I woke this morning, different. Something was gone. Something was over.
Thrashings of self and soul are stones in the heart’s pocket.
They are silent, invisible. Deniable. Easy to entomb. Easy, worst of all, to standardise.
We have to dig them out. But first we have to find them.
This question helps:
If this were someone else, what would I be seeing?
We hold its gaze, motion it to sit, right here. We smile.
After that, after the chat, the tea, the really?, the mercy…, the shudder, everything is easy.
This question then:
What do I really want?
If we hear it and don’t slap our ears from habituated others-first, just-not-done prowess, the stones crumble. We stand. Hands in empty pockets.
Today I read this:
‘In that majestic progress of life,…advancing a millionth part of an inch every fifty thousand years…in that progress of life which seems stillness itself in the mass of its movements…that process of miraculous verisimilitude, that great copying which evolution has followed, repeating move for move every move that it made in the past…is approaching an end. Suddenly it is at an end. THE WORLD IS NEW.’
William Carlos Williams on spring. On new life. Which there never is, of course, but seems to be and is, as he says, so slow it might as well not be, until it is. And suddenly there is Homo sapiens or before that eruption by only one stray cell that made it into another, and new life had no choice but to be.
But no one saw that. Or could have, of course. But wouldn’t have noticed anyway because slow is so slow and we see only fast.
I keep reading this poem, this little book of a poem, one poem only, his iconoclasm drawing me. I’ve been reading it for three months. And still. He’s angry, I think. Mostly at ‘sesquipedalian’ poets and ‘ekphrastic’ verse that merely observes rather than births. But mostly he is big and won’t be shackled, won’t be like or liked. Won’t be required to wonder only about certain things and leave certain others alone.
He is alone. Good alone.
I think of P Lynn, little friend decided by not me. Childhood is like that. We don’t really choose. I think of her house, how alone she was. Bad alone. How obedient, how angry. Crossing herself, confessing. How cruel because how empty. Windowless bathrooms. Daddy pipes. BarkaLoungers. Little wall fonts. Electric keyboard, no Fischer Grand. Samsonite, no Hartmann.
Her mother, aproned, did not listen. Her father, puffing, judged.
She came to see my mother often, to be with her, with the sheer luminosity of her, her liminality, the lustrous, luscious laughter of her, the searing intellect, the reader, the Dior of her. The Korina. The Fischer. The Hartman. The Listener.
But she was my mother. And she was there. Wherever I went, wherever I strayed, wherever I closed my eyes and jumped and barely found the air bubble but then shot up giggling, wherever I triumphed, or tried and didn’t, whatever I started and waited for, peered at and let go, she was there. For me. See. Life just needs to be canopied to trust itself.
Unmonitored but accompanied we grow, ‘advancing a millionth part of a second every fifty thousand years’.
The leaf lifted. I saw it.
Bowed by frost our drifts of daffodils drooped this morning as if spring had dropped them and run. I sat just inside the conservatory absorbing the massacre.
Sun, so often the cavalry, did what it does, no rivals today.
I stared. I thought I was listening to the blackbird scavenging at the roots for delicacies only he could love. But I wasn’t. I was watching. I saw it. I thought the bird had batted the leaf. But he had gone. That leaf, even these 10 feet away, reached for my eye. It let me watch it move. Up. Up. Drying I think. Defrosting.
Lifting itself, partner of sun, from the earth.
That is a good enough Easter for me.
“Polarisation is not an act of disagreement. It is an act of disconnection.”
Our hearts are breaking. We love each other. We do. But we cannot talk to each other. We used to be able to. We used to hear differences between us and make it through the conversation all right. Usually. But something has happened. Something since Brexit. Or climate. Or Trump. Or Covid. Something. Something has happened and we now, as a nation, as a world, but more painfully as friends, and most painfully as family, cannot talk. Not now. Not about these things. We skirt. We scream. We scatter. And sometimes we don’t return. We simply cannot, will not, listen any more. Not to that. Not to those differences, those felt monolithic differences of view, of alignment, of allegiance. Not to that slinging of threat.
