They Drank no Wine (My last prescription)
“It’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” – Bertrand Russell
I have a confession to make, having publicly critiqued the term social prescribing, I have engaged in quite a lot of it myself. Here’s an unlikely example, it’s the tale of how I prescribed wine for a Christmas party. It’s a true story; offered as a metaphor.
In the mid 90s I was invited to be an independent chair of a community group, which though it wasn’t my community, I accepted because of my genuine interest in the community; indeed I felt honoured to be asked. I joined just before Yuletide festivities and tradition had it, that the chair of the community group would host a Christmas gathering for the board members.
With help, I organized an evening for the members which included wine and some nice food. We sat together and chatted for a couple of hours and the atmosphere was friendly and relaxed. I couldn’t help noticing though that very few were drinking the wine.
The gathering came to a natural end we toasted a good year past and we wished each other a happy Christmas, and New Year to come. I stayed back to help tidy up and take a phone call. About 20 mins later, as I walked through the bar in search of the toilets, I saw most all of the members of the community group in a corner of the bar laughing and chatting, with a round of drinks in front of them. There was not a glass of wine to be seen on the table. The scene became so imprinted in my mind that I can still see that table in my mind’s eye as clearly today, as I did that night. It was a seminal moment for me.
I joined them and without hesitation a glass of wine was ordered for me.
And there it was; the life lesson I needed to learn; could not have been clearer: at the earlier Christmas party what I’d actually done in effect was to invite them to be a guest in my life, rather than being a guest in theirs. But when I joined them they knew how to host me.
What scares me a little is that thought that if I didn’t see them huddled in the corner having drinks, I’d have never known where I went wrong. You see that truth is, they were all too gracious ever to call me out on what I had done, because they knew I didn’t do it with bad intent, and possibly because they were unsure of my reaction. Indeed the point is I did it without intentionality, and therefore the only way I could learn is by having someone else compassionately making me conscious of my unconscious behaviour and the impact it was having. Thankfully the absence of intentionality in how I showed up in their lives became clear to me by a happenstance and it hit me right in the solar plexus. I felt like a fraud as I made my way home that evening; as I breathed deep into the feelings other self judgements surfaced: you’re an impostor, imperialist, do-gooder, wine of my choosing, my favorite wine… what was I thinking?
But the feelings of being an outsider were most present within me, I knew I could never be an insider, and I was fine with that, in fact they chose me because I was an outsider, and I have no need to be an insider, but I hungered to be an ‘alongsider’ and that evening taught me a valuable lesson about how to move in that direction. I didn’t live in that community, I never slept there, beyond buying a few sandwiches I did not depend on or invest in the local economy, I was not of the culture, and while I had a affection for the place I did not have a connection to it. I was an outsider, an honoured guest in their lives. And I needed to pull up my socks and deepen my practice.
That evening I resolved within myself to be become a more gracious guest. And I came to realize that was not about coming up with better prescription for how ‘they’ as a community should live their lives, it was about me putting a number of proscriptions in place about how I show up in their lives.
The proscriptions were simple enough:
- Don’t pretend I know, ask.
- Don’t assume I know, ask.
- Don’t offer answers, ask.
- Then… Don’t talk, listen.
From that night on other questions started to sprout up: How can I possibly know what it would take to grow up well in a community I don’t live in? Or for that matter ‘what do I know about growing up well as a teenager in a community I do live in given that I’m a white middle aged man?’
That evening opened up many doors and windows for me, all of which made me focus on how I could become the framer of better questions, not the bringer of the answers. Some time after I came across the work of the Resilience Research Centre along with many other wonderful frameworks that have the power to open up very different conversations. I commend in particular the Resilience Research Centre‘s work with young people. They have developed nine beautiful questions which enable young people to nurture and open up life pathways that respect their personal, cultural and local assets.
The nine catalyst questions are:
- “What would I need to know to grow up well here?”
- “How do you describe people who grow up well here despite the many problems they face?”
- “What does it mean to you, to your family, and to your community, when bad things happen?”
- “What kinds of things are most challenging for you growing up here?”
- “What do you do when you face difficulties in your life?”
- “What does being healthy mean to you and others in your family and community?”
- “What do you do, and others you know do, to keep healthy, mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually?”
- “Can you share with me a story about another child who grew up well in this community despite facing many challenges?”
- “Can you share a story about how you have managed to overcome challenges you face personally, in your family, or outside your home in your community?”
These questions could be easily adopted to any age or situation. Their appeal in my mind is that they allow the outsider a way of being in right-relationship with the person they serve and to do so in a way that respects what’s strong within and around them. It would not be hard to adopt these into the practice of doctors, teachers, and social workers, who are keen to be the framers of more liberating questions. Since as the Swedish proverb reminds us: ‘Those who love to sing, will always find a song.’
My parting glass for this blog is to toast all those practitioners who show up every day and do their level best, while also remaining mindful that the root will be in the fruit. Hence if as public servants and practitioners we figure out how to be good guests (alongsiders) in the lives of the people we serve, it will show in our practice; in the depth of relationships we form and in the actions those relationships precipitate. And in the end the people will say, ‘we did it ourselves’ (Lao Tzu).