Acquired Spontaneity

Thoughts and practices for personal and social transformation

Tenderness and the Tragic Lens

The tragic lens, in immensely difficult situations, is a precursor to empathy.

It is in the nature of my work that people bring to me those situations that challenge them beyond what they are able to handle with their own skills. More often than not, I have the joy of supporting them in finding a way to go back to the situation and respond in a new way, with more love or understanding for another, with more willingness to express some previously hidden truth, or with more capacity to attend to everyone's needs. From time to time, a situation that someone presents to me is such that I, too, don't see a way that it can be handled externally. Sometimes, the only place where we can effect any transformation is internally, in how we frame a situation to ourselves. Since we are, as I often see it, meaning-making creatures, what we tell ourselves about a situation can radically alter our experience.

One frame I find to have extraordinary potential for such inner transformation is the tragic lens. It's a soft and loving approach which dissolves the stiff walls we hold up in protection from life, that softly embraces everyone and extends tenderness to insurmountable obstacles we encounter along the way to living a conscious and human life.

Understanding the Tragic Lens

Recently, during a call that's part of my teleclass series based on this blog, I had one such opportunity to engage with a man, let's call him Ben, who was facing a situation with so much challenge for so many people, that the tragic lens was my best offer to him. I suggested that embracing a situation as tragic rather than wrong allows us to mourn it, and in that way liberates us. It took some effort. Initially, Ben, like so many of us, couldn't separate "tragic" from "wrong," and remained outraged and helpless. He couldn't see his way to having empathy for the person in his situation whose actions most affected the whole group. Gradually, he discovered that he didn't have to first receive empathy for himself so he could let go of his reactivity. Instead, he saw the possibility that the tragic lens, which holds compassion for our human fallibility, all of us at once,could support him in finding tenderness for everyone in the group. The man in question would surely be horrified at the effect he was having on others if he had the capacity to open himself up to the feedback others were attempting to give him before they lost their cool and reacted to him, one after the other. He couldn't, because the amount of mourning he would need to encounter would knock him out. The people who had been trying to give this man feedback and disappeared into rage and threats instead would surely vastly prefer to find a way to stay connected with him so they could be effective in transforming his behavior which had been so destructive for the group. And Ben himself, as someone committed to Nonviolent Communication with all its attendant intention to make things work for everyone, would surely prefer to have found an empathic way to respond to all, including himself.

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No one found a different way of being human in those moments. That is what happened, plain and simple. We cannot ever rule out such events. We can, if we find a way, see them as poignantly tragic, expressions of our fallibility. That path allows us to dissolve the separation between us, the helpless righteous ones, and them, the awful bad ones who are imposing on everyone and if they only disappeared all would be well. Meanwhile we are also prone to judgment of self, too, because of our inability to make the wrong disappear. What a sad way to live inside.

"Grass" by Lorraine Bonner
The tragic lens, in those immensely difficult situations, is a precursor to empathy. Even when we are unable to specifically imagine what could possibly lead someone to the action they took, the tragic lens allows us to remember love, to soften into remembering all of our humanity. I personally find it simply blissful to be in that state. Ben equated it to a kind of prayer, and I could immediately see the same quality of expansiveness in this frame as in the connection with the divine that people experience through prayer.

With all of this exchange, I was sure that Ben was with me, sinking into the beauty. Alas, he was, instead, in the last holdout of the world of judgment: "I should be able to do this," he said, while relating to me that he was feeling resistant, angry, hurt. He didn't want to embrace the tragedy, it was simply too wrenching, heartbreaking. Slowly, gently, we peeled off that last layer. Heartbreak, the very thing we so often protect ourselves from, is also frequently an entryway into the heart, a softness with no boundaries. Ben was still seeing himself as being in a closed-up room, seeing a window, and still refusing to climb through it. Then, one last time, we invited the tragic lens to our support. I asked Ben to concentrate the softness in himself, to surround himself with the tenderness of the group that was witnessing our exchange, bring it towards himself by remembering the deepest truth of that moment, which is that he likely wishes he could climb through that window. That was the magical moment in which Ben could fully align with himself and with the love, and feel the softness that had been there for some time around him.

Embracing the Tragic Lens

The tragic is not always easy. The more intense the situation, the more familiar we are with the separating responses: who is to blame? Who needs to be punished? How can we sort out the good guys from the bad guys? What needs to be done to right the wrong? This frame is so deeply ingrained in us, that we may not even be aware of it as a lens on reality, as a choice in how we view things. Even to recognize it as choice can be a profound change in how we experience life.

So integral is this way of thinking to who we have become, culturally, that even my own persistent attempts to transcend it are filtered back by others into that same frame. So many times I am heard by people as if I am saying that judgments are wrong. In this moment, immersed as I am in the memory of my interaction with Ben, I have even more softness than the usual within me about that dynamic, instead of my usual despair. Of course this would be how I would be understood. If the accessible way to understand reality is through the lens of what is right and what is wrong, then my way of expressing grief about the persistence of such judgments can only be understood as one more judgment. In this moment, I experience some relief in having more acceptance of this dynamic, more tenderness toward it, more capacity to see it itself as tragic.

I see the relationship of the tragic to the path of vulnerability I've been on. Embracing the tragic entails an openness to the depth of feeling that arises. Judgments, whatever else they do, serve the function of protecting us from the raw nakedness of owning our own values, longings, dreams, and experiencing the heartbreak of what happens when life doesn't line up with our wishes. In big or small ways, the experience of heartbreak, of opening to the tragic, awaits us at every turn. How many of us want to feel so much? How many of us are willing to accept the potential cost of being cast as different?

The cost is, indeed, high. I know the experience that Ben described, of being in a dark room, seeing the window into life, the sun, and the open sky, and nonetheless choosing not to climb. I see it most especially in my own refusal to accept the life I have. Yes, I accept it, and only partially. I don't fight it any more, that has stopped. And I haven't yet chosen to embrace it. I realized recently that my continued experience of not being glad to be alive is, in effect, some subtle demand on life to be different, to change, to suit me better before I will open up to it. To be glad to be alive in the midst of how challenging my life has been is a transformation I can imagine and haven't yet undertaken.

And the rewards are significant, too. I am sitting here, with tears in my eyes, embracing the specific tragedy of the gap between my dreams and visions on the one hand, and the reality I bump into every day of my life on the other hand, and feeling happy, excited to imagine that perhaps I am successful in conveying this unique pleasure, this acquired delight, the liberating power of the tragic. In this moment I am seeing this: the luminous beauty, the vast expanse of life that opens up to me in so many moments and takes my breath away, makes all the other moments worth enduring.

Miki Kashtan, Ph.D., is a co-founder of Bay Area Nonviolent Communication and serves as its lead facilitator and trainer.

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