Category Archives: Anthropology

When Global Crisis Comes Knocking at our Door …

… you can say “it’s a hoax” and “it will go away”, but like world leaders have found out, this was not the case for COVID-19. A crisis does not go away because some demagogue wishes it so. A crisis like a pandemic knocks at the door, then bashes it in and unleashes hell.

COVID-19 has crept in like an invisible terrorist that has taken the world hostage. Randomly, it chooses victims, and with heinous cruelty, it focuses on those already weak and vulnerable. The rest of us are required to co-operate. One wrong move might mean the death of another. Suddenly, words like ‘independent’ and ‘individual’ are exposed for the fraud they are. Our individuality means little if we cannot collaborate with or recognise the importance of ‘all’. Solidarity is what COVID-19 fears the most.

Solidarity can only truly emerge when we deconstruct the barriers that have been set up through toxic narratives. Toxic stories that, sadly, have been propagated through the clever messaging of some politics or the fear-mongering of some religions. Toxic narratives that divide humans into those who matter and those who don’t. Toxic narratives that create a Messiah-complex for the powerful, and diminish those seen as ‘weak’. Toxic narratives that divide us by race, nationality, gender, age, ethnicity, religion … Toxic narratives that do their very best to blind us from one of our great skills of resistance: Love.

When crisis comes knocking we have a choice to make – selfishness or love? A hard choice when we have been conditioned to listen to an alluring and embedded cultural story. A story that attempts to convince us that the pursuit of our own needs and wants is the most important activity if we want to survive. Crisis builds its devastation on that idea. COVID-19 is reliant on selfishness for its survival.

So when Global Crisis comes knocking at our door we have some decisions to make. Each of us decides what meal we serve this viral terrorist. Its favourite meal of human selfishness and greed? Or a lethal dose of sacrificial love?

Love that washes its hands often, so as not to spread the disease to another.
Love that buys just what it needs, and maybe just a little more to give to a neighbour in need.
Love that stays home instead of indulging itself at some packed venue.

Love that goes to great length in order to stand between this terrorist and the vulnerable and says, ‘Not on my watch’.

Love that picks up the phone and checks in on family and neighbours.
Love that gathers the table of life participants with tenderness. It speaks to Fear, Grief, and Anxiety, not with irritation and anger, but gentleness and kindness, recognising their role in protecting our lives.
Love that speaks to all of us in times like this from a sacred text written long ago … that there is nothing greater than love (including a terrorist virus) … that nothing separates us from love (including a terrorist virus) … and that in the end, all things may fail but that both in death and in life, love endures …

Selfishness in these times may bring us momentary comfort until we realise how we have enabled a pandemic and contributed to another person’s heartache. Love, on the other hand, calls us to choose the narrow path, the difficult path, of loving our neighbour as ourselves.

So what do we do when a Global Crisis bashes in our door and interrupts our peaceful lives? We respond by unleashing a virus of our own – a virus of love, kindness, compassion, respect, and consideration. The rest is History … because Love Always Wins.

 

Life Atlas Therapy and the Reclaiming of Precious Memories (Part 2)

“There are, of course, many forms of memory, some of which are constructive, some of which are destructive and some of which are redemptive.”
-Fr. Michael Lapsley (The Healing of Memories: An Interview)

Dear Reader – if you have not already done so, please read Part 1 of this BLOG post in order to understand the context for Part 2.

Life Atlas Therapy is a method that was developed in collaboration with a team of people who were prepared to explore with me how this approach re-engages a person with their life stories in a ‘way that makes us stronger’ (Aunty Barb Wingard, Kaurna Elder). I am indebted to their generosity in sharing so many of their life stories. There were many ‘Aha’ moments along the way. One of them was the discovery and reclaiming of precious memories.

Over 90% of these collaborating cartographers of Life Atlas participants began to have memories that they had totally forgotten. Comments included:

“I had totally forgotten that.”
“I just need to sit here for a moment, it feels like waves of recollection are coming to me.”
“Working on this timeline … I think my subconscious thought it’s time to ‘burp’ this memory up.”
“This dream brought back so many forgotten moments … they are filling the gaps.”
“This memory came back – I suddenly don’t feel so ‘lost’ anymore.”

The memories and/or dreams surfaced shortly after a Life Atlas therapy session. Trauma has many diverse effects on an individual’s (or community’s) life. It can become the dominant narrative that, like a schoolyard bully, shoves the many multi-tiered, mosaic stories of someone’s life into the corner and demands silence. Trauma is also a thief. It steals the key to the filing cabinet of meaningful memories, leaving a person feeling ‘lost’ or ‘confused’.

