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How History Impacts Today's Conflicts with Susan Clarke

Updated: Nov 18, 2019

We’re doing something special on the podcast this week…

This week Susan is being interviewed!

For those of you that don’t know, Susan has an incredibly powerful story, one that we think really shows the beauty of conflict, and we wanted to be sure that you heard her story so you could see how we relate to the topics we cover and you can too.

So today Susan is sharing why the beauty of conflict- what does that really mean? And how does our history, and hers in particular, impact how we show up today in conflict?

She lets us in on what she learned about conflict growing up and how camp played a role in that, why she spent so much of her life telling people what they wanted to hear, and the story of how her cancer diagnosis eventually led to the root of our beauty of vulnerability and curiosity in conflict model.

We hope you will enjoy the emotional and powerful stories she shares with us and find ways you can relate this to your life story as well.

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Full Transcript:

CrisMarie: Hello. Today we have a special episode where I'm going to interview Susan to talk about why The Beauty of Conflict—like, what does that mean? And also to talk about how our history impacts how we show up today in conflict. So, welcome, Susan.

Susan: Oh, I'm so excited to be on the show. We've been having so much fun interviewing people, and we wanted to interview each other.

CrisMarie: Yes!

Susan: Today is that day.

CrisMarie: So Susan, what does it mean, The Beauty of Conflict, and why The Beauty of Conflict?

Susan: Well, really The Beauty of Conflict comes from this idea that, generally speaking, most people think of conflict as painful and difficult, and avoid it. I believe conflict is beautiful. And when I think of beauty, I don't think of it as joyful or comfortable or fun. I think of beauty as something that's rich and deep and has a lot of texture to it. So sometimes that can mean that it can be uncomfortable, but sometimes it can be fun. Sometimes it can be lighter, sometimes it's heavier, sometimes it's that combination of all those textures that makes conflict beautiful. And we, in our fear of the pain of it, lose the potential beauty of it. And that's what we want people to reconnect to. It's to see conflict as something that's very natural and inherent to who we are, and actually is the root of all transformation and creativity.

CrisMarie: Well, you know, you were probably going to get back to this, but you bring up a good point that most people think conflict is bad. They weren't trained in it. They work to avoid it, they want to diffuse it. And that's a lot to do with how we grew up and seeing conflict modeled, learning how these big people around us deal with conflict. So can you tell our listeners what you learned about conflict growing up?

Susan: Well, that's an interesting question. You would think over the years I would have had a great response, a simple story about that. But it's not quite that simple. I sort of equate it to the story of two dinner tables.

When I was young, I went to summer camp. There was a camp director and there was my mother, who was the nurse. And we sat out on the porch. There was the camp director’s table, and then there was my mother's table. I could usually choose between the two, and most anyone who came out to the porch got to choose between the two. And what I will say is over at the camp director’s table, everything was fairly quiet and measured.

If anyone was talking it was usually him, and he might be sharing a story. He was very charismatic, but you could feel a bit of the tension at that table. Not much was really being said about anything, you know? Versus at my mother's table, a lot of times the camp counselors and people would come out and they would have these debates about issues going on in the world, about religion, and they would be very passionate about their opinions. And I always thought it was interesting the tone of the two tables. Now I'll be clear, neither table was really talking too much about anything relevant to each


CrisMarie: You mean like interpersonal?

Susan: Interpersonal. On the one table it was just mostly quiet, him holding court, and at the other table there was this rich ideological debate about politics and issues, which was way more energizing. But also, not too much to do with the people involved, although I guess you could learn a lot about them from the stories they told. I can remember some of those camp counselors and who they were because of how they showed up at our dinner table.

CrisMarie: How did that context inform how you show up in conflict today?

Susan: Well, one thing about that was I did learn our belief that it was okay to tell a good story, because that was what would happen at the camp director’s table. He would tell a good story and mesmerize people with his kind of charismatic personality. Everyone else would just listen. And I also learned that it's really okay to wrestle about politics and religion as long as it doesn't get too personal. And that those two things are a way to sort of mask a lot of what else is going on.

