The Orange Question
July 23, 2017 (Image Breaking Out by Sally Tharp)
If you and your spouse or partner had to live in a rustic cabin for a week, with little variety to eat, just predominantly oranges, and you had an hour to pick all of them out from a large orange warehouse, what qualities in the oranges would you select, in order that you optimize your satisfaction that week?
I developed The Orange Question as a strategy for inviting couples, coming in for therapy, to imagine, envision, and feel empowered to select, from all existing possibilities, those qualities which would most satisfy their desire for a good week together.
In a literal sense, oranges satisfy nutritional needs for survival. But, in a metaphorical rendering of the perfect selection of oranges, we want additional qualities, such as deliciousness, fragrance, juiciness, that move the common orange well beyond its status as mere staple.
Surviving together as a couple, for five, ten, or twenty years, already represents a meritorious level of success in many things, like task-sharing, negotiation, cooperation, financial stability, co-parenting if there are children, communicating about logistics, and so forth. But, unless one is a Zen master, most of the mundane business of everyday life generates little that feels romantic, imaginative, exciting or inspirational. We humans, ever restless in our metronomic swings between the desire for familiarity, and also for novelty, for security but also delightful surprise, can get stuck in ruts of boredom or anhedonia when we just subsist, lazily plotting how to kill time between requisite efforts.
Couples, other than those living in extremes of substance dependence, psychological chaos, abuse or criminality, come apart when their multiple modes of connection have atrophied and only a narrative of cohabitation and complaint remains. When couples seek therapy, we often make efforts to untangle the morass of complaints, in order to achieve a better understanding of how each party interprets the behavior of the other. And misinterpretations account for a vast number of exchanges that escalate into angry outbursts and emotional skewering. While processes for coming to understand each other better, and developing one’s emotional IQ about the other person are very useful, therapy sessions may devolve into a swamp of despair if they do not also introduce the imaginative rendering of future chapters that, if not bursting with flavor, yield at least some mellow opportunities for satisfaction.
The Orange Question, and other questions like it, invigorate the muse that most of us house, garbed in hope, playfulness, curiosity and inventiveness. Hypothetical questions, just like a Rorschach test, throwing the I Ching, or responding to a poem or a piece of music, extend to the responder a reflective template upon which to project the self as a character in a different story—sometimes the exceptional tale that’s poised on the bottom lip ready for launch.
Rina wanted juicy oranges, some ripe and some ripening, and oh so sweet. And Joe said they must be easy to peel. No pits; neither dried out nor mushy. Rina added succulence and freshness; that they must find the best ones.
Another couple, Rose and Shep, offered their collective responses: Make sure to get enough for survival, some ripe, some ripening, no bruising or flattening, flexibility to cut or peel, nothing in a bag, everything exposed, round, undamaged, big, bright color, tastes good, appealing to look at, juicy, colorful.
Having congratulated each couple for coming up with so many desirable characteristics, I then asked them to listen to my reading of the qualities they mentioned, and as they heard each one, to then ask themselves whether that quality, now abstracted from ‘oranges,’ had any relevance to the marriage they wanted to experience. Were, for example, juiciness, sweetness and ripeness relevant? Did a sense of freshness appeal? Were there aspects of their relationship in which being “easy to peel” or “without pits,” served to boost satisfaction? How relevant was ripening in the relationship as an engine driving better partnership?
This morning I read this quote: “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms,” written by the poet, Muriel Rukeyser. Of course, ‘atoms’ are also story-words, our lenses for what we can know of these unnamed phenomena. Do we not marry the universe with verse because we know how to love in language?
Steve Gaddis, a masterful Narrative therapist speaks of very careful, effortful “scaffolding” or “laddering” questions by the therapist that lead the client deeply into her own experience, both emotionally and thoughtfully. Instead of enactment therapies, like Psychodrama or Internal Family Systems or Gestalt therapy—which can be cathartic—narrative therapy asks detailed questions including those of a sensory nature—Where was he sitting? How old was he? What were you feeling? What were you hearing? Was he looking you in the eye? Are there other remembered stories like this?
When we examine and tell the tales of our past or present experiences in a holistic and detailed way, or hear those of others in all the specifics, then, as under a microscope, a world of possibilities emerges that, perhaps, we had not seen or utilized previously. These in-the-moment experiences of re-seeing, rethinking, and re-considering, wake us up from soporific assumptions and desiccated stories that have lost all vitality. The asking of “laddered” questions, much like utilizing the Socratic method, function like an electron microscope, or at least a magnifying glass to reveal what has previously been glossed over with the cataract of complacency or defensiveness.
