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Individual Development and Community

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My most recent paper in Simon Fraser University’s Certificate in Restorative Justice – it has been an interesting journey.


Block asserts (2009, p. 30) that, “[c]ommunity is fundamentally an interdependent human system given form by the conversation it holds with itself.” Block identifies a number of facets of what constitutes community: individuals, existing in an interdependent system, engaged in a narrative which gives the interdependent system its form. Therefore, the individual and the community are inseparable because the formation of community creates a new reality which is more than just a sum of the parts that constitute it. Likewise, the question of how individuals develop is equally inseparable from the community which surrounds them, as community may impact the individual positively or negatively. The community narrative may either support the development of the individual or hinder that development.

Block’s focus on the narrative of community is a powerful concept which he identifies can either limit future possibility or awaken transformative opportunities (2009, p. 35). Narrative can be a powerful tool to identify where people are in their present situation. In training for chaplaincy I recall a speaker who introduced the concept of the metanarrative in counselling contexts.[1] He asserted that careful listening and reflection on the stories that we were told by patients could reveal to us deeper truths which were operating in their lives – deeper truths that caused behaviour and reaction, and deeper truths that most people were only vaguely aware of. He related that when you realized this you could often make startling observations about people. On more than one occasion he said he had been accused of being psychic because he was able to discern things about people’s personal situation that they had never told anyone previously.

[1] Victoria General Hospital, Clinical Pastoral Education training, 2002 personal conversation.

A few days later I was called in for a late-night emergency in the intensive care unit. While dealing with that situation, the charge nurse asked if I could also speak to the person in the adjacent bed who had just been brought in by ambulance. The older woman was terribly frightened at her present health situation. Rather than speaking about that, she told me a story about their family cabin and being there as a young girl when there was a horrible storm. The wind blew so strongly that it was uprooting trees. She spoke of remembering how powerless and helpless she was before the raging of the natural world. She related that she did not understand why her mind was on that situation from decades earlier when she should be thinking about her medical challenges. I recognized this as a metanarrative and that the storm account was a proxy for her intense fear and feeling of powerlessness in her present reality. While I did not attempt to convince her I was psychic, my recognition of what was going on in her metanarrative allowed me to focus on what she needed most – comfort and assurance that she would survive this storm, as she had survived it previously.

The anecdote emphasizes Block’s point about the central importance of narrative as either enabler or disabler in individual growth. It is not difficult to project how the individual could be equally impacted by community narratives, and by community metanarratives, particularly those which are occult to the members of the community. The power of narrative in community transformation, and concurrent individual transformation, was documented in Heidi Neumark’s work with a church in the South Bronx to revitalize the community. It was in recognizing and claiming then developing the intersection of the individual narratives that a new church community arose in a place where there had previously been only fear and division. In describing prayer, Neumark quotes Zora Hurston’s words which also accurately describe the impact of narrative:

There is a basin in the mind where words float around on thought and thought on sound and sight. Then there is a depth of thought untouched by words, and deeper still a gulf of formless feelings untouched by thought. (Neumark, p. 195, quoting Zora Neale Hurston in Their Eyes Were Watching God)

Narrative contains a depth of thought which is often beyond words and feelings, but which has huge influence on all the people who operate within the narrative. Neumark’s journey with that community reflected both individual and community transformation, through shared narrative which centred around Neumark’s Christian ministry. One of the ways she sought to develop the community was through breaking down the barriers between the inside of the church, and the street outside by moving the services out to the street. This was to overcome the sense of shame which prevented people from crossing the boundary where they perceived judgement waiting for them; when in reality those on the interior had the same sort of personal narratives operating: HIV-positive, recovering from addiction, homelessness, abuse and poverty. (Neumark, p. 248) Bringing that reality before people let them know that the perceived barrier did not exist, and allowed them to progress in working through a re-remembering of shared past in a more forgiving way. (Block, p. 36)

