Healing: a question of perseverance?

Part four of a dialogue between Julia Macintosh and Steve Thorp around the issue of healing the psyche in a time of deep ecological and social crisis.

In this series of dialogue, Julia Macintosh and Steve Thorp are exploring what healing might mean in these times. At the heart of their conversation is the question of whether healing is necessarily an individual process, or needs to happen at a collective level. Does wounding come from within — or out there in the world? And does it really matter as long as we are doing the work of healing?

These questions were thrown into stark relief as we were preparing this episode of our conversation. A strange and possibly momentous General Election in the UK, was punctuated by terrorist attacks and the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire in which dozens of people lost their lives. Inevitably our dialogue reflects this context — but these events also bring to mind the way our world is changing, our culture transforming and possibly crumbling before our eyes.

Healing, in this light, holds a deep power and a stark necessity. It is, perhaps, a question of perseverance — among other things.

The dialogue will continue. The first parts of the dialogue can be found HERE (part 1), HERE (part 2) and HERE (part 3) and You can find more about Julia and Steve at the top of the first dialogue in this series or go to their respective websites: www.juliamacintosh.uk and www.21soul.co.uk .


Julia:

Dear Steve

When our last conversation ended, there was a word which wouldn’t leave me. It has lingered on my mind for these past few weeks, and yesterday evening I found myself in a situation that threw its relevance into sharp relief. The word is perseverance.

I had spent another long day at a desk in an office, doing administrative work that exercises only the most cursory of my skills, and none of my intellect or personal interest. It is a job of the most mundane order: nine to five, a computer and screen, a labyrinthine database, and a photocopier just like the one in The Office, chugging along in its endless task of spitting out pieces of paper. I very nearly didn’t go out to this gathering to which I’d been invited; the thought of going home to my pyjamas and couch was much more alluring. But the gathering was a special event, a soiree at the home of a friend, a ‘salon’ with a theme for the evening: work ethic. Therapists, artists, teachers, neighbours, colleagues, and me. The ostensible purpose of the evening’s discussion was to explore the concept of ‘work ethic’ and to interrogate it in such a way that we might bring greater understanding and wisdom to our work, whatever that may be. The ulterior purpose was to develop a network of support, an exploratory space, a many-personed sounding board, a community. So I gave it a go. I went along, curious and willing to be energised by the opportunity for sincere discussion among my peers.

Mike Wilson: unsplash.com

Every group moderator knows of the ways that individual personalities impact upon the quality of interaction. Every group moderator has experienced difficult people, dominant voices, hijackers of space and energy, diverters of attention. This was what happened yesterday evening: one man essentially ruined the potential of the gathering by submitting the rest of us to a tiresome soapbox rendition of his personal views. His approach was an adolescent mix of shock tactics (oh, those naughty champions of political incorrectness!) and assembled ‘philosophy.’ He was a student of human nature, he told us, and dropped in as well that he considered himself ‘enlightened’. We act out of Darwinian self-interest, he insisted, and the battle of the sexes will never end.

I was too tired from my long day in a stuffy office to offer any resistance; I sat in a daze with my glass of wine and wondered why I wasn’t at home on my couch in my pyjamas. Others in the group engaged with him, to little avail: the floor came back to him again and again as he blithely insisted on being the centre of attention. An oblivious sense of entitlement practically dripped off him like sweat — drips and drops of enculturated assumption that he may do as he pleased, say as he pleased, without any regard for his impact on others.

The word kept coming to me as I sat there: perseverance.

This is what we face in our world: a lowest common denominator of attitude and behaviour. A constant distraction from the gravity of our plight. A shallow shadow-boxing that does everything it can to avoid the resounding ugliness of self-loathing that we, as humans, have earned for ourselves. For that is what I sensed emanating from this poor man, stronger than a bad smell, louder than a gunshot: cloaked in his self-regard was his more evident self-loathing. The obnoxious bid for attention was his spirit’s cry for help, his psyche flailing about in its desire for healing. In a room full of therapists, I doubt he fooled anyone.

Perseverance. Oxford English Dictionary calls is “the steadfast pursuit of an objective,” while dictionary.com offers “1.) steady persistence in a course of action, a purpose, a state, etc., especially in spite of difficulties, obstacles, or discouragement; and 2.) Theology. continuance in a state of grace to the end, leading to eternal salvation.” (Incidentally: that second one reminds me, Steve, of your earlier allusion to the work of Rob MacNamara, and his concept of the ‘elegant self.’ Are grace and elegance cut from the same cloth?)

Sitting in that group, I felt pummelled by the persistent smallness of the discussion. I’m bone-tired weary of small discussions which tread the same narrow path, which abide by the same narrow parameters of convention. Goddamn it — our imaginations soar, our potential reaches into the heavens of space, why the hell are we still talking about a battle of the sexes? Why are we still fitting ourselves into the cramped vice of a forty hour work week? Why are we still correlating personal worth to financial earnings? Why — as another person in that gathering pointed out — why are we still raising our children within a Victorian educational model? Outdated and small-minded, all of it. Surely we are better than this??!! Why are we still organising ourselves and our societies along the lines of discredited and obsolete paradigms? Why can we not give ourselves permission to live in the fullness of our potential (I would say our divine potential)?