As Fr. Michael Lapsley points out (above quote), there are many forms of memory. Whereas precious memories that align with our preferred narrative are often ‘hijacked’ by trauma, traumatic memories can often become ‘timeless’ memories. “These memories are apart from the storylines of people’s lives which are constituted of experiences linked in sequence across time according to specific themes. Being located on the outside of the dimension of time, these traumatic memories have no beginning and no end … These traumatic memories are re-lived as present experience and the outcome is re-traumatisation.” (David Denborough, Trauma: Narrative response to traumatic experience, 2006, p. 78). In Reclaiming Heimat, Jacqueline Vansant focuses on nine memoirs by seven Austrian reéimigrés. She observes how traumatic memories seem to have ‘a life of their own, dictating themselves’ (2001, p.70). This escalates the power of trauma memories.

Life Atlas Therapy can assist an individual (or community) to reclaim the key to the filing cabinet that holds the memories that speak to their preferred sense of self and identity. One client had a specific memory that showed her she was not a ‘shadow child’, but that she was happy and skilled at resisting the trauma that visited her childhood home. Another client was extremely surprised at the positive memories that began to emerge of her brother and their childhood relationship. The trauma that visited the family after a horrific accident and that negatively affected her relationship with her brother had her convinced that it had ‘always been like that’. The precious memories that returned to her of ‘funny, silly’ childhood moments dramatically changed her perspective and the story about her brother (and herself).

The research and discussion surrounding memory and how they shape our sense of self is extensive. This short post is simply to have the reader consider that Life Atlas can be useful in reclaiming precious memories that the individual (or community) gives shape to and invests with meaning as the expert story-teller of their own lives. These precious memories serve as a witness to the person’s preferred story, their skills of resisting trauma and connect them to the hopes and dreams they hold for the future.

“The past beats inside me like a second heart.”
-John Banville –

Nicole Conner is a qualified Narrative Therapist working in Elsternwick, Victoria. Nicole’s work is built on the premise that the stories we hold to shape who we are, what we do, how we think and how we feel. In other words, our stories give meaning to our lived experience. For more information visit the Defining Stories webpage.

I Weep and I ‘Remember’

“Whether we and your politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.” – Wendell Berry – 

The walks on the beach are not always pleasant these days.
There are mornings when I feel quite overwhelmed as I look at the amount of litter – water bottles, cans, plastic bags, etc, etc, etc – that lay strewn across the shore.

The reports coming in from around the globe are depressing,
Human greed continues to drive so much of our destructive actions,
disguised in the language of ‘progress’ or ‘economical need’.

How can we go on like this?
How can we pretend that this blue planet that we call home is not in serious trouble?

It is futile to look to the political elite for wisdom – they are as useful as the ‘thoughts and prayers’ they send to victims affected by climate change.

Our earth has a voice and she is weeping …
Weeping at the loss of entire species and eco-systems.

I look for a sparrow for comfort.
After all, isn’t ‘his eye on the sparrow’?
But there are no sparrows.
And nowadays I do a happy dance when I see a bee.

People have diagnosed my condition.
‘Eco-anxiety’ is a fairly new label.
I pray it begins to afflict all humans before it’s too late.

I pick up some plastic bottles and cans and put them in the bin.
It does not ‘fix’ anything – it simply hides the problem of our over consumption
(of which I am guilty).

So I pray the poem of Native American poet, Joy Harjo, ‘Remember’.
May we weep and may we remember … and may our pain guide our actions.

Remember the sky that you were born under,
know each of the star’s stories.
Remember the moon, know who she is.
Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the
strongest point of time. Remember sundown
and the giving away to night.
Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath. You are evidence of
her life, and her mother’s, and hers.
Remember your father. He is your life, also.
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.
Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the
origin of this universe.
Remember you are all people and all people
are you.
Remember you are this universe and this
universe is you.
Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember language comes from this.
Remember the dance language is, that life is.
Remember.

 

Haunted by Hell: Part 2 – Our Addiction to Retributive Justice

“There are different kinds of justice. Retributive justice is largely Western. The African understanding is far more restorative – not so much to punish as to redress or restore a balance that has been knocked askew.”
-Desmond Tutu –

Dante’s hell, as discussed in Part 1, fuelled the human imagination. Eternal flames, endless pain, torturous screaming of people who refused to believe the ‘right way’ … judgement had come!

