Ice as Land
As a family therapist for many years, I have done my share of reading within the field’s professional literature. Such reading has benefitted me. I have come to know how other family therapists conceptualize their work, how they conduct their work, and how they estimate its value. Along the way I have also read outside my field and benefitted by those readings as well. Those “outside” readings have stirred me in ways that are also directly applicable to my professional role as a family therapist. It seems at times as though those readings have offered more clarity about my work with families than did the professional literature (academic renderings of human relationships oftentimes seem sterile and distinctly non-human). Those outside readings include fiction (e.g., Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks, In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien) and nonfictional works that caused me to step back and see my work within a larger social context (e.g., Across the Wire: Life and Times on the Mexican Border by Luis Alberto Urrea, Open Vein of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent by Eduardo Galeano, Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man by Bill Russell and Taylor Branch). These readings have been so enlivening for me as a person, therapist, and citizen-in-the-world that I now regularly seek them out.
Books can be generative to read, not always by following or finding what the author intended but, rather, by what we see in it or how it speaks to us. It was with this spirit that I read John Ralston Saul’s A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada (Viking Canada, 2008). Instead of providing a description and interpretation of the book as a whole as in a customary book review, in this narrative I will offer some ideas and images I saw in the book that will hopefully be meaningful for collaborative practitioners of many varieties (my primary collaborative practice venue is family therapy). Given that Saul did not intend this book to be stimulating and generative to therapists, one might describe my reading approach as “a creative mis-reading”—an effort to find meanings that the author had most likely not intended (and maybe would not even understand or support). In a sense I was creating the book I was reading. [Warning to the reader: I tend to privilege tensions and have little interest in trying to resolve them.]
This is a book that makes the case for Canada’s indebtedness to indigenous ideas and practices of the First Nations people. My decision to read this book came from my experience of John Ralston Saul as an excellent writer (one of the most highly esteemed authors in Canada), my recent immigration to Canada and a concomitant desire to know more about where I now live, and my abiding passion for indigenous understandings throughout the world. In my multiple readings of this book, quotes seemed to leap off the page in a way that (a) confirmed my existing understandings, and/or (b) pushed me past what I thought I already knew. I will center my comments around some of these key phrases.
I begin with a confirmatory passage:
Being on the margins leaves you more room for originality. (p. 89)
This quote highlights the value of being on the margins of acceptability. While being on the fringes of society, accepted professional discourses, or even our own family can be disturbing and lonely, it ironically affords the possibility of being released from the obligation of maintaining customary stances and practices. As marginalized, it may be easier to work in an alternative place; after all, we are not expected to measure up to the customary, the privileged, the common. With this positioning, we can be free to explore alternative practices. As I enjoy working on the margins within my professional discipline, I oftentimes wonder and worry about what I might do if my “alternative” views and practices should one day become mainstream. I suspect I would need to find a way to move to the “new margin.”
Once you start using language that doesn’t fit, you put yourself in an imaginative straitjacket. (p. 96)
This quote reminds me of one of my principal beliefs: the crucial role that language and discourse play a crucial role in my approach to my practice and to my life in general. I remember the numerous times I have heard Harlene Anderson and Tom Andersen each highlight the powerful impact of how we speak to one another, and I wondered about the consequences of employing a language system that does not fit us. We are oftentimes in positions where we are invited to participate in some language conventions that do not resonate or reflect who we are or what we believe. Let me say here that a way of “languaging” may fit one person and, simultaneously, not fit another person. So there is no ultimate or universal language system or convention that fits all. We must, therefore, be alert to what language systems fit for whom, and when. A key point is that we would be wise to use language in ways that uphold our integrity and the ethic of who we are. For, as the quote indicates, to try to “wear” a language that does not fit who we are places us into a “straitjacket” that confines who we are and who we might become.
Here is one of those quotes that is a bit challenging:
Learning to live with complexity and uncertainty is all about reinventing social tension as a positive. And out of that comes the idea that clear resolution of complex situations often leads to injustice. (p. 80)
This passage in Saul’s book reminds collaborative practitioners of our appreciation of complexity and uncertainty and lends support to our efforts to embrace them in all our collaborative processes and endeavors. And, at some moments we are pushed to go even further.
The collaborative principles embedded within indigenous practices have been forged and maintained through periods of serious injustice and injury. Saul highlights the lives of Big Bear and Poundmaker, two prominent First Nations leaders who led their peoples through a period of near extermination by the White pioneers. Rather than emphasizing combative and fighting qualities, Big Bear and Poundmaker were revered for their abilities to “link inclusion, complexity, diversity, and living with the place [the land]” (p. 19). First, this passage reminds us of how challenging it can be to live up to our principles when those around us seemingly do not support us. In ancient times, Publilius Syrus was quoted to have said: “Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm”; but, I wonder, can we steer the course when the winds blow and the waves rise? To uphold our beliefs and principles when under duress may be the measure of our commitment to the ideas we profess.
