Inner Peacemaking and the Work of Reconciliation

Reconciliation between nations, peoples, and individuals

is something I am deeply concerned about, but often feel quite powerless about. I was invited this past weekend to present an arts based workshop on the topic of reconciliation. Before I said “yes,” I really wondered what I could possibly do or say in a mere sixty minutes that would make any difference at all. After I said “yes,” I was even more doubtful! In the end, and following the traditional advice to writers, I could only present what I know. What I know is not very much, and pretty narrow in scope, and yet it seems to me that it’s important to start with where I am – only from there can I start the bigger process of learning more and participating in more effective action.

Reconciliation work can begin within the individual.

My usual work involves helping people who are grieving a loss or navigating a major life transition. Reconciliation comes into this work as well, on a smaller scale perhaps. Sometimes it’s between people, but more often I’m working with reconciliation between the parts of a person that are somehow at odds with each other.

 We can experience conflict between new and old ways of seeing ourselves or the world when we go through a trauma or loss. We may feel torn between two (or more) parts of ourselves that want different things as we grow and change. For some people, loss is all about the inner conflict between a side that feels immobile with despair, and one that yearns and seeks for new hope. There may be warring emotions such as anger and guilt or resentment and love. Sweet memories may struggle to emerge next to regretful ones.

These are all pieces of ourselves that in our normal day-to-day lives are easy to ignore or even to truly be at peace with. In times of stress, trauma, or grief the fractures within us become visible and sometimes unbearably painful.

At the workshop, I invited participants to do some brainstorming.

  • What parts of yourself are you MOST comfortable with? What character traits? What emotions?
  • What parts of yourself do you feel most in CONFLICT with?
  • What do you tend to DO to those parts that you find least acceptable or comfortable?

The answers at the workshop were probably similar to some of the ones you’ve come up with yourself. We tend to be comfortable with traits like kindness, creativity, politeness: those things that we get praised for out in the world. Parts like shame, like anger, some things like introversion or assertiveness, tended to be ones that were less universally welcomed.

Love your neighbour as yourself… but what if you don’t love yourself?

I found it interesting that what people (me included) do to those parts of themselves they don’t accept, mirrors pretty accurately what we do to other people we don’t accept. We call ourselves names (“I’m so stupid!” “That would be selfish!”) We silence parts of ourselves – allowing only the “nice” emotions out, while the sadness or the anger are left behind, unexpressed.

 The last question I asked the workshop participants was, “Does this affect your relationships or anything else in your life? How?” Most participants agreed that ignoring, silencing, mocking, or hating parts of themselves didn’t work. At best it created havoc in their own hearts, and at worst it resulted in disastrous interpersonal dynamics.

Creative inner reconciliation: Self-portraits from found objects

Presumably, since you’re reading a blog on an art therapist’s website, you’ve experienced, or are at least willing to play with the notion of creativity as a means of self-expression and self-exploration! Here’s what I asked my workshop participants to do, and I invite you to try too.

I offered them a large and diverse collection of stuff – all kinds of stuff – from sticks, stones, feathers, and shells, to bottle caps, ribbons, beads, and burnt matches. Everything from the precious to the discarded and broken. You can collect such things on a walk outside, from your junk drawer, the recycling bin, from your box of broken jewelry you haven’t got around to fixing.

  • Look over the materials, and choose some. Choose a bunch of things that have some emotional charge for you, negative and positive – both the things you like or are attracted to, and the things that you really don’t.
  • After you bring them back to your workspace, arrange them to create a face – a self-portrait – as abstract or realistic as you like. You can glue them down onto a piece of cardboard, or simply take a photo of your creation and put the materials back.
  • Don’t try to plan ahead while you’re picking your materials. Trust that you’ll be able to make a picture out of what you choose. Let it be as intuitive as possible.
  • Try to bring an attitude of friendly curiosity to your selections and your arrangement – it’s not about making Big “A” Art, it’s about engaging your heart and mind and hands in the process!