I still have an email sent to me by a religious leader who was horrified when I first began to publicly express my doubts about some interpretations of hell. The email was well-intentioned, I am sure. He outlined a couple of the actions of world dictators whose corrupt tenure had caused tremendous suffering, gratuitous violence, and the loss of thousands of lives. “Do you think that a just God would simply forgive these people without judgement?”, he wrote. “Of course not. A just God is compelled to serve justice on behalf of the victims.” He then concluded with several Scriptures and a sincere hope that I would see how ‘dangerous’ my ideas were.

I heard his frustration. Retribution has made the known world go round. The ‘Just War Theory’, built largely upon Christian philosophy, is an example of our desperate need to justify retaliation. Some wars have been remembered and deemed ‘noble’ because the punishment was ‘needed’ and therefore going to war was thought of as ‘honourable’. We live by the stories we tell ourselves. We also live by the stories we are told – the history and culture that has shaped our way of thinking. Retribution is one of them. If someone has done something wrong, they need to pay for it. We may deny the thought that we embrace the notion of ‘an eye for an eye’, but the ardent belief in an eternal hell and a ‘loving’ God that sends our enemies there, begs to differ!

So, I ask myself honestly, why do humans hang on to the idea of hell with such fervency? To say, “Well, the Bible says so,” I find simplistic and hypocritical. The Bible provides all sorts of directives but we pick and choose what we believe based on many things, including our worldview and the stories that accompanied us through life. Nowadays, most people find the idea of slavery abhorrent, but I could argue a fairly strong biblical case that supports slavery. People did it for centuries. No, we choose to cling to the idea of hell, told and retold through myth, philosophers, artists, zealots, and theologians, because hell, in a sense, provides relief from the overwhelming sense of injustice that we often experience in this world.

Retributive justice is an addictive cycle. The story of punishment and vengeance is glorified and trumpeted with loud overtures wherever we turn. No wonder it has made its way into our theology – our way of thinking about the Divine. We want God to be like us – to hate all the same people we do. After all, is God not the avenger of the innocent? One who threatens us with hell in order to change our behaviour? Some theologians speak about ‘the fall’ of humanity, of the ‘total depravity’ of humans, how are ‘hearts are deceitful’. These dogmas are in line with retributive justice: the offender is defined by deficits and therefore ‘worthy of punishment.’ And, just like in retributive justice, the criminal justice system (in this case, God) controls the ultimate punishment of the crime and criminal … Eternal Hell.

When people have been wronged, and for many people the effects of the wrong are so traumatic and dominant that it has made life very difficult, retribution is a glimpse of hope. It offers a vague promise of gaining some relief from the pain they bear every day. If that person also holds to a relentless hell narrative then retribution becomes a lot more significant – it is possibly eternal, not just temporary. So hell does not just serve the ‘ruler’ as a form of behaviour control, it also serves the ‘ruled’ because it holds the assurance of justice that every human being craves.

Perhaps your hackles are raised just reading this? Perhaps you feel very uncomfortable as we poke around a deeply embedded storyline? You may have many questions right now … Or you may feel hope? The thought that perhaps the idea of hell, just like the wizard of Oz, is a tired old concept hiding behind a lot of puff, smoke and zealotry.

So if we choose to believe in ‘hell’, how else can we understand it? Can we free ourselves from the haunting of hell? And what about justice? And what the Bible says? Is there another way forward? I believe there is …

“An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”
-Attributed to Mahatma Gandhi –

The Table of Life: Despair and Hope

Despair is the price one pays for self-awareness. Look deeply into life, and you’ll always find despair.”
― Irvin D. Yalom, When Nietzsche Wept –

Lately, I find the world increasingly loud and overwhelming. I flinch as I scroll through my various social news feeds: The faces of the destitute that have been stigmatised as ‘evil and unwanted’ by the powerful, the look of terror on the faces of animals subjected to human cruelty, the arrogant political pontification that diminishes people to fear and suspicion, a religious system built on nationalistic dogma disguised as gospel … I find it all exhausting and Despair knocks at my door.

So I turn to this uninvited guest, cloaked in a shroud of grey. I invite Despair to my table of life and ask whether it would like a cup of coffee? But Despair, uncomfortable with gestures of kindness, stays silent. “I will have coffee,” says Hope with its soft, lilting tone, “and toast with peanut butter.” Despair seems to smirk. “What is the use?” it whispers. “We never learn. We never change. History is set to repeat itself over and over again … until this blue planet we call home can no longer sustain our stupidity … and we sink amidst our greed and ignorance.”

