Monday, July 16, 2018

The Alphabet as teacher

The importance of naming.

While journeying with a grief recovery group we became successful. That seems like a contradiction. If size is any indicator of success we were successful. Besides increased attendance people came earlier in their grief --- within the first four weeks instead or after the first four months. They were not ready to be in a group to share their story. They were too emotionally raw and vulnerable. 
What to do? Word association, an intuition, provided a way. I asked the new people in a group by themselves, “What words do you use to describe your pain under the letter a, then b, c, and d. In two weeks I went on to e, f, g, h, and in six sessions we were through the alphabet. We had quite a list of root and orientation metaphors. But by the second session I added another column since they had no problem thinking of words to describe their pain. In fact their vocabulary was on tilt. To establish a balance I asked, “What would you use to describe hope and healing? Give me words from the past or words you want to use in the future even though you may not be there now.” 
These single words worked wonders for many. For a time I had all participants answer the Kiersy Bates questionnaire to indicate how they process information. The majority, 65%, were a Kiersey Bates SJ, meaning make it concrete and down to earth and get me over this as soon as possible. They are 33 % of the general population. Six sessions every other week slowed them down. They had me as their facilitator an INFP, almost an opposite, who is process oriented to the core. Plus when I asked how many others experience anger, bitterness, confusion, a bond and community began to form on a one word identity. The stories were different behind the one word identities but the bonding went on and they knew others were making a similar journey. They were not as isolated and alone. Saying “no one understands” was not the total picture like before. 
I began to try the procedure in a pain support group, a cardiac group, an arthritic group, and with industrial groups where people were learning to be supportive to each other in the work place. I conclude there is a common language for the transitions in life and certain word categories name what people experience more than others. The root metaphors can be unique but the orientation metaphors are more alike than different. 
Angry words were found for every letter except x, yuk and zinger came in for y and z. 
I tried to get the hospital to sponsor a support group for people from different health care specialties. I was discovering at least 50 percent of the words used in a transition were similar. A planning group met for five sessions and another cardiac group was formed instead. Now years later and still today, decision makers for health care in our area are not ready for the non-specificity of language and stories. And neither are the patients who gain their identify and are blessed by the temple priests of health care with the specificity from a particular illness. I have a heart problem, I have cancer, I have ... I say I have something in common with all of humanity --- non specificity. The scientific medical model is very strong and entrenched. The reductionist tendency does good work. They are good people. They still would give Hans Selye a bad time, the researcher on the Stress Response Syndrome, which is a full fledged non specificity response. Different stressors set off the same reponse.
In spite of the resistance he discoveries of non- specificity like the stress response syndrome are gradually making an impact. Our bodies apparently respond in a similar way to different stimuli as story, prayer, meditation, liturgy, the language of transition, humor, music, poetry, etc. 
The non-professionals are not any more ready than the professionals to change, although narrative medicine and narrative therapies are a start. All are in need of an intellectual conversion. Employee Assistance People, EAP, scream confidentiality and liability to protect their turf. And hospital administrators say they could not make any money that way. Too late, a growing community of professionals and lay people are already making new discoveries. 
As time went on “the language of transition” became three columns. The first for words reflecting hurt and cleansing, the third for hope and healing and connecting, and a middle column appeared becoming the place where we live most of the time. The column for contradictions, Aha’s!, paradox, ambiguity, ambivalence, and opposites. The words were yo yo, roller coaster, up and down, having it together and falling apart, “Darkness and light to you are both alike.” (Psalm 139:11) 

Addendum: I will now add mystical experience to non specificity. I think Williams James was on to this is his Gifford Lectures, the Variety of Religious Experience. It has been a very long time since I read the book. If you want to read it many of the Gifford Lectures are available over the internet.

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