the storyteller because this community knows things and sees things that that person doesn’t always see. They see the gifts, competencies and skills of the story teller. Together with this community of concern we have a celebration of the new story.
So now I want to invite you, to take a look at your collage that represents your experiences, and your meaning making of your own life story on the first page of your journals. I want to ask you to give a title to this page. If you had to give a name to it, what would you call it? Please divide into groups of three and have a conversation around the naming of your story. Everyone in the group is going to have an opportunity to tell the story of this one-page collage and give it a title. The task of the other two participants in the group is to listen while the story is being told. You’ve got a very important job: you are allowed to ask questions that you don’t know the answer to. You are allowed to be curious, and you are allowed to be transformed by the story that you are listening to. You are not allowed to try to fix, or help, or give advice, or assume that you know what the story is about. Even if it sounds familiar – you know what we do? “Oh, that sounds just like my story, I know exactly how you feel!” You don’t know, because even if it sounds the same, you don’t know, unless you’ve had the opportunity to have the conversation.
Divide into groups of three, with people that you know the least in this room, so that you can be surprised in the process. Share your story, and your meaning making, and your name or title of your story. And the other two people ask questions. Let’s give each person five minutes for their stories. For some people it’s going to be a long time, for other people it’s going to be short. Is it clear?