Courage is a Soul Force


Is it any wonder that Gandhi and Martin Luther King Junior decided early on that the battle for peace and justice was always primarily a soul battle, a spiritual conflict about conversion of heart, not about massing weapons or common interests, designing road maps or negotiating concessions?

Those who want to map the path to peace as a set of techniques have been seduced into confusing means for ends- because tools by themselves don’t build a house or plough a field. The diplomats whose careers have spanned multiple attempts at agreement have the credentials and the experience- its not lack of know-how that gets in the way. its the lack of will. And not just political will. It has more to do with what others have called moral courage, a courage that summons us all to get back in touch with our core human values. It is a courage that asks- Is what we most value in life worth living for, worth striving for, even worth failing for, more than worth dying and killing for? Courage cuts to the core, gets to the “coeur” of things, the heart. You can’t fake it.

Expediency sets a different agenda. You are forever watching tomorrow’s poll numbers, worrying what issues are too risky to take a stand on, You play it safe and yet, that can lead to even greater danger. Playing it safe when the house is on fire means you huddle in a room hoping the smoke will abate and an angel will rescue you. Not smart. Where did playing it safe ever get you? No one is safe if everyone chooses safety first. No, our safety resides in a quality of audacity,

That firefighter who breaks the door down to get you out of the fiery room or the smoke-filled train, the whistle blower who risks her career to call out the injustices of the surveillance state, the teenage marcher at Selma who peacefully faces the dogs and the tear gas, or that lone figure facing the tanks in Tiananmen Square: It is courage that keeps us safe.

We might try to do radical change on the cheap, but history is not on our side. Can there ever be a shift from oppression to freedom or war to peace or cruelty to compassion without someone daring to say No, daring to put his body on the wheel of fortune to stop the killing machine?

Courage I believe is at the heart of every lasting human change, and while many think it is rare, it is not. Every commander in battle who has had to lead his troops through the barrage knows- Courage is even more infectious than fear.

Lets have a Conference about that.

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My colleague, Madelyn Blair, is the expert in the Stories inside Words, and here is one I fund fascinating. “Interest” comes from inter and esse, the Latin means- between and being. What is interesting is of interest because it is in between being, being this and being that. That makes a lot of sense in the geography of change around placement and timing and even finances. Interest grows on the deposit over the time you invest and the time you pull it out.

What anything means depends on what it is in between? A Middle means that which it is in the Middle of. Are we in the middle of a storm or a hurricane? Are we in the middle of a headache or a heart attack? It certainly matters to know, it is of interest, inter esse.

This period of time could be the end of the affair or the beginning of a new phase of a relationship. It earns interest because of what it is in between. Hence stories that grab our attention are those that plunge us into the middle of something that is still being worked out. What are you in the middle of right now? What makes it interesting to you?

If you name a B- as beginning and an E-as ending, you better notice the species of the middle you name yourself to be in. The trick is to swap them around-play with meaning and see how it moves. Yes, this could be the middle of the end of a marriage or a career, or it could be the middle of a transformation. To name it the second creates a different field of energy than the first. Or it could be the middle of Time Out when you badly need a holiday.Occams Razor reminds us that every headline does not have to be a deadline- simple is usually better than complicated. Interest resides in that space in-between.

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Where are we when we ask WHY? What direction in time are we drawn to? Not the future normally. “Why” is not found up ahead, though it might well be that we did what we did because of what we hoped would happen. But ‘why’ tells a different story. Its the story of behind or before. Even our dream of a future was in the past- where the WHY happened. WHY happens in a place, which is where we go looking for it -in The Territory of Why.

Why the recession?? This question points us to look at what comes before the financial crash, not after. Why did we have the wars? Because of what happened leading up to it. Why did she leave her family? Because she hated her life. It is the present interrogating the past. When we are obsessed with Why, why 9-11 or why the recession, or why war, or even Why me- we tend to be facing backwards,even if what we find might help us next time face more fiercely forward. WHY has us looking in a certain direction. It is positional.

Where are we when we we ask HOW? How did she manage to win the gold medal? How did Obama win the nomination? What direction in time are we looking at? We are focusing on the unfolding process, not the reason or motive behind or before. HOW wants to grip the workings of the plot within and go back to the present of that past- what was happening and what led to what. It has us looking with a certain focus which is also positional. HOW is also not normally found in the future, but in the territory of HOW.

