Very human ways to foster resilience

Recently I was treated to a wonderful production of A Lesson From Aloes, by the South African playwright, Athol Fugard, produced by the Hartford Stage in Hartford, CT. The play had a profound affect on me. It shows how friends who have worked together for a common cause can be pulled apart by not being able to talk about the difficult feelings that come up between them–their very human doubts, fears, vulnerabilities.

I wish that I could have given the characters in the play the tools of Focusing, Listening and Empathic Communication.

Focusing and Listening help you pause and tune in to the bodily felt sense of situations. When you are accompanied by a Focusing partner who gives you space to notice what is happening inside without advising, consoling, or trying to fix things for you, you can gradually express complex feelings that are hard to put into words.

Empathic Communication helps you identify your beautiful human needs so that you can request what you need. When you see how well that works, you become interested in listening for the needs of others, instead of trying to diagnose what is wrong with them.

When activists and those close to them engage in these simple practices, deep things that have been held inside can finally be expressed, and relationships become a source of support, transformation and renewed energy.

A brief glimpse into A Lesson from Aloes:

Piet is a white Afrikaner bus driver and former farmer who was greatly inspired by Steve, a black anti-apartheid activist. Piet joined the anti-apartheid movement during the bus boycott of 1957, and he and Steve became close friends, “comrades” as they say in the play. Because of his activism as a black man, Steve becomes subject to “banning orders” which limit his activities. He defies the orders by going to a party with his comrades and is discovered. He is arrested for violating the banning orders, and sent to jail for 6 months. There is suspicion among the comrades that someone among them was an informer who reported Steve’s presence at the party to the police.

Piet is married to Gladys, a white woman of British descent, a poet. After Steve’s imprisonment, Gladys and Piet’s home was raided by police. Her diaries were read by the Special Branch agent and confiscated. She felt violated by this, and started becoming suspicious and withdrawn, finally ending up with a nervous breakdown. She was interned at a mental hospital where she was subjected to shock treatments.

The play takes place after Gladys has been home from the mental hospital for about six months, and after Steve has been released from jail. Piet and Steve run into each other in the street. Steve, his wife and four children have decided to leave the country for England. Piet invites Steve and his family for a farewell dinner at his home.

In the first scene of the play, Piet and Gladys are preparing to receive their guests. We learn of Piet’s fascination with aloes, plants that survive and bloom in the desert, even during droughts. He goes out into the veld, collects aloes, and tries to identify them according to their scientific names. Aloe identification gives Piet a way to keep up his natural cheerful attitude. He tries to share his fascination with Gladys, but she feels ignored as a person. She is trapped in her own inner struggles, with no way to express herself. Piet tries to cheer her up, and is very attentive, but he doesn’t know the transformative power of listening–so Gladys sits there, getting more and more frustrated, silently blaming herself for being antisocial and unbalanced, not knowing how to get the understanding she longs for. When Piet is not talking about his aloes, he is reciting English poetry. He took up this hobby when he was asked to speak at a child’s funeral, and didn’t know what to say.  Now he has a whole treasure trove of poetry and quotations that he comes out with, hoping that the eloquence of Shakespeare or Longfellow will make up for deep feelings he feels powerless to express.

Some excerpts that illustrate the communication problems in Fugard’s play:

Piet: I’ve been through my book twice, page by page, and but there is nothing that looks quite like [this aloe]. I don’t think I can allow myself to believe I have discovered a new species. That would be something! I would name it after you, my dear. Hail aloe Gladysiensis! Sounds rather good, doesn’t it! And yet, as little Juliet once said: What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Gladys: Are you talking to me?

Piet: Who else, my dear?

Gladys: The aloes…….or yourself. I’m never sure these days.

Piet: They and the thorn trees were the only things still alive… when I finally packed up the old truck and left the farm. Four years of drought, but they were flowering once again….surviving where I had failed.

Gladys: Is that the price of survival in this country? Thorns and bitterness?

Piet: For the aloe it is. Maybe there is some sort of lesson for us there…..We need survival mechanisms as well.

Gladys: Speak for yourself, Peter. I’m a human being, not a……prickly pear. I want to live my life, not just survive it…..[The aloes] frighten me….They’re turgid with violence, just like everything else in this country, and they are trying to pass it on to me.

Piet: (carefully): What do you mean, my dear?

Gladys: Don’t worry. I won’t let it happen. I won’t! (She pauses)

Piet: (Trying to break the mood) Well. (Looks at his wrist watch) Time to get ready. They’ll be here soon.

So Gladys is left alone, trying to control her feelings, with no hope that Piet will listen to her and understand what she is going through.

In Scene 2, Gladys mentions how strange it is that none of the old comrades have come around since she has been back from the hospital. “Is it because of me?” she asks.

Piet: No, you mustn’t think that.