The table goes silent. The words of Despair have that sort of effect … except on Hope. Hope seems comically deaf to the words of Despair. “This toast is delicious. I love peanut butter. I think I would like another one. And then I am going to take a walk along the beach and observe the rhythm of the waves …” “What a waste of time,” interrupts Despair, “such a meaningless exercise … staring at polluted waters.” Hope is undaunted. “Yes, I have noticed that there is a lot more rubbish on the shore. Fortunately, people all around the globe have noticed this too. All across our beautiful world people are doing something about this.”

Despair stares at Hope. “How come you are still around? I would have thought by now you would have died amidst the chaos and confusion?” Hope returns Despair’s stare for a very long, uncomfortable time. “What if I told you that I don’t die? I have lived … endlessly … and I have seen it all – the fear, the hatred, the destruction … and I am still here.” For the first time since it took a seat, Despair looks up. “Why?” Hope points to the corner of the table where a guest dressed in glimmer and glitter and rainbow colours is reaching for some jam. “There are other forces at play. Whispers and quiet voices that speak life and love to the universe.” Despair groans. “Speak to the universe? And that will stop the forces bent on carnage?” “Not always,” says Hope, “but sometimes.” Despair and Hope stare at each other.

“And that is why you are needed at this table,” says Hope. Despair, used to being kicked, shunned and medicated, looks at Hope in disbelief. “If you don’t come knocking at the door we eat too much peanut butter with toast and forget that there’s still a lot of rubbish in the ocean.” Despair, unaccustomed to being acknowledged, shifts around on the chair uncomfortably. Eventually, it gets up to leave. “Stay a little longer,” says Hope. “O I will return,” says Despair, “but you have reminded me that beyond the rubbish there is a big, blue ocean to look at … and I think I will do that now … and then I will return and remind you that there’s still a lot of rubbish that needs to be removed.”

The table guests stand as Despair leaves. Hope puts a reserved sign on the empty chair. “This sacred guest will return and we will anticipate its return with a welcome … it will remind us that all of us are needed for the task yet ahead. But for now, I would like another cup of coffee.”

The difference between hope and despair is a different way of telling stories from the same facts.”
Alain de Botton –

Neither Here nor There – The Many Voices of Liminality

‘Jesus, on whom be peace, said
This world is a bridge.
Pass over it but do not build your dwelling there.’

(Inscribed in Persian on Buland Darwaza, the main gateway to the palace at Fatehpur Sikri, south of Delhi, India
by the Moghul emperor Akbar I in 1601)

 

Last year, I had the opportunity and privilege to contribute to an anthology on a subject that I am most interested and passionate about – liminality. I have blogged on this topic numerous times. Here are some introductory posts:

This latest compilation is the brainchild of pastor, writer, editor and friend, Tim Carson, who has written a variety of other books. I love Tim’s definition of liminality in his chapter contribution:

The experience of liminality is feeling a loss of steady and familiar landmarks, the kind of security that accompanied past structure, even as the future has not yet materialized. With everything in flux, angst becomes the predominant mood. Very often action seems fruitless because some transitions cannot be hurried. One has entered an incubation period in which time shifts. The liminal person does not necessarily know that transformation is occurring at the time it is happening. Does a caterpillar have any idea that metamorphosis is about to take place as it enters the cocoon?

I wept reading that. It resonated so deeply with my own life experience.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes the foreword for this book. Yes, I was slightly dizzy when I heard this and I went into serious fangirl mode. I love love love her writings. In her foreword, she acknowledges how most of the contributors did not consent to go on a liminal journey, but life took them there anyway. Some were catapulted into the liminal space through ‘war, illness, abuse, or natural disaster. Others found themselves there due to poverty, gender, apartheid, or immigration.’

Personally, I found solace and comfort in the stories of this communal motley crew of liminal travellers, sharing their bewilderment at finding themselves ‘betwixt and between’ where ‘the only way through is through. There are no guarantees … To engage liminal space is to live in faith, not certainty.’

This post would be too long if I discussed every chapter. Instead, I offer one of my favourite quotes from each chapter. If you are wandering the shadowy, mystical path of liminality, may it be a light to you in dark times.

