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Change is Always Happening

In 2008 I had the privilege, along with about 200 others, of being with Michael White in San Diego for a conference on Narrative Therapy. Sadly, it was the last time we would get to be with Michael, as his heart failed that night and he passed away later that week (you can read more about his remarkable work and its effects on people around the world, here).

Michael was inspiring that day as he talked about the ideas and practices that comprise the familiar core of the narrative approach and as he shared the cutting edge of his own thinking about narrative.
I was, as always, spellbound watching the brilliance of his videotaped work with clients (or the people who “consulted” with him, as Michael would have said it). Michael’s meticulous attention to the details of people’s accounts of their lives, and his ability to ask questions that brought out hope-filled alternative stories, was in full force, and the results for the clients were obvious and life-changing. We were witnessing an artist at work. (Michael wanted those of us who followed his work not to place him in an exalted position, and worked diligently to deconstruct his own work such that we could see the step-by-step, disciplined approach, that we all could master. And yet, watching him was still quite magical).

Theory of Change

Someone asked a question that day about narrative therapy’s theory of change. I’ve taught narrative therapy for years, so I immediately tried to think of an answer that I might give to a student. Michael’s answer was simpler, yet more elegant and profound than what was forming in my head. My notes have him saying: 

“Change is always happening. Conversations accelerate change, but it’s always occurring.”

As Michael elaborated, here’s some of what I captured in my notes:
Change is ever-present.

We are constantly constituting life as we give expression to our experience of life.

As therapists we can ask, “Where is a certain expression taking a person?”

We are constantly constituting and re-constituting our lives: “These aren’t the same tears as last time.”

Who are we becoming in our acts of living (what we say, do, feel, etc.)? How are we different than we were five minutes ago?

Michael contrasted this belief about ever-present change and the “re-constituting” of our lives with other approaches to therapy that try to “uncover” people’s “authentic self” –- something that’s fixed and relatively unchanged through time -– and with approaches that subscribe to a “repressive hypothesis” where “our job is to throw off the repression to become who ‘we really are’; to get back to the original.”


Hope in Change


I remember how Michael’s response to the question about change kindled my sense of hope. It is this belief that change is always happening that gives me confidence in my work as a therapist. If change is always happening, then the question in therapy is not, “How can we create change here?” but:

How can we notice and build on changes that are already happening? Or, how can we work together to influence the direction of the change?

Further, in the therapy setting, and outside, the assumption about change helps us be curious in several ways:

Are there changes in our lives that might be “small” and easy to overlook, that may hold promise, and that may be change in the right direction?

How do such changes reflect, reveal, or shape our desires and hopes?

What are the conditions that most foster these desired changes?

What steps have we already taken to help bring about these changes?

What is the potential in these changes? In what direction are they leading us?

Red-winged blackbirds

In her book, Pilgrim At Tinker Creek
Annie Dillard has a wonderful description that speaks of unexpected change. She writes of hearing the “racket” of migrating red-winged blackbirds near her home, and going to explore. As she walks toward the Osage orange tree that seems to be the source of the noise, she sees nothing but the tree and its leaves. Then, as she moves closer, a hundred birds “materialize” and take flight. Just as quickly, the tree returns to just branches and leaves.

She steps closer and another hundred birds fly away, surprising her again. Thinking that all the birds have left the tree, she steps to its trunk only to see the remaining hundred birds take to the sky. She writes of her experience: “It was as if the leaves of the Osage orange had been freed from a spell in the form of red-winged blackbirds; they flew from the tree, caught my eye in the sky, and vanished.”

Dillard’s experience, combined with Michael’s ideas about change, have me wondering:

What is present all along in our lives, that is beautiful, helpful, or life-giving, that is hidden by our perspective, assumptions, or stories?

What changes do we start to notice when we look from a different angle, from closer-up, or when we allow for the possibility of change?

What red-winged blackbirds are there all along behind the leaves and branches of our lives, waiting to appear?




Photo by Walter Siegmund, copyright 2008

1 comment:

  1. Lovely ideas, in theory. In practice, though, I can't help feeling skeptical. Granted, life is never static; but can we really pull out "preferred" threads to re-weave them? Doesn't that result in a story that may echo one's past but lacks the rich texture? And aren't valuable relationships left on the garbage heap in the process?

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