Stone Soup and the Wisdom of Not Knowing
Ward: We have a ritual that we’ve done, since the very first Chautauqua, and it’s called “Stone Soup.” I originally devised it as a ritual for the ritually impaired. Being myself somewhat ritually impaired, this was my defense against rituals that were too strange or I felt embarrassed by. So this is a very low-threshold ritual. There are a couple of parts to it now because we all have a tendency to embellish. Lulu would you pass this (basket) around, you can pick a large stone or a small stone out of the basket, depending on your predisposition. While she’s passing that around, this is a story that most people probably know. What I discover is that every year my interpretation of the story changes. I think something about stories, is that you can have the same story, but you can change your relationship to the story.
This is the story of a village that was starving. A strange shaman-like man walked into the village one day and noticed everybody was starving, and he called the people together and he said, “I have a magic stone.” He brought a stone with him, and he said, “With this stone I can feed the whole village. What you need to do is to get a big pot and put a fire under it, start boiling water, and I’ll put the stone in it, we’ll make soup for everybody.”
The villagers, given that they were starving, thought that was a good idea, and they built the fire and put the water in the pot and put the stone in the pot. And the stranger said, “You know, the stone will feed everyone, but you know what actually gives some flavor to this? Has anybody got an onion?” And one of the villagers raised his hand and said, “You know, I have an onion that’s under my house, it wasn’t any good for anything, we couldn’t feed anybody with it and we were saving it.” And so he went and got the onion and put it in the pot. And the stranger said, “That’s excellent. And what will even make this better is if anyone has a potato.” Well there was somebody that had a potato that they were holding back because it wasn’t enough to create a meal with, and of course this went on and we got some celery and a turnip and a carrot and so on. And by the time all this was done, and the soup was cooked, they were able to nourish the village.
As the story evolves for me, it is that when we come together, each question that we bring into the village is a form of nourishment. Because our not-knowing connects us in a way to reduce the starvation that we experience in isolation and separateness. We live in a fragmented world. We live in a world where we imagine that our welfare is not somehow inextricably connected with the welfare of others. I think one of the things on the South Africa journey recently with my students was that as we connected with people on the margins there, we discovered is how much they mattered to us and how deeply connected we were to them once the field of our humanity touched. I think this is a common story, that “connecting is healing,” and disconnecting is the ailment. So that when we bring our not-knowing, and we begin with our not-knowing, what we do is we are assembling in the name of the thing that makes us most essentially human. We’re assembling in our humility and our vulnerability, and that truly makes us human beings together. In the listening that comes from not-knowing, we nourish one another.
So the symbolic act of having a stone which has a question attached to it, is a way that we’ll nourish the village, because we will bring our questioning, we’ll bring our vulnerability, we’ll bring our humanity, and we come together as human beings, not as experts, not as people attempting to colonize other people with our good ideas. In fact co-opting others to our good ideas is one of the more pernicious things that we can do in our enthusiasm to make things better. Instead we can actually deeply listen to another human being, and to listen to their not-knowing without giving advice, without presuming that we would understand the complexity that each life is, but just to truly listen. As we are working together today we can to learn to ask questions of clarification rather than give advice. And of course one of the most important questions of clarification is, “Why does this matter to you? Why is this important to you?” And when we do that, we actually “listen” each other into our own answers. We know that any really true answer is going to come from inside.
This year when we were in India, we had the privilege of interviewing Samdhong Rimpoche who was the Prime Minister of the Tibetan Government in exile. We saw him in his final days of office after doing that for a number of years. The last question was, “Well sir, do you have any advice for us?” And his response was, “No.” (laughter) He said, “Advice is the easy way. This is something you have to reason out yourself, otherwise it can’t truly belong to you.” And so, in dialogue, we can reason together.
So, the exercise this morning is to think about a word that is central to your inquiry. This idea came from a conversation with Sara Truebridge who came down to visit me. She was the educational advisor to movie “Race to Nowhere.” We were having a conversation and I noticed that a word kept coming up, and suddenly it dawned on me that there are certain words that attract our inquiry. And those words change over time. What is the word that attracts your inquiry, the word that has a magnetic force for you around not-knowing or around aspiration and possibility and that’s the word I would like you to place on your rock. Now the really challenging part of this ritual is that after you’ve done that, the scary part is that you have to get up and put it in the circle, that’s the limit of your exposure on this, okay?
So take a few moments and be in reflection. Just sit and see what comes up and if it’s nothing, you may put a blank stone in there, and if you are really ritually challenged you can just stick it in your pocket, you don’t even have to get up. (laughter) So we have options here. As Peter Block says, “If you don’t have a ‘No,’ your ‘Yes’ means nothing.” So everybody has a “No.” here.
(musical interlude for reflection)
Chené Swart – Narrative Therapy
Chené: Thank you for giving me the space to speak. It is a privilege, and holy ground, always. My journey with the Narrative work started when my story was really stuck and I thought my world was so fixed, that I could not move. A good friend of mine said that he’s just come across this wonderful new kind of therapy, called Narrative Therapy. I said, I’m so stuck, just help me out. And it was the most wonderful experience to feel how my world opened and broadened, and how I could start to breathe again. So I was all in – and I thought, how on earth am I going to learn how to do this? The Narrative work is quite new in the world. It started about thirty years ago with Michael White in Australia and David Epston in New Zealand. At the Dulwich Center in Australia you can be trained as a Narrative therapist. I had a wonderful opportunity in South Africa to be trained.
Another good friend of mine said, “This work sounds lovely. Why don’t you try it in corporate world?” Oh, that was and still is a wonderful learning journey, because they would ask me, “Can you do de-briefing for our executive team?” And I thought, “What’s in a word? – A world…” I would say, “Tell me about de-briefing. What does that mean for you?” And then I would listen and say, “ok, I think we can do that.” And so this whole new world of organizational (O.D) development opened up for me. There were words like ‘change management’ and ‘team building,’ and ‘check-ins and check-outs.’ This whole idea of “What is in a word, a world,” has been part of my exploration in the O.D. field. I find the world so fascinating and every opportunity an opportunity to learn from, or to be transformed by the other, by whoever’s in the room.
I’m going to give you a quick explanation of the Narrative work which I have been challenged to do by Peter Block often times in situations where I would have only ten minutes. I’ve been taught in my training within Narrative therapy that it takes a long time for people to understand these ideas. It is complicated and difficult. Explaining these ideas within a limited time frame was a wonderful challenge for me, because I had to deconstruct the power of my own field and training to rework and explain what the ideas are about.