I’ve heard some people describe liminality in the language of Celtic spirituality: a thin place, a narrow place, a place where the living and the dead commune, where heaven and earth all regard each other. Hell too, I hope. Otherwise, what’s the point?’ Pádraig Ó Tuama

I discovered my first hummingbirds as a small child in the gardens of the Theological Community in Mexico City where I was encouraged to nourish my love for nature while caring for others by cooperating, respecting, and sharing in the many social and spiritual activities with people from all over Latin America. Tucked gently away in my soul and mind is the gift of seeing the world from the borderlands, the in-between spaces, the nepantlera of ‘either/or’ and’ neither/nor,’ with thousands of beautiful colour hues and nuances of language and culture.’ Elena Huegel

Ultimately, the purpose of pilgrimage is to bring the pilgrim, transformed in the journey, back home again.Kristine Culp

The liminal dimension undergirds all human experience. In some sense, there is nothing that is not liminal. We live our lives (and perhaps find sanity) by fashioning fixed structures of meaning and identity; selves and narratives that are generally static and contained. But that is not life, as much as it is the mask we put onto life. Meanwhile, the liminal waits for us.Joshua Boettiger

Liminality is essentially and always a middle. It is the moment of in-between-ness where what has been is gone, but what will be has not yet arrived. In Christian spirituality, it is the moment of Holy Saturday, when Christ has died but is not yet risen. There is nothing to be done on Holy Saturday except to learn how to die with Christ, in the hope that one day – but not today – life will be restored by resurrection.’ Michelle Trebilcock

War is a universal experience of social liminality. If the scale of hostilities is sufficiently large, war can expand to even global liminality. Societies and nations are cast into a time between the times, a state of being filled with uncertainty and dread. For warriors within these societies, war represents a rite of passage, a transition that changes the identity of those who enter war and the community of those who share it.’ Kate Hendricks Thomas

‘In the aftermath of the tornado, liminal time moved at its own pace, mostly slower than we might have preferred.’ Jill Cameron Michel

Adoptees exist between families for their entire lives. They are products of legal and biological families, but not fully either. This liminal space is their reality, and from it comes complex identity work. The extent to which adoptees engage with the liminality of their adoption status emerges as a product of individual, contextual, and familial characteristics.’ Colleen Warner Colaner

‘The literature of the ancient desert monks and medieval Celtic saints is extensive and filled with many tales like this. In this liminal time, when climate change presents us with an opaque and uncertain future, can the literature that emerged from the liminal experience of Christian contemplatives in late antiquity offer us any wisdom for navigating our challenges in better ways?’ Timothy Robinson

‘The liminal is the space between; it is a state in which the classifications of the everyday are bracketed to reveal an alternative order, a more basic relatedness, which undergirds the everyday power and position exemplified by given cultural norms.’ Adam Pryor

‘Cancer is the quintessential liminal experience as it includes all the stages – pre-liminal, liminal, reintegration – and all the classic elements of the liminal journey: end of one way of life, loss of identity and status, bewilderment, confusion, ambiguity, reversal of hierarchy, uncertainty. Patients are between life as they once knew it and an uncertain future.’ Debra Jarvis

‘When I crossed the threshold into the strange world of incarceration, I was ushered into a state of permanent liminality, a time and space between the past and some seemingly unobtainable future. My life was stuck in a time between the times, a place between the spaces. Unlike van Gennep’s Rites of Passage, however, there was no design for movement, for transformation in the liminal passage.’ Jacob Davis

‘The stories that we tell to make sense of our world and our lives simultaneously open up certain possibilities for action and close others off. They define and limit the options we think exist. The danger is that we become so enamored with our own narrative that we shut ourselves from the narratives of the “other.” What if each of us needs both the presence and the narratives of the other to navigate the ambiguities of liminality?’ John Eliastam

‘Our collective challenge for the future is to produce a society that accepts diversity, welcomes difference, and champions human rights for all its citizens. If accomplished, this might enable Turner’s view of positive social change through community building actually to become reality. One can always remain hopeful.’ Diane Dentice and Michelle Dietert

‘To examine the liminal, where it may reside, are we well advised to avoid the paved road where, by following the markers, we do arrive, but it just may be a camouflaged dead end?’ Kenneth Krushel

Let me end this post with a quote from my chapter. Writing this piece was part of a healing journey. I am grateful.