Where are we when we ask WHEN? We want to mark the time, to put an event into some sort of sequence, or chain of events. When did he say he was leaving the company, before or after you wanted to fire him? When did you see the accused, before he left the nightclub or after? ‘When’ is a significant marker to be able to deduce what came before and what came after. In other words, its one more locative question. It gets asked for and asks from a position in time which is the territory of WHEN.

When we start to think of specific questions as markers of a certain territory, we start to see differences in the way meaning gets shaped, and how borders are drawn around knowledge. It might even help us understand the conflict between those asking WHY and those asking HOW and those asking WHEN.

They who ask WHY are going back to the past, for understanding or vindication. Fair enough. But a nation that is always asking Why tends to be always facing backwards until they flip the question to Why Not? In my own nation Australia, there seem to be so many commissions of inquiry into what happened and why that one fears that there is little oxygen or appetite left for the future. We get so upset at how we treated the refugees or aborigines back in the 1950′s that we don’t see that we are not doing much better now. If you want to stop a focus on the future dead, ask a WHY question about a tragic past. It happens in the Middle East all the time.

Those who ask HOW are the ones obsessed with the present, pragmatists who get it done and don’t worry why. HOW people address the task, not the telos. As Americans, we used to being problem solvers who didn’t waste time on WHY when clearly, what mattered was How. What is the problem? Lets solve it. We have seen it in Washington these past 5 years. The question has been: How do we reform health care, not WHY do we need health care reform. The HOW’s soon run out of patience with the WHYs. Why versus How tends to become the Past versus the Present.

Those who want to know WHEN are the ones who want to know the times, not why or how. At what point did it or will it occur.They are about what came next or what comes next, the future, as in WHEN will it be done by? When can we expect an answer? WHEN is another positional move directing our gaze to the stream of time- before, during, after. It sees events as contemporary, “with time” and wants an answer that relates what happened to when it happened. When did women get the vote? is probably as informative a question as Why and How. The Times, they are a changing, which means that WHEN picks up on that more than the WHY or the HOW.

If we map this on to Washington politics, we see more clearly into the impasse. It might be because of partisan rancor, but what if its because people are asking different questions-The Why’s
(Republicans) are fed up with the How’s (Democrats) while the When’s (we the People) are impatient with both because nothing is happening, for lack of know why and know how.

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Before one dives into an answer, sometimes it helps to explore the question behind the question.Otherwise the answer behind the answer is not the real answer because the question was not the real question. When we ask “Why don’t people do X?” we are presuming they don’t do X whereas they might do x in a way not seen but the question immunizes us against going and taking a deeper look.

Or such a question emphasizes “people” in a general way, whereas it might be specific people, or it may be a system of non-acceptance of systems thinking, and have little to do with people per se. But our question has singled out people.

And then the verb is adopt, which is strong, as against entertain, or be inspired by, or use in some way, or are influenced by, or provoked by. The question of “Why don’t the people adopt X?” where X is recycling, climate change, tooth brushing, seems to imply that X is more than worthy of adopting. it is the question that has the tone of the enthusiast, the convert, the disciple, Why don’t more people come to Jesus, why don’t more people join the Republican Party etc etc. sounds like “why don’t more people see the world the way I see it.” It’s an insider question that is looking out.

Perhaps the answer is to begin to ask the question differently. Turn the why into a how- or a where- Where do people or organizations entertain and use the systems way and where do they not use it or find it helpful? And what is the difference?

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(Letter to the participants of NSL 2014)

The famous poet John Keats used the term “Negative Capability” to describe human beings capacity to step outside their boundaries and embrace new contexts for their learning. That is what we need from you as you all get ready for NSL, an experience of a lifetime.

Each of you bring your own set of expectations and assumptions, which is only natural. And we too as program founders and board members and staff arrive to the summer of 2014 with our own set ideas of what we expect. But by the time we are half way through, we hope that all of you and all of us will have moved way beyond that starting point.

What always happens is the golden surprise, the unexpected bonus, the thing that we could not possibly have planned for. That is not necessarily easy, or comfortable. It may the thing we all have to struggle with. But it is what stretches us. And when you think of the program in terms of stories, a story always needs a surprise to be interesting. NSL is a lot of things but it is definitely NOT boring.