The second piece of the quote in this previous paragraph that challenges us is the reference to “place.” How do we account for and value the importance of a sense of place for the people with whom we work? Is there a place in our collaborative ideas for the land and the surrounding environments within which we live and work? This goes beyond the idea of protecting the environment from degradation—it suggests that, as human beings, we are materially and spiritually constituted within our natural worlds.
Another quote that serves as a healthy reminder to us:
. . . the Aboriginal roots of Canadian civilization: egalitarianism, individual and group rights and obligations, balanced complexity, reconciliation, inclusion, continuing relationships, minority rights. (p. 64)
Despite family therapy’s deep historical and theoretical roots in relational thinking, it seems all-too-easy for us to slide back into individualistic thinking. Indigenous practices consistently highlight the importance of a “communal being”—this is profoundly difficult for us in the West even to understand, let alone embrace. Shawn Wilson (2008), an indigenous academic, illustrates this attention to the “spaces in between” by using the metaphor of a circular fishing net.
You could try to examine each of the knots in the net to see what holds it together, but it’s the strings between the knots that have to work in conjunction in order for the net to function. (p. 120)
With the knots representing individuals, he is reminding us of the necessity of the connections between the knots in creating a successfully functioning group. Saul’s quote specifically mentions “reconciliation,” “inclusion,” and “continuing relationships,” hallmarks of collaborative practices, irrespective of the disciplinary, geographic, or social location and application.
Our challenge is to learn how to recognize what we trained ourselves not to see. (p. 35)
Indeed. However, professional discourse and training may be engaged in exactly the opposite practice—to see precisely and specifically through distinct professional eyes. How often do we wonder what our disciplines prevent us from seeing and doing? Foucault’s and Bakhtin’s ideas about living within hegemonic ideas that limit us is not only applicable to clients—we, too, can become hypnotized into believing that what we see is all there is.
While I am intrigued by the notion of “seeing what I do not see,” I am humbled when I try to imagine how one might actually attempt, or possibly even achieve, this. Canadian author William Gibson (2012) has recently written, “. . .one cannot know one’s own culture” (p. 44). Does this discourage us from trying to see our cultural influence on others? For me, no—but it does remind me of the unending nature of this effort.
And now, in case you thought I forgot, on the title of this review:
Ice as land. (p. 301)
To the Inuit of northern Canada, ice provides walking passage between islands. The isolation of islands is removed. In this way, ice is not a barrier but a bridge. This phrase/image is an important instance of what was discussed earlier – seeing things you cannot see. How often do we automatically place events, situations, or persons in categories of obstacles, nuisances, or irrelevancies when that classification system represents a narrow and largely unappreciative understanding? Opening up the possibility for anything to be understood in a million ways frees our imaginations so that we may envision new ways and simultaneously release ourselves from hanging on to conceptualizations that may be unhelpful and constricting.
The indigenous practices spread over the globe are glorious lenses for the First World to see itself in more expansive ways—if we are willing to see the “ice as land.”
Indigenous cultures are not failed attempts at modernity, let alone failed attempts to be us. They are unique expressions of the human imagination and heart, unique answers to a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human and alive? When asked this question, the peoples of the world respond in 7,000 different voices, and these collectively comprise our human repertoire for dealing with all the challenges that will confront us as a species over the coming centuries. (TED Conferences, n.d.)
It is quite satisfying to see ways in which we have developed collaborative practices from our Western traditions that are similar to holistic indigenous practices. Each can speak to the other for the benefit of both. To me, there is something deeply reassuring to think that the “peoples of the world respond in 7,000 different voices”—a collaborationist’s dream.
Gibson, W. (2012). Distrust that particular flavor. New York, NY: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
Saul, J. R. (2008). A fair country: Telling truths about Canada. Toronto, ON: Viking Canada.
TED Conferences. (n.d.). Speakers – Wade Davis: Anthropologist, ethnobotanist. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/speakers/wade_davis.html
Wilson, S. (2008). Research is ceremony: Indigenous research methods. Halifax, NS: Fernwood.
Dan Wulff, MSW, PhD
Associate Professor in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Calgary (Canada)
Supervisor and Family Therapist at the Calgary Family Therapy Centre
Board Member of the Taos Institute