"Between stimulus and response is our greatest power - the freedom to choose" (from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey)
I heard a lovely story during the week. It involved a patient in a GP waiting room who was being somehow less than patient in her waiting. She railed against the delay, the state of the health service, the state of the waiting room itself and the fact she hadn't even had a cup of coffee that day, and all to someone who was in no way responsible for any of it - the unsuspecting lady at reception. You can probably imagine the scene even from this short description. You may even be imagining how you'd respond if you were faced with all those complaints. What would you do? Complain right back to her, or to the doctor? Site dignity at work legislation? Slander her in your mind? The receptionist chose none of these. She made her a cup of coffee instead and brought it to where the lady sat. The patient broke down in tears revealing, amongst other things, a night of little sleep and a child at home with a profound disability.
The story immediately brought to mind a similar scene over 15 years earlier which I had actually witnessed. At the time I was volunteering for a suicide hotline and it was usual to have to wait outside the car park for the two volunteers inside to leave, before you could park up yourself. Well, one particular resident took great offense at this "illegal" (albeit very temporary) parking every 3 hours at the changeover. Her rants were legendary and many people expressed fear, frustration or anger at having to encounter her. The various stories of her encounters with the volunteers would then do the rounds in the centre that week. I myself, if confronted by her, would usually apologise and move on (though inside I do admit to less than hospitable thoughts). One day I was waiting with another volunteer when she came out of her house and starting moving towards us. I prepared for the usual onslaught of complaints and threats (we were occasionally threatened with the parking warden). To my amazement the other volunteer started to walk towards her with a big smile, open arms and a demonstration of empathy, sympathy and just over-all good humour, to which she replied "oh, you're too nice to give out to". He had completely disarmed her anger.
These are two inspirational stories I'm sure you'll agree. Now you're probably wondering what the problem with them is. For starters, it's nothing to do with what the people did. They are undoubtedly two beautiful examples of how people can rise above the slings and arrows of everyday life. Both examples demonstrate beautifully how situations are not always what they seem and that the (often) common sense or normal reaction of meeting fire with fire is not only not always necessary, but actually never necessary. So what's the problem with that? Well, truth be told it's not the biggest problem in the world. The question I have is how often do people ever think to take inspiration from inspirational stories? How often do we do what we are presumably meant to do, i.e. put the learning into action in our own lives? How often do we see that this applies to us too? And what stops us from trying the things in the stories. (Disclaimer: I'm probably as bad as anyone at this. I've read Chicken Soup for the Soul twice and done nothing like those things quoted within afterwards). Are all these great feats just for other people?
I have a theory. I think the problem in a way is that inspirational stories are too good. The feats and responses are too far away from what we are capable of. Think of it like steps on a ladder. We are on whatever step (4th or 5th) and these stories are of people many steps further on. As a result they seem unreachable. We can't even imagine us doing these things. Sometimes we even rebel against them. Ever hear someone get angry and say such and such a story or way of responding is unrealistic (when in fact it's a true story and someone has actually done it). Nobody likes having their own perceived flaws highlighted. Most of us however, once we've finished enjoying the story, just dismiss the possibility (either consciously or unconsciously) that we could ever do such a thing.
The quote at the top is another example of something that is, and at the same time, is not helpful (depending on the context). It describes how behaviour and our responses to situations are actually always chosen. This is no small thing to put forward. It means you are responsible for your behaviour and that, as a result, you can't blame others. I happen to agree myself. The thing is, though, if your menu of choices is limited then what are your options? What do I mean by this? I might (might) have had the ability to make that cup of coffee in the example above. (I'm on say step 4 and that's a step 5 response) but there's no way I'd have thought of, or been able, to do what my co-volunteer did 15 years ago (at that time I was probably on step 2 and that was a step 7 or 8 response). I just didn't have the skills to do it. Similarly, a child can't choose to ride a bike or tie a necktie if they've never learned. So, on the one hand, it's a big accusation to say to someone that they are choosing their responses. It almost implies that they can behave in any number of ways when clearly, if all you've ever known is pain, neglect, abuse and anger (for example) then how can possibly choose a calm and peaceful response. You don't know what you don't know. But yet, on the other hand, we do choose our behaviour and ultimately we usually can make a (slightly) better choice if we put our mind to it (i.e. just go to the next step on the ladder).
Progress with the young people I've worked with down the years is usually one step at a time, or even a half step at a time. They might graduate from physical assaults to verbal assaults or from shouting at you to storming off slamming doors, to to just storming off without the slamming. In case this seems too extreme they also have graduated from school refusals to active participation and from verbal assaults to proper conversations and stating their thoughts and feelings. One of biggest transformations was from a young person who would throw himself down the stairs to avoid homework to getting his Junior Cert and recording music and posting it online. It only took three years.
Is there a moral or a piece of advice hear? Let's see. For one please, please enjoy the inspirational stories still. I know I do. They do inspire and they do provide us with that all-important element of hope. Hope though, without a plan, is just a pipe-dream. Don't try to necessarily emulate them straight away, or dismiss them either. Move one step in their direction. Believe that it's possible to go further steps but move just one step at a time, like those brave young people who correct their behaviors one step at a time.
Progress, not perfection.
That's Restorative Practice.
My name is Joe Power and I am the RP development officer for Limerick. I thought I would write about my experiences in developing my own understanding of RP, as well as in trying to spread it across Limerick. The reason for this is that I find that both my own and other people's experiences are remarkably similar and there could well be some opportunity for others to benefit from these thoughts (or ramblings!!). Anyway I hope you gain something from it.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.