the river of life
‘The river of life’ is a ‘get to know each other’ and trust-building exercise. It’s a way of telling your life story through the metaphor of a river, and like a river, go as deep or shallow as you want. It works for people meeting for the first time, as well as those who already know each other.
Imagine a river, what’s it like? Straight as an arrow, or with twists and turns? Most rivers are quite variable; at times gentle and then with fast flowing sections, some calm pools, and watch out for the rapids and waterfalls. Bridges are common features, and all rivers have river banks.
the river of life — how does it work?
Give people about 10 to 15 minutes to draw the story of their lives using the metaphor of a river. When were the fast flowing times? The parts when they were blocked by obstacles — rocks, rubbish? Times when they slipped down a waterfall, was it high and crashing or a small ripple over some rocks? Were there calm pools? What or who is on the river bank? Distractions? Support? Are there any bridges? Boats? Islands?
When people are ready, either form small groups or stay in the whole group and share the stories. Explain the images, words and goings-on in the drawing. Allow time for people to ask questions and comment. Give everyone the same amount of time. Share out the time-keeping responsibility with the group.
flowing and growing …
I learned this exercise 14 years ago when I first went to work with Witness for Peace, and have used it countless times since, both as a facilitator and as a participant in workshops.
The exercise can be used more generally, or the facilitator can frame the river around a certain topic. In this instance, we were instructed to draw the river of our activist (or volunteer/community service) life. We shared our drawings in small groups, and then the facilitators asked us to individually look at our rivers again and to look for patterns or trends in the activities we do and how we feel. We were searching to understand what burns us out and what gives us energy. We were learning — as the course name suggests — how to sustain resistance and empower our own renewal.
What a great idea! Further analysis and deeper reflection on what is and what could be.
same old story …
Some years earlier, I had already noticed I usually told the same story, same plot, same characters and events when I drew and recounted the ‘river of my life’. So I began to approach the exercise differently. To keep it interesting and to grow, I always try to add new dimensions to my story when asked to do the river of life exercise. Re-evaluate and see experiences through the eyes of others involved and re-consider the narrative I am about to draw. Is that still accurate, or are there other sides to the story which I can now appreciate? Or maybe it is the same. Or to ask myself is that how I really am, or how I’ve been told I am and so now believe?
I’ve written about some of my discoveries in the numbers and life post here.
old tools with a new twist
the river of a group’s life
The exercise can also be used to explore the life of a group. Discussing and drawing the river together can bring up different points of view about the same experience, surfacing tensions and resolving them too.
further analysis … deeper reflection
Adding on the step of further reflection and analysis has been a great addition to my facilitator’s tool box. Earlier this year I helped up-date the War Resisters’ International Handbook for Nonviolent Campaigns. A colleague and I wrote a chapter on effective group-working and I took part in a group working to ensure a thread of feminist gender analysis throughout the book. We were striving to break down the binary nature of masculinity and feminity, to open up space for exploring all the different ways of being men, women, or however we identify. We hope the gender thread helps readers to appreciate the complexities of gender, and to see greater diversity in gender identity, thinking beyond the binary, and more in terms of masculinities, feminities and gender constellations.
One exercise we re-worked was the river of life. Asking people (as above) to draw their river of life, and then to pause and reflect on the moments in life when they’ve received very clear messages about what is (in)appropriate behaviour for men and women, to consider the messages and milestones that mark their gender identity journey.
the river of life in South Sudan
In the 2014 nonviolence training I did in South Sudan (see my post salt and peace) we did a similar thing. On the day we studied identity and conflict, the participants drew their own rivers of life and shared them in small groups. Then we asked them to choose either their identity as a man/woman or Muslim/Christian (whichever felt more pertinent in that moment) to examine more closely the social messages they’ve internalised about that aspect of their identity. Some messages may be healthy, but others may need re-examining and re-shaping if we are to build long-lasting peace in South Sudan (and elsewhere).
river of a group’s life as an evaluation tool
As a way of informally evaluating the training, towards the end we asked the participants, in small groups, to draw the river of the group’s life over our two weeks together. What had we done? What did they learn? How had they felt? This gave participants a chance to reflect on our two-week learning journey, and when they shared their river of the group’s life stories, the facilitation team learned some things that had slipped past us.
One thing was about drawing! Informal, adult education like nonviolence trainings use active and nontraditional educational methods. There is very little lecture and no tests whatsoever in the courses I do. Games, role plays, story-telling, drama and drawing are a few of the methods. The hope is to address all different learning styles, and to help people break through long-held self-limiting beliefs about themselves and the world.
For many in this group, drawing seemed like child’s play and at first they were uncomfortable and skeptical about drawing. But they stepped into their discomfort zone, and did it, and most eventually discovered they could learn from drawing exercises and some even enjoyed it. One thing I might do in the future is more carefully diagnosise the group’s attitude to drawing and find ways to help them step beyond fear, skeptism or doubt by explaing why we use drawing as a workshop exercise.
This year, well … oh, live and learn as they say: the group’s doubt about drawing was an hidden obstacle in the life of the group that I missed!
Want to know more?
The Artist’s Way — the best book I’ve ever read in terms of helping me to re-think and re-shape the life stories I’ve been told and tell about myself
WRI handbook for nonviolent campaigns — with exercises like this one (the river of life) and much more! Available for free on-line, for purchase in paperback, as well as in several different languages.