The Journey of Ambivalence
By Susana McCollom
February 10th, 2014
Sociology, Spirituality, and the Personal Narrative
It was primary election time. I was moderating focus groups for political analysts delving into the American landscape of the Undecideds – individuals who waivered on where to cast their vote, not just within a party, but across party lines.
The circuit started in Ohio. A buzz traveled throughout the room behind the mirror. In a world of red and blue, who were the elusive individuals willing to claim a shade of purple?
Across topics, the research process begins with recruitment – opinion leaders, consumers,and physicians, to name a few. Each group represents their peers, our peers. The dialogues are qualitatively rich and instructive. And in my experience, something deeply spiritual transpires: an invitation to be a witness to people’s discernment as they share personal views, and sometimes, even surprise themselves.
At first glance, this is not always straightforward. Why would HMOs or coffee selection carry a spiritual nuance? Because focus groups open a window to the personal narrative: coffee is not just a drink, it’s an experience – a moment a busy mom takes for herself to daydream, journal, or pray. Health insurance limitations stir dialogue around illness, and a deep desire to live well and love fully.
Qualitative research can bring a rare opportunity for intentional, focused conversation with peers – people who walk in as strangers and leave knowing things about each other perhaps their dearest friends have yet to learn.
Ambivalence: An Inquiry & Exploration
Asking people to reflect on their life experiences, beliefs, and choices invariably opens a window to a theme that has long intrigued me: Ambivalence. Ambivalence shows up across time, place, and often, even subject matter; it transcends demographics, reminding us that no one is spared of major life choices or changes and the emotions that accompany them.
There is intriguing scholarship on ambivalence among psychologists, philosophers, political scientists, sociologists, and others. Last month, I began interviewing some of these scholars, along with American men and women, for a year-long study of ambivalence.
Pilot interviews reveal a range of feelings about ambivalence –from unavoidable to necessary, interesting to alluring, uncomfortable to torturous. In his Slate article, Ian Leslie nails it with the title: Ambivalence Is Awesome: Or Is It Awful?
Pilot interviews also help shape the questions by refining areas that are significant. A dynamic one: ambivalence versus indecision. In focus groups, ambivalence is often expressed as indecision, in part, because of the specificity of the question, i.e. “If you saw this ad, would you read it?” What drives the yes or no informs next steps for those inquiring.
What-If? The Tenderness of Sharing
The space in between, the gray or the purple, takes us into the ambivalence narrative, whether it’s within the context of a focus group, at work, or with a friend. In a society that affirms certainty, those who bravely express ambivalence can stir things up with three seemingly simple words: I feel torn.
Not surprisingly, the same words give birth to a tender dialogue as people disclose their voyage through the corridors of what ifs and then whats. For many in vocations like spiritual direction, nursing, ministry, social work, and dozens of caring professions, this is experienced daily. In friendship and other relationship, sharing feelings of ambivalence can inspire growth and connection as we brush aside the veneer and let people in.
During a recent chaplaincy internship, I felt honored and humbled to be with families as they walked through major decisions around treatment, quality of life, and palliative care. One particular family passes through my thoughts regularly. Ben, a 30-something, African American professional, father, husband, and only child of devoted parents going on 40 years of marriage, called the chaplaincy office at 6am needing to talk before the day started.
I was greeted at the door of their hospital room by Ben, and by his mother Ella, who sat quietly looking out the window. Ben’s father Harry was asleep in the hospital bed. After some dialogue, Ben pointed to a picture next to his father’s hospital bed; in it was Ben’s son, arm in arm with his robust grandfather standing in front of the Guggenheim. “That was my dad less than a year ago.”
Ben recounted the story. Harry went from having great confidence and a contagious laugh to a heart condition that left him nearly immobile and frightened. This was their fourth visit to the hospital, each followed by a long-term stay in rehabilitation. The question, which in the family system became Ben’s to answer, was whether his father should return to rehab or go home. “Can I talk with you for a minute, outside?” We moved into the hall.
He continued: “I’m confident it is the right decision to stop rehab. Because I know what will happen in the other scenario. He’ll go to rehab, struggle, get a little better, and then we will have hope that he will be ok. But then he relapses and we lose him all over again.” A pause. “So I know it’s the right decision to have him go home. I can’t keep going through this. So I’m confident.” He closed his eyes, gently exhaling. “The thing is… What if? What if?”
As a moderator, chaplain, or friend, I deeply revere those willing to share their feelings of joy or struggle, how they got there, and the mixed feelings along the way. What emerges is a sacred space of accompaniment and mutual sustenance. Ambivalence weaves itself into a vibrant tapestry filled with people, places, and forks in the road: our life.
The Ambivalence interviews will continue throughout 2014. The process is a reminder of the beauty of each person’s life, and the privilege of being invited into the space as they share it.
Susana McCollom is an ethnographer who explores attitudes, relationships, and experience through personal narrative. She is a Riva certified moderator and interned as a chaplain at the New York Presbyterian Hospital. Susana has an M.A. in Sociology from the University of Houston and an M.A. in Theology from the Washington Theological Union. Susana was born in Madrid, Spain. She recently launched a qualitative research study on ambivalence among American thought leaders & opinion formers.