Gladys: Then say something! Every time I mention it, you either ignore me or change the subject.

Piet: (Trying to placate her.) All right, my dear. Relax.

Gladys: God, I wish you would stop saying that!

Piet: There’s no mystery, Gladys. A lesson in human nature maybe, but that’s all. It’s a dangerous time and people are frightened….Everyone has crawled away into his own little shell. It’s as simple as that….I don’t accept it easily, but there is nothing else to do. I can’t change human nature.

Gladys: Not even a complaint about its lack of courage and faith. After all, it has meant an end to “The Cause.”

Finally, Gladys asks Piet if their friends think he was the one who informed on Steve.

Gladys: Peter. Do all the others think it’s you?

Piet: I don’t know.

Gladys: Are you lying to me, or to yourself? (She waits)

Piet: Yes….it looks as if…..they all think…I’m the one….

Gladys: (Quietly) My God! I want to scream…..How long have you known?

Piet: It isn’t something I “know” in that way. There is no one day on which a drought starts. But there were meetings to which I wasn’t invited, and then…I realized people were avoiding me. There is only one conclusion.

Gladys: And you didn’t tell me because you thought it would aggravate my condition. Didn’t you know I’d realize it sooner or later?….

Piet: It’s not as simple as that, Gladys. Obviously I wanted to avoid upsetting you. But even without that, could we have talked about it?  (He speaks with deep emotion) Sat down and discussed over supper that I was considered a traitor? That’s the correct word…..God! It’s the ugliest thing that has ever happened to me. It makes me feel more ashamed of….myself, my fellow men….of everything!…in a way I never thought possible.

Could we have talked about it?”

Gladys and Piet had no tools for talking about their vulnerable, difficult feelings. So those feelings remained inside. Piet was not only unable to listen to Gladys, but also unable to talk to her about his own distress.

I identify a lot with Piet. I was in a situation 23 years ago, as president of our local food coop, where an unexpected series of events triggered suspicion about me from some of the members. I felt confused, ashamed that people were suspicious of me, and “put upon” by others. I ended up getting into a lengthy spat with another board member whom I viewed as someone who was mobilizing people against me. I finally resigned. It was one of the most upsetting situations of my life. If I had known Focusing and Empathic Communication at that time, I would have realized that the members needed communication, clarity, information, and a sense that we would move forward together. I would have relied on my felt sense to shed light on my feelings of shame and embarrassment. I will explain more about this below.

In the second act, Steve arrives at Piet and Gladys’s house without his family. It turns out that Steve’s wife is convinced that Piet was the informer, and doesn’t want Steve to visit because she fears it is a trap that will prevent them from leaving the country. Steve admits that he was suspicious of Piet, but didn’t want to believe the rumors because he was sure of Piet’s friendship. The affection between Piet and Steve is obviously deep and sincere, but Piet doesn’t see how Steve could doubt his loyalty, despite the reality of his friend’s precarious situation. Piet doesn’t defend himself, telling Steve “If you could have believed it, there is no point in denying it.” Steve doesn’t see a way to make things better. He leaves. Gladys decides that she must go back to the mental hospital. Piet is left alone with his aloes.

Each of the characters, based on Fugard’s comrades from the apartheid struggle, shows a different reaction to the “drought” of a police state. My heartfelt feeling is that, as more humans learn how to communicate empathically with each other and with their children, authoritarian states will not be able to take root.

Examples of how they could have talked about it

Here is my made up attempt to give an example of how Gladys, Piet and Steve could have communicated differently if they both had learned how to Focus and Listen.

Piet: I have been through my book twice, page by page, and but there is nothing that looks quite like [this aloe]. I don’t think I can allow myself to believe I have discovered a new species. That would be something! I’d name it after you, my dear. Hail aloe Gladysiensis! Sounds rather good, doesn’t it! And yet, as little Juliet once said: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Gladys: Piet, I feel nervous and insecure right now. Would you be willing to sit down and listen to me for a while?

Piet:  Of course, my dear. (He comes over to Gladys and sits next to her, looking at her and listening in silence.)

Gladys: When I see the aloes, I feel afraid. They remind me of the violence in this country. There is something in me that fears they will pass the violence on to me.

Piet: You are noticing something in you that is afraid that the violence will be passed on to you.

Gladys: Yes, I feel that in the pit of my stomach.

Piet: Would it feel OK to be kind to that feeling in the pit of your stomach?

Gladys: No, I feel too fearful.

Piet: Maybe you could put your warm hand on that place for a moment, and tell it that you know it is there.

Gladys: (putting her hand where she feels the discomfort, then remaining silent for awhile, as if she is listening to something inside) I feel so powerless to change anything.

Piet: Powerless. Would it be OK to stay with that powerless feeling in your stomach for a while?

Gladys: (pausing in silence) It reminds me of how powerless I felt with my mother. I felt she never saw me, never listened, never knew me.

