I'm curious about how the 'teenagers and stones' incident surfaced into awareness yesterday (see blog: 'A counterintuitive moment'). It happened almost 30 years ago and I've hardly thought about it since. What is it in my current experience that resonates with that one? What am I feeling now that reminds me subconsciously of how I felt then?
It's a process known in human givens therapy as pattern matching, tapping into an emotional memory. There's something about what I'm facing, what I'm experiencing in the here and now, that looks and feels familiar at a preconscious level.
It could be, for instance, a troubling feeling I'm ignoring, suppressing or avoiding. Is God prompting me to pay attention to something? On reflection, I've felt unfairly criticised this week, under proverbial attack. I've felt powerless to defend myself. Therein lies the parallel. I've felt tempted to become defensive, to hold my ground, to fight back.
Is God reminding me of what I learned back then, to draw on that experience as a means to addressing this one? To meet criticism with vulnerability, humility and openness; to reach out and seek relationship, rather than shrink back or fight?
I'm reminded of an encounter I once had with a facilitator in a group. I found the group experience deeply frustrating and challenged the facilitator forcefully. The facilitator, a skilled psychotherapist, responded openly and non-defensively and simply said, "It's not the first time you've been here, is it?"
He was right, the feeling of frustration felt familiar, reminded me of how I had felt in similar situations in the past, and I had imported those feelings into this new situation. This is transference, transferring beliefs, thoughts and feelings from the past into the present. It was a fair challenge, and I'm still learning.
Crash. A stone hit the window, hard. They came one at a time at first then by the handful. It was sunny outside and the children looked surprised, and scared. I called to the other staff, "Get the kids inside, quickly!" and signalled to them to clear the playground. It was school holiday time and the kids' group I was running for 5-12 yr olds was under attack.
The teenagers stood at a distance, laughing, throwing stones. I went outside, tried to look unintimidated, and shouted at them to stop it. One of them, feeling cocky in front of his mates, climbed over the gate into the playground and I grabbed him, lifted him back over the fence and dropped him on the other side. The others taunted me, laughing and jeering.
Minutes later another teenager cleared the fence, into the grounds. Same routine, grabbed him and lifted him back over the fence. They threw more stones, looking more confident now. They knew I couldn't defeat them. I knew it too. The staff and children looked out of the doorway, anxiously, wondering what was going to happen next.
At that moment, an idea occurred to me. I climbed over the fence and approached the gang, this time in a more open and less defensive way. I spoke with them calmy, "You win. I can't keep throwing you out of the playground, you outnumber me anyway. I could call the police but, as soon as they arrived, you could just run away."
They looked awkward, surprised. I continued. "It must feel pretty boring for you guys, school holidays and nothing to do. I guess throwing the stones creates a bit of entertainment for you. I wonder if you realise, however, how scared the children were when the stones hit the play area and the windows. It really frightened them. I doubt that's what you intended."
The group was silent now. "I'd really appreciate it if you would stop throwing the stones, do something else instead. That way, the kids can come back outside to play. Would that be ok with you?" The group muttered something, looked resigned and shrugged their shoulders. I said, "Thanks lads - I appreciate it," as they walked away. They didn't come back.
I learnt something important that day. When faced with a situation that feels threatening, it's natural to react instinctively with a fight, flight or freeze response. If, however, we meet the threat with a counterintuitive vulnerability and openness, it can surprise the other party, diffuse the emotional drama, open possibilities for reason and create a new way forward.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in developing critical reflective practice.