Tag Archives: solitude

Dismantling Our Ivory Towers One Human Story At A Time

“Each member (of society) must be ever attentive to his social surroundings – they must avoid shutting themselves up in their own peculiar character as a philosopher in their ivory tower.” Frederick Rothwell (H.L. Bergson’s Laughter, 1911)

Ivory Tower by Hideyoshi on DeviantArt

For anyone who has ever attempted to learn a new language, you may have found that exercise both frustrating and intriguing – so many ‘rules’ that have ‘exceptions’! As a young German migrant child, I was fascinated by the English language and the many new phrases, metaphors, and expression I learned when we moved to South Africa. To this day, as someone who also loves and studies history, I often find myself asking Dr. Google the genesis of a word or phrase, especially when I am encouraged or accused of something using a metaphor – like “living inside an ivory tower.”

Someone told me that I was living in one of those ‘ivory towers’ many years ago. A disgruntled parishioner who did not appreciate the hours of work I put into trying to resolve their issue. Well, at that time I was still operating from a blind, privileged, fundamentalist, hierarchy power structure – a structure that found it unfathomable to consider that a person – not a priest, pastor, therapist or politician – is the expert of their own story. An ideological domination structure whose embedded splinters I still pick out of my psyche from time to time. Anyway, back to this mysterious ivory tower …

Historians tell us there was never such a thing as an Ivory Tower. It was always a figure of speech. Towers throughout time were considered defensible, fortified structures, “rising above the normal surface of things …practical ways of distancing inhabitants from mundane human affairs.” They were concrete displays of religious aspiration. Ivory was considered something exotic, so costly it could only be turned into a work of art or aids to worship.

One of the first mentions of ivory towers is in the Bible: “Thy neck is as a tower of ivory; thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon” (Song of Songs 7:4). The Odyssey (Bk 19, 560-569), quotes Penelope, “Those dreams that pass through the gate of sawn ivory deceive men, bringing words that find no fulfillment. But those that come forth through the gate of polished horn bring true issues to pass.” The figure Mary, mother of Jesus, in the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary (the Litany of Loreto) references her as, “Mystical rose, Tower of David, Tower of Ivory, house of gold…”

Over time the Ivory Tower became a symbolic space of retreat and solitude. It was a feud between poets that drew the ‘living in an ivory tower’ expression into a negative notion and by the 1930’s it had become a politically charged. It became a pathological place. Today, anyone living in an ivory tower is held with certain contempt and distrust. Ivory Tower Dwellers are thought to have an attitude of superiority, divorced from reality and the rawness that is known as life.

Ivory towers do become strongholds. They become a place of privilege and entitlement. They delude Tower Dwellers into thinking this is the real world, the true world – I guess in a sense Ivory Towers are the set of the Truman show. They keep those who dwell in them from reality – a huge moat of wealth, power, fear, superstition and dogmatism bolstering the separation. So what would cause anyone who has fallen under the spell of the enchanted Ivory Tower to wake up to the delusion? Normally freedom comes with one human story at a time.

You see, that disgruntled parishioner all those years ago woke me up from the slumber of certainty. It wasn’t her hostile words, but her life story that caught my attention. Suddenly some of the ideas that I had fashioned and formed so carefully in that tower, surrounded by people who thought exactly like me, was found wanting in the light of her story. A little splinter entered my heart that day, a splinter of grace and providence. It would take many more of such encounters to free me from the illusion held in Ivory Towers.

The Ivory Tower begins to crumble like a Jenga tower when we recognise our human connectedness. Herman Melville wrote, “We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results.” John Muir said, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” The way we connect is by recognising the fear that keeps us removed from others, by learning to listen: “The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention …” (Rachel Naomi Remen). Listening to each other breaks down barriers.

So, friend, perhaps we need to face the hard truth that in some ways we all live in ivory towers of our own making? Perhaps some have taken shelter in Ivory Tower organisations that provided a sense of safety and security – but it is time to step out again? Ivory Tower Dwellers stagnate, and fear and paranoia creeps in, feeding our sense of elitism or ‘specialness’. We adopt cult-like thinking and mannerisms. Stepping out of our towers can be terrifying. And then we look up … to a world that is so much bigger and beautiful than we ever thought possible. The Ivory Tower is recognised for the childish notion it is. Our life and our story becomes connected to the many colourful stories of people around us. And after a while, we look back and realise that we have been forever changed one human story at time.

