Last year I contributed to a book edited by Tim Carson with the title of Neither Here Nor There: The Many Voices of Liminality. The book draws together the expertise, experience, and insights of a coterie of authors, all of whom relate the core concepts of liminality to their unique experiences. Unfortunately, this book is still not available in Australia.
“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)
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 –
“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
This past weekend I had the privilege of attending the Better Together Conference at Melbourne Town Hall. It was a historic moment as 657 LGBTIQ people and allies gathered and had the opportunity to attend 56 different sessions highlighting a variety of stories, research and opinions. It was a showcase of the depth of thinking and a collaboration of support for others in the social justice movement, seeking to achieve genuinely meaningful and lasting social change.
One of the highlights was the session delivered by Cr. Tony Briffa JP on understanding intersex variations and how every journey for an intersex person is so very different. As I listened, I was made very aware of my ignorance on this complex issue that affects at least 1.7% of the population. Professor Olaf Hiort, chief of the Division of Paediatric Endocrinology and Diabetes at Luebeck University, Germany, recently cited “at least 40” distinct intersex variations. Tony highlighted the heartache of many intersex people who have undergone non-consensual medical normalisation treatment and the continual tough question of who can consent to the treatment of a child. To say my worldview was enlightened is an understatement.
The conference organisers and speakers consistently paid their respect to the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation who are the traditional custodians of the land on which the Melbourne Town Hall stands. They honoured the elders past, present and emerging. The many diverse voices emphasised the importance of listening to one another, of being informed, and what inclusion looks like for people with disability, people of colour, for those living in rural communities, for families, and many more. It was great to have some of the Australian Deaf community present and Auslan interpreters signing for the sessions.
As the weekend progressed, with dozens of very meaningful conversations and listening to so many personal stories and perspectives, it again hit me in what a tiny bubble I had existed for nearly 30 years. My life back then was lightyears removed from the folks I encountered this past weekend, many of them people of a deep faith. I had lived in my own religious, middle-class, privileged, suburban, cloistered Truman Show, convinced it was the whole world. Although very painful, I am forever grateful for the crisis that unfolded in my life a decade ago as personal experience and my own values, ethics and theology intersected in a major crossroad and I was shaken out of that space like a coin from a piggy bank. Nowadays, I observe the great divide between social and cultural developments and issues, and so much of what constitutes especially the more conservative sections of church as institution, with sadness. I understand the fear and complexity, as I was once part of it. But it really does not need to be this way.
The conference was aptly themed “Better Together” as it explored the many ways LGBTIQ people and allies are better together as we allow ourselves to hear, to understand and to share our journeys. When people work together in a conscious, humble, dynamic effort something quite transformational begins to happen. The “other” that once loomed as a threat, or alien, or annoying, or someone to be avoided, suddenly takes on flesh and blood and a human face. Fear of the ‘other’ is the most detrimental fear that plagues us as humans – often held in place through politics, nationalism, or religion. We become Better Together when we refuse to allow embedded ideals fed from these power brokers to continue to create a toxic environment in our minds.
For me, Better Together was a gift. It was a great way to kick off 2018, which holds promises of brand new adventures and chapters. I made new friends who I can’t wait to see again. As a person of faith, it reminded me of what the gospel of Christ is all about – good news for our diverse and beautiful world.
So to answer my own Blog post question – yes, we are so much Better Together. May 2018 be the year that you discover that and kiss fear goodbye.
Faith is a dynamic and ever-changing process, not some fixed body of truth that exists outside our world and our understanding. God’s truth may be fixed and unchanging, but our comprehension of that truth will always be partial and flawed at best. – Bishop Gene Robinson –
“It is hard to have patience with people who say, ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter.’ There is death. And whatever it is matters. And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible. You might as well say that birth doesn’t matter.”
– C.S. Lewis –
My sprightly father has been researching the price of funerals in the Sunshine Coast. Or should I say, he has been exploring the cheapest possible way to dispose of his body when he dies. His Melbourne plan to donate his body to research at a local university was sabotaged when we moved to the Coast. Never fear, he just discovered that he can save a whopping $2,000 by using a funeral home near Brisbane and he reported his finding to me with a smug sense of satisfaction! As you can tell, I grew up in a home where we talked about death. It was as natural as talking about life. I only discovered that talking about death was a social taboo when I moved to Australia, and strangely enough, especially in church.
It remains somewhat of a mystery to me why people avoid this subject at all cost. Last time I checked, the death rate of Homo sapiens was pretty high – sitting very close to 100%. Death is inevitable. Considering this, why wouldn’t we ensure that we have a will in place (no matter what age) and clear instructions for end-of-life care? “DO NOT RESUSCITATE”, for example, has been emphasised to me by my father. If he could, he would have that clause tattooed on his forehead. I know it’s hard, but we need to talk about our mortality and death with our loved ones.
Our society’s strange avoidance of death is really quite insane. It seems like we fear death so much that we have convinced ourselves that by not talking about it we can dodge it. Anyone grieving the loss of a loved one in such a cultural “Truman Show” is normally met with awkward comments, a change of subject, or, a total lack of contact and care. By refusing to see life and death as part of the human existence we have created hell for those touched by death.
One of the most famous historians of death, Philippe Ariès, claimed that death became a shameful scandal in modern society, that the dying were hidden away in hospitals and that grieving survivors were silenced to repress this scandal of death: “We ignore the existence of a scandal that we have been unable to prevent; we act as if it did not exist, and thus mercilessly force the bereaved to say nothing. A heavy silence has fallen over the subject of death.” Ariès is amongst a growing chorus of voices calling on society to stop this nutty denial and recognise and humanise death, “Death must simply become the discreet but dignified exit of a peaceful person from a helpful society that is not torn, not even overly upset by the idea of a biological transition without significance, without pain and suffering, and ultimately without fear.” Ignoring our mortality does not make death go away, rather, it creates even greater fear and hysteria about this unavoidable life event.
Looking back it also seems rather strange to me that for the many years I spent in church I only ever heard one whole sermon dedicated to death and preparation for dying. I know not all faith traditions avoid the subject, but in the Pentecostal/Charismatic scene a sound theology of suffering and death still remains fairly undeveloped. In fact, talking about death in these places is taboo. An almost superstitious-like fear hangs in the air, coupled with an often over-emphasis on healing (understood in the limited context of physical symptoms), miracles and positive confessions. The disappointment that an individual who had invested into this ideology encounters when touched by death or suffering cannot be understated. It can take someone years to recover from the toxic idea that God has let them down or they did not have enough ‘faith’ to avoid disaster.
My life and the life of our family was irrevocably changed with the sudden death of my mother in 2007. She played a key role as a very loved matriarch in our family structure. Her absence is felt to this day. C.S. Lewis wrote a most poignant journal where he recorded the death of his beloved wife, Joy, in A Grief Observed. He writes, “Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything” and “The death of a loved one is like an amputation.” So I am not for a moment suggesting that talking about death is easy. The very idea of losing the people we love is too sad for words. Yet life requires us not to ignore its partner, death. If the consequences of someone’s absence are so monumental and devastating, we have to be able to talk about our mortality and the decisions that await us or another person in such a tragic event.
Friend, take courage. We do not have much say into life choosing death as its partner. We do have a choice about ensuring that we have things in place for our departure. We also have a choice to talk about death, to discover the wishes of loved ones, and discover the details surrounding wills, accounts, legacy plans, etc. The stories we hear of the distress of people left in chaos when this unpleasant topic has been neglected should be enough to convince us that it is time to defy this silly social taboo and become vocal about mortality. Life is a journey, so is death, and both need our attention.
“End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien “Return of the King” –