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Searching for light

This week I had an interview with SOEKlig [Search light – by Blackhole Productions] for their mini-documentary series on current affairs that affects South Africans.  The camera and the questions mainly focused on my research re. embodiment (making meaning from the body) and then towards the end, on my thoughts re. the recent judgement of the high court against the Dutch Reformed Church vs. Laurie Gaum and others and how it affects me personally…

To answer this, I had to revisit emotions deeply felt in my body years ago ~ the sadness of not being able to be ordained in the church as a person who is also gay; the confusion and havoc of relationships breaking apart; struggling to find a new career; the joy and absolute relief when I read the words of James Nelson for the first time – “simply accept the fact that you are accepted as a sexual person. If that happens to you, you experience grace.” Little did I know then what these words would set in motion – searching, loving, travelling, studying – culminating two decades later in intensive interdisciplinary research on the body, narrative therapy, theology and meaning-making.

But I’ve always carried along a deep sense of loss. I don’t know if there’s a polite way to put this Afrikaans lay expression into English – a mother with a wooden teat [soos ‘n moeder met ‘n houttiet] – to have a mother that does not provide any nourishment or intimacy. So listening to the news of the high court victory against the Dutch Reformed Church brought me no relief, no yearning to return. Too much time has passed, too much turmoil. I’m happy for a new generation of ministers who are gay and in relationships, and I’m especially encouraged that the court touched upon the dilemma of freedom of religion and protecting the rights of marginalised communities – but no. No return. I’ve made too much new meaning at too high a cost with this body I have and this body I am.

Also see: www.blackholeproductions.co.za and SOEKlig on Facebook

The good listener ~ narrative compassion

“…what was most important was to sit closely beside the survivors and to “listen and receive this,” as if it were part of you and that the act of taking and showing that you were available was itself playing some useful role.”

Richard Kearney on Helen Bamber

“Helen Bamber was both a founding member of Amnesty International and one of the first counselors to enter the concentration camps after the war. Her goal was to encourage survivors of torture and horror to somehow convert their trauma into stories and thereby find some release from their mute and immutable paralysis. In Bergen-Belsen, Bamber encountered ‘impossible stories’ which had to be told. She describes this narrative paradox-of telling the untellable.

Eventually, Bamber realized that what was most important was to sit closely beside the survivors and to “listen and receive this,” as if it were part of you and that the act of taking and showing that you were available was itself playing some useful role. A sort of mourning beneath and beyond tears: “it wasn’t so much grief as a pouring out of some ghastly vomit like a kind of horror.”

“If we possess narrative compassion we cannot kill. If we do not, we cannot love. The loving is in the healing, in the cathartic balancing of what Joyce called “identification with the sufferer” and knowledge of “the hidden cause.” We might say, in conclusion, that narrative catharsis, performed by a listener-narrator, offers a singular mix of empathy and distance, whereby we experience the pain of other beings -patients,  strangers, victims- ‘as if ‘ we were them.

Cathartic healing involves the narrating of past wounds both as they happened and as if they happened in this way or that. And it is precisely this double response of truth (as) and fiction (as if) that emancipates us from our habitual protection and denial mechanisms. One suddenly experiences oneself as another and the other as oneself- and thereby begins to apprehend otherwise unapprehendable pain.

Note: These are extracts from Richard Kearney’s chapter, “The hermeneutics of wounds” in the 2018 book “Unconscious Incarnations: Psychoanalytical and Philosophical Perspectives of the Body”, edited by Brian W Becker, John Panteleimon Manoussakis, and David M Goodman, pp. 29 -36.

Narrative catharsis ~ writers as wounded healers

”Many writers are also wounded healers. In the case of [James] Joyce, we find someone who wrote books in order to transform personal and collective trauma into art. The personal traumas related to the death of Joyce’s young brother (alluded to in the first of his famous ‘Epiphanies’) and a brutal mugging  in Dublin in  1904. The collective trauma related primarily, I believe, to the Irish famine. When Joyce visited Carl Jung in Zurich – hoping he would cure his daughter, Lucea-Jung replied that he could not cure Lucea’s madness and that Joyce had only managed to cure his own by writing Ulysses! In short, Joyce is Stephen Dedalus “writing the book of himself ‘ in order to save himself from melancholy.

