How do we re-imagine our stories when we feel beleaguered?
In the dark and fragmented times
In France restaurant terraces are opening and non essential shops will soon follow. There are tourists in the forest and the van parks are full of increasingly large motorhomes. There’s a slight feeling of frenzy about a ‘normal’ summer but we all know that there are new variants of Covid-19 and that no one yet knows how long vaccines or infection provides immunity and whether it will cover new strains and whether there will be a third wave or is it fourth?
And even if things Covid slowly ease, the ecological crisis remains, destroying homes and livelihoods, obliterating habitats at an alarming rate … And meanwhile those at the sharp end of political conflict or of poverty go on being trodden on. A friend and talented poet recently asked me what he could possibly say to an 8 year old girl raped by soldiers, or a Palestinian or Israeli family standing in the ruins of their homes.
There are no easy answers. There are things happening in the world that leave us floored, gasping at the sheer inhumanity and horror, and overwhelmed by the knowledge that there is nothing we can do. In the face of all this we have to admit how limited we are. And yet we also know that in the face of the worst that happens people overwhelmingly want to live (even those who decide they can’t go on have often made amazing efforts to stay on the planet for as long as they could within their own particular struggles). And there is something in this that puts hope at the core of what it is to be human.
We do the good that we can
I’m a fan of the writing of Wendell Berry, someone who has a persistent way of caring passionately about atrocities wherever they occur yet also knowing that he can’t take on every one of them personally. To try to do so, even in terms of our emotional energy, is to risk drowning under the weight of all we cannot save. And to begin to believe that we can or should ‘do something about everything’ is also a kind of hubris. The world doesn’t revolve around what I do but this doesn’t mean that I can shrug it all off and not care or shut my eyes and ears and get on with enjoying my priveleged life because ‘Hey, what can I do anyway?’
The world doesn’t revolve around what I do but we can still steer our lives by a moral compass because when lots of us who have no special power do so then the story begins to change — increment by increment, locally and then more widely… The world doesn’t revolve around me or you but we are still able to do the good that is in our power and the more of us doing so, and the more of us doing so together, the more transformation becomes more than a dream.
We do the good that effects a small circle
Wendell Berry advocates for putting our energies into the small circle of good that is within our power and by doing so that circle enlarges. And in focussing on what he calls ‘the household’ he isn’t shrugging off care for the world or refusing to look outwards. Rather he holds the care for the immediate and a global consciousness in tension:
I must attempt to care as much for the world as for my household
he says in his essay ‘Some Thoughts on Citizenship and Conscience’.
And he goes on to talk about how a competent morality balances between the doorstep and the planet.
No matter how sophisticated and complex and powerful our institutions, we are still exactly as dependent on the earth as the earthworms. To cease to know this, and to fail to act upon the knowledge, is to begin to die the death of a broken machine. In default of [hu]man[ity’s] personal cherishing and care, the earth must now become the victim of [her]/his institutions … And so, conversely, the most meaningful dependence of the earth is not on the […] government, but on my household — how I live, how I raise my children, how I care for the land entrusted to me.
In short we care for it all by doing the good that we can wherever we are.
And in doing the good that effects a small circle, the world changes
In a situation of mass ecological degradation or of global pandemic, it’s easy to understand why we look to mass solutions and big logistics. These things will matter. And Berry isn’t immune to lying awake at night worrying about the world’s future and he admits that it can be difficult to maintain our integrity in the face of oppression, wars, racism and destruction. And yet, once we think we are helpless, that nothing we think or do matters; once we submit to overwhelm or despair, then the forces of destruction have won.
Berry’s insight is a tiny but wonderful crack of light that uproots the perspective of overwhelm and despair. It asserts that the world may not revolve around me or you or any of us and yet each of us nonetheless matters in our global as well as immediate relationships, and we do so by nurturing those closest relationships and the tiny bit of earth we can do something about, whether that’s several acres of forest or a window plant. Berry goes on:
Those two poles of life and thought offer points of view, perspectives that are opposite and complementary. But morally, because one is contained within the other and the two are interdependent, they propose the same consciousness and the same labor.
And this good that we do multiplies when we do it together
Holding on to visions of utopia might feel futile at the moment, but the world is hungry for new stories. Changing our myths is powerful. Writing about reclaiming paradise in an age of climate destruction, my son, Rowan, noted:
For me the best fiction does not tell us what is before our eyes, it excavates, scours, reveals. […] Even if the Mephistophelesian pact of modernity is our extinction, utopias insist that there was a chance at shared liberation, of collectively getting it right. It demands we project our values outward, realise them as something to be shared. […] utopia asks us to imagine the recreation of society as a whole and ourselves only within that context. […] …utopia is hope projected outwards.
This is Berry’s global pole. We need those big stories coming from the local, the domestic, from each of us. The United Nations holds that there are four key qualities that are needed in times of crisis: kindness, generosity, empathy, and solidarity. If our relationship to our home and to our world rests on those, then we begin to write the stories of utopia that we all can live by.
The good grows when we are kith
I can’t change the world, none of us can (alone) and yet transformation nonetheless begins with each of us. It starts with compassion, for ourselves, for our households, for whoever we have the power to touch or the privilege to connect with, for the bits of earth we have stewardship of. Compassion is radical, it is a sharing of suffering, it is sympathy so deep that it moves us to our guts. It requires attention: real focus, not a distracted nod in the right direction. Compassion listens.
Radical compassion asserts that we are all connected, that all matter, that together we can change stories.
Giving the world new stories is not a simplistic task with an obvious or guaranteed outcome. But as writers, we witness to the need for these stories. New stories are born wherever there is connection. Whenever there is real attention paid and deep listening, things change. Whenever we take the time to listen to our hearts, to the earth, to others then we reimagine a different world that is possible.
Because asserting that we are kith is a powerful story
I’ve recently been doing a course to train as a yoga nidra teacher and one of my wonderful teachers, Uma Dinsmore Tuli, noted how, in a world in which commerce and capital rule, and in which there are so many stresses, our ability to rest can be seriously impaired. She goes on to talk about rest as a ‘radical act’ and yoga nidra (a meditative practice in which the body sleeps while remaining conscious) as a liminal space where we can hear the ‘freedom songs of repair and restoration.’
I began ‘Kith’, a community for writers who want to change the stories we live in and by, with the same hope of empowering freedom songs for repair and restoration. And I moved to a forest hamlet in Brittany last year because it felt very much the right place to assert:
Slow down, listen, connect — it is enough
I love writing. I love working with writers. Engaging with writers willing to dive deeply into their stories, gathering writers around my kitchen table, being able to walk alongside and support writers in their process and journeys … these things are a delight and privilege.
Kith is a touchstone for a writing life that demands we slow down, listen, connect . It is a concept that stands against the myth of being ‘self-made’ or ‘self sufficient’. Surely sufficiency must take us beyond the self? An abundant life is found by slowing down, paying deep attention and connecting, in a spirit of radical generosity. After all, true abundance is the art of knowing when there is enough, including when there is enough work and stress and we need to rest and restore.
Recently I was talking with another of my yoga nidra teachers and he said that more and more people need an ’embodied experience of hope’. It’s such a beautiful phrase and it sums up what happens when we do the good that we can, do it with kith to support us or walk alongside us and share a vision for what the nature activist Mary Reynolds calls an ARK (Acts of Restorative Kindness).
Here’s to nurturing our stories of kith. Here’s to seeding acts of restorative kindness into the world. And here’s to the courage to slow down, listen, connect, knowing that we don’t have to do it all, that doing the good that we can, each of us and together, is enough.
Becoming a different story
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