“Stories make us more alive, more human, more courageous, more loving.”
– Madeleine L’Engle –

 

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Arctic Terns and Lupin Flowers: Reflections on Relentless Thoughts

“The Arctic Tern is one of the most aggressive terns, fiercely defensive of its nest and young. It will attack humans and large predators, usually striking the top or back of the head. Although it is too small to cause serious injury, it is capable of drawing blood. Other birds can benefit from nesting in an area defended by Arctic Terns.”
Migration – 

Our road trip through Iceland had to be one of the major highlights of 2016. I loved that hauntingly beautiful country.  This past week I spent time looking through photos and came across this:

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Arctic Tern COLONY you might be attacked by hundreds of angry birds, wear a hat and or hold a stick or Lupin flower above your head. 
 
We spent a few days in the Skálanes Nature and Heritage Centre, staying at a Mountain Lodge, 17km east of Seyðisfjörður, East Iceland. Taking a walk along the rugged coastline we came across the sign. Our amusement was cut short as the hilarious warning became a chilling reality – we became the focus of hundreds of very angry birds! Running for our lives like the students in Hitchcock’s “The Birds” there was no time to pick a Lupin flower – just get me the hell out of here.

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Months later I now sit in the peaceful forest surroundings in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland with no Arctic Tern in sight. Only the ones in my head. It is amazing what happens when you take time out; the very act of seeking solace in quiet spaces can become a minefield of a thousand thoughts and some of them are very angry. We should go into times of solitude and reflection with warning signs: “You might be attacked by hundreds of relentless, incessant thoughts – stick a Lupin flower in your hair and smile.

As a serial ‘overthinker’, an empath, and an only child, this blog is dedicated to all tortured souls out there who, like me, asked ‘why’ long before we ever said ‘mummy’ or ‘daddy’!  Those not wired this way tend to see our questions and cynical streak as negative – and they have a point! We all have our shadows. Understanding that our critical mind can very quickly morph into an Arctic Tern Colony is an important step in self recognition. Just like the folk on the opposite spectrum can fly into the positive hyper-reality of Neverland, never to be seen again.

Existential angst is the hound that snaps at our heels on a daily basis. What a menacing beast it is. We look for meaning and everything needs to be analysed critically. Mistakes and regret are some of our worst nightmares. We have a small-talk phobia and would rather pluck the hair of our big toe than listen to cliches or one word answers. We connect deeply with the German word “Sehnsucht”, or unfathomable longing, that takes our mind on tours and detours as we search for significance and essence, just like Indiana Jones hunts for ancient artefacts.

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Some of us have found meaning in faith. Identifying with the author of Ecclesiastes (another obsessive overthinker!!) who wrestled with profound profundities and in exasperation declared that God has placed eternity in the human heart, we ponder all our lives and still don’t get it (3:11). The great, late C.S. Lewis wrote, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” My own personal thousand rabbit holes of thought leads me back to the life and claims of Christ – but it is not an easy, ‘happy-go-lucky’ faith path. Rather, I go through seasons of doubt, hounded by questions that I know are veiled in mystery that greater minds have pondered for centuries.

But I digress! Back to those Arctic Terns that at times take it upon themselves to disrupt our peaceful state. Lupin flowers, it seems, are Iceland’s answer for this force of nature. The Nootka Lupin is a native to North America. It was introduced to Iceland in the first half of the 20th century to combat erosion, speed up land reclamation, and help with re-forestation. The Nootka Lupin has proven to be effective for land reclamation. However, some are concerned because it is spreading too quickly and becoming too invasive, and this delightful purple flower has now earned the name ‘Alaskan Wolf’.

362036164-nootka-lupin-reykjanes-wildflower-meadow-flowerIcelanders suggest taking this beautiful, purple perennial pest and waving it wildly above our heads to deter angry birds targeting our scalp. There is a lesson in this for all fellow overthinking empaths out there. When critical thinking begins to turn us into brooding balls of melancholy it is time to deliberately find some invasive forms of happy thought and swing them around in our head like a maniac. We don’t ban Arctic Terns, they need to be recognised and acknowledged, but we draw a line when they start to shit on our heads. 

So what does that Lupin flower look like for you? A bungee jump down some mountain cliffs? A long walk on the beach? Getting out your paint brushes and creating art that has no rules attached? A motorbike ride? A visit to the state library or national gallery? A good glass of red and a cigar? A cup of coffee with a dear friend? Singing in the rain? Goethe? Jazz or Viking Metal? When we open our eyes, we discover that we are surrounded by Lupin flowers.

Arctic terns come and go. We don’t pretend they don’t exist. They do and they have a role to play. So do Lupin flowers. Through the yin and yang of life, we discover that for every Arctic Tern there is also a Lupin flower. Remember that, dear friend. Pick your favourite flower, wave it above your head, and do a wild dance … just for the heck of it!

Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive – it’s such an interesting world. It wouldn’t be half so interesting if we know all about everything, would it? There’d be no scope for imagination then, would there?” – Anne of Green Gables (Montgomery)
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