However what I wanted to talk about and share are reflections on the tears that arise in the context of circle processes that aim to heal and help and repair and teach. In fact this topic is I think so germane to the emotional life and power of peacemaking and healing processes that I sincerely believe that it could very easily be the basis for a worthy research project. The research could look at the presence of tears and the impact it has on the group process and individual participants in circles. Conversely researching the absence of tears, or other visible displays of powerful emotions, would also be instructive. But that research is for another day.
My anecdotal and informal reflections are nonetheless experientially-based. They come from different encounters with circles in training forums, actual applications when using such processes with youth with criminal charges and from the use of circles when teaching College students.
So if there were to be hashtags assigned to this discussion it would include such tags as: affective responses, emotions, tears, feeling dimension, empathy, vulnerability and lastly, courage.
My first encounter with the emotional power of circles occurred when I had arranged training for the scripted approach to using circles, likely in 2003 or 2004. The training was part of a two year research process to experiment with taking the formal scripted model that existed and tailor it for use with children under the age of 12. In order to build capacity I arranged training to be provided by two of the pre-eminent practitioners at that time in Toronto, Art Lockhart and Lynn Zammit. The training was provided for most of the Child and Youth Worker faculty team, selected 3rd year students and the two people who had been hired to facilitate formal conferences in the research itself.
As we participated in a simulation of a situation with a youth created by the two of them (and I underline simulation) both those who taking on the various roles which included the youth who was charged and the various direct and indirect victims and those who were simply watching closely, were visibly moved and shaken by the emotions that were generated. Some of us were close to tears. And, as I said this was a simulation. Yet the emotions were real both for those in role and those not.
Formal Circle Conferences
Over time I developed my own skill set for working with and utilizing circle processes in what I call an explicit fashion. I believe that most of us as Child and Youth Workers utilize circle processes as a best practice approach and in many cases, almost intuitively. I see my relationship to circle processes as having two aspects, an implicit use of the model and an explicit use of the model which continues to evolve with increasing mindfulness of the powerful potential for healing.
In a two instances in particular I was incredibly taken by the power of tears in formal circle processes to have a significant impact on the participants. I do not want to say too much that would be revelatory in terms of identifying persons and contravene youth rights. However let me say a few things. In one instance a store owner shared his rage and outrage about not only the fraud that had occurred but then followed this up with his deep sadness and hurt about the betrayal of trust and the loss in the relationships that had taken place. He shared the latter with tears in his eyes and a choking voice. The young person responded with deep sobs as he saw that what was at stake was not the solely material loss but something larger and almost irreparable at first glance, the wounds to the relationships.
In the second instance 2 young fellows were in a circle for acts they had undertaken and as the circle process unfolded they had shown no visible signs of appreciating the magnitude of what they had done and its impact on others until the sister of one of them shared her humiliation when dealing with the police on behalf of her brother. She was like collateral damage. In her telling of events she showed verbally and non-verbally her deep shame and mortification. At this point there was a visible sea change on the part of the youth. While she was not a direct “victim” she nonetheless had been swept up in a sea of impacts that washed over her and when the tide receded she was still reeling from the affects. And then equally so were the young teens.
The Teaching Context
As I have previously mentioned I use circle formations for certain of my larger classes where there are upwards of 50 students. I have explained to the students that the intent behind this it to counteract the “dumbing down” of their own creative abilities that they may have been subjected to in their previous schools experiences (see Sir Ken Robinson’s “Changing Education Paradigms” RSA Animate; Youtube; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U).
At the close of one course the last teachable element by me is on the use of storytelling for therapeutic purposes with at risk children and youth. I use a number of stories to illustrate these particular uses. One of the ones I choose this year was “The Boy and The Wall” which I had received multiple copies of from Salah Ajarma, a community leader and developer from Palestine. Born, raised and still living in refugee camps he had seen the ravages of violence on his people, his family and himself but, despite this, has chosen a life dedicated to non-violence and creating a generation of new leadership equally committed to non-violence.
The book is a simple tale of a young Palestinian boy, who dreams of ways of living as a wall is built to contain the Palestinians. He dreams of being a kite flying over the wall and an olive tree growing in the shadows and a mountain that can peer over top. There is a wonderful counterpoint provided through a dialogue with his mother. As he gets to the end of his wistful fantasies (and this is really about resiliency) the last pages I found I could not read without tears. I found this in the first class so I was primed for the second class that afternoon and had quickly adapted. When I got to the last two pages I handed the book off to one of the students who I knew was comfortable reading in front of her peers. The story was heard in its entirety and I avoided the embarrassment (shame) of standing in front of 50 young people as a grown man with tears streaming down my face.
For the 3rd class of which is a different group, I chose not to read this story. I acted cowardly and in order to protect myself. Part of it had to do with the absence of a comfortability I was feeling with this group. Our relationship was still in the early stages. Additionally there had been an issue the previous week where there seemed to be an underdeveloped sense of appreciation for cultural ways and practices for Native peoples that suggested to me that the same sort of response would arise. I chose the path where there would be the least resistance.
However I was dogged with a sense of my own cowardice. I had contravened some of my own central values which I believe need to be in play if one seriously commits to being a child advocate. In speaking out there is often fear and a movement out of one’s comfort zone. That is the place of conflict where we need to work in, in order to effect change. I also sincerely believe that we, as teachers and mentors, need to be the change that we profess to express. I had not done any of these things.
Ironically I had been carrying around the book by Parker Palmer “The Courage to Teach” all that week. While I hadn’t opened it, the title stood as not to subtle signpost pointing me to act in a much different way. So I resolved to go back to that class and redo what I had chosen not. I explained to the class had I acted cowardly and had chosen the easy way out and thereby had robbed them of some what they had p[aid good money for. I needed to repair the harm. I explained that sometimes as Child and Youth Workers we need to do the hard thing, which is often the clue that this is the right thing to do. I didn’t go into elaborate explanations but gave them their monies worth and read the story.
Hopefully these reflections illustrate some of the power of tears which arise in the various contexts in which we find ourselves using circle processes. Hopefully they show how, in combination, circle and tears allow us to facilitate a degree of empathy that in other contexts and processes may not be as easily accessed especially for those deemed at risk. Hopefully they illustrate that we are all vulnerable and that one way to respond to our own vulnerability is to admit just that fact, be with others and have the courage to be who we are and who we want others to be.