Perseverance. We persevere, “in spite of difficulties, obstacles and discouragement.” Perseverance and trust are two aspects of the same challenge, to unleash the divine potential within our human smallness. Both/and. We are both limited and endless, both small and tremendous, both idiotic and filled to overflowing with elegant grace. We become wounded, and we heal. We cause wounds, and we learn to forgive. Even the most ignorant boor in the room can be forgiven, with a little perseverance.

I’ll hand over to you now, Steve, with the word perseverance, to make of it what you will.

With love from Julia


Steve:

Hi Julia

I really admire your compassion. I’m not sure I would have felt, at the end of the night, that the ignorant boor could be forgiven! It’s an interesting question isn’t it? Do people have a responsibility to exercise their privilege thoughtfully, reflectively and sensitively? Does a person have the right to have their ‘voice’ heard — even if that voice prevents others from being heard? Like you, I am tired of the small arguments, and I yearn for what emerges when, as you put it, imagination soars. Surely, as you say, we are better than this…!

Doesn’t this also say something about where the wounds come from that require us to heal?

The human world out there, that carries the potential for so much beauty, wonder and creativity, also creates grief, pain and suffering, out of which emerge deep sadness, dis-ease and, sometimes, madness.

I like your idea that, with perseverance, we can forgive, heal and reach our potential — but sometimes developing into ‘elegance’ and being filled with ‘grace’ (and yes, I think the two are inextricably entwined) can seem SO difficult — even impossibly elusive — because these things can’t be separated from the world we live in.

I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the mess we humans have made, and then it’s all too easy to retreat into everyday life with its little joys, habits, challenges and compulsions. I know, even as I do this, that I am part of the problem. A small part, I’d like to think, but a part nonetheless — and ironically it is also my very smallness that makes me sometimes lose hope!

Then I often seem to return to that little preoccupation I have: that, too often, ‘healing’ and ‘development’ are regarded as individual paths: to escape pain or to transcend — manifestations of our culture’s preoccupation with the individual and with the marketing of ‘stuff’ — which in this context includes the pursuit of happiness, spiritual practice and the T-shirts, yoga mats and trans-continental air travel that go with them.

As Daniel Pinchbeck points out in his new book, How Soon is Now: “consumer society has diluted the pursuit of enlightenment into a lifestyle option, as meaningless as the rest” — and so the great promise of grace and divine potential is lost as ‘healing’, becoming just another self-centred, goal-centred version of entitlement.

This is a bit of a dilemma for those of us who know that the surrender of the modern ego to spirit and soul carries the key to our human nature, ecology and connection — it is the secret code that would enable us to truly heal and develop in the ways we were born to do. We know that this is the way we need to be heading and that perseverance is the key (this deeper kind of ‘self-help’ is not easy and it takes a lifetime) — but we see the quick-fix merchants promising the earth with their easy transformations and tantric-style sense of entitlement.

I see it everyday — on Facebook and elsewhere — well meaning coaches and self-styled gurus, wide-eyed with their small coincidences, synchronicities and credulous belief in the Law of Attraction, oblivious to the self-constructed confirmation bias that stares them in the face, selling wishful thinking and easy happiness in a world that is crumbling and full of suffering.

Over to you…


Julia:

Hello again, dear Steve

I have been sitting on a reply, during what has been a reeling and revealing week here in the UK: we’ve had first the general election and then the horrific tower block fire in London, both exposing the moral vacuum of ‘business-as-usual.’ They bring into sharp focus your admission that you “sometimes feel overwhelmed by the mess we humans have made.” I would add that if we’re not sometimes overwhelmed with the mess then we’re akin to the Grinch with a heart that’s “two sizes too small.” But remember: even the Grinch found redemption. At the end of the story his heart “grew three sizes that day.”

I understand your frustration with the quick-fix merchants. There are a lot of people out there with a lot of approaches — whether physical or mental, social or political, secular or religious. Answers are everywhere, on social media and in the bookshops and in the event circuit. There are countless methods that have worked for someone else, with all sorts of outcomes promised: health, wealth or everlasting paradise. How do we sift through all the suggestions and find the ones that speak to us when we need them?

There is a real art to sitting with questions, rather than grabbing for answers. I’ve come to understand that the approaches and ideas being offered are not in themselves valid or invalid; it is the spirit in which we work with them that causes them to either flourish or fail. Even the most cynical and manipulative quack can serve a good purpose if we have worked with their offerings from a wholehearted state of inquiry, not forgetting our critical faculties and careful attention. If we take responsibility for our own learning, and follow the promptings of our mind and heart, then we can choose to either use or discard whatever comes our way. If we hand that responsibility over to someone else — whether they are a parent or a partner or a teacher or a doctor or a therapist or a guru or a self-help peddlar — then surely we just run in place, and lose the opportunity to grow.