This theme is reflected throughout the literature surrounding restorative justice, particularly in the use of shame as a means of reintegrating offenders to the community. Karstedt references Braithwaite’s work that focusing shame on the offense rather than the offender would produce a positive force assisting in re-integration of the person to the community. (Karstedt, p 302) This requires a transformation in criminal justice which is instead focused on directing shame at the offender, so that shame can instead act as a restorative force. (Karstedt, p. 312)

I recently finished reading two books on military-duty related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), where shame figures prominently. Shame may arise from having survived when others have died, and for leaders particularly shame related to not having been good enough to preserve the lives of those they were responsible for. (Conrad, p. 117, 216) That shame leads to the increased risk of suicide related to PTSD, but can also form a force which allows the individual to find new ways to live within the shame. Interestingly, one of the two PTSD authors, Romeo Dallaire has since identified shame as one of the principle tools for stopping the use of children soldiers. Dallaire stated in an interview:

“You hit (a commander’s) ego,” he said. “You stand your ground and continue to try to break that individual’s power base with his peers by insulting him as not a real commander if he has to use children to do his fighting.” (Edwards, 2013)

That provides an example of the use of shame as a positive corrective force, albeit in a context that has not been reflected in the restorative justice literature I have encountered. It reflects at least some of Dallaire’s personal encounters with intensive shame experienced through his continued struggle with PTSD. One observer sends Dallaire a copy of S.T. Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner when he recognizes that Dallaire and the protagonist in the poem both wrestle with deep guilt and anguish over what they have done, and failed to do. He also states with some foresight that Dallaire’s path to healing will be in recognizing that the shame and guilt would ultimately be turned into “providing succour to the victims of war.” (Dallaire, xiii). Dallaire’s turning point comes when he abandons the line he was briefed to use at a press conference about soldier suicides and instead directly relates the suicides to operational exposure to the horrors of war, revealing that he also was a casualty of that same situation.[2] (Dallaire, 77)

[2] The briefing package Dallaire was given instead stated that there was no relationship between deployments and suicide, and that it was the “psychological instability” of the soldiers which was causing them to take their own lives. (Dallaire, 75)

One of the dynamics which adversely impacts those soldiers with PTSD who are quickly released from the Canadian Forces, is the loss of that sustaining community. Colonel Conrad attempts to return to Edmonton for at least a year with the same troops he had deployed with to Afghanistan. Instead he is forced to conform to the normal posting routine which places a premium on the movement of senior officers on a regular schedule and has no concern for community support and unit cohesion focused on allowing traumatized soldiers to recover within the same community they deployed with. The result is a sense of abandonment in the soldiers that only serves to exacerbate the trauma. (Conrad, p. 82) The dynamic for reserve soldiers was even more profound, as they would leave full-time service overseas with a Regular Force (full-time) unit after a one or two-week decompression period to return to their civilian employment. (Conrad, pp. 32-33) Admittedly this is combined with a community dysfunction which tends to treat injuries, and particularly psychological injuries, as a sign of lacking toughness which is valued as an attribute in troops.[3] The community is also fearful of exposing itself to external criticism and tends to react to problems by first supressing or hiding them, which results in problems not being addressed in constructive ways, further driving the ability of individuals to seek help underground. Conrad highlights this by stating that we live in, “…an age of rhetorical leadership…” where problems are attacked through, “publish[ing] a thick deck of PowerPoint slides and declare[ing] early victory on things.” (Conrad, p. 34)

[3] A personal anecdote on this attitude. Anyone who did not report for duty in the morning and instead went to sick parade at the clinic was referred to as being on “spaz”. If you did this too many times you became known as a “spaz commando”, which was considered highly derogatory. The sense of shame associated with any medical release from the military led to many people I supervised being unwilling to report injuries for fear they would be regarded as weak.