Piet: You felt she never saw you, never listened, never knew you.

Gladys: Yes, that is exactly how it was.

Piet: Maybe you could take a moment to see and hear and get to know that little girl inside.

Gladys: (Weeping) Yes, I can imagine holding her and letting her cry.

Piet: I will sit here with you and hold you as you let her cry.

Gladys: (after weeping in silence) Thanks so much for listening to me. I feel much less nervous and insecure. I know where my fear is coming from. I feel much more open to the reunion this evening with Steve and his family. I need a few minutes to rest and relax, then I will come back and help you get ready.

Comments:

  1. Piet is not trying to cheer Gladys up. When she expresses her fear, he reminds her that she is more than the fear. He reminds her of this with the Focusing phrase you are noticing something in you that feels afraid.
  2. This ability to remember that one is a whole person who is feeling fear allows Gladys to separate her sense of self from the part that is fearful. This inner awareness lets her get in touch with how the fear feels in her body. She locates it in the pit of her stomach.
  3. Piet leaves it up to her to determine whether she is willing to be kind to the feeling in the pit of her stomach.
  4. At first, Gladys feels that it is too uncomfortable to accompany the feeling. Piet suggests another Focusing move: to put her warm hand where she feels the discomfort. Putting her warm hand on her stomach lets the discomfort know that she feels it and wants to know more about it. Gladys takes the reminder, and is able to sense that the feeling is not only fear but powerlessness.
  5. Piet reminds her that she can choose to stay with the feeling of powerlessness if it feels OK. She decides to stay with it, and this leads to the body memory of feeling that her mother never saw her, never listened to her, never knew her.
  6. Piet reflects these words back exactly as Gladys says them, because they describe an awareness that comes from the felt sense. Gladys confirms that Yes, that was exactly how it was.
  7. Piet invites Gladys to get to know the little girl inside, and Gladys imagines holding her inner child and letting her cry. As her husband, Piet offers to hold Gladys while she accompanies the little girl. This holding would not usually be offered by one Focusing partner to the other, but because Piet is her husband, it seems natural and appropriate.
  8. Focusing and listening have helped Gladys feel the origin of her overwhelming fear. She is no longer fighting herself to keep it under control. She is no longer projecting violence onto the aloes and fearing that they will pass the violence on to her. She knows that she needs a few moments to rest and recuperate, but feels a natural willingness arising within her to help prepare for their guests.

In my made up version of Scene 2, Gladys is able to help Piet cut through his tendency to distraction and listen to his inner distress.

Gladys mentions how strange it is that none of the old comrades have come around since she has been back from the hospital. “Is it because of me?” she asks.

Piet: No, you mustn’t think that.

Gladys: There must be some reason they don’t visit us.

Piet: There’s no mystery, Gladys. A lesson in human nature maybe, but that’s all. It’s a dangerous time and people are frightened….Everyone has crawled away into his own little shell. It’s as simple as that….I don’t accept it easily, but there is nothing else to do. I can’t change human nature.

Gladys: Peter. Do all the others think it’s you?

Piet: I don’t know.

Gladys: (She waits). Is it OK to stay with that not knowing for a moment?

Piet: (Pauses) Yes….it looks as if…..they all think…I’m the one….

Gladys: (Quietly) You are sensing that they think you are the one.

Piet: It isn’t something I “know” clearly. There is no one day on which a drought starts. But there were meetings to which I wasn’t invited, and then…I realized people were avoiding me.

Gladys: You weren’t invited to meetings and people started avoiding you. You started fearing that they thought it was you.

Piet: (He speaks with deep emotion) Yes. And I was afraid to sit down and talk to you about it. It felt so bad to be considered a traitor. That’s the correct word…..God! It’s the ugliest thing that has ever happened to me. It makes me feel more ashamed of….myself, my fellow men….of everything!…in a way I never thought possible. I feel it like a coating of grime all over my body.

Gladys: You feel it’s like a coating of grime all over your body. Is it OK to say hello to that feeling and be with it?

Piet: It feels so uncomfortable. I never felt this way before. I cannot believe they would think that of me………But I’ll stay with this feeling for awhile, even though I can hardly stand it.

Gladys: I am right here with you.

Piet: (After a long silence) Now it’s like a storm in my chestI So many parts of me are fighting with each other. I don’t know how to express it all.

Gladys: Just take your time to feel all of it.

Piet: There’s the part that is furious with the government for making Steve suffer. There is the part that is so shocked that my friends would think I betrayed Steve. There is the fear of bringing it up at all. What if they are convinced that it was me and they don’t believe me?  There is the part that reminds me of when my older brother stole some money from my father’s wallet, then blamed it on me. Nobody would believe me. There was nothing I could do.