‘The gift of liminality, presented to me wrapped in pain, exile, and humiliation has assisted me in recognizing many of my ego’s trappings and yearnings. In this place, I have been confronted and stripped of much of the baggage that I carried over the years … of trying to live up to all sorts of expectations. Liminality, like the character V in the film V for Vendetta, showed me the bars of my ideological and structural prison, all dressed up in religious moralizing – and once you see, you cannot un-see.’

If you would like to order this book, you can do so via Lutterworth Press

 

Who were the Celts?

“Their aspect is terrifying … their hair is blond, but not naturally so: they bleach it, to this day, artificially, washing it in lime and combing it back from their foreheads. They look like wood-demons, their hair thick and shaggy like a horse’s mane. Some of them are cleanshaven, but others … shave their cheeks but leave a moustache that covers the whole mouth and, when they eat and drink, acts like a sieve, trapping particles of food … The way they dress is astonishing: they wear brightly coloured, and embroidered shirts, with trousers, called bracae and cloaks fastened at the shoulder with a brooch. These cloaks are striped or checkered in design, with the separate checks close together and in various colours. They wear bronze helmets with figures picked out on them, even horns … while others cover themselves with breast-armour made out of chains. But most content themselves with the weapons nature gave them: they go naked into battle … where weird, discordant horns were sounded, deep and harsh voices, they beat their swords rhythmically against their shields.”

Diodorus, Roman Historian

 

The Romans and Greeks called the Celts ‘barbarians’. The Celts were a collection of tribes with origins in central Europe who were loosely tied together because of similar language, religious beliefs, traditions, and culture. The Gaels, Gauls, Britons, Irish and Gallations were all Celtic people. They were already in Britain by the 5th century B.C., and in Ireland by the 2nd. Although they were not centrally governed and consisted of diverse tribes that were quite happy to kill each other (!), they maintained the same artistic tradition which is characterised by the use of distinctive flowing lines and forms. They also introduced iron working to the British Isles.

The concept of a ‘Celtic’ people is somewhat of a modern romanticised idea. The ‘Celts’ themselves would probably define themselves slightly different to our understanding and definition of them today. And the Roman writings on the Celts was often a means of political propaganda. It was expedient for the Romans to paint the Celts as ‘barbarians’ and themselves as ‘civilised’ … not much has changed looking at our world leaders today… but I digress!!!

The Celts lived in clans, who were loosely bound together into tribes. These tribes all had distinct social structures and customs, their own coinage and deities. They lived in huts that were gathered in hamlets. When they were not fighting, they were farming – and one of their contributions to Britain was the iron plough. Art was very important to the Celts, and they were also master storytellers. Bards and poets played a central role in passing culture and tradition to the next generation.

The curious Druids were important to the Celts. They were a form of ‘super priest,’ who also became political advisors, teachers, and healers. They were revered and could interrupt a king as they held more authority. The druids also played an important part in the rich oral tradition.

And the Celtic women? Well, you wouldn’t want to mess with them. Boudicca, King Prasutagas’ widow, did not take kindly to the Romans’ attempt at taking over Iceni lands when her husband died. She raised the Trinivantes tribe in revolt … and the Romans? … They were terrified. Boudicca provides an insight into the life of Celtic women – they could be war leaders, choose their own husbands, and own land. Very different from the treatment of women by other societies around them.

The Celts loved a good fight. If there wasn’t one, they started one! As Diodorus points out, they took great care in ensuring their appearance would provoke fear in the hearts of their enemies. They took a liking to the heads of their enemies, which they considered had great spiritual powers. So they adorned themselves and their homes with their enemies’ heads as if they were Christmas ornaments.

Christianity was introduced in Ireland around A.D. 431 with Pope Celestine sending out Palladius to some Irish believers (in all probability this community evolved through contact with Christians of Western Britain) as their first bishop. We often hear about the radical changes that Christianity and people like Palladius or Patrick brought to the Celts, but that is actually not the case. Celts and their sacred places and practices simply made room for Christianity. Many druids became Christian, and many of the churches and monasteries had some pre-Christian connection. The Celts were not ‘revolutionised’ by Christianity; instead, it was so readily accepted because there were so many similarities.

Hundreds of years later there is a romanticism around Celts and Celtic Christianity. We need to recognise the danger of putting words in the mouth of history. However, there are many things about the Celts and their connection to faith and spirituality that can inform us today. Here are a few:

1. Their love and respect for nature and God’s creation.
2. Their love for hospitality and welcome.
3. Their recognition of women as equal.
4. Their spiritual disciplines that included solitude and service to the community.
5. Their love for art and poetry – illuminating the Gospel with their creative genius.

