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Honoring Our Pain in the World
(20 minutes)

Purpose and Background

This short exercise brings up a lot of energy and can add more authenticity to our despair work. By exaggerating and venting feelings of disconnection, even indifference, which are inevitable in our mass culture, we can achieve greater honesty and sense of wholeness for all that follows.

To weep and rage over the conditions of our world can be a profound release. It can also cause some of us to wonder if we are being entirely honest. "If I care so damn much, why haven't I done something about it?" And sometimes we simply do not feel, at the moment, the degree of grief, concern, or caring that others are expressing. We can wonder then, if we are deficient--lacking in rudimentary compassion--and the sense of numbing or inadequacy can intensify.

"The despair I feel," said Tom in a workshop at Columbia University, "is that I don't feel despair. My heart feels like a rock. I'm afraid I don't care the way the rest of you do." The rest of us that day were soon grateful for his confession, because it triggered the invention of this process. It ignited much hilarity, and became known for a while as "I am a Rock."

It is good to do before, not after an intensive despair work process.


The exercise is similar in form to Open Sentences: people sit in pairs and take turns speaking and listening to each other. Each partner responds to two cues in succession, that is Partner A to both and then Partner B.

Before giving the first cue or "open sentence," Joanna usually invites the participants to free themselves from excessive sincerity. That's because it is a little shocking, and one wonders: is it acceptable to actually express this here? So, as she models, the personal expressions that are invited can start almost humorously, with vigorous exaggeration and gallows humor; they get more honest soon enough.

It is helpful, at the start, to provide a rationale: As we relate to what is happening to our world, concern and compassion are not all we feel. There is fed-upness, too, even some strains of callous indifference; if that were not so, we would be living different lives. To be whole, to be present and real, we need to acknowledge those strains as well. To do this helps us identify with what we imagine the larger public feels and preserves us from judgment and self-righteousness as activists.

The first "open sentence" allows us to express the resistance and revulsion that can be aroused in us by the continual onslaught of bad news and the overwhelming array of urgent issues, from terrorism to top soil. A phrase to start off with is : "I'm sick and tired of hearing about..." Or "Don't talk to me about..."; then let it go from there. The scene soon gets loud and often hilarious, and it's good to let the venting go on for at least five minutes.

The second and last Open Sentence is: "I don't want to hear (or think) about all this, because it makes me feel..." Here the mood shifts, as people find themselves expressing the very things they had doubted they felt, or had feared to feel. Allow several minutes for the response. Then the process is repeated with Partner B.