Harmonizing Discord: Lessons from hardened hearts

By: Margaret Sowry 

Arriving at the Bethesda chapel some seven weeks ago, I was unprepared for the responses from the twelve angry, disengaged teens who were gathered. Initial attempts to orchestrate recreational music making via the previously tried and proven HealthRHYTHMS drumming protocol went no where to say the least. 

It was obvious that no attempt should be made to do the wellness exercise with guided imagery. One would have been more inclined to tether wild horses for a pre-school trail ride. Even rhythmic naming was a challenge. It seemed they spoke another language. Some mumbled, some changed their name mid-sentence, as if revealing their true identity would cause an electric shock. Others refused to look up their presence seemed to disappear into the floor. 

Though the expression of their rhythms on the drums was a cacophony of total frustration laced with obvious anger; even more concerning was the display of apathy and withdrawal by several participants. As we left that first session, I was overcome with a sense of hopelessness I knew what was not working but had no real sense of what would ultimately impact their lives. 

Thus it all begins if one can only "see" beyond their hopeless expression with a heart sight that is genuine, the process of recreational music making (RMM) begins to work its magic. 

What were the life stories that had produced these individuals who were unable to trust, to reach out, or even to allow themselves to relax and laugh? Life's battles create scars that mutate without warning or explanation. Yet the intrinsic essence of that which lies beneath their battered surface remains unchanged. The language that penetrates and peels the layers of resistance can only be an expressed caring. The ever present need to be recognized as valuable, and the desire to re-discover one's inner beauty and worth are the innate truths that ultimately afford re-creation. 

RMM bridges barriers and births introspection which ultimately builds connection. However, if the facilitator expects to witness immediately measurable outcomes, it may be disappointing at best. It is the offering and the intent that ultimately matter. It may be as simple as showing up. Yet even showing up can be complicated. 

The facilitator does "show up" after spending many moments of concentrated reflection focused on the caveats, characteristics, dynamics and personalities that characterize the challenging group. This investment of genuine commitment is the most essential component of the offering. 

Empathy, described by Webster as "identification with and understanding of another's feelings, situation and motives" opens the door to an experience that affords the potential to make a difference. When empathy is present, it reveals itself through one who chooses to care. True caring coupled with the understanding that each journey is unique, and each journeyman is not only precious but has within their being a special gift is the foundation for enabling positive changes to evolve. RMM is a tool that creates opportunities for genuine self-disclosure that lead to transcendence. 

Application of these principles is not always easy. The changes that occurred with the court-placed teens were very subtle at first. Leaving the group on more than one occasion, I re-played scenarios and retrospectively imagined handling some situations differently. I made it top priority to actually apologize at a subsequent session if warranted. At least twice, I began the session by stating, "I owe XXX an apology. He made an excellent point last week, and I really wasn't tuned in at the time. I now understand what he was saying." It is impossible to ask the group to be forthright and honest without demonstrating that you will honestly acknowledge an oversight or a mistake. 

Several times when responses to Inspirational Beats were lacking, I reiterated that I'd not ask them to do something I wouldn't do myself. Then I shared a personal trial. I've found this to be an extraordinarily effective way not only to demonstrate intention, but to level the field. Under no uncertain terms could I ever allow myself to forget that each person in this group has been deserted, neglected, labeled and abused. The first noticeable breakthrough was making eye contact, and when that happened my heart embraced it as a treasure. 

The first of the barriers was finally breached. When one captures even the briefest eye exchange, an opportunity surfaces to see beyond the facade. Following eye contact, sensing when an appropriate gentle touch of the hand or shoulder would be fitting is a next significant step. When they are ready to accept it, a touch speaks volumes. 

Frankly I was never fully cognizant of the changes in the moment. They were so subtle that an observer would likely not even notice. However, a time came when a very troubled defiant girl announced, "I know what I can change, it is my attitude." That statement was uttered during the third session. Later the director of the program shared the nature of some of the challenges the counselors were facing with her. They noted that the short time devoted to RMM accomplished more than 40 hours of one-on-one counseling. 

