Making Space for Difference

Spring!This is the second of a series of posts about this year’s ASGPP conference.

One of the things that has drawn me to Psychodrama over the years is that it is rooted in the desire for social equality, freedom, and community, and deeply embedded in hope. Indeed, most of the people engaged in the discipline are fierce advocates for these values, and are, thus, visionaries. They are also human, given to the same foibles that plague most of us.

Groups of all sorts must address conflicting agendas: on one hand, they wish to be inclusive; on the other, they need to have boundaries in order to maintain an identity. This is true for even the most visionary of bodies, so, inevitably, this tussle played out at the conference.

Many of our decisions as to whom to admit into our lives are made, often unconsciously, on looks. We tend to trust our eyes as they gather information about the world, and the other beings with which we share it. It is easy to believe what our eyes tell us, yet more often than I like to admit, they deceive us. At the diversity event on that first night of the conference I found myself engaged with a small group of participants who appeared to be other than they were. This set me to wondering who else might be present, in some way camouflaged or invisible, in the room, and what marvelous stories they might be willing to share if asked. 

Yet, how often do we ask? Our brains are consummate storytellers, weaving tales from the constant stream of sensory data entering our awareness. They are also programmed to take shortcuts in order to conserve energy. We make quick assessments and turn those into stories, then judgements, forgetting that while seeing may be believing, both our vision and our beliefs may be inaccurate. These stories and shortcuts can be enormously harmful, erasing the lived experiences of the people who enter our workshops and lives.

Our cultural norms are just-so stories, cautionary tales that guide our journeys through the complex world of human interaction. They are largely culturally specific, and thus, while of great value, they are of limited applicability in wider contexts. How often, forgetting that cultural preference is simply that, we treat others as though their stories are less important than our own.

One area in which normative values prove problematic is in the context of disabilities.  While I am clearly disabled (I have difficulty walking, writing, or painting), the extent of those disabilities is seldom obvious. When I spoke up at the event, I acknowledged that, as a physiatrist noted, I am “essentially a quadriplegic who walks and uses his hands.” While to most people who may appear to be an oxymoron, it makes perfect sense to me, and to most people who know me well. (Just ask Jennie for a list of the things she does FOR me….) Yet the cultural stories we tell about spinal cord injuries don’t make room for quads who walk.

This was driven home for me when, on the third day of the conference, a woman stopped me to ask about my statement, appeared to accept my explanation, and looking thoughtful, walked away. As I watched her depart I wished she had stayed and asked me more about my life, had elicited some stories from me, narratives that might make my life real for her. We were, after all, at a conference that seeks to privilege story as a means of engaging the world and promoting healing. She was, I knew, working that morning as a conference volunteer, and had duties to attend to. Yet the wish to be engaged, to be invited to thicken the story, remained with me.

Later, when in a workshop in which the leader asked all of the participants to make eye contact, I was reminded that cultural expectations about eye contact can also be surprisingly problematic. Meeting the other’s gaze is the norm in Western culture. Yet, in diverse other cultures, including parts of Native America, the norm is to avert one’s eyes, except in a few well proscribed circumstances.  In such cultures, directly meeting another’s gaze may be read as intrusive, or even aggressive. Given the centrality of theatre practices to the work of most attendees, it was not surprising there was a tacit expectation attendees would look one another in the eye, with little appreciation that the expectation might be problematic.

Thinking on these things I am left wondering how we may learn to be more sensitive to difference, to trust looks less, and to be welcoming of diverse others. Might it help if, knowing we do not know the stories of everyone in the room, we invite the sharing of difference? If so, how do we do this in a way that promotes a deep sense of safety? I welcome your thoughts on these things, should you wish to share them.



7 thoughts on “Making Space for Difference

  1. Maybe there should be mentioned in the invitation to the conference that we wish to make space for different kind of people and expect you as a joining part, to stay open-minded and open to dialogue with all kind of souls.

  2. Very good points Michael, we do make those instant decisions which may be very wrong. Like a member of my family who is disabled but doesn’t appear to be and has had abuse for parking in disabled parking. Or the assumption that everyone is heterosexual because it isn’t obvious they’re not. I think sharing is so dependent on creating a supportive atmosphere, yet how to really do that without sharing those stories.

    1. Andrea, I have been on both sides of the disabled parking place battle. Sadly, in Vermont disabled parking placards and plates no longer expire, so there may be many people who have plates but are not disabled. This leads to much friction. As to the larger conversations, I. too, am wondering how to have them. I do not want to explain my differences every time I am frustrated or inconvenienced. Nor do I want others to. Yet, unless we challenge the stories that insist on erasing or ignoring difference, the stories just grow stronger. It is indeed a conundrum. (And yes, I often feel quite unsafe in sharing.)

  3. Very insightful and thought-provoking. I’ve often wondered about the importance of eye contact in dissolving boundaries and helping to develop compassion. I feel greater eye-contact would be helpful to society.

    1. Hi Leeby Geeby, Eye contact is a deeply personal and cultural experience. It is easy to forget that what feels tight and good to us may be profoundly disturbing to another.

      1. Very true. Now that I think about it some deeper psycho-energetic factors may be at play too. In a number of Buddhist teachings the lessening of eye contact is a means to reducing your psychic entanglement with your surrounding environment and allowing you to move through it in a more unattached way. I think this has been a big influence in Japan for example, where it helps to cultivate humility and group harmony. Admittedly I was looking at it from a Western perspective.

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