Shakespeare wrote Hamlet the year his son, Hamnet, died and his own father, John Shakespeare, was dying. The play is about the transmission of mortal trauma between fathers and sons. In short, Shakespeare wrote ”the book of himself ‘ in order to avoid the madness of melancholy, that is, in order to properly mourn his father and his son in a way that he was unable to do in real life. The play itself thus serves as a symbolic ‘working through’ of an otherwise irresoluble crisis in which a father (King Hamlet) commands his son (Prince Hamlet) to do something impossible: that is, to remember what cannot be remembered! To tell something that cannot be told. A double injunction. An unbearable burden. An impossible story.

Stories become cathartic to the extent that they combine empathic imagination with a certain acknowledgment of the cause and context of the suffering, thereby offering a wider lens to review insufferable pain. The degree of detachment afforded by the narrative representation may be small indeed, but without it one would be smothered by trauma to the point of numbness.

Wounded healers are those, in sum, who maintain such equilibrium in a subtle interplay of word and touch, narrativity and tactility, effect and affect. To have the ‘healing touch’ means knowing when it is time to listen and when it is time to speak. When to draw close and when to draw back. When to hold and when to withhold. In the final analysis, it’s a matter of tact.”

Note: These are extracts from Richard Kearney’s chapter, “The hermeneutics of wounds” in the 2018 book “Unconscious Incarnations: Psychoanalytical and Philosophical Perspectives of the Body”, edited by Brian W Becker, John Panteleimon Manoussakis, and David M Goodman, pp. 29 -36.

Wounded healers ~ between touch and cognition

The wounded healer is one who holds her own pain while staying present to the other in theirs, knowing that this, more than anything else he or she may do, is what awakens the inner healer in the other. The wounded healer is one who knows that even when there is nothing left to do, we still have choice . . . we each carry a potential for healing within us . . . our woundedness being the very ground from which the green shoot of healing emerges . . . The more we can be with our own pain, the more we can be with others in theirs. This encourages the other to stay with their own suffering, which is where they need to be if they are to experience healing.”

This was written by Michael Kearney, one of the founders of palliative care medicine in North America and Britain in his 2007 article, “Mortally wounded”. How do we heal – through diagnosis and treatment (cognition) or through touch? For me, it’s both. Kearney feels that the model of Hippocrates, one of the founding figures of Western medicine “does not address all kinds of pain nor tell the whole story. Pain control only works when the pain can be managed by our interventions. Something else is also required in the face of uncontrollable malaise.”

That “something else” he finds in the approach of Asclepius, the other founder of Western medicine. This approach “suggests that even though the healer cannot completely control the pain and grief of dying, one can choose to be with and hold that pain. With self-knowledge and mindfulness, healers can learn to recognize the pattern of what happens when one hits the limits of what one can do in the face of suffering. One can choose to stay with one’s own distress as a way of staying with the other in their suffering. The mutual abiding with suffering becomes a form of shared witness-a bi-lateral healing beyond uni-lateral curing” (Michael Kearney)

Asclepius’ teacher, Chiron was a wounded healer – half man and half horse, reconnecting with our deeper unconscious feelings and our belonging to earth. According to Greek mythology, he was wounded by Herakles during a boar hunt when a poisoned arrow pierced his leg and would not heal. “Though Chiron could not cure himself, he found that he could cure others and became known as a wise and compassionate healer. Those who came to him in his underground cave found understanding and compassion. In his wounded presence, they felt more whole and well, which is why they called him “the wounded healer.”

Note: This is a discussion of Richard Kearney’s chapter, “The hermeneutics of wounds” in the 2018 book “Unconscious Incarnations: Psychoanalytical and Philosophical Perspectives of the Body”, edited by Brian W Becker, John Panteleimon Manoussakis, and David M Goodman.

Wounded healers ~ scars are written on the body

Traumatic wounds are by definition unspeakable. Yet from the earliest of literature, we find tales of primal trauma which tell of a certain catharsis through storytelling and touch. And we witness a special role played in such tales by figures called ‘wounded healers.”

Richard Kearney admits that is very difficult to ‘interpret’ certain traumas. It appears as if these wounds cannot be expressed in language, that it is beyond words and certainly beyond meaning.

He is interested in the paradox of ‘telling the untellable,’ or as I’ve put it before, exploring the “unsaid”. His basic theory is that while traumatic wounds cannot be cured, they can at times be healed-and that such healing may take place through a twin therapy of narrative catharsis (the telling of stories) and carnal working-through (the embodied sensing of meaning ~ according to my  model of theological anthropology). “In short, healing by word-touch. A double transformation of incurable wounds into healable scars”.