In spite of my therapeutic orientation as a more relational than solution-focused (alone) therapist, there’s a similarity between the Orange Question and Steve De Shazar’s famous Miracle Question, developed for Solution Focused Therapy. It was called, in 1988, a “thought experiment.” It goes something like this: If, by some miracle, you go to sleep tonight and wake up with your problem(s) already solved, how does your life now look without that problem? How do you now act and feel? What is now amazingly different?
Byron Katie produced her famous four questions to unlock the stories that bind us in self-torture, stuckness, and helplessness. First, write down the evil thought, the harsh judgment, the worst-case scenario and then ask these questions about it: 1) Is it true? (that your spouse hates you, or that your boss always has unfair expectations, that your sister is nothing but selfish, that none of your kids appreciate you., etc.) You need to sit with that question and let the experience of it circulate through your whole body. 2) Can you absolutely know it’s true? Is this something that you have the authority to know, as in the contents of someone else’s mind. This second question plumbs downward past our vast lachrymatory, through our layered onion skins of interpretation to arrive at the translucent membrane through which the relevant reality shines as a nascent, as-yet-untold tale. 3) We are asked to experience the turbulence, the shuddering, the precipitous feelings and quickened sensations that arise as we sink into the quicksand of our demeaning, damning stories. When we believe these are our only stories, they hold us hostage in an airless chamber. This is the embodiment question. 4) We imagine ourselves in the same place with the person or situation that troubled us, now unshrouded by our stressful story about it. “Who would we be without that thought?” How would this freedom feel? Do our lives feel better with or without our damaging story?
Finally, Byron Katie asks us to perform a “turnaround,” when we examine and experience within our minds and bodies the “opposite” of what we believed. And we find three or more examples of the truth of the “turnaround.”
Katie’s “turnaround” is kin to Narrative Therapy’s “exceptions,” as well as to De Shazar’s morning-after-the-problem-is-solved. And, also, to Gestalt’s awakening of the dance between foreground and background in which positive and negative configurations can tickle our senses—blend and blur or alternate the capture of our attention.
The Socratic Method teaches by questioning. Although we absorb so much knowledge in school and from our parents via the lecture method, from infancy on, we learn most robustly by co-generated actions on, and in our world. At first, we learn our world as the barely differentiated landscapes of our body and our mother’s body. Later we question the acorns, stones, grapes, Tupperware, brushes, and sister’s long hair by picking up and dropping, pulling, mouthing, carrying these objects, and later still we question intention, motive, cause and effect. We develop associative thinking, make connections, and construct the nature of the world in which we live. We open it. We close it. Sometimes we close it too prematurely and our ideas go into isolation and lockdown. All thinking is relational—name to object; co-development of ideas between persons; isomorphically related concepts from one field to another via cross fertilization of knowledges in our own minds; even gossip. The end of our questioning marks the end of the road where, as pickings for its teeth, death consumes what’s left of us.
“This scrupulous and exhaustive form of inquiry in many ways resembles the scientific method. But unlike Socratic inquiry, scientific inquiry would often lead us to believe that whatever is not measurable cannot be investigated. This ‘belief’ fails to address such paramount human concerns as sorrow and joy and suffering and love.” (Paul, R. and Elder, L. (April 1997). Foundation For Critical Thinking, Online at website: www.criticalthinking.org and excerpted from Socrates Cafe by Christopher Phillips) A fine laddering of questions in which a belief, and its believer must run an obstacle course of unusual circumstances, situations embedded in complex contexts or hypothetical counter-explanations, offers that exquisitely painstaking and painful knife edge of differentiation that renders the outcome of such questions both hard won and prized. Upon this kind of parsing we pivot, perhaps in relief for letting go of self-damning explanations for our failures and unhappiness, but also in pain for shedding the protective wall of our decay and indifference. Detailed questioning of our limiting beliefs creates psychic distance from them. The experience creates breathing room between a sense of self and one’s problems. A stuck problem, once opened to viewing from multiple vantage points, opens itself for solvability or even solubility as it dissolves completely within the context of a newly imagined story. To a large extent we author our own lives, develop our own troubles, and yet, enjoy the capacity to imagine our way to juicier, sweeter oranges.
Guest Saddle: Upon what resistant problem would the light of questioning shine most brightly in your life? What dried up ‘orange’ in your life could use an infusion of juiciness and sweetness?