Book reviews are useful ways to convey to potential readers information that would help them discern whether or not they might like to read the book for themselves. A common way of doing that is to present the book in a much shortened form to give the reader an effective synopsis of what each chapter says. It serves as an extended abstract or summary. If the reader of the review has her/his interest piqued, she/he might read the entire book. If the review does not excite her/him, the book will likely be passed over.
I would like to present this book review a bit differently. I will pick a couple of related quotes that stood out for me as particularly noteworthy or challenging and react to them. For me, an important part of a book’s value is the degree to which it launches me into some new or provocative thinking. The Truth about Stories did that for me. First Nations novelist and scholar, Thomas King, has written a set of essays about the ability of stories to shape us and move us. King delivered these essays in the Massey Lectures of 2003 on CBC Radio (you can listen to Lecture 1 at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wzXQoZ6pE-M).
Much of what King mentions has relevance for collaborative understandings and practices. As collaborative practitioners, even when we value alternative views on topics or issues, we oftentimes tend to hold them in dichotomies—pitching the alternatives as opposite or mutually exclusive. This creates a division (and likely tension) that encumbers efforts to join, to synthesize, or to lift up and hold various perspectives with respect. In King’s words,
“We trust easy oppositions. We are suspicious of complexities, distrustful of contradictions, fearful of enigmas.” (p. 25)
The dichotomies of right and wrong, good and bad, and success and failure drive our still-modernist-leaning world. Painting the world into bold and easily distinguished colors seems to be our default position, even though, as social constructionists, we recognize the built-in limitations of that tidy way of thinking.
Perhaps all the advantages that have come to our lives through the triumphs of scientific discovery have warmed us to the idea that everything can be known (if we just study it correctly), mysteries are just unenlightened ways of seeing, and certainty is just around the corner. Science has become the new religion—we simply must believe in it. As a religion, we expect it to provide answers to all questions of life. Are we asking science to do more (and be more) than it was ever reasonable to expect of it? Must it explain human behavior with the same precision and predictive abilities as it does with atoms and molecules?
Those who tell us stories about life that confuse us, trick us, haunt us, and stretch us offer us the opportunity to have fresh eyes that see anew, a precious commodity in a world that prefers the “known” over the “unknown.” Again, King states,
“Don’t show them your mind. Show them your imagination.” (p. 26)
To the collaborative practitioner, we are excited by imagining new relational possibilities rather than simply cobbling together practical compromises or quid pro quos between people. The prospect of finding collaborative arrangements is probably more an artful series of moments than a pragmatic and formal process. It is akin to creating a painting of something that has not been seen before. That sort of open-eyed potential is what can excite us in our clinical work with families and other groups.
King’s comments about simplistic dichotomies through which we see our world become laddered into some further elaborations a bit later in his book:
“. . . for within the Pueblo world, evil and good are not so much distinct and opposing entities as they are tributaries of the same river.” (p. 109)
Here is a metaphor that recasts our customary good and evil dichotomy into another frame. He now creates an image whereby good and evil are no longer mutually exclusive domains. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines a tributary as “a stream that flows into a larger stream or river or into a lake.” Imagining good and evil as both tributaries of the same river, we are invited to imagine what that river is. What do both good and evil feed into? This image stretches us from the comfortable and well-worn dichotomous relationship between good and evil into a twinning image of good and evil as feeding something in common.
One of the challenges of collaborative work is to stay calm and appreciate of many efforts and initiatives, rather than becoming irritated or critical of some views.
To engage in collaborative practice we need to see differing viewpoints, positions, or actions for how they make common purpose as much (or more) as how they could be imagined as distinct. This way of thinking facilitates our collaborative work—seeing dichotomies as mutual exclusivities tends to restrict that work. Even in King’s metaphor, he allows for evil and good to be named, but by seeing them as contributing to the same river, one is encouraged to see places of ultimate intersection. They seem more like siblings than as combatants at war. One of the challenges of collaborative work is to stay calm and appreciate of many efforts and initiatives, rather than becoming irritated or critical of some views. We still can hold various committed positions on issues, but we see those as vested positions, rather than ultimate claims to “the way things ought to be.”
King makes another push in our thinking, one that still has my head scratching:
“But what Momaday and other Native writers suggest is that there are other ways of imagining the world, ways that do not depend so much on oppositions as they do on cooperations, and they raise the tantalizing question of what else one might do if confronted with the appearance of evil. So just how would we manage a universe in which the attempt to destroy evil is seen as a form of insanity?” (p. 110)
Dichotomizing simplifies but it masks the nuances of people and their lives—it offers up caricatures of people, cardboard cut-outs that mystify more than clarify.
Dichotomizing often leads to trying to maximize the desirable pole and to minimize the undesirable pole. If we create something as evil, are we duty-bound to try to eradicate it? If we construct a person’s behavior as evil, are we then committed to annihilation of that behavior? Is this a productive stance to take? With King’s logic above, positing something as evil leaves us little maneuverability—it requires a strong rebuke and actions to destroy. Similarly, defining something as good (“all good”) places us in a position to defend that person and/or behavior completely and irrevocably. Dichotomizing simplifies but it masks the nuances of people and their lives—it offers up caricatures of people, cardboard cut-outs that mystify more than clarify.
From another writing genre (mystery novels), Henning Mankell weighs in on the theme of stories as fundamental and ongoing in life through one of his characters: “Not everything is understandable,” Mabasha said. “A story is a journey without an end” (from The White Lioness, 2003, p. 263). Each of us probably can recall occasions when a situation or relationship in our life was not clearly decipherable. We maybe tried various ways to making sense of it, but each way left us somewhat wanting. One wonders how often we have become comfortable with understanding something in a certain way that was more about our wishful thinking than a clear-eyed understanding. Sometimes we desire things to be clear when they do not present themselves in that way. Stories have the ability to provide us with the raw material from which to feel certain in our lives/worlds AND with the material to remain unsure, curious and wondering. Collaborative work is one of those practices that is always unfinished—available for refiguring and beginning again. King shows us in bold relief the enormous challenge and potential before us when we pursue the spirit and practice of collaborative work. Both Mankell above and King throughout this essay have invited us to believe that stories are never finished, never ended. Collaborative practitioners have reason to rejoice in this.
King, T. (2003). The truth about stories: A native narrative. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota.Mankell, H. (2003). The white lioness (L. Thompson, Trans.). New York, NY: Vintage Books.
Dan Wulff, PhD
Faculty of Social Work
University of Calgary
Calgary, Alberta, Canada