In Greek mythology, there are the sagas of the wounded healers Odysseus, Oedipus, and Chiron. The name Odysseus means ‘bearer of pain’ and in Homer’s poem it is revealed that he is carrying wounds both suffered and inflicted by his ancestors.

The word Homer uses for ‘scar’ is a term often associated in Greek literature with ‘trauma’. “While the wound is timeless, the scar appears in time: It is a carnal trace which can change and alter over time though it never disappears. Scars are written on the body; they are forms of proto-writing. And narrative catharsis is a process of working through such carnal traces. Put simply: While the wounds remain timeless and non-representable, scars are the marks left on the flesh to be seen and touched, told and read. Scars are engraved wounds that may, or may not, be healed.”

“Narrative catharsis is the distilling of pathological pity into compassion and of pathological fear into serenity. Compassion spells a proper way of being ‘near ‘ to pain; serenity a proper way of remaining ‘far ‘ from it (keeping a healthy distance, as we say, lest we over-identify or fuse with the other’s pain). Purged emotions lead to practical wisdom”.

Note: This is a discussion of Richard Kearney’s chapter, “The hermeneutics of wounds” in the 2018 book “Unconscious Incarnations: Psychoanalytical and Philosophical Perspectives of the Body”, edited by Brian W Becker, John Panteleimon Manoussakis, and David M Goodman.

The interpretation of wounds ~ being a wounded healer

Working –through of trauma calls for a delicate equipoise between silence and speaking, invisibility, and visibility, if the wound is to grow into a healing scar.

This is probably one of the most beautiful sentences I’ve read – that is as therapist at least. These wise words are by the Irish philosopher, Richard Kearney. He explores the idea of the “wounded healer” in mythology and literature and practices it in his own work endeavouring to bring about healing and reconciliation in divided communities. Just listen:

“If one covers the pain too soon, it festers and needs to be reopened at a later time for a new scar to form; if one covers it too late, infection can set in and the pain becomes intolerable. Wounded healers know, from their own experience of woundedness, two basic things:

(1) the right timing between too early and too late, and

(2) the right spacing between too near and too far

As important as sensitivity to timing, is being careful neither to over-identify with suffering (too close) nor to remain and indifferent observer (too removed). It is a matter of tact in the sense of both tactility and know-how. An art of ‘exquisite empathy’”.

His idea of “exquisite empathy” embraces compassion as feeling into the pain of others, while keeping an appropriate distance. Tactility is about touch, and specifically how to touch. (click to read my previous blogs on empathy: https://bodytheology.co.za/2018/11/15/the-erosion-of-empathy/  and https://bodytheology.co.za/2018/11/22/make-empathy-great-again/ )

In the next blog or two I shall retrace Kearney’s footsteps in mythology and literature leading up to his interpretation of wounds and the “wounded healer”, and healing through narrative catharsis.

Note: This is a discussion of Richard Kearney’s chapter, “The hermeneutics of wounds” in the 2018 book “Unconscious Incarnations: Psychoanalytical and Philosophical Perspectives of the Body”, edited by Brian W Becker, John Panteleimon Manoussakis, and David M Goodman.

the soft animal of your body

I can be stubborn this way – a friend sent me the link for the podcast episodes of On Being by Krista Tippet for my 50th birthday. I thought it’s interesting, but just a fad and ignored it. Then two years later my daughter sent me the same link and once again I ignored it, thinking that I shall get to it sometime…

Then the poet Mary Oliver died on 17 January 2019 at age 83. And the rare interview with her was conducted by Krista Tippet in 2015. Many things struck me deeply while listening to the podcast, confronting my arrogant dismissal. This poem of hers, Wild Geese resonated with me:

“Wild Geese” — “You do not have to be good. / You do not have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. / You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves. / Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. / Meanwhile the world goes on. / Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain / are moving across the landscapes, / over the prairies and the deep trees, / the mountains and the rivers. / Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, / are heading home again. / Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, / the world offers itself to your imagination, / calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting — / over and over announcing your place / in the family of things.”

The following is from the On Being website on Mary Oliver:

“Mary Oliver was one of our greatest and most beloved poets. She is often quoted by people across ages and backgrounds — and it’s fitting, since she described poetry as a sacred community ritual. “When you write a poem, you write it for anybody and everybody,” she said. Mary died on January 17, 2019, at the age of 83. She was a prolific and decorated poet, whose honors included the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. In this 2015 conversation — one of the rare interviews she granted during her lifetime — she discussed the wisdom of the world, the salvation of poetry, and the life behind her writing.”