That means that our firm set of expectations- of what the work place will be, the training, the host family, the team, all give way to a wider sense of anticipation- an openness to seize those opportunities that you and we discover together. Expectations are made to be disappointed, one way or another, but you replace them with something much better. An agile mind a generous spirit, and a courageous heart- to seize the moment, “carpe diem”, they call it. ( Watch the movie Dead Poets Society) What can the ten of you create this summer? We can’t wait to find out.

We can never promise that surprise, and you can never describe it in a program brochure, but its why we selected you- to create a unique chemistry to create something new, to start and live a new story of possibility. Now, that is hard to do. To let go of what you want NSL to mean for you, and what we hope NSL will mean for you, and to let you take the drivers seat- explore, get lost, find a new road together. You will make it meaningful by your own energy, your investment, your honest commitment. But you make meaning for you, we don’t make meaning for you. That’s what being a citizen means. That is what the narrative approach is essentially about.

Every year, I hear a few complain that NSL is not clear about its goals, what it wants to achieve. And I respond, yes, you get it. Our goal is for you to name and discover your own goals- to find what stories hold you back, (like always complaining, or feeling you have to ask permission, or have all your goals all spelled out for you by someone else.)

Your job is to find your voice in a powerful enough way to tell your own compelling story, and take back other areas of your life that you have given away to others to do your thinking or acting for you. You are here to discover parts of your self that have never been woken up. You are not here to talk incessantly about the conflict. We often state it thus :We refuse to let war be the defining story of your identity project. Life is so much more than than the sum of its hurts and hates. It is the sum of your hopes.

Change can only happen when people decide that they have a contribution to make that no one else can make, and decide to take responsibilities for their gifts. (hence the PFC) A wise man-spiritual adviser to Martin Luther King Jnr. in fact, was asked by a young activist, “How do we save the world?” And he answered, “Son-Stop trying to save the world, Find the things that make you come alive. Do them, and that is enough because the world needs more people to come alive than it needs people to save it.”

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When I first met my friend and pioneer of Narrative Therapy Michael White 25 years ago in Adelaide, I asked him about the origins of his approach. He said that first of all, he was taken with maps. Mike and I went to Australian schools at a time when for social studies exams, we had to draw the routes of Captain Cook and Burke and Wills and Edmund Eyre. Maps were part of our early learning. Michael’s last work-Maps of Narrative Practice has a compass on the cover. Its as if he returns to where he began.

Inspired by this, I offer below a short summary of how I see Maps and Stories working in tandem: It is about the borders of inside and outside and part of our new work on the New Geography of Change.

When we are outside something, or some issue or concern, distant, as an observer or critics, objective, cool, calculating, rational, unemotional, ( pick an issue where your opinion to experience ratio is 10 to 1, eg, Gun laws, or Middle East Peace, or womens’ rights)

Most times, we need to get inside, to know what it feels like for someone experiencing the issue at the point of where it matters most. For that, we need stories. We need to hear the authentic witness, because a story moves us from outside to inside. One minute we are listening to a veteran start to speak and next minute, we can feel the ache of his having to wait for treatment knowing he might die of the delay. We feel outrage, horror. We are no longer cool, objective, rational. For those issues distant to us, we need stories to move us from outside to inside. In our work with Israel Palestine, so dominated by ideologies, stories make the political personal. For example, When people know from the inside what its like to be a refugee, unearned opinions about the right of return drop away because they sound so cold and uncaring.

When we are lost inside something, or some experience of great pain or great trauma or perplexity that we don’t know much else other than the worry and the sleepless nights and the anxiety that our loved ones share for us, we know we need to get on the outside of it. Then we need Maps. We need to see the bigger picture, to see who else is struggling with the same issue, to see how far we may have come, to see who else is on hand to help. We also need to note the patterns that mark our journey that we cannot see when we are too close to it. Maps move us from the inside to the outside, to move us from “How we Are?” to “Where we are?” White did this when he externalized the problem, which meant- put some distance between you and your concern.


1) Are there issues or experiences you are immersed in right now, or your clients are grappling with, and where just dealing with the emotions saps most of the creative energy? They don’t see the trees for the woods, or you feel like the proverbial “child lost in the forest.”

Then you need to find a map, one that will show up what is invisible inside the experience, such as relatedness, proximity, context, the terrain around the experience, the gaps, the other witnesses who are silent or you cant hear. A map can defeat isolation, or a sense of stuckness because they can show movement and connection, and the goal-proximity of how close, how far.