As to “being part of the problem” — I must tell you that I don’t see it that way. Everyday life is as worthwhile a place to dwell as in the front line of social change-making. It reminds me of the Zen saying: “Before Enlightenment chop wood carry water, after Enlightenment, chop wood carry water.”

Interesting, by the way, that we are using the language of battle: retreat, front line. Battle language is used constantly when describing social change. We have campaigns, we fight for our beliefs, we try to win hearts and minds, we join in collective efforts to shape the future, we retreat when we feel spent, reassess our strategies and plans, and then we re-engage.

What if we instead used the metaphor of a party or celebration? What if we invited others to join in, shared our ideas like food and drink, played music and games to open minds, listened in conversation, and invoked stories and laughter and joy? What if instead of sheltering in retreat, we allowed ourselves to rest and be restored, to enjoy solitude and quiet, and the pleasure of being with our friends and loved ones?

What if we brought this mindset to the gravest of our problems: climate change, war, poverty, injustice and inequality? What would that look like? What would it feel like?

One of my favourite films ever is Yellow Submarine, with its profoundly simple imagery of Blue Meanies being overwhelmed and overcome and transformed by songs and flowers and rainbows of bright colours. I don’t mean to be frivolous or trivial — but surely we do ourselves a disservice if we ignore the power of love and laughter? Reminded here of the wonderful quote by Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Honestly, I think Lord Buckethead created far more valuable impact in this world in one evening than the woman holding the keys to 10 Downing Street has over many months in so-called power.

with love

Julia


Steve:

What a surreal melange of images, Julia!:

Lord Buckethead and the Blue Meanies; the Grinch and Maya Angelou! Much more fun than debating the dubious theories of Deepak Chopra or the Quantum Universe crew! And I’m with you up to a point on the party metaphor — songs and dancing, party poppers and cakes that get left out in the rain — but not all the way…

Mike Wilson, unsplash.com

…for on the other side of the coin is the backdrop of the terrible tragedy of the Grenfell Fire and, beyond that, the familiar, awful banality of other similarly preventable episodes across the world — stemming, as all these things seem to do, from careless, greedy ideology and blinkered, outmoded world views. Seeing such grief on the faces of Grenfell survivors brought home to me that the ‘healing’ we are talking about in these dialogues — is not an abstract new-age luxury, but a raw and visceral everyday challenge; a survival necessity for millions of people living in the shadows of poverty, neglect and inequality (and, perhaps, for all of living under the gathering clouds of the climate emergency that faces us).

In this context, it’s hard not to want to fight! Yet I think you are right in saying that the language of battle and war is part of the problem. In our first dialogue I referred to Megan Hollingsworth who writes about healing in these terms: for her, patriarchy and the language of battle is where the problem lies, and healing is about leaving this behind. The climate crisis is not simply to be seen as a real ‘wicked or critical problem’ with a set of clever, complex solutions (as Keith Grint puts it), but as the deepest of metaphors for the future of humankind. She writes:Global warming is Earth signaling an imbalance initiated by human insecurity and violent human intraspecies and interspecies competition. I find intolerable any suggestion that there should be a battle against Earth’s warning that the era of violent human competition and the excessive consumption of materials and fuels has reached the end of the course. Rather than battle, there is a call to surrender.”

Surrender. There’s a word to conjure with. One to put alongside Perseverence — and Love — as essential components of healing. When grief is met, there is surrender; and where pain is acknowledged, there it is again! Surrender is not about us ‘giving in’ to forces that oppose us (which carries the inevitable implication of battle, defeat, loss of face and shame), but ‘giving ourself up’ to what might ultimately be unknown and unknowable — and yes, sometimes overwhelming. This includes our own unknowable ‘self’, on the one hand, and the vast, unknowable realm of nature, on the other.

So where does that leave us? Well this idea of surrender brought me back again to where I always seem to return these days — to the fierce love for my two granddaughters — to the healing they bring and the pledge I want to make for their future and the millions of other children who will face the world we ‘grown-ups’ have made for them. If I have healing to do for myself, then it is for this purpose that I do it — to heal earth, to heal others, to heal minds, to heal spirit — to persevere, to bring love and to surrender — to give myself up to crafting a future for those two little girls.

Through Megan Hollinsworth’s essay, Healing Patriarchy, I also discovered these words to leave you with. LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, founder of the Camp of the Sacred Stones and landowner along the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline route said this:

LaDonna Brave Bull Allard from: Ecowatch.com

“The abuse against women is well know in American history, world history — and this tells you a lot about what is happening to our Earth. If you respect women, you respect Earth and you respect water … It’s so simple, this whole fight, it has nothing to do with being an activist, but it has everything to do with being a mom.

As a mom, it’s really hard to lose a child, you are never the same, and so when my son died, I buried him on that hill over there, so that he would be right there to watch the mouth of the Cannon Ball and the Missouri Rivers. And when they told me they were going to build a pipeline I was like, ‘I can’t allow that, I can’t allow anybody to put a pipeline next to my sons graves’.”

And these words, for me, hold the real meaning and promise of healing…

With love….Steve x