And about On Being:

“The On Being Project is an independent non-profit public life and media initiative. We pursue deep thinking and social courage, moral imagination and joy, to renew inner life, outer life, and life together.”

So please, confront your preconceptions and listen to the podcast: https://onbeing.org/programs/mary-oliver-listening-to-the-world-jan2019/

becoming absent, falling silent

In what constitutes a treasure trove, my younger sister and I found my mother’s ox-tongue recipe at Xmas time. Complete with a robust raisin and ginger sauce, I cooked the pickled tongue and corned beef for a few hours in her huge, yellow enamel pot, the smell of cloves, celery, black pepper and bay leaves drifting through the galley-like kitchen of the flat. My mother was very much present in both our kitchens…

Earlier in the day, when walking down Kloof Street to Mrs. W (the supermarket), I recounted a story to my partner, starting with “when my mother was alive…”. I stopped dead in my tracks, shocked by my words for my mother is still very much alive! She spends her days in a 16-bed unit for Alzheimer’s patients, a few hundred kilometres away. What I expressed in those words is often associated with the process of saying farewell to a loved one suffering from a terminal illness, and that is often referred to as “living death”. I noticed the creeping onslaught of dementia about 4 years ago when my mother stopped sending text messages. She was an avid sender of messages, typing the abbreviated slang language of her granddaughters with her nimble fingers. Slowly she fell silent, becoming more absent.

I guess with some reading, and through deep and creative thought, I would be able to write a fine paper titled: “Becoming absent: a narrative approach to dementia”. (having read a lot, I’m still not sure why the Dementia is conflated with Alzheimer’s). But I don’t want to read more, or write much. We, the siblings find ourselves in a difficult, even traumatic process, as we are dealing with our father, who is in denial, surviving his stubborn indecisiveness, and his grief. He is 82 years old, and, until recently, her primary caregiver – they have been married for 57 years. What I know, that should I write something later, it will focus on embracing the dignity and full humanity of the person living with the Dementia (as opposed to dying from Alzheimer’s) – even if she makes a sandwich with a teabag filling, or starts crying all of a sudden, or having to wear adult diapers. And it will focus on supporting the primary caregiver and family – in some way, re-authoring some kind of alternative to the slow onslaught, the Falling Silent, the Becoming Absent…

Also see: Dementia Connections SA on Facebook |Alice Ashwell

blowing bubbles ~ when we play

Few things makes me as happy as blowing bubbles. Especially when grown-ups are the ones blowing the bubbles. Yes, it’s the child-likeness of the activity, but what enthralls me, is the playfulness of it all. I saw it on the beach this summer holiday, stoic adult faces relaxing when children run and squeal, trying to catch and puncture the huge soap bubbles floating lazily in the summer breeze.

It reminded me of the rural artist/ farming village of Rosendal in the Eastern Free State which I was introduced to in 2009. I have some mad and eccentric friends, and one of them dragged me along after a dreadful 2008 – my personal annus horribilis (just Latin for a horrible year). It was a year in which I was house-robbed and mugged several times, while struggling to adapt to the seemingly chaotic landscape of South Africa after relocating from the relative tranquillity of Switzerland. So there I was on a Sunday morning after church service, standing on the embankment of a farm dam dressed in First World War combat gear, together with an eclectic crowd dressed as a bride, a Frenchman, a tennis player, Jules Verne, Marie Antoinette etc., ready to dive into the murky water for the first Rosendal Regatta. With cows looking on (one person nearly drowned, while everyone else thought he was playacting – he was saved by a bearded deep-sea explorer Jacques Cousteau in a canoe). And so I played the whole 3 weeks of summer – and I wondered why? What happens when we play?

Later, again reading James Nelson for my Master’s, he explains play as being integrally related to pleasure as a form of sensuousness. Men especially, can find it difficult to play in a society focussed on the masculine image with a strong need to control, combined with a rational work ethic. Play is closely related to culture, contemplation, wholeness (through human sexuality), and a healthy balance. Playfulness requires the devaluation of control as the main activity. Play is egalitarian and depends on cooperation, openness and freedom.

This implies that in order to play, one must learn to trust that the environment will not injure one; it means that one has the ability to relax long enough to enjoy one’s own vulnerability. When I play, “I am open to trust and spontaneity, to surrender to the involuntary, only as I am able to trust my beloved and my own body-self. But the ability to trust is not an achievement. It is a gift”