Several weekends ago, a friend and I presented a learning seminar at Bastyr University for practicing and aspiring healing professionals entitled: The Art and Practice of Narrative Medicine. We began the weekend by driving home two points repeatedly. The first was an extended discussion on the importance of safety in seminars such as ours. We identified the importance of collective vigilance throughout, since often environments that start out with high levels of safety, over the course of time (think: any of the famous social psychology experiments on obedience to authority), can frequently morph into being something else entirely (for a detailed look at the safety items we presented, check out this link: How to Know When Safety is At Risk). The second point we spent significant time addressing was the need for co-creating an environment where it was safe, important, expected and welcomed to ask Grand Questions. What’s a Grand Question? I have a definition: anything you feel the slightest urge to ask, especially if you’re feeling any bit apprehensive about giving voice to it.
Make One Change
This book makes two simple arguments: 1) All students should learn how to formulate their own questions. 2) All teachers can easily teach this skill as part of their regular practice. This inspiration for the first argument came from an unusual source. Parents in the low-income community of Lawrence, Massachusetts, with whom we were working twenty years ago. They told us that they did not participate in their children’s education nor go to their children’s schools because they “didn’t even know what to ask.” It turns out that they were actually pointing to a glaring omission in most formal and informal education. The skill of being able to generate a wide range of questions and strategize about how to use them effectively is rarely, if ever, deliberately taught. In fact, it has too often been limited to students who have access to an elite education. Our goal is to democratize this teaching of an essential thinking and learning skill that is also an essential democratic skill.
So, that’s one piece – we should ask Grand Questions so as not to become compliant citizens, buying in to all kinds of BS simply because someone in authority declares it to be so. That’s one small step in unlearning the helplessness that is often an unintended learned consequence of early education.
So, it was most gratifying when later, after I read this quote – attributing it to the Talmud – “We do not see the world as it is; we see it as we are” – and immediately a hand went up. “I know that quote. Is it really from The Talmud? I always thought it was by Anais Nin.” Well, that was the first I’d ever heard that attribution. I preferred that it be from The Talmud; it seemed so historically wiser, somehow. Nevertheless, the truth was, I didn’t really know. And I said so. Even though I initially felt embarrassed for not immediately knowing the answer – or that I might have actually mis-attributed it to the Talmud – I promised to find out. At the break we went looking and discovered both Anais and The Talmud are often referred to as the original source. Finally though, we discerned that Anais did use it, but without attribution, thus many readers understandably attribute it to her. Question answered.
Please Ask Questions – Not
A preponderance of the courses I’ve taken in public and private school didn’t really want me to ask Grand Questions, or any questions for that matter. No teacher ever directly came out and explicitly stated that, of course; usually they stated just the opposite. But by the process of neuroception, it becomes clear to students that there are lots of reasons why asking questions is not a very good learning strategy in many so-called learning environments. And I have been guilty of this as much as anyone.
Neuroception, you may recall, is “threat detection without awareness.” It usually operates below conscious sensory experience and often is delivered through subtle feelings in the body. So, for example, in our Narrative Medicine class, when the attendee posed the Anais Nin question, first I thanked them. I did that because I know they’re very likely taking a risk. Next, I ever-so-slowly moved toward them as I did my best to respond (which can be difficult when you don’t know the answer). When I ask my own questions of teachers and they move away from me, I don’t end up feeling all warm, fuzzy and welcome inside. Finally, I told the truth – which in this case was I didn’t really know – while simultaneously addressing my stress by mindfully switching to awareness of my breath. Much of skillful teaching, for me at least, involves a lot of time spent consciously modulating arousal to insure that it doesn’t spike into hyper-arousal.
Ultimately, apart from whatever information anyone is seeking, how I respond to the questions people ask plays a profound role in whether or not they will continue to keep risking asking them.