Gladys:  So many things! you’re furious at the government for Steve’s suffering, you’re shocked that your friends would think you betrayed him. You’re afraid to bring it up, because they might not believe you. It reminds you of when your were unjustly blamed for stealing from your father, and there was nothing you could do.

Piet: Yes, and I am heartbroken, Gladys, that all this has taken such a toll on you.

Gladys: You’re heartbroken that it has taken such a toll on me. Thank you, Piet. (She gives him a hug and he returns it)

Piet: (Silence.) Yes, I feel like I am understanding all the things that were warring inside me.  (Silence.) I feel calmer now, Gladys. I know I am not a traitor, no matter what the others think. And I can really understand how suspicious we have all become of one another with all this government repression.

Now, when Steve comes, Piet will have processed all that he was feeling.  He will be able to acknowledge the suspicions Steve and his wife have without having their suspicions mixed up with his former trauma of being unjustly accused.  He and Steve will be able to embrace and say goodbye, and their friendship and respect for each other can remain intact.

So where’s the drama?

Most dramatic plots are about people not understanding each other, not attempting to listen to each other. When you add empathic listening, the drama fades away. People get in touch with their own inner reality. They become able to put it into words instead of holding it silently in their bodies, where it festers and alters their view of reality.

In my non-dramatic version, Piet and Gladys don’t try to give each other advice, or to console each other or smooth things over. They encourage each other to be present to the uncomfortable feelings held in the body. Those bodily-held feelings often lead to a previous life situation where vital needs were unmet. The listening and reflecting back given by the partner helps the felt sense to be acknowledged and expressed. The end result is empathy for the younger self whose needs were unmet, and the ability to separate the former trauma from present experience, not only intellectually, but in the body. When the understanding happens in the body, there is an actual shift in the bodily felt sense. This shift means that the situation can no longer be seen and acted upon in the old way.

All this requires training. Our natural tendency is look for who or what is to blame for how we feel. It takes practice to learn to bear with uncomfortable feelings in the body, acknowledge them and listen to them. There are so many systems that need changing in order for our planet to survive. That is suspense and drama enough. We don’t need our interpersonal dramas to stand in the way.

Often, people in activist movements feel that they have to remain “strong” and cannot “give in” to their very human vulnerabilities. Others feel that they have to tune out from current events because the news is too distressing.

Today’s world calls for all of us to take our humanity into account. We especially need flexible organizations that provide space for human vulnerabilities to be expressed.

Organizations that train members and staff in systems for processing human feelings will have more of a chance for reaching their full potential. This training fosters cohesiveness and mutual respect, stimulates creative thinking, and turns conflict into an opportunity for growth and realization. I have seen it work many times in the organizations I am involved in.

With Focusing and Empathic Communication you come out in a different place than where you started. After you have become aware of your feelings and needs, a fresh sense of the problem emerges and you can see new steps toward addressing it, steps that you wouldn’t have thought of when you were stuck and upset.

Of course, this means slowing down for non-judgmental, non-evaluative listening. The reward is flowing human interaction, which actually can make solutions more relevant and organizations more efficient.

More on Empathic Communication and Focusing

Empathic Communication is based on Nonviolent Communication (NVC), developed by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg. It provides guidelines for how to talk in a way that does not put people on the defensive. The guidelines help people move out of labeling, blaming and judging, all deeply ingrained cultural behaviors that block connection. NVC promotes seeking out and addressing the unmet needs that give rise to conflict instead of only determining who is right and who is wrong.

According to the Philosophy of the Implicit of Dr. Eugene Gendlin, the developer of Focusing, stating what someone IS, ignores the reality that life is a process that is constantly developing toward more life, the way a plant grows toward the sun. This life-forward direction can become clear through listening gently to the pre-verbal “bodily felt sense” of situations. The body “gets” the intricate sense of the whole situation, often in a way that cannot easily be put into words. When one attends to the bodily felt sense in an open, empathic way, words, gestures, images, and memories emerge from the felt sense, giving meaning and indicating the next steps forward.

The paradoxical conclusion

Efficiency and efficacy in today’s activists and activist organizations depend on slowing down long enough for feelings and needs to be heard and acknowledged, and for felt senses to emerge. This can lead to personal and organizational resilience.

Beatrice Blake: I became a Certified Focusing Trainer in 2000. Working closely with colleagues in El Salvador since 2007, we developed ways of teaching Empathic Communication as a doorway to Focusing.  In my online class, Generating a Culture of Peace, people learn and practice the theory of Nonviolent Communication, and apply it to their interactions. They also see how the wisdom accessed by the bodily felt sense can give new and deeper insights on what the conflict was about in the first place. My experiences have taught me that far-reaching developments can come from listening to the felt sense.
I specialize in helping people develop their next steps in life, especially when the new direction is only a feeling that can’t yet be put into words (http://possibility-space.com).