After you’ve made your self-portrait, here are some questions that can be helpful in working toward some inner reconciliation:

  • What parts of myself have I allowed into this portrait?
  • Are any parts missing?
  • Does this portrait show me anything new about myself?
  • How can I love this person that I made here?
    • …when I see her or him in the mirror?
    • …when I see him or her out in the world?
  • What does this person need? What do these various parts need?

 There aren’t any perfect answers to these questions. And reconciliation, on the world stage and in our own hearts, is an ongoing, ever changing and evolving process. If you try this exercise, I’d love to hear about how it went for you! You can post pictures on the Open Hearth Studio Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/openhearthstudio/

 

Telling Our Grief Stories to Heal Our Grief

When people tell me their grief stories

they often ask me “does this sound normal?” Because everyone goes through grief in their own way, it can be hard to see what might be normal about your own experience. The fact that our culture doesn’t encourage us to talk much about death, grief, or the down-side of change makes it even harder, because you might not have heard many other people telling their stories about what it was like for them. Worse, you might have been subtly discouraged from telling your own grief stories by (hopefully well-intentioned) people telling you how to feel or jumping instantly into their own experiences without hearing yours. I’ve seen this cultural habit leave people feeling isolated and stewing in their memories, feelings, or fears, afraid to speak their truth in case it might start a flood of unwanted advice or hurtful platitudes. Some end up just hoping the pain will somehow go away on its own over time. Sometimes it leads to a sense of bitterness and cynicism about the possibility of healing at all.

That’s why it’s so important to be open to hearing mourners’ own stories.

Truly hearing means listening to understand, rather than to come up with the perfect response that will fix the grief. I know it’s hard to sit with someone (including ourselves) while they are feeling horrible, and not to leap in with something we hope will make them feel better. What we don’t necessarily see at the time, through the tears, is the healing that happens through the telling itself. We are story telling creatures, whether that’s with pictures or words; human beings make sense of our world this way. When we tell a story, even if we’ve told it over and over again, we come to understand new things about it, about ourselves, about other “characters” in the drama, and even about the world itself and how it works. There is a really great article on the importance of telling your story here.

Mourners worry that if they keep telling the same story

over and over again their friends and family will get frustrated or bored with them. Sometimes friends and family worry that the mourner will get stuck in their grief if they let them keep talking about it. For both mourners and supportive listeners, the important thing to remember is that we can always listen deeper into the story, each time it’s told. Telling them you’d be interested in hearing about their memories of the person who died, or about what it’s like for them right now can be a loving thing to do. Of course it’s also always a good idea to let the person know that they don’t have to answer you if they’re not comfortable! A really wonderful little resource about what to say when you don’t know what to say is the book There Is No Good Card For This: What to say and do when life is scary, awful, and unfair to people you love  published this year by Kelsey Crowe and Emily McDowell. I found it useful for thinking about my own grief, too. It really validated my feelings and helped me understand my own needs a bit better.

Your path through grief starts with your story.

Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er wrought heart and bids it break.        Shakespeare, Macbeth IV:iii

You can find lots and lots of personal grief stories on YouTube, Ted Talks, and blog sites. I think this is because finally we are beginning to recognize the importance of telling them, while not being quite ready as a society to hear these stories without the escape valve of clicking away. Reading and hearing these stories can be helpful to some grievers; others’ stories can give words and a shape to our own struggles when we’re not able to tell our own. In the end, however, it’s your own story that will you show you the path you need to take through grief.  Your story will illuminate what is important to you. Your deepest hurt can show you what your deepest needs and desires are. They can be the compass that points the direction to your greatest healing.

 Many times my clients have come to me because they feel they’ve exhausted the energy of their friends and family to hear their story any more. So often the people closest to us when we grieve or go through big changes are experiencing their own difficult journey. The first step I take with them is to make room for telling the story, with or without words, in whatever way and at whatever pace works best for them. As the story unfolds, they can begin to see where they want to go, and we can work together to map their path.