“Harsh News” – how do we keep listening and grow from it?

Lately, I have been thinking and wondering what happens when individuals and communities (and individuals in community) come across “harsh news” that does not easily fit into their worldview. Currently, i.e. Aug 2010, there are not a lot of public examples of the constructive reception, acknowledgement, and responsive, responsible action in the face of disagreeable, critical information:. For example,  bringing to light historical injustices such as those experienced by First Nations peoples, desctructive consequences of human presence on the Planet, or even simply news of yet another global disaster — hurricane, flood, earthquake, etc.

What are our options when faced with this kind of harsh news? How do we  keep  listening and grow from it? This newness is not so much new about something outside of our world and experience, as it is news about how we live in the world., i.e. more news about us. Usually, this kind of newness comes in the form of a “discovery” about something that has been there all along, but arrives in our awareness as fresh news!

Here — from a friend’s blog –is an example of the kind of “harsh news” that I am thinking about.  I have included Michelle’s post because it offers a powerful articulation of the problem, as well as another option for response in addition to the ones that I had thought of.  (See more below.)

Whose Feet: On Language and Speechlessness Michelle Garred | August 25, 2010 at 9:26 AM |  | URL: http://wp.me/praiI-3y

Ten days ago, my mother and I visited the museum of the Squaxin Island Tribe at their small reservation just outside Olympia.  The museum is an impressive facility, designed to spatially represent the seven native groups that lived around seven nearby saltwater inlets.  There was a lot to learn, but one thought in particular has captured my attention. The 1854 Treaty of Medicine Creek was the instrument through which the expansive lands of the Squaxin Island, Nisqually and Puyallup Tribes were ceded to the US government in exchange for reservations and hunting/fishing rights.  That treaty was not negotiated in the peoples’ primary Lushootseed languages. Instead, it was negotiated in the Chinook Jargon, a limited intertribal trade language made up of several hundred words. Opinions differ regarding how much nuance could be expressed using the Chinook Jargon. In any case, the museum exhibit appears to put it mildly when stating that the Chinook Jargon was “inadequate to convey the complex issues of treaty making.” After ten days of reflection, I still don’t know what to say about this injustice.  In fact, I find myself basically speechless. I know that silence is not a good trait for a blogger . . . but in this case, perhaps it’s best to let the history speak for itself.

***** For more information on the museum, check out: http://www.squaxinislandmuseum.org/

Back to Kathryn’s comments:

At first, I labeled this post as multiple choice…as though there were clear, overtly known choices to be made in response to harsh news. Already I can see that these may not be choices, but rather more like destinations  or places for response to some kind of challenging event.

These places are not arranged numerically. I offer them in the hope that I will hear back from others as to if you recognize anything of your experience in this. (And if you have some totally other experience, I would love to hear more about it.)

So, here are five possible “places” one might go to when faced with challenging news:

1. Stunned Silence – “to wait without hope” (T.S. Eliot) for a new wisdom to arise. This response has great potential in it because it acknowledges the initial challenge and lack of clarity, while also remaining open to a later arrival of hope, i.e.  something new. This may not seem like much of a response to hard news about suffering, but it may be the best first response possible. When these  things come as “news,” we are not prepared to make sense of them, until we have time and space necessary for this news to soak into our worldview/soul and grow into something new. How the new grows out of the old is not clear, but I think that some of the other options below help to prepare the way and make it possible.

2. Guilt – Repentance

When guilt occurs in the context of actions for which we are responsible and leads to repentance and reformation, it may be a valuable and transformative response to harsh news. However, guilt may work against transformation and new growth when the concern and attention fall primarily upon “my guilt” and its eradication, rather than amelioration of the suffering at its root. Too often guilt in inwardly focused and may loose sight of the need for outward attention and action.  I am not opposed to guilt that fits, but it seems to me that this kind of guilt may arrive later on, once some of these other forms of transformation are in place and active.

3. Grief – Lamentation

Given my work over the past nine years on my dissertation, Lamentation is clearly my prefered response to harsh news. The advantage is that lamentation allows for all of the emotional weight, pain, sorrow, distress and other “strong emotions” that come with guilt, yet is not stopped by that weight. Rather, Lamentation allows for acknowledgment, honoring, and expression of distress, suffering and injustice which focuses on those who suffering rather than the guilty ones. The direction of lament is outward, and as such creates inner room for transformation through the opening and softening of heart/mind of those who lament.

Lament is not the only necessary thing, but it may offer a very powerful place from which to grow. More is needed, later on.

4. Denial – Resistance through evasive translation and or selective attention

“Denial” is a simple word, but the ways in which denial shuts down or cuts off opportunities for growth are not simple at all. My recent observation of this kind of self-protective repsonse to harsh news allowed me to see how we manage to do instantaneous translastion of  harsh news so as to allow it to go along with our existing worldview and self-image.

This form of denial is very effective in providing protection against harsh news; but it isn’t very efficient becasue it then requires that we continue to maintain, update and filter all incoming messages that are challenged by the new harsh news. I am guessing that it takes a lot of work to do this kind of information management because, at some deeper level, some part of us knows that these pieces do not fit together.

5. Desire, Longing, Passion  – Falling in Love

This final place has a bad reputation because it is not easy to find, and may easily be mistaken for one of the other places in disguise.

One of the responses from “white” people who hear harsh news about First Nations people is to “wanna be an Indian.” (i.e. the wanna-be)  Sherman Alexie and other First Nations authors rightly and often hilariosly display the not well disguised “desire” of white people for a romaticized, unreal, distorted, and self-rejecting white adoption of pseudo red ways. (See Playing Indian by Philipp Deloria.)

Yet, some place behind the false costume worn by the wanna-be, –which covers up what is and pretends to be something else, as opposed to regalia, which announces to the world and contributes to the authentic identity of the wearer– there is a desire and longing of genuine appreciation for the Other. This is dangerous territory to explore because it is extremely difficult to distinguish a magical form of white-self-rejection from a wisdom which recognizes in the Other  “things” that are not, in fact, at all exotic, but rather intimately and painfully familiar and “desireable” in a respectful way.

These are rough, new ideas and they need some time to grow.

I welcome your comments.

About kathrynrickert

Possibly from watching the movie Bambie at the age of 6, I have had a life-long awareness that saying ONLY nice things, does not make the world just or kind. Thus, my 2009 doctoral dissertation..."Talking Back to God" , is one of the main aspects of the work I do. Always interdisciplinary, seeking connections across borders that are usually marked with DO NOT ENTER, I seek to pay attention, pray, think, create,and imagine using biblical laments, Christian worship texts, and the ordinary stuff of everyday life.
This entry was posted in God at Work, God in Relationships, God in the Streets. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “Harsh News” – how do we keep listening and grow from it?

  1. Kedda says:

    There are so many injustices in our past as a country, and it is good to know our true history. Most of our education whitewashed over a lot of these injustices. We don’t have time machines, and can’t go back to prevent, undo, or otherwise change our past. If we could at least learn from our past, instead of pretending that all was well, we’d at least be better able to understand how the First People in our country came to be as we find them today. Once they thrived and covered our nation. Read the book 1491 to discover a very rich history. This country was filled up with native people before the coming of Europeans wiped them out with disease.

    As for the Squaxin nation, I live near them and they are approaching the 21st century with good spirit, and we are grateful to them because they are one of the main employers in our area. I appreciate the way they have overcome the destruction they faced, and are looking toward the future.

  2. Thank you Kedda. I appreciate our wisdom, and I hope more people will be able to hear the harsh news as you have.

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