2) Are there issues or opinions that you feel strongly about, that you know a lot about, and have all the expert research, and feel the rightness of your view more than being in touch with the experiences of those more closely grappling with the issues? Then you need to find some stories to get inside. A story opens up the emotional landscape, and you are no longer outside looking in, but inside looking out.

So many issues qualify. But can we imagine the VA scandal happening if the decision makers knew what delay in treatment means to families? Or if more members of Congress had kids on active service, would they tolerate what has been going on for a decade?

Maps and Stories, the Journey from inside to outside and taking the view of the map back into the story to make it more accurate, and taking the view of the story back into the map to make it more authentic. We need Maps of Narrative Practice and we need a Practice of Narrative Maps.

If anyone is interested in exploring more about the New Geography of Change, let me know- we are hatching plans for some workshops.


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At a recent meeting of master storytellers in LA, we got a chance to share where we thought the frontiers of our work were. As folks would note from previous posts, I think the recent studies on memory are a game changer. Let me give you some examples.


Our fundamental assumptions about eye witness testimony in trials, for instance, have to be rethought. Memory does not work like a playback tape machine. Its reconstructive, which means its our internal storyteller. The more vivid our memories seem- to which we attach the stamp of reality- has little to do with how reliable they are. Memory is fallible and fragile and eminently corruptible. Legally, guilt is based on beyond reasonable doubt, but knowing what we know now about memory, reasonable doubt is the norm, its always reasonable to doubt. How then will we determine guilt? Should it be “beyond even unreasonable doubt?” Cases of eyewitnesses consistently identifying the wrong suspect speak to how their memory was created at the time of the incident, and recreated in testimony, plus the coaching and nudging, not to its accuracy.


The ordinary wisdom around trauma and critical incident debriefing, the idea that sharing hard stories is inherently healing, what I call the TRC myth (Truth and Reconciliation) is unsubstantiated in most cases. Research from 9-11 suggests that those who allowed time for the trauma to settle into a larger pattern of meaning fared better than those who were invited to share their pain in the midst of their pain. That only locked the disruptive and raw emotions into the creating of the memory so that it made it more traumatic later, not less. Next time there is a school shooting, what are the bus load of grief counselors doing? Offering support of course. But to create a memory that will support resilience, it might be best NOT to talk about how you feel and what you saw. What do we therapists do if we can’t ask “How do you feel?”!!!!!!


Lastly, studies of inter-generational memory are astonishing. Kids who know the story of how Great GranMa Tess came from Ireland after the famine, or Uncle Sid did time for bribery and Great Aunty Eileen ran in the 1936 Olympics, all go to giving kids a larger sense of the fabric of life, one that gives them higher resiliency scores than their peers who know nothing about their family saga.

Does that mean and the like are more than hobbies? That they provide an essential cultural therapy? Or imagine if every headline we read had below it what headline featured 25, 75, 50 and 100 years ago on the same day, would we be less anxious, less scare-able to know that in 1964, we were alarmed at Russia’s intentions too, or in 1932, veterans were not waiting for treatment but formed an army to march on Washington because they felt so aggrieved. That might take some of the Sound and Fury out of our modern day indignations that always feign the surprise of innocence, when we have to pretend it has never happened before. Russia threatening to invade, veterans getting a raw deal, USA turning isolationist after war defeats, what’s new???

Vanity of Vanities, they used to say. But news media depend very much on our forgetting and our culture of hype works against memory. but that is another essay for another day, if I remember it.

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The impatient lad pleaded with the wise man who seemed too slow to see how cruel the world had become. The lad could see it was no use.

Don’t you see? he asked….
I see, sure enough, the wise man said,
but when i see, I don’t see what your seeing sees….

Don’t you know? he asked again
I know, sure enough, the wise man said,
but when I know, I don’t know what your knowing knows….

Don’t you even care then? the lad asked almost giving up
I care, sure enough, the wise man said,
but when I care, I don’t get the feel for what your caring cares about….

“Then what is the point?- we can’t do any good?” said the lad, about to walk away

“But we must all strive to do good, son,”said the old man, gently and with a tinge of sadness “You and me, all of us. But the price of being wise is the courage to ask what good is my doing good doing? If you don’t know that, son, how do you know you are doing good?”

