Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Have you ever noticed that one of your problems has gone into retirement? A problem can do that you know, retire like a worker entitled to a rest, give over its responsibility for the daily grind of things a problem has to do. Sometimes, without even giving notice, a problem will stop showing up on time, extend its routine vacations, start leaving early, get totally tired of making you miserable.
I haven’t been accustomed to labeling former problems as retired problems, but I do like that descriptive language. When people retire they aren’t gone forever. They continue to exist, only they don’t interact with the place the way they previously did. It gives me a lot of hope, knowing that problems retire, that they do quit, that they don’t stay forever, even if they’ve been around a long long time.
A problem might retire, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone. Just as retired employees continue to know their way around the office long after they have surrendered their keys, retired problems know how to find vulnerabilities in your life. Perhaps that’s why I felt more than a little cautious at last’week’s narrative therapy workshop when David Epston asked us to consider offering up our retired problems as demonstration models for his interviewing techniques. It seems to me that you ought to be careful about opening the door to a problem that has retired, moved itself out of your life, absented itself from your daily consideration. Opening the door to such a problem is a bit like inviting a reformed burglar back into your apartment. Having been there before, chances are he knows you keep the cash in your sock drawer. It’s a bit like blowing on the ashes of last night’s fire. If there’s even a bit of spark there, the fire might just rekindle. Yes, you have to be careful around retired problems.
I spent some time on the weekend examining the problems of my life, wondering which ones have retired, which ones are in the full bloom of active employment, and which among them might be persuaded to take early retirement. It wasn’t always easy to tell the difference. This lack of clarity was mildly disturbing to me. Being able to tell the difference ought to be an important power of discernment for those of us who make a daily practice of examining other people’s problems.
Amid the wondering I did have two comforting thoughts. The first is that most clients I see in counselling are pretty good at identifying the retired problems and warning me off lest I try to bring them back into active employment. “”I have dealt with that,”” they’ll say. “”I didn’t come here to go back there.”” mI have learned to respect this knowledge and govern my actions in accordance with the warnings.
The second comforting thought is that I have good tools at my disposal. I am not as cautious as I used to be when it comes to re-examining retired problems. Where once I might have worried that the memory would bring a return of the misery that accompanied the problem, I have found that the misery of a truly retired problem seems to keep its distance if you summon the problem with hope tools. Ask a person to tell you a story about something that turned out better than expected and there’ll be a retired problem in there somewhere. Ask a person to tell you a story about a time of being utterly surprised in a good way, and the story will generally be about something that might have been bad.
Narrative therapy is often said to be the archaeology of hope, so it naturally interested me to see what kind of process David Epston would apply to retired problems. He did not disappoint me. The process was fun to watch. Problems were brought forward in a moment of private conversation with him. We spectators were not privy to those brief chats. Rather than show us the problem that was brought forward, he neglected it to death. In fact, he showed no interest at all in the problems themselves. His interest was kindled by, and drawn to the proud moment at which any given problem was known to be truly retired. By showing a keen interest in that moment of recognition, in its setting, in the people who needed to know about that moment, he grew the story of the moment until it took on the celebratory trappings of a true retirement party. No self-respecting problem dared show its troublesome face after such a large retirement party.
Narrative therapy as practiced in this way is indeed the archaeology of hope. This is why it provides such a comfortable foundation on which to rest the tools of hope-focussed practice. The hope it exposes is solidly grounded and generally implicit. It is the feeling of hope though the feeling is not explicitly named as hope. Building upon this, the hope-focussed practice of the Hope Foundation is also the archaeology of hope. It unearths the feeling of hope, then adds a system of labeling so that the hope becomes named and explicit.
There is hope in the certainty that a problem can retire. Beyond that, there is additional hope in knowing that a retired problem, skillfully restored to conscious awareness, can be useful as a support to the hope that future problems might join it in its comfortable retirement.

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