CrisMarie: Now help people understand what it is, masking. What are you talking about, with masking? Because it sounds like, well, gosh, that table is talking about politics. So what are you looking at? Like what do you mean, masking?

Susan: The thing that no one paid attention to or talked about was why the other table was so silent. This table had a lot of stuff going on, but no one was actually talking about what was happening. And why that's important to me is because of my experience at camp. That truly was a wonderful place of freedom for me where I learned to be outdoors. I learned to love the summers and some of the people I met as camp counselors. So that's the surface. That's the two tables. But beneath the surface of the camp, there were some pretty horrendous things going on.

This camp director was not the charismatic, powerhouse community service leader that people thought he was. There was a lot of really horrible things that were happening. Some of them directly to me as a young child. And the way that I made it all okay was this overplay of everything. Not talking about what was actually going on—kind of like I am now. Like I'm probably not being fully explicit. I'm giving you this metaphor of the two tables. But what you need to know is that in my childhood there was this violent, sexual, crazy stuff going on related to this particular camp director. And no one was talking about that. No one said anything about it. We all just imagined him to be this great charismatic leader. And the discrepancy there was huge, but you would never talk about that.

CrisMarie: So that was under the table.

Susan: Yes.

CrisMarie: They're both tables.

Susan: Yes. You know, you could talk about politics and some of the things going on that weren't quite right in the world, but not at the camp. So that's how in some respects this ideological debate was just as much a cover for the real issues as was the silence.

CrisMarie: Now, as you grew up you found another camp called The Haven. You got there because you were facing a cancer diagnosis. Can you talk about that, the six months to live? Because that's pretty powerful.

Susan: Well, in my early twenties I was sort of pursuing going off and living my life more fully. And I had done a really good job of compartmentalizing that history.

CrisMarie: Meaning that you didn't even remember it?

Susan: I did not remember it directly. I knew there were some things I covered up. Let's just say that I'd gotten so good at telling the good stories that I could avoid ever having to address the real things. So I might have had some memory of it but I wasn't going to talk about it. And I spent so much time not talking about it, that it eventually just became buried. Then when I suddenly was in a situation where I was invited to be more real and relational and showing up, I actually started to get sick.

CrisMarie: Now this was when you started a job, right?

Susan: Yes, I was teaching—and I love teaching—down in Augusta, Georgia. I taught K-7, health and physical education. And there were things about teaching that I just love.

At that point in my life, I was not very trusting of adults, but I loved kids and I really enjoyed my experience. Especially health and physical education, because they'd come out for gym class and just be in their bodies playing. There'd be so much genuine authenticity in the way they showed up. And I could show up with them like that, which I really loved. So I really thought it was awesome.

I also was meeting people in the adult world that I worked with and was trying to develop relationships with. And this was the first time that I realized there are a lot of things about me that I avoid ever letting anyone see. And that was really a challenge at that point in my life, because I was actually trying to create more intimacy and closer relationships. And I realized, whoa, there's lots that is keeping me from doing that.

And and even as I got closer, I started to get sick.

CrisMarie: And they didn't really know what was going on.

Susan: They had no idea. And they'd ask me questions because I presented with some very clear scars, indicators that there was something inherently not too healthy about my inside from scar tissue and various things.

CrisMarie: Like in your sexual region, like from sexual abuse?

Susan: Yes. And also you know, pretty much any scar that they would find. Like I had a scar from some sort of head injury, but I didn't have a clear story that fit what they were seeing. Now, I didn't know that. They would ask me and I would give them some answer to the best of my ability and they would then just kind of make a note of it.

And I think they decided, as I understand from talking to my medical team later, that I presented like I had an eating disorder. And they just figured there was some sort of trauma in my past or something that had gone on in my adult life that I wasn't willing to talk about.

CrisMarie: Because you were losing weight.

Susan: I was losing weight. I had classic signs of an eating disorder. So they sent me to see a psychiatrist to get therapy. And in the course of that therapy, things started to emerge. Well, finally—I did my best to cover that up for a long time, too. And my therapist was like, I don't know what your deal is, but there's something you're not saying. And eventually, what came out of my mouth was, “I don't actually know.”