“But surely a pure heart is enough?” he said, confused now,

“Seeing and Knowing and Caring are all exemplary, yes,
and doing good is virtuous, but when you live as long as I have,
you realize that it is never so simple-
too often,those who see are blind,
those who know are ignorant,
those who care, are cruel,
and for all the doing good in this troubled world that we can applaud,
the greatest evils are wrought by those too intent on doing good.

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Stories and Power-Time for a scarey Rethink

More and more, I am coming to understand stories through the lens of power. We use to teach at that “the power of stories is the story of power.” But recent studies in how memory works show that this isn’t even the half of it.

It seems to work this way:

We live life and 99.9% gets forgotten-but some experiences get told as stories and these stories stock up our memories such that with every retelling, we create an experience that purports to be a re-experience of the  first experience-Sure!!!! I was there, I saw it happen, its not a story, its real, we say. In law courts, in relationships, at family reunions.

But our brain tricks us, because it knows- its an experience of the story- (think about it -past reality is lost to us in irretrievable time. The souvenir of Big Ben is not Big Ben.) Yet the more we retell, we more we feel we have somehow redeemed lost time and lost realities. (as Proust would say.) Stories are both resurrection and redemption.

The deeper the memory becomes, the more real it feels because every telling adds a new layer of  experiencing, one that adds the attention energy every new audience offers. We tell a story about what happened back when, but what we are after is what will happen right now-from our listeners- laughter, joy, congratulations, pity, outrage, admiration, an offer of marriage, a book contract even. The more we get the response we want, the truer the story becomes. If my audience are crying for what I had to endure, I must have had to endure it. Right? Makes sense.

Over time, the way the brain is rewired, we cannot tell the difference between the original experience and the experience we created through the story of “I remember when…” Think of the childhood memories you tell so well that later on, you realize you could not possibly  have been there to witness. “I remember well the devastating floods of 1947…. even though I was born in 1955.”

If experience gets translated into stories that create memories that work to present “recalled” experience as real and true, it can also work the other way.

Memories, even false memories can be translated into stories that  go on to create experiences that feel so vivid to be real and true, and trustworthy enough to act on. That can be as simple as telling our kids about the boogey man to inoculate them against going out in the dark alone. Or more dangerous stories about a kid “seducing” a white girl to incite a lynch mob, or about heroic Pat Tillman who wins a medal for valor against the enemy that killed him, when all along, the army knew it was friendly fire. It had to be true, they said, even when it wasn’t. We don’t kill our heroes.

Power becomes the art of telling the story so well that it feels real enough for people to believe, and trustworthy enough to act on, kill for, or go buy. The brain does not have enough discriminatory juices to determine a true story from one that feels to us like it has to be true. What we once believed about WMDs, Columbine, Mathew Sheppard’s murder, Jessica Lynch, Balloon boy, all proved to be largely fictions,  and all prove that some stories can make truth irrelevant. (Yes-Read that sentence again) How scarey is that? And what a recipe for a power grab!

Someone once said, stories are the lies we tell ourselves to make us feel the truth, but we have to face it, “true stories” is a contradiction. There is no “real story.”  Its the irony of the label non-fiction, which is an impossible claim, yet one we buy all the time.

Conclusion? Power is based on selective lying. The most believable/ feelable story is the one that makes the most triumphant truth claims, If we can tell ourselves a good enough story, we can basically reinvent reality.

Ooops. Have to go, the purple  pigs flying outside my window are making a racket because they are  being chased by my blue dinosaur. Did I forgot to feed Rex again?

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What the Palestinian children said to Pope Francis

Mohammad said:

“We Palestinian Christians and Muslims believe in one God, who created the world, and we were created not to fight and be divided but to be united. We children of Palestine have not lost hope for the future, and your visit to Bethlehem strengthens our feeling that we must have peace even though we are living under the oppressive occupation of our country. We appreciate all the values you represent, and we would like to live in peace and dignity in our land and our country. ”

And in reply, the Pope said

“Remember that violence cannot be defeated by violence; violence can only be defeated with peace — with peace, effort and dignity to move the nation forward. I understand what you are telling me and the message you are giving me. Don’t ever allow the past to determine your life, always look forward. But do and act and strive for the things you want.”

Posted in Contemporary Stories, narrative, Narrative Method, Stories of Violence and War, The Middle East, Uncategorized | 1 Comment