I am personally drawn to the Celts spirituality and how they expressed this connection with God. There is a verse in Colossians 1:17 that to me sums up their understanding of the person of Christ – “He is before all things, and in him, all things hold together.”

In May 2019, Mark and I are planning to lead a group of people who are also interested in the story of the Celts through Ireland, Scotland, and England. We can’t wait. Maybe you’d like to join us? Please see this link for information.

I will finish this post with a quote from Ray Simpson … whom you will meet if you decide to join us:

“Contemplative prayer is natural, unprogrammed; it is a perpetual openness to God so that in the openness God’s concerns can flow in and out of our minds as God wills.” Ray Simpson, from Exploring Celtic Spirituality.

 

Challenging the Formidable Twins: Laziness and Stereotyping

“Once you label me you negate me.” Soren Kiekegaard

 

Sometimes they just creep up on you, don’t they? The associates of Prejudice never sleep. A few years ago, I was travelling home on the train after a very long day at work. I was forcing myself to stay awake even though I was exhausted, mainly because I became concerned about someone I caught sight of out of the corner of my eye. He sat diagonally opposite me in the row behind. I could make out some of the tattoos on his hands and arms. A hoodie covered his head. In a nanosecond I had him boxed and labelled. Stereotyping does that to us. It always brings out stupid.

As my train pulled into the station, I got up and stood at the doors. Just like every other train traveller I imagined that this action alone would magically speed up the disembarking process. I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was my labelled hoodie friend. “You dropped your phone,” he said and handed me my device that, like most of us, contained my life. I looked at him and thanked him, got off the train and felt as guilty as hell. In one fell swoop, I had placed him in the ‘troublesome’ category merely by the way he looked and what society had dictated to me about people who have tattoos and wear hoodies.

History reveals that we deal harshly with those who we consider ‘other’. Fear of what we do not know or understand has allowed humans to do unspeakably cruel things to each other. Ignorance is the foundation of this fear. Throughout history, ignorance has fuelled wars, division, shunning, and persecution. Yet today we have knowledge and information at our fingertips and ignorance still lives on. So perhaps we have to acknowledge that part of the problem of this fear and prejudice is simply a refusal to engage in critical thinking? In other words, when we have been told something about someone or a people group, we take that as truth and we are too lazy, or perhaps comfortable, to engage in robust dialogue or to challenge our own perceptions.

Stereotyping does great harm. Ask any religious, cultural, or racial minority in any society. This past week I listened to some Sudanese young people share about the effect of stereotyping on their lives and the lives of their families and community. I also listened to the rhetoric of a person who, because of some strange regulations found himself in government with 19 votes (those 19 votes obviously gave him enough confidence to stereotype religious minorities), advocate for a white-only immigration policy and make use of the term ‘final solution’ in reference to the people group he just marginalised. Another hatted politician defended this man’s speech as ‘absolutely magnificent’ and then added ‘he’s smart, but he hasn’t read all the history books.” No shit, Sherlock! Maybe he should before engaging in such damaging, lazy stereotyping!

Yes, Stereotyping has a twin – Laziness. And we don’t need to look far to see evidence of these toxic twins at work. If we pay attention, we will hear or observe ourselves sometimes engage in their slander. Or we just need to look on social media! The amount of alarming ‘fact posts’ on Facebook or Twitter, like “I can’t believe it, *insert name or minority group* drinks pig’s blood, flies a broom at midnight, and persecutes the religious pious”. Beneath the posts are all the outraged comments. Then someone finally actually researches the claim. “Hang on,” they write, “that’s not true. *Insert name or minority group* actually is vegan, sells brooms for a living, and is a person who believes in religious freedom.” But it’s too late – Laziness and Stereotyping have done their job, deepening the prejudice that already existed.

Social psychologist Claude Steel says, “Stereotypes are one way by which history affects present life. I often say that people experience stereotype threats several times a day. The reason is that we have a lot of identities – our gender, our race, our age. And about each one of those identities … there are negative stereotypes. And when people are in a situation for which a negative stereotype about one of their identities is relevant to the situation, relevant to what they’re doing, they know they could be possibly judged or treated in terms of that stereotype.” So what do we do? Just accept stereotyping as a way of life? Allow our minds the luxury of laziness as we assess other humans? Maybe the first step is to recognise that stereotyping is harmful.  The second is to realise that our brains can be lazy and we can easily accept stereotypical claims and assertions without a second thought. Perhaps by practicing a bit of mindfulness and critical thinking we can take some steps to resist and reclaim our lives from these obnoxious twins?