Reality is, I don't really know. I get that I'm not telling you what you want to hear. And I very rarely tell anyone what they want to hear. But I've done this so long, I don't know the answer to your questions. And I figure it's better to come up with some good story. That's what I've learned about the past. Tell a good story and keep everybody engaged and then you don't have to talk about anything else.

CrisMarie: So you really were leading your life by avoiding what was under the table—we'll stay with that metaphor—and entertaining or giving people what you thought they wanted to hear.

Susan: Yeah, either talking about political world events or making up a good story that would cover up something else. I was very good at those two things.

So, needless to say, I finally popped that bubble and told someone that I don't know about my own life, I'm not trying to cover it up, I don't really remember too much. And as that came out, I began to have a lot more sort of bubbling memories and remembering some things. And I went to my medical team and said, okay, you've asked me these questions and I thought I gave you answers, but to be honest, I just made things up to help you carry on. And they were like, well, here's what we see. We see this scar tissue, and clearly you have had some sort of sexual trauma, but you're telling us you know nothing.

So I started to go back, because I knew there was nothing in my current life. I hadn't been in any kind of relationship, so I knew what they were seeing had nothing to do with anything that had happened recently. And so I started to ask questions about my past and it kind of blew up in my face, because I started to realize that people didn't want to answer these questions and there weren’t any clear answers to them. And some of the stuff I learned didn't make any sense, either.

CrisMarie: And is this to your family, you're going back?

Susan: Initially I went to my family, and then I tried to draw upon some medical records from the past, from when I was much younger. And there was something about me falling on a tree, which seemed like an odd thing to be in the medical records.

But when I got who had brought me into the hospital and who had told that story, it was the camp director. I could figure out exactly how some story like that could be believed and interpreted. And so it sort of spiraled into something that was way bigger and much more catastrophic than I was anticipating, to the point where at one point I was trying to get information and it was sort of, you'd be better off dead. So I really got that whatever I’m bubbling up is of huge angst to a lot of people.

CrisMarie: And what was going on with your health?

Susan: Well at the time that I started to uncover and talk about these stories and finally said to my doctors, here's the truth, they started looking deeper themselves and they found out that I actually had this advanced cancer process.

They hadn't been looking for that because I'm not in the category age frame for the type of cancer had—it was a non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and that’s generally in a much older population.

CrisMarie: And you were 24 at the time?

Susan: Yeah, I think it was 23. And so that was big. For the first time ever they had something medically to address and try to treat. And it was pretty advanced by that point, because it had been a long time coming to the surface from underground. That, too, presented a lot of different issues because that was also when I found out I had a different blood type.

CrisMarie: Than your father.

Susan: Than my father. So it was very convoluted in terms of the information.

CrisMarie: A lot of mysteries, too . . .

Susan: Yes, and I think we kind of went down this path because of the simple question, how did I come to this thing about the beauty of conflict? Because if you're listening to this right now, you might be thinking, Whoa, this does not sound beautiful. And at the time it really was not beautiful. And as I said, beauty has actually got a lot of textures to it. On the one hand it was a nightmare. I was terrified by what was presenting in my body as kind of killing me. And I was presented by talking, getting some clarity on my health, and that was also beginning to feel like it was going to kill me.

CrisMarie: So you had conflict inside your body and you had conflict as soon as you brought that out, you had conflict in all your relationships.

Susan: Yes. And you asked me this because it eventually took me to The Haven.

CrisMarie: Well, and the cliffhanger, though, is when did you wind up making that decision? The doctor's told you they're trying to treat your non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, right?

Susan: Yes. And I was on a particular protocol that was experimental. A clinical trial type of situation. And I had gone in for my checkup nine months into this and my physician was coming back to me saying, you know, this isn't working. And actually said we don’t really have another option at this point, so you probably have about six months to live. Which was a moment in my life where I was like, you know, this inner conflict and the outer conflict clash big time because I was like, wow, I am going to die.

