Stone Soup and Social Containers

The posts about social containers and the hierarchy of needs are beginning drafts for a workbook for future POCA Tech students, kind of like Praxis, except that Praxis is mostly a workbook for clinic and this will be a workbook for, well, everything else. We realized that we needed a workbook like Praxis because needling people is pretty easy; it’s the other skills of punking that are hard. Well, now we know punking is easy compared to creating and maintaining a social container, so we’re trying to break down the attitudes and skills related to that.

First, though, the big picture. Please read, or re-read, this blog post:

The Stone Soup fable applies to social entrepreneurship; it also applies to social containers, specifically, what it’s like to make one. I guess that’s another definition for social entrepreneurship: the willingness plus the effort to make a social container, out of nothing if need be.

Let’s imagine a kind of prequel to Stone Soup, in which the hungry soldier tries every logical alternative before he goes all in with his improbable magic-rock strategy. Imagine that he asks people to share their food with him; they say no. He bangs on people’s doors and demands they share their food with him; they deadbolt their doors. He goes to restaurants and offers to wash dishes in exchange for a meal; they tell him regretfully that barter’s not in their business model and show him out. He writes an inspiring article about the need to feed hungry soldiers and shares it on social media; he gets all kinds of likes and re-posts and re-tweets, but nobody gives him any food. He writes a letter to his congressperson and gets a polite, encouraging reply on official stationery — also, no food.

In order to get to the point where he is able to literally make soup out of nothing, the soldier has to fully accept that nobody is going to solve his problem for him. Even though they have the resources and they could: They just don’t want to; they’re totally not interested; they won’t get involved, and it doesn’t really matter whether they’re polite or rude about it. No amount of pleading, arguing, advocating, shaming, or even threatening is going to accomplish anything — except to make the soldier tired and even hungrier than before.

In this prequel, the soldier’s politics could be anywhere on the spectrum, he could be a progressive or a conservative, and while that might change how we feel about him (depending on our own politics), it doesn’t change what happens. Regardless of how he frames it to himself (or others), nobody wants to feed him. They have compelling reasons for not sharing their food which may or may not be political. He probably meets people on his journey who want to talk politics with him, and maybe religion too, so they can describe all the historical, cultural, and metaphysical reasons why there’s no food for him and why he should join their political party or their church. It’s all talk, though, and no food.

By the time the soldier picks a rock up off the sidewalk and recognizes it as magic, he’s had to give up on ordinary methods. Like, really give up.

Why am I going on about this? Because I think sometimes an obstacle to being successful as a social entrepreneur is a resistance to taking responsibility for improving a bad situation, for example the lack of a sturdy social container for acupuncture, which then leads to an inability to fully engage. I might have come up with the model years earlier if I hadn’t been hoping somebody else would somehow solve my problem of how to be an acupuncturist in my own community. Because it was a really big problem! Surely it wasn’t possible that nobody was interested in it, that nobody cared!

Plenty of people would care later. I had to care first, and be willing to look like a dork while I was doing it. I also had to risk 100% of my personal resources on my dorky enterprise of demonstrating that it was possible to make a living as an acupuncturist in my working class community. Obviously, I would have preferred a better and easier alternative.

A lot of punks and would-be punks are resistant to taking responsibility for creating and maintaining a social container that allows people of ordinary incomes to have access to acupuncture. I get it; I was resistant too. And a lot of things about community acupuncture have changed over the last 17 years, but alas, the requirement for responsibility, risk, and full personal engagement with this problem hasn’t changed. Or as my WCA comrade Cortney puts it, you have to really, really want it.

Let’s talk about how the magic rock strategy works, in detail. If pleading, arguing, advocating, shaming, and threatening don’t work, what DOES work to enlist other people in a solution? How exactly do you make a social container out of nothing, and what does it look like to really, really want it? Here’s my experience, FWIW:

1. You have to go first, in every way that matters. You have to put yourself out there in situations where other people don’t understand and probably think you look stupid. You can’t be too sexy to potentially make a fool of yourself for an important cause. This is the part where you’re standing in front of the crowd with your empty pot and your magic rock.

Reflection question: Do you have experience with initiating projects? What’s your tolerance for risk? You’re not too sexy for small business, are you? Has anybody ever described you as entitled? (Sorry, we have to ask!)

2. You have to have realistic expectations of other people’s contributions before you invite them.  If you’re expecting somebody to walk up to your empty pot and pour in gallons of delicious soup, ready-made from your favorite restaurant, this is not going to work. Your role is to pull together a lot of different small contributions into something that’s more than the sum of its parts. You're working with incremental improvements and limited resources.

