"SEEKING HUMAN KINDNESS," said the sign of the beggar as Rosamund Stone Zander passed him in the street. “Nice,” she thought. But a minute later, she went back and sat next to the man.
“May I make a suggestion?” she asked.
“How about saying, ‘Offering human kindness?’”
The man was clearly upset: “But I don’t have anything to offer. I have nothing.”
“You have no human kindness?” Zander asked.
“Oh, I have lots of human kindness.”
Zander smiled. “Then, you have lots to offer.”
Roz Zander tells the story to illustrate how the stories we tell ourselves determine our experiences in life. She was trained as a family psychotherapist and discovered in her practice how her clients created their reality by the words they spoke. “People would come to me saying: ‘This horrible thing happened to me…’ I could see the ‘thing,’ but I didn’t see ‘horrible.’ Some people might say the same thing is great. I heard their experience as a story, not a reality. A problem only exists for a person in his speaking, not on the ground."
Zander concluded she could be more effective in helping her clients through working on their stories than digging into their negative experiences. “People can do that for years,” she says. “I don’t believe there is such a thing as an objective problem anyway, because it’s created and comes into being through their language.”
Zander’s analyses of stories turned into an art, the art of possibility — the title of the 2000 book she co-authored with her former husband, Benjamin Zander, and founder and conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. More than half a million copies of "The Art of Possibility" have been sold in the U.S. and many more in other countries. The book presents practices for bringing creativity in relationships and activities. It shows how transformation happens through changing stories.
Kamp Solutions: Rosamund Stone Zander
"Possibility is looking for what might be and looking for how things are without the clouding of interpretation and opinion"
We are meeting in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the fall. Through the windows of Zander’s home, we can see the colorful leaves on the trees in her garden. The autumn colors match the art on the walls in her living room. The scene radiates a warmth that resonates with her gentle mission to help people through changing their perspectives.
“What is ‘possibility?'” I ask.
“Possibility is an attitude,” she says. “It’s an attitude of openness and without fear. It’s looking for what might be and looking for how things are without the clouding of interpretation and opinion.”
Zander pauses for a moment. Then she adds: “It’s also a discipline. It’s a way of speaking. And in that way of speaking, you’re looking from here to the future. You can understand the past, but you don’t drag it with you. You say: ‘How about if we did such and such?’ You say: ‘Let’s do this.’ Possibility is a ‘let’s’ kind of thing.”
Many of the experiences people have in their lives, many of the problems they face, are based on — what Zander calls — ”child stories.” We all grow up being the center of our universe. Whatever happens around us is “done to us.” Zander: “These narratives remain forever. Stories stay locked like that when there is the tiniest bit of trauma involved.” She explains: “For instance, if you were bitten by a dog as a child, you may conclude that all dogs bite and avoid them for the next 70 years. Even in adulthood, you can come to a general conclusion based on one incident such as ‘All beggars buy alcohol with the money you give them.’ You might feel you know that to be true because last year, you saw a beggar on the street taking money and then buying a drink… Stories stay locked like that.” In the possibility narrative, all points of view are included. Each beggar gets a new chance. There are always options. Zander: “If you get stuck again, you think: ‘How is it that I am responding so without nuance? Let’s try a different point of view.’ That is the discipline of being in possibility.”
Possibility is indeed an art to be mastered. We live in a world where people seem addicted to problems. Most of the stories that dominate our lives — the news — are about problems. “People are more comfortable when they know the dangers, and if they don’t see them, they’ll look for them,” Zander says. Fear has been essential to our survival for thousands of years. It still makes sense for the quivering gazelle in the bush that is always ready to escape. Humans, however, have subjugated nature. There’s no need anymore for constant fear. Zander: “When a truck is barreling down on us, we are constituted to move into fear. And we should. But when we see the loss of our income ‘barreling down the road,’ we needn’t panic. Part of living in possibility is understanding that the danger has passed, we have already survived.”
Recently, Roz Zander published a new book: "Pathways to Possibility." The book presents stories of people who were able to transform themselves and then easily wrest possibility out of circumstances where others saw none. On page 56, there’s an excerpt that tells the unlikely story of a man who was witness to the disenfranchisement of the orangutans in Borneo from industry’s destruction of their habitat. This man was compelled to singlehandedly restore an entire rainforest.
The stories of "Pathways to Possibility" are meant to empower people to seek transformation and to grow in power and effectiveness. Zander: “For many people it’s easy to collapse into, ‘Well, I’m not important.’ That’s a major story for human beings. I don’t mean anything. I’m just one of many. I’m not important, so, why should I get up in the morning?” The man who saved the orangutans in Borneo shows that everyone can make an important contribution. For Zander that contribution begins in the neighborhood. “If you’re walking and talking possibility, you have an enormous influence. If you walk around radiating true love, people will feel it. People feel strong when love is coming towards them. I want people to feel strong. I want them to be connected. Love connects.”
Connection lies at the core of possibility. There are no closed systems in nature or in the universe around us. And yet: “We act as we live in closed systems all the time. One doctor looks at the toe, another one at the ear — as though they are unrelated. There’s nothing closed in the body and the body is not closed in relation to other bodies.” In Zander’s language, the holistic perspective of love doesn’t point at a soft new age approach. As a therapist, she learned that she couldn’t help her clients with an isolated focus on their problems. But she was able to help them through showing connections and widening their perspectives. “We can’t understand something when we isolate it,” she says. Instead, Roz Zander keeps looking for better, more helpful stories. With a radiant smile, she says: “Let’s make up the story, which I do, that all of us have much more power than we think we do.”