On the one hand, it kind of gave me the fortitude to keep looking at things, because it was like, I am going to die, so whatever I turn up here, how bad can it be?

CrisMarie: And you don’t have to live with it that long.

Susan: And I don’t have to live with it that long. And I mean that sounds kind of crazy, but there was something to that. And I also realized there were things I wanted to accomplish, like to reconnect to my family. I just wanted to live differently.

CrisMarie: I know a little bit about your history. Didn't you see a flyer for death, dying and transitions by Kubler-Ross?

Susan: The day that I got that particular piece of news, when I walked out of my doctor's office there was a flyer about life, death and transitions. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. I had no idea who she was.

CrisMarie: And for those of you that don't know, she wrote about the stages of death and dying.

Susan: She was a very prominent woman in the world of death and dying. And I saw the flyer and I decided I had no money, no nothing, because I was in my early twenties and lost my healthcare, and various other things.

CrisMarie: And you weren't working.

Susan: Right. I'd had to leave my job because of the treatments I was getting. And I wrote her and said, you know, I don't have any money and I really don't know who you are, but I've been told I should think about dying and it seems like a concept that you’re presenting.

And I actually got a response back from her that I could get a scholarship and come to her program. And what was fascinating about that was there were 92 people at this retreat; two of us had cancer and the other 90 worked with people with cancer. So that tells you a little bit about the range of who she was in the world. It was much more working with professional health care providers than directly with people with cancer.

But I had a very profound moment with her at one point, because she does a lot of cathartic work. She actually believes that if you get in touch with your emotions and feel your emotions more deeply, that is the key trigger to health and wellbeing. And she had a process she used to get you into that.

And at one point when I was in this particular thing, working with some emotions, I guess I kind of dissociated. I don't, you know . . .

CrisMarie: Since you were dissociated, you probably don't remember exactly.

Susan: But I do remember her sitting in front of me, this little Swedish woman kind of yelling at me, “Get back here, you need to come talk to me!” And then she sat me down at a table and she said, “Here's the deal. You have been told you're dying and given a date and now you're off on the dying mission. And I could die tomorrow, but I haven't been dulled. So I am living. And so the thing you have to do, you have to quit listening to the clock ticking and do what you need to do to take care of yourself, but then get on with living. Don't choose to die now. You're not dead yet.”

So it always struck me as pretty profound, you know: you're not dead now, so live. And so that was a significant moment for me going into this process of three-to-six months. And so I decided to take it to heart and live more fully. And I had an invitation from my sister to go across the country and do a program called Come Alive, of all things.

CrisMarie: Weren’t you two going to take a vacation together, but then somebody said, wait a minute, you two don't really know each other that well?

Susan: Exactly. So she had met my sister at another program and said, I would encourage you two to go do this program called Come Alive. And so my sister invited me to come, and we drove up to Canada to do this program on a little gulf island called Gabriola.

CrisMarie: Up in British Columbia, right?

Susan: In British Columbia. And that five days for me was transformative. My moment with Kubler-Ross kicked my ass, but Come Alive is what brought me back to life.

CrisMarie: And this is three months into your six month (I'm doing air quotes) “death sentence.”

Susan: Yes. Because we were on a waitlist for Come Alive at that time.

CrisMarie: You didn't tell anybody you were dying, right?

Susan: Yeah. I mean I think I did. As a matter of fact, Diane knew when I arrived. But when they put me on a waitlist, I'm sure I didn't say that. And it was a good thing because I went to talk to my doctor. They were not happy that I was not going to continue doing some sort of treatments.

They actually wanted to do some surgery to, at that time they called it debulking the tumors that were creating a lot of the pain and difficulty. And I said, no, I'm not going to have the surgery until after I do this program, which really upset my medical team. But I went to Haven, and the profound thing for me about Haven was there was a lot of emphasis on breathing and being in your body. And witnessing other people being more fully who they were and whatever conversations they were having. And a pathway for having real conversations that was like, oh, this is different. And I watched these people be in relationships in a way that I had never witnessed. As a matter of fact, I'll go back to my two tables. Because at one point in Come Alive, they wanted to do a healing circle for me.