This blog continues the theme of previous blogs, i.e. ‘to focus on getting an understanding of what we mean by environment, system, culture or field, that is, the context of peoples’ lives’. The challenge is to avoid the separation of the person and world into the two separate realms which have then to be joined somehow. The usual formulations are along the line of ‘the individual and their environment’, formulations that are so ingrained and taken for granted that it’s at the heart of all the language we use, making it almost impossible to write about the subject without falling into the usual divide.
Our focus in this blog is a book by Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope, Ethics in the face of cultural devastation’ (Harvard University Press 2006). The book tells the story of the Crow Indians during the period when white settlers and the US Government encroached on their land, and eventually forced them into reservations. The central question of the book is what happens when the ‘way of life’ of a people comes to an end and how do they respond to such catastrophic events. In addressing this question Lear explores what being-in-their-world was for the Crow Indians and the inseparability of a Crow Indian from their world.
The book explores the death of a culture, the death of a way of life, and the significance of this for the people who dwell in that way of life. The Crow Indians were a nomadic, hunting, warrior tribe constantly under threat of annihilation from other tribes such as the Sioux, the Blackfeet and Cheyenne. These circumstances constantly configured the whole culture including the sense of identity of each person. It establishes what the person aspires to, desires, what is honourable, what is shameful, the skills they learn as a child, their positioning in the social order of the tribe, how they treat each other, the significance and meaning of the rituals and ceremonies of the tribe, and so forth. Every aspect of life, even the most intimate and personal, arises from their being-in-the-world of the Crow Indian in this nomadic, warrior existence.
What happens when a way of life ends, as it effectively did when the Crow were forced onto reservations? What happened was a collapse of meaning, of purpose, of what it meant to be a Crow Indian – when what made sense became senseless. For example, there is no sense in being a warrior on a reservation where warfare is prohibited, so all the identities, social practices, skills, rituals, ceremonies around warfare become meaningless – “The very acts themselves have ceased to make sense” (p.38).
It is this collapse of a way of life that makes understandable the words of the Plenty Coups, the Crow Indian Chief who is a focus of the book: “after this nothing happened”. Events that were meaningful in the traditional Crow culture could no longer occur; the site of meaning had gone out of existence. So ‘after this nothing happened’ even though the Crow lived on as an identifiable group on the reservation and Plenty Coups lived for many more decades and was honoured by the American Government and his own tribe for the way he managed to sustain the Crow tribe in the aftermath of the catastrophe.
We can get a feel for the experience of the Crow Indians by considering similar, though less radical events in our own culture, when traditional industries, such as mining, steel, shipbuilding and fishing, ceased to be: and the ways of life they sustained are no more. As with the Crow what happens to such communities and the everyday taken-for-granted ways of understanding what they are doing? What happens to their sense of what makes a life worthwhile? What is the basis for pride, for shame, hopes and ambitions? What of the skills learned over a lifetime that have no place or meaning? They lost their basis in reality leaving individuals and communities disorientated, dislocated, struggling for a sense of direction and purpose.
Lear poses the question of how the culture responds to ‘cultural devastation’; how to find hope, direction and ways forward when a way of life is dying. He describes how the Crow took meaning and direction from their traditional practices, in this instance, their ‘interpretation of dreams’. The Crow encouraged younger people to go off into the wilderness on their own with the intention of having a dream that would carry important messages for the tribe. The elders would then interpret the dream in terms of its significance for the whole tribe.
At the age of nine the young Plenty Coups went into the wilderness to dream, and to encourage a dream-vision he chopped off part of his finger, which was a common cultural practice to induce dreams. He had a powerful dream-vision of the disaster that was about to befall them, and an indication of how to meet this fate. In the dream a storm destroyed everything except the lodge of the Chickadee, a small bird:
“Listen Plenty Coups” said the voice “In that tree is the lodge of the Chickadee. He is least in strength but strongest in mind amongst his kind. He is willing to work for wisdom. The Chickadee person is a good listener. Nothing escapes his ears, which he has sharpened by constant use. Whenever others are talking together of their successes and failures, there will you find the Chickadee person listening to their words. But in all his listening he tends his own business. He never intrudes, never speaks in strange company, and yet never misses a chance to learn from others. He gains successes and failures by learning how others succeeded or failed ……” (p.70-71)
The Crow elders took this dream to predict a coming storm which would end their current way of life, and that the tribe could survive by adopting the ways of the Chickadee, providing Plenty Coups with a strategy and direction in the decades that followed.
The fascinating and instructive thing about this account is how existing cultural practices were the source of direction to meet forthcoming calamity. It also highlights the importance of people like Plenty Coup, who had the courage to ‘take a stand’ and hold fast to the interpretation flowing out of those cultural practices in the face of extraordinary devastating events.
The significance of Lear’s book for practice
I find Lear’s account of the Crow Indians helps me make sense of the claim, which I think is correct, that it is a false move to separate off the subjective from the objective, mind and world, individual and environment. It’s a concrete reference point for the claim that our being is to be found in our involvements in our world. Coming from a psychotherapy background it is so easy, second nature, to ‘look within’ the person, deep dive into the psychological dimension, as if what happens here can be understood separately from their world. Lear’s account makes it plain that even the most ‘psychological’, most ‘personal’ is, at the same time, the most cultural – our moods and feelings; ambitions, fears, identity (including all the dimensions usually listed as ‘difference and diversity), skills, etc. etc.
With clients now I am actively seeking to grasp the totality of the client’s being-in-the-world. For example, what is praiseworthy or shameful in an organisation, what practices are prevalent such that all are caught up in them (e.g. blaming leading to defensive strategies), how are identities configured (e.g. what does it mean to be a manager or a leader – is it about being an expert and telling?), what are the moods that set the tone (maybe fear and anxiety, or excitement and ambition). If we don’t understand our clients from the perspective of their being-in-the-world, then the danger is that they are blamed (or praised) for everything that happens that they are involved with.
The existential question
From the existential perspective I am seeking to raise my client’s awareness of their being-in-the-world, alongside the question of what, in all of this, really matters to them? What do they need to take a stand on, such that they have a sense of ‘getting back to themselves, to be living the right life? This existential aspect will be the subject of subsequent blogs, but this dimension can only properly be explored once being-in-the-world has been grasped. It’s only be taking account of our ‘thrownnes’ into a particular world that we can properly pose the question to clients of whether they are living the right life. And I think this is the most powerful question we can ask our client.
Coach, Psychotherapist and Supervisior