It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
So wrote Dickens at the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities.
The fragility we live with
Olive Trees bu Vincent Van Gogh
On the day that the UK was electing its representatives to the European Parliament, ahead of leaving the EU, possibly with no deal and economic chaos, the day before the Prime Minister announced her resignation, I was passing through London and saw the exhibition of works by Van Gogh at Tate Britain.
Van Gogh spent a short time living and working in London and was a great admirer of Dickens. The summary of how one time and one place can be simultaneously so polarised is apt not only for the Victorian period of slums on one side and luxury on another. We too live in a world full of possibility and bounty and yet equally as overflowing with economic injustice, ecological catastrophe and corruption.
Van Gogh was an empath. His paintings document the harshness of life for many who were marginalised and even his landscapes fill with a sense of melancholy. From peasants in fields to seamstresses almost starving while making beautiful clothes for the rich … From a landscape at dusk to olive trees ravaged by the Mistral wind, there is a question from Van Gogh that runs through the work:
You may not always be able to say what it is that confines and yet you feel I know not what bars… and then you ask yourself, Dear God, is this for long, is this forever, is this for eternity?
He soaked up so much emotion in addition to his own that ultimately he couldn’t remain in the world.
Going round the exhibition and seeing other art works that day, I was mindful not only of all these contrasts but also of how much fragility we live with. After seeing the extraordinary Blake rooms with the visionary images that glimpse the mysterious through the quotidian, I was aware of how much promise exists, how near newness and transformation might be. Yet it’s not assured. And I wrote in my journal:
Can we keep these riches of art and culture and open them to all? Greed, consumerism, vested interests and the gods of Productivity and More! have hijacked the project of modernity. We have so much, but what will we have in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years from now if we do not learn and change?
Adelaide Anne Procter says:
We always may be what we might have been
It’s never too late to learn or to change.
Dickens saw the horrors of his own time and wrote powerful stories that were calls to change. We too need a change of story.
A new world story
Photo by Zach Reiner on Unsplash
The current story is of polarised dualisms: rich and poor, male and female, black and white, humanity and nature. Against this, we need to assert a story of connections and interweaving.
The theologian Martin Buber characterised the relationship between humanity and divinity as ‘I-Thou’. This is a relationship of subject to subject as opposed to ‘I-It’, which objectifies the other. Moreover, it is a relationship in which there is deep connection, the boundaries of ‘I’ and ‘Thou’ are not discrete, but permeable.
Such a living, spiritual (in its widest sense) relationship is not only applicable to theistic belief. It is a way of thinking positively about any other person or non-human animal or aspect of the world.
The notion of relating to the grass, the sky, a fox and the stranger we meet as ‘Thou’ transforms the story we hear daily. It says: this other matters and is intimately connected to ‘I’.
It says that separation will lead only to destruction and dis-ease whilst connection honours the continuum of existence. It says that ‘I’ am always more than a mere atomised individual. It says that ‘I’ stand at the centre of the universe, not as monolithic Ego or King of the Castle, but as one centred consciousness among many. In this way we are always part of the whole flow of life, moving with the rhythms of days and seasons.
This is a soulful story and a soulful way to live. Our current story is one of conflict. In our battle to control and subdue nature we have only made her rise up against us. In our fear of the other, we have only sewn alienation and anger. In forgetting how to relate to all as ‘Thou’ we have forgotten how to relate to one another and even to ourselves.
A new world story has the say no to the old dualisms, has to stop opposing people against people or people against nature. As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke puts it:
If we surrendered
to earth’s intelligence
we could rise up rooted,
Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash
The world is overdue for a new story. It is one that begins with relationship, with a lexicon of an animate universe in which we replace ‘I-It’ with ‘I-Thou’.
The seeds of a new story respect life’s rhythms, its breath or tides. Breathe in and we centre ourselves, become attentive, go deeply into thought and silence, slow down. This is the rhythm of ‘I’. Breathe out and we connect with play, flow, courage and generosity. This is the ‘Thou’ rhythm.
When we embody both then we begin to tell new stories, make new meanings and transform the world. This is the work of writers like Dickens, artists like Van Gogh and Blake, and story-seeders across every human and humane art and science.
This is spiritual work that is for everyone regardless of belief. To quote Rilke again:
You are not dead yet. It is not too late
To open your depths by plunging into them
And drink in the life
That reveals itself quietly there.
Rising up rooted
Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash
Plunging into the ‘I-Thou’ rhythm of relationship puts nature and humanity on a continuous spectrum. Too often we have told stories in which the goal of existence focusses only on peak experiences, attaining the light, achieving transcendence. This is one sided, imbalanced and arhythmic.
Depth psychotherapists and Jungians would tell us that when we fail to face the shadows and underland of ourselves, our communal history and matter itself, then we simply invite the darkness to erupt in destruction and with force. Paradoxically, facing the shadows is a path to the light.
Stories of transformation have to be about descent and depth as well as ascent and soaring. They have to encompass the dark and the light, and find the numinous in nature and embodied in the vastly interconnected world. Being rooted and rising are integral parts of adopting the perspective of ‘I-Thou’. Rising up rooted is an act of depth as well as growth.
We live in perilous times, economically, socially and ecologically. We live in the best of time and the worst of times. We are not dead yet but unless we begin to live in ‘I-Thou’ relation to the world and all that’s in it then the dualistic, conflict-ridden stories of greed and fear will be our last.
As writers, let’s not allow that happen. We have the seeds of other stories. Let’s rise up rooted and spread those seeds across the world.
Becoming a different story
Thank you for reading — sign up to my email list and I’ll send you a free PDF on writing and the writing life as well as a fantastic special offer for my suite of online mini-retreats, Diving Deeply into Your Story The next module begins on June 20. Take a look at Writing the Soaring Sun. While you’re there, download my free courses, Giving yourself time to become a different story and Finding the rhythms of your story
Frank Dullaghan says
Excellent, Jan. This touched me today. 🙂
Thank you Frank 🙂
Fiona Owen says
What a wonderful piece, Jan – wise, inspiring, true. Thank you! Xx