Lately I have been thinking about the importance of speaking only from personal experience in mediation and listening sessions. One of the reasons speaking with “I” statements is important is because it spurns reliance on popular narratives and platitudes. In this reflection, I will discuss how Dr. Hooker’s concept of narratives challenges us to acknowledge our narrative and then step outside it to better understand one another.
The Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School recently hosted a lunchtime presentation from Dr. David Anderson Hooker, who is Professor of the Practice of Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.
Dr. Hooker spoke about “narratives” and how they shape our stories and world views. Narratives are not specific stories, but broad frameworks for how we narrate the world around us. Examples of narratives include, “man vs. machine,” “the hero’s quest,” and “boy meets girl.” The Odyssey is an example of story constructed within the narrative of “hero’s quest.” We hear and tell stories based on narratives in our own lives everyday. By telling stories through narratives we inhabit the emotions and tropes common to the narrative.
An example might be a couple who narrate their story through the narrative lens of “forbidden love.” This lens might lead them to emphasize aspects of secrecy and the voracity of their love so that the unique story of Gayle and Jackie’s relationship will be colored by the emotions and drama of the narrative genre of “forbidden love.” When asked about how they met, Gayle might emphasize how there was a taboo between UNC fans marrying Duke fans, but they overcame it through the power of their love.
Dr. Hooker gave a brief but compelling discussion on how narratives shape our views and inform our emotions. One point I took away from his presentation was that there is no hope in finding common ground and reconciliation unless we take a step outside of our narratives to see the points of others. This may seem impossible at first blush. We are a product of the popular narratives of our society. We hold narratives so closely that we pass them on from generation to generation in our family histories. Yet, I think it is possible if we make rules of engagement that allow us to speak and listen from authentic and more personal experiences.
NC Conflict Transformation Ministers use a covenant for conversations which states, “Each participant will speak only from his or her own experience. Each participant will use “I” statements when describing her or his experiences, thoughts, or feelings.”
This rule is intended to allow individuals to escape entrenchment in gossip, popular narratives, and second hand information. Without this rule, our group conversations and mediations would become ruled by the narrative of the most popular or dominant personality. For instance, if a conversation participant were allowed to say “everyone knows that our church has gone downhill since this most recent pastor,” then the conversation would be sprinkled with the narrative of “the good ol’ days.” Speaking from our own experience makes it more likely that one person might say “I think our church has declined in quality with our new pastor,” while still allowing others to dissent and speak from a different story.
However, a simple rule is not enough to bring a change. In order to transform conflict it is first necessary to relinquish our solitary possession of truth. We must come to conversation ready to admit that our stories are deficient inasmuch as they are conformed to the narratives of our culture. If we cannot come to this realization, we are beginning a conversation that can only find success in the fulfillment of cultural narratives.
As Christians and peacemakers, we acknowledge that the narrative most crucial to our life is the cross. Our lifelong goal is then to relinquish other narratives to make space for the cruciform. This is not an easy task, because we are inundated with narrative from birth. To take up the cruciform is to destroy some of the prevailing cultural narratives. It means saying no to “might makes right.” Taking up the cruciform narrative means saying, “No, I’m wrong and I’m sorry” for some people and “Your words are hurting people” for others.
The multivalent cruciform narrative will be known by its fruits. It will be known by how drastically different it looks from a world narrated by “he who dies with the most toys wins” and “walk softly and carry a big stick.” Most importantly, witness to the cruciform narrative will be animated by the emotion of love. By using “I” statements, I believe we are taking the first step to speaking from love.
I give thanks for Dr. Hooker’s presentation and the wisdom he offered about finding shared visions of justice. I pray that we all may learn to acknowledge narratives, that acknowledgement might be our first step to freedom.