Thursday, July 5, 2012

Language and Narratives in everyday life


I have just finished an interesting perusal of books by the late Ruth Wajnryb OBM. The name rang a bell so I searched the ever useful google and found some of her texts on language and narrative. It has inspired me to get one of her books on Stories.  This text has some very interesting and informative material on how narrative and story telling is taught in the classroom and the importance of dialogue and shared narratives.
I started to think about how narrative and dialogue shapes our understanding of people, events and society. As a person who has moved easily through different situations and dealt with different people in my life, I started to think about the different narratives that I personally have taken part in and also how I have participated in the creation of social narratives even outside my social milieu.
For example, most people tend to stay fixed in their personal narrative and feel very uncomfortable when brought outside of it. They know and understand who they are with absolute certainty. I found that while teaching in a small country town in southern NSW some people had extremely conservative and set views on many aspects of life. If you tried to challenge that perspective, it made them distinctly uncomfortable.
For example, one of Ruth's activities she used in a class room dealing with the topic of let us say 'adoption' requires students to look at the issue from several angles in preparation for a story or narrative about adoption.
1. From the point of view (POV) of a person who is adopted.
2. POV of the person who gave birth to the person.
3. POV of the person who adopts and raises the child.

And to be honest I would add another two perspectives.
4. POV of the father of the child who is adopted and who is say unable to marry the mother and has to watch as his child is adopted out..
5. Friend of a person who is adopted.

Now if you bring that story of adoption in a small country town, nine times out of ten, it will be quite distressing for them to deal with. The narrative will go something like this. Birth mother = bad = she gave up her child. She will be unforgiven and classed as a slut or worse. Father of child = very nasty = he had sex with mother and did not marry her. He is very bad, although some will take the line that he was just doing what came naturally and the problem is solely on the woman who has behaved badly and then done worse than bad. She gives up her child.
The person who adopts will be seen as someone who has
1. been punished by G-D therefore cannot have his or her own children. They will try to do a good job but nothing will make up for the adopted being betrayed by his or her real parents. Nothing too judgemental about that, is there?
2. Has devious reasons for wanting to adopt and none of them very altruistic. Respect but suspect sort of attitude.
The person who is adopted is the one who will get all the sympathy for after all, they were betrayed and abandoned in the most essentially awful way by two people who should have known better. Nothing will shift that point of view. You can try to gently tease them around to a different more fuller perspective but it remains the same solid as a rock wall of embedded opinion that is essentially black and white. Good and evil at logger heads.
To try and bring in other aspects to the story and to delve into the situation will only result in you being thought of as 'mad' because no one has sympathy for 'fallen women' and especially not for those who give up their child.
However looking at some of the children who used to live with their grandparents and other relatives in the town I taught it, it was probably a wise decision on the part of those mothers. In a way, I think it was often the mothers who were the victims of circumstances in the beginning beyond their control. Yes they did have unfortunate circumstances, but then there are times when one has to take the steering wheel of life and steer the vehicle on the road and not on the sides of the road. The descent into drugs and alcohol abuse  by some of these mothers makes you glad that they did give up their children into care. Also then you cannot take the high moral road in observing their lives from the outside. who knows why they ended up the way they did. Often you look into a story and you uncover the abuses that the mothers experienced on many levels, especially in the indigenous populations, then you think what sort of a society are we allowing to be created and maybe parents and families should be educated in togetherness, charity towards each other and just being good humans who do not reach for the pill bottle, drink, joint or needle every time something goes wrong in their lives. We need to build different narratives into our personal lexicon and to look up and out as well as indulging in a little personal reflection. Now I will give an example of a personal narrative myth that I have been trying to bring truth into it.
Part of the teasing and bullying that my son endured at Caulfield Junior College involved him being told he was adopted. It did start at his first school. Yes, he looks different and his skin is a different shade to mine. His father is African. He is my child and he was born at Calvary Private Hospital in Wagga Wagga. The extent of distress caused to him by the children who kept trying to tell him that he was adopted and me saying 'No you are not adopted. Here is the picture of your father and I getting married. Here is a picture of you in the hospital when you were born. And I have a scar on my belly from the C section", has been considerable.
Not only has he continually had his confidence in who he is continually shattered by these 'kind children' they have put doubts in his mind about his mother and who she is? Maybe he is adopted and 'maybe Mummy is really lying and she is not my mummy?' It has made him angry and resentful and broken his trust. People need to think about what they are saying and not make assumptions. Ask the person and do not assume that a situation is something. You may find something is very different to what you had imagined. Not everyone tells lies or covers the truth. Sometimes truth in narrative is stranger than fiction. We need to delve into stories and find the underlying elements and put them together to create a complete picture that is both truthful and identifiable.
How does this tie in with Balak?  Let's look briefly at the donkey that Bil'am saddles early to get up and curse the Jewish nation. Bil'am acts on his own personal narrative and is in a hurry to curse the Jewish nation without looking deeper into the situation that is understood even by a lowly beast of burden - the donkey.
Bil'am and Avraham had some characteristics that were the antithesis of each other. Avraham was driven by love and compassion. Bil'am is driven by the illogic of hatred. When the donkey sees the angel standing in her way she goes off the road. For this she is beaten unmercifully. Then she is given the power of speech and she asks him why he hits her. 'What has she done to him?' she hints that his mission is destined to be unsuccessful. Why because he desires perhaps to uproot a nation that worships three times yearly in Jerusalem. He does not want to explore further and converse with her. He is convinced that as a dumb beast of burden, she has nothing to impart to him. Even though she speaks and wonderously so.
Hashem gave two great prophets to the world Moshe to the Jewish people and Bil'am to the nations. One group was led into spiritual redeemption and rectification and the others were led into immorality and impurity by their own doing and failure to comprehend the wider or deeper picture.
We need to explore and respect the narrative of others and understand that we should not demean or devalue it just because it is not similar to ours does not mean that it is not relevant.
Shabbat Shalom!

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