“It will happen, but it will take time”
With its philosophical and historic roots in the framework that Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King created for their political struggles, the therapeutic approach of Non Violent Resistance that Haim Omer and his team developed has gained an impressive international following over the past 20 years. One can also see it as reflecting the principles of Martin Buber’s ‘dialogical principle’. It is gratifying to witness how this approach offers families, parents and professionals much needed support when they try to cope with patterns of aggression, isolation, coercion and anxiety.
Sharing its core principles, a diverse range of its applications continues to grow, while the approach continues to become theoretically enriched. At the time being, we are headed towards the 5th international conference on NVR in Tel Aviv in May of 2018. However, next to new inspirations, possibilities and reflections, I feel that this international dialogue has an additional task at hand. I feel that it has the opportunity to provide us as NVR representatives with a sharp and nuanced trail of thoughts, embodied with a critical voice that offers counterweight to simplification and narrowed methodological protocols.
A malfunctioning road map of care too often tends to get sneakily conveyed as the family’s fault. So even in a landscape where organisations feel obliged to offer a clear and transparent way of working, it remains important to ask ourselves the following question: how would this family experience this way of working at this moment in time? It seems important that the manner in which this approach is used should not obstruct what it was developed for: to enhance the experience of support in circumstances that can be highly challenging.
In its optimal form, NVR will work better as collaboration than as ‘treatment’. This calls for us as professionals to act actively as partners in creating a culture of de-escalation. When adults and children are tangled up in chronic interactions of conflict and coercion, they usually do so within a hidden but deeply rooted connection. If they then meet therapists or other professionals who blame them for their impasse, or quickly shove a parenting model down their throats, it is not only counterproductive but also improper. We cannot obtain moral goals by morally doubtful means, even if we do so in a manner that is not readily apparent. If we say we want to work together with the family, but we don’t actually allow ourselves to have any doubts or really weigh in on our own thoughts and ideas when using NVR, this is in conflict with the very ethos of the approach itself. Perhaps we can call it an example of ‘vigilant care’ to remain alert for this risk.
So let’s just raise an eyebrow if we encounter the presumption that NVR is an approach that should be taught ‘top down’ to parents or professionals. Let us aim to, first and foremost, meet them. Let our NVR work be more of a proposition than an answer. Let us be sparing in judgement and rich with support. Let us enable a layered, differentiated conversation that feels caring, where people are understood within a multiplicity of influences, and let us work with their unique stories and in the various contexts of their lives.
I find this complexity of meeting each other beautifully portrayed in a scene from the movie ‘The Road’, an adaptation of the novel by Cormac McCarthy. In this movie we see the story of a travelling father and son battling hopelessness in a post-apocalyptic USA.
At the start of one of the very last scenes, the father of the boy has just died. Confused, tense and completely overwhelmed by the trauma of his experiences, the boy stares into the deep fog of the shoreline. A ragged man approaches from afar, wearing a gun around his shoulder. The boy, carrying with him the rage and fear that have became such a big part of his journey, points his gun at him. The man stands in front of the boy and raises his hand.
Where is that man you were with?
They both look at the sheet that is covering the body. The man lowers his hand.
Was he your father?
The boy nods.
Yes, he was my papa.
Maybe you should come with me?
The boy observes the man and unlocks his gun.
Are you one of the good guys?
Yes, I’m one of the good guys. Why don’t you put that pistol away?
I’m not supposed to let anyone take it from me. No mather what.
I don’t want your pistol, I just don’t want you pointing it at me….
The boy lowers his gun.
See, you’ve got two choices here. (The man kneels down). You can stay here, with your papa. Or you could go with me. If you stay here, you need to keep off the road.
How do I know you are one of the good guys?
You don’t. You just have to take a shot…
Do you have any kids?
Yes, we do.
Do you have a little boy?
We have a little boy and a little girl.
How old is he?
About your age, maybe a little older.
And you didn’t eat them?
So, you don’t eat people?
No, we don’t eat people.
And…are you carrying the fire?
Am I what?
Carrying the fire ( The boy points the gun at his own heart).
You’re kind of weirded out, aren’t you kid…
Well, are you?
Yeah, I am carrying the fire.
And I can come with you?
Yes, you can.
I strongly feel the ethos of Non Violent Resistance in this piece of dialogue; presence, but without escalatory coercion; involvement, but without it being smothering; offering support for what is possible; offering protection from what is unsafe; acknowledging the impasse, but not yielding to it. When the intent of offering support has the effect of experiencing support, we are meeting each other. We start with a proposition, not with an answer. A careful and constructive beginning.
Are you carrying the fire? I will see you in Tel Aviv.
Willem Beckers works as a systemic psychotherapist and trainer at the Interactie-Academie and is an associated trainer for PartnershipProjects. This blog was was previously published on Samenspraak, a Belgian blog that focuses on the systemic approach. More