Another participant immediately comes to mind. One of the young men in the group frequently vacillated between soliciting attention, to withdrawing, to becoming openly defiant throughout the first 3 sessions. A few participants mentioned a song he had recently written. When asked to share it with the group, he could not be coaxed into doing so. By the 4th session, he felt comfortable enough to sing it for the group. 

His song surprised all of us. Rather than reflecting utter desolation, failure and despair, his words expressed a dream of the basic elements of life that most of us take for granted. In reality it wasn't a song his verse was the breaking of a shell that had not been penetrated before. Filled with hope and expectation that life for him would one day improve, his song resounded in each of us as a tribute to one?s first realization of true potential. 

It was also during the third session that I personally felt comfortable enough to share a song of affirmation with the group. It was one that celebrated inner beauty and worth. Two young women immediately responded, and committed the song to memory. The next session, they actually requested to sing it together, and thereafter reported to have sung it daily. 

The last session coincided with many participants anticipating a home visit for the holiday. That day the group was no less than exuberant with energetic drumming. For the first time during Inspirational Beats they were able to express appropriate and rational concerns interspersed with anxiety associated with the anticipation of returning home. 

The song-writer again shared his song. Hearing it for the second time, I couldn't contain my own tears. As a group, our eyes merged it was a moment of true connection. In just six short weeks, this rag-tag group had evolved from angry, disengaged, apathetic and defiant teens to a supportive empathetic team that could genuinely share deep-seated emotions while demonstrating a needed sense of caring for each other. 

During the sixth and last scheduled session, the young man who had two weeks earlier pounded an angry "gun shot" on his drum jumped to his feet and declared, "GROUP HUG!" At that point, we all got it! Within each of us, beyond struggling, fortresses, competition, hurt, anger, distrust and malevolence, common ground set the stage for true connection at least in the moment. 

Six weeks passed, and I continued to reflect on all of our sessions. I will really never know the true impact of this program on each of their lives, nor do I ever expect to fully understand the personal transformations that never would have occurred without these collective experiences. Yet somehow I wanted to learn more there was so much more to discover on many levels. I feared that the momentum we had achieved would gradually dissipate into oblivion. 

As an update, I’d like to share that the pilot group had been extended beyond the original six sessions. This week a new and highly significant door opened for the first time. Our first Inspirational Beats question was: "How does it feel to be out of control of your own life?" 

Their frank responses took us to a guarded realm of shattered hearts, broken dreams, injustice and pain. We came face to face with a myriad of trials and tribulations, and allowed each person to reveal themselves without judgment. A broken teen recounted a searing court sentence, and drummed a painful dis-empowering emotional response. All participants listened intently and responded with similar stories. Several asked, "Did you cry?" A quiet participant sitting next to me murmured, "Of course, we ALL cried." 

If that had not been enough to jar each of us, there was no way I could have predicted the responses to the second question: "What one thing can I take control of in order to make my life better today?" 

"I can begin to control my angry reactions." 

"I must learn to control my thoughts." 

"I need to begin by caring about myself." 

"I need to learn better behaviors." 

"My talents can help me and I will use them better." 

A very embittered young man announced, "I will start to control my mouth." 

Staring at the floor, a fifteen year old uttered, "I have to control my lying." 

As a facilitator, I truly cannot analyze what took place in the hearts of each person this week. Yet it was their genuine heart-felt responses coupled with amazing trust and spontaneity that I will always remember. The unraveling of each person's saga wasn't nearly as relevant as the fact that in their own way, they achieved the courage to face their windmills, and were now prepared to move onward. 

Reflecting upon what I have learned as a facilitator, it's apparent that the anticipation of a group's transformation seems somewhat like waiting for a long cold bitter winter to end. It's not surprising that unanticipated storms stand between today and the revelation of Spring. Then one day the earth suddenly reveals its green splendor. While defining that moment is often challenging, experiencing it first hand is a privilege? and I will never be quite the same. 

Margaret Sowry 
Research Coordinator - Mind-Body Wellness Center 
February 1, 2006