Contrasting this approach of the Canadian Forces leadership to dealing with psychological injuries arising from operational deployments a restorative justice approach would bring different values to the discussion. Lederach and Lederach speak positively of Block’s model using the metaphor of the bowl as a model representing the model of insight, innovation and action: thinking to presencing, presencing to doing. (2010, pp. 101-2) A restorative approach would look at the presence of injured soldiers (both psychological and physical) as an opportunity for healing and the creation of new potentials. It would look to create the conditions necessary to bring about community success by creating the appropriate place, space and time. (Dale and Newman, p. 16) The approach would be soundly based in an understanding of the intrinsic interrelatedness of all reality, and that allowing a person to suffer causes harm to all people. There is an ethical imperative for all to act with the understanding of our responsibility to work to better others, because this will build a stronger community. (Ross, p. 30-31)

Dallarie and Conrad turned their trauma into new directions (Dallaire to his advocacy for child soldiers, and both of them to writing of their experiences to help others understand and to advocate for change), reflecting a restorative approach contained within both of their individual narratives although not named as such. Both have transitioned into becoming advocates for those suffering, Conrad points clearly at Veterans Affairs as an area requiring transformation, and identifies that the community has lost its focus on what should be a foundational value, “…the idea of Canada has become congruent with a bean-counting Treasury Board driven culture. Inside this culture, government officials and politicians are not even remotely on the same page as the men and women they are abandoning. Veterans are not insurance clients.” (Conrad, p. 221-222) A restorative approach looks to each situation of harm and hurt as a way to bring about healing and positive transformation. A restorative approach also acknowledges that all individual healing takes place within a community context, “Individual healing is thus a socially situated activity.” (Ross, p. 237) It is clear that both the health of the individual and the health of the community are intimately linked and inter-related, such that an individual’s health can be increased by a healthy community, and healthy individuals can increase the health of the community.


Reference List

Block, Peter (2009). Community: The Structure of Belonging. Oakland: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Conrad, Colonel J. (2017). Among the Walking Wounded: Soldiers, Survival, and PTSD. Toronto: Dundurn.

Dale, A., Newmann, L.  (2010). Social Capital: a necessary and sufficient condition for sustainable community development? Community Development Journal. Vol. 45 No. 1, 5-21.

Dallaire, R. (2016). Waiting for First Light: My Ongoing Battle with PTSD. Toronto: Penguin Random House Canada.

Doolin, K. (2007). But What Does it Mean? Seeking Definitional Clarity in Restorative Justice. The Journal of Criminal Law. 71(5), 427-440.

Edwards, J. (2013). Best way to end use of child soldiers is to shame the commander: Dallaire. Calgary Herald, 29 November 2013. Found at: http://www.calgaryherald.com/news/Best+child+soldiers+shame+commander+Dallaire/9228724/story.html on 21 October 2017.

Karstedt, S. (2002). Emotions and Criminal Justice. Theoretical Criminology. Vol.6(3), 299-317.

Lederach, J.P. and Lederach, J.L. (2010). When Blood and Bones Cry Out: Journeys Through the Soundscape of Healing & Reconciliation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Heidi, N. (2003). Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx. Boston: Beacon Press.

Ross, R. (2014). Indigenous Healing: Exploring Traditional Paths. Toronto: Penguin.

[1] Victoria General Hospital, Clinical Pastoral Education training, 2002 personal conversation.

[2] The briefing package Dallaire was given instead stated that there was no relationship between deployments and suicide, and that it was the “psychological instability” of the soldiers which was causing them to take their own lives. (Dallaire, 75)

[3] A personal anecdote on this attitude. Anyone who did not report for duty in the morning and instead went to sick parade at the clinic was referred to as being on “spaz”. If you did this too many times you became known as a “spaz commando”, which was considered highly derogatory. The sense of shame associated with any medical release from the military led to many people I supervised being unwilling to report injuries for fear they would be regarded as weak.


Written by sameo416

October 26, 2017 at 10:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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