Reflection question: how realistic are you? Do you tend to have high expectations for other people’s behavior? Do you often find yourself disappointed in other people? Would people who know you well say that it’s easy or hard for you to ask for help? Can you accept incremental improvement and limited resources, or are your standards too high to tolerate those things?

3. You have to radiate faith and goodwill, and set an overwhelmingly, contagiously positive tone. In my experience, this requires a lot of self-discipline. If you haven’t yet taught yourself how not to complain, now’s the time. Negativity is a luxury you absolutely can’t afford; it’s incompatible with magic rocks.

Reflection question: would the people who know you best describe you as a positive person? What’s your relationship to criticism and complaining? Almost everybody enjoys complaining at least some of the time, but for some people it’s a serious hobby, and also the basis of friendships. Are you willing to strategically give it up?

4. At the same time you’re radiating all those positive vibes, you have to focus. Almost every version of the Stone Soup story, across different cultures, describes how the soldier/tramp/monk/trickster never takes his eyes off the pot. There’s nothing in the world more interesting to him than his pot with a magic rock/nail/axe at the bottom, and that sets the tone for the all those other people, the ones that he needs to get interested in his emerging solution, to follow suit. He’s the antithesis of distracted.

Reflection question: how’s your ability to focus? What are the potential distractions in your life and how are you going to manage them? What’s your relationship to drama and conflict — do you enjoy them? Are you willing to give them up too so that you have more energy to focus?

4. You have to let go of control. All those tiny, disparate contributions from dozens of people? If they’re going to add up to something significant, you can’t micromanage the contribution process. You have to trust and invite other people’s goodwill and faith, and let the soup come together.

Reflection question: almost everyone has control issues; what are yours like? Would the people who know you best describe you as a micro-manager? How tolerant are you of errors made in good faith?

5. At the same time that you let go control of the details, you have to take responsibility for the big picture. You’re not micromanaging the small stuff, but you are managing the overall process and you have to keep it moving. Momentum is crucial when you’re making stone soup. In a sense, you’re guiding the skeptical crowd from one collective achievement (look, carrots!) to the next one (wow, celery!) to set the stage for the next one ( wild mushrooms in this soup would be amazing…wait, you HAVE some??? UNBELIEVABLE!) If there’s no momentum, there’s no process, and no soup.

Reflection question: how’s your ability to see the big picture? Do you have any experience with motivating other people? Is your enthusiasm contagious?

6. Gratitude, gratitude, gratitude, and also, don’t worry about who gets credit for the soup. In fact, share credit whenever you possibly can. Every person in the Stone Soup story is really important, and also really unimportant, at the same time. If you’re worried about who gets the credit, you’re not hungry enough. If you’re not grateful as the soup comes together, you weren’t hungry enough to begin with. Stone soup is for desperate people. Or, as an old woman in one version of the folktale puts it, “Well, THAT’s something for poor people to know!”

Reflection question: how hungry are you? How badly do you need your social container? What’s your relationship to gratitude, including expressing it?

For punks, it really comes down to: can you live with the idea that nobody owes you a social container in which to practice acupuncture, and can you take responsibility for creating your own if you have to? Do you recognize that putting in needles and having relationships with patients is the fun, easy part of this job (and even that’s not that easy)?

The magic in the this story, and there is real magic, is about how approaching a very challenging situation with creativity and faith can show you that you’re resilient, capable and expansive in ways you might never have imagined. The transformation isn’t just about a pot of water becoming soup, it’s about you becoming a larger version of yourself, someone who's capable of creating and maintaining a social container. It’s about a community of people with limited resources creating something that’s  much more than the sum of its parts. This kind of magic is a beautiful thing; it’s also a very demanding thing.

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  1. Here lies the interview questions for prospective punks…

    This poses a LOT to think about. How many of these things do you think you or any successful punk had in the beginning? How much of it was and still is a learning curve?

    Is it realistic to think some days you won’t have the energy to do much more than needle? Looking upward, CA is a big pill to swallow. I wonder how many of the recruitment failures cracked under the pressure of everything that laid before them? (book keeping, working their own front desk, recruitment, fast pace, social responsibilities, etc, etc,).

    thanks for another thought-provoking post Lisa

  2. You’re welcome, thanks for reading. I think for most of us it’s an ongoing growth curve. But it requires a willingness to tackle the curve, which includes accepting that the curve exists (nobody owes you a social container) as opposed to, well, not accepting it and thinking there’s something wrong with your employer/your coworkers/your patients and they need to fix it. It’s just hard. Definitely not everybody who is attracted to community acupuncture should actually do community acupuncture.