Maybe it’s time to slow down and consider our ways? To stop and think before we engage mouth or keyboard and consider how what we are about to say or do will affect other people’s view of that person or minority group? I am more convinced than ever that the only way forward for our fragmented world is to challenge Laziness and Stereotyping and engage other people with understanding and kindness. But someone already said that a very long time ago … “The greatest of all is love” … maybe we just don’t always believe that?

 

Everyone wants to be seen. Everyone wants to be heard. Everyone wants to be recognised as the person that they are and not a stereotype or image. – Loretta  Lynch 

 

A Tyrant called Should

“Stop Shoulding on yourself!” – Albert Ellis

 

I don’t know how this tyrant found me. Somewhere in the more hazy, early years of my life, it arrived amidst whispers of fears of belonging and identity that are part of human existence.  It settled like a squatter in the shaping of who I was becoming. Over time the squatter seemed to grow in size and volume and it became ginormous within the ethereal walls of conservative fundamentalism. Perhaps you too know this tyrant I speak of? It’s called ‘Should’, first name ‘I’. I should.

I Should do this …
I Should be that …
I Should have this …
I Should not do this …
I Should…
SHOULD…!

Now don’t get me wrong. I think a healthy dose of ‘Should’ or ‘Responsibility’ around the table of our life is not tyrannical in any way. Should, in its proper place, keeps boundaries around our lives that keep us and others safe, and contributing to a greater good. Should holds the possibility of great rewards – and perhaps it is those rewards that cause us to obsess about it? However, to give in to its power is to live in the clutches of tyranny. Its endless demands on our lives and the lives of others is a source of anxiety, guilt, shame, depression and self-hatred. When we don’t measure up to Should we become angry and disappointed with ourselves. And when we place Should on the shoulders of others we end up consistently unhappy in our relationships.

Should is also the master of disguise. It is hard to recognise this exaggerated sense of obligation when we are convinced it’s ‘love’. We SHOULD love others, right? If you, like me, identify as a person of faith, it is often our notions about ‘loving others as ourselves’ that feeds this mutated idea of human kindness and compassion. And the more we feed it, the more we discover something … the beast is never satisfied.

Should also disguises itself as ‘virtue’ and hides the fact that in many ways it is our fear of being ‘disliked’ by others that keeps this tyrant in power. What if I don’t ‘Should’ one day and people don’t like me? What about my reputation? What if I upset them and it gets messy? The truth monster: Should is a mirror to I … and unless we confront an anxious ego, the tyrant keeps the crown.

For me, conservative fundamentalism was the compost the tyrant needed to grow even bigger in my life. The culture and history that informed my identity, taught me that the world is a serious place and we all need to do our part to keep it spinning. I was the perpetual ‘good girl’ wanting to please those around me. Then I discovered a form of religious expression that consistently enshrined and rewarded Should. In fundamentalism, Should came with accolades. It was a match made in hell. It became difficult to differentiate between Should and God. Should was cloaked in piety and had Bible chapters and verses to prove its legitimacy in my life. So walking away from fundamentalism, breaking the rules and ‘disappointing’ people, was really like sticking the middle finger up to Should. It was a most painful and liberating process.

Nowadays, Should still sits at my table. There are even days when it inflates, yells, and tries to snatch back the scepter. But it is no longer a tyrant – it’s more like a toddler, throwing an occasional massive tantrum. I recognise those days. I raise my eyebrows and speak to Should, “Should, you are loved and needed at this table. I am grateful for your voice in my life. But you are not in charge and if you don’t lower your voice I will spontaneously throw myself into the sea, eat a whole chocolate cake and drink copious amounts of beer … just to remind you that I also have other voices around this table. They are called Playful, Imaginative, Spontaneous, Fun, and Risky. When you shout at me like that, I will dial up their volume. Get it? You are NOT in charge.”

So, friend, maybe it’s time to examine ‘Should’ in your life? If you can’t find it, then perhaps you need to dial down the ‘reckless’ voice? If you, like me, find Should has a tendency to become overtly bossy and pushy then maybe it’s time to listen to what this is actually telling you about your life? Your relationships? And there is this little word that has magical powers when it comes to dialing down Should – it’s ‘No’. It has a beautiful ring, doesn’t it? “No, Should, I do not want to do that or be that. Now go away!” – I dare you to try it!

 

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 –