That is what it is to us, a threat. That is why we cannot go there, or if there, we cannot stay. When we enter those subjects and hear those differences, we register a threat so profound, so fundamental, we rage. We become out-raged. We close out; we want out. We leave.
Why? What for heaven’s sake has happened? They call it polarisation. “We are polarised,” they say. Fine. So now what? Now we can….? Get over it? Apparently not. One of my colleagues said it exactly: “I don’t want to get over it. I don’t want to talk to them. I don’t want to understand them. I want to stay me.”
To stay me. That was the moment I got it. These particular differences are different because they strip us of “me.” Or seem to. We feel they do. We feel that the other’s different view on these topics is a threat to our very being. And here is the disabler: we feel that merely to listen to the different view, even to listen to understand (forget about to convince) the other, is to prostrate ourselves, our actual selves, at the putrefying feet of a view so wrong, so elementally flawed that even to hear it through is to risk its putrefying us. It is, we feel, to risk the dissolution of our core identity. And we will not agree to that destruction of self. So, yes, we rage and flee. Or we simply don’t start. We go.
There is, though, something else we can do. I didn’t think there was. For a while I thought that polarisation was too big a thing for one person at a time to affect. But it isn’t. Polarisation is precisely one person at a time. It is one person interrupting another person, and that other person interrupting the person who interrupted them, so that within fewer than 3 minutes polarisation snaps into being and gestates like a mad thing until it is all there is in the room.
Interruption. Can it be that simple? No. Because interruption is not simple at all. Interruption is a complex killer. Its arsenal is adrenalin/cortisol, the hormone slayers of thought and respect and love.
It works like this: You speak. What you say shocks me. It is different from what I think. The more I hear, the more differences I hear. Soon I cannot believe that someone I respect could hold that view. I stop hearing the nuances in your thinking. I no longer respect you. I label you. I roll everything I’ve heard into one generic take. You are a “______“. How could you be that? You as a danger to me. And then, to protect myself, I interrupt.
Stop there. Here is the breeding moment. The conditions are set. My brain has just cocked the hormone triggers, preparing to retaliate. And having interrupted, I keep speaking. You barely hear me. You hurt. And within 11 seconds or less (says the science) you strike back. You interrupt. And then I do and you do and I do and you do.
We are not just disagreeing now. We are severing.
We turn away. Doors close.
Welcome to polarisation. It wasn’t disagreement that produced it. It was disconnection, produced by interruption, that complex killer of thought. And love.
Disconnection breaks our hearts.
But wait. Let’s redo this. Let’s agree that from now on we will not interrupt each other. At least for twenty minutes. In fact, let’s promise not to. Let’s promise, absolutely promise, we will give each other attention, staying as interested as possible in where the other will go next with their thoughts, and let’s give each other equal turns to go there. Let’s promise.
As we do, three things start to happen:
First, we breathe out because we know we will have an equal uninterrupted turn, too. We even have faith that at least some of what we say will be understood.
And so, we start to understand the other’s view a tiny bit more, not to agree with that view almost certainly, but to begin to understand it. So we do not feel a threat to our identity. (Understanding is like that. It is interested in difference, not threatened by it.)
Therefore, neither of us disconnects from the other. Yes, we disagree. Even fiercely. But that is all. That’s a lot, of course, when it comes to highly sensitive subjects. But that’s all it is. Just disagreement. We can live with that and love with that, and maybe with that arrive together at some new place, some place even vaguely, very vaguely, elegant. As long as we stay connected.
Kimberley Crespo, whose famous photography work requires highly-developed human connection, said, “The promise ‘I will not interrupt you,’ has transformed all of my relationships. It has made them richer and deeper.”
“Richer, deeper,” she mused again.
She’s right. The promise of no interruption, the promise of connection, changes everything.
Getting Beyond Hope
Maybe hope is not what we need. Especially now at a time of universal suffering, maybe hope is not the answer.
Maybe confidence is.
There is a difference. It is subtle. But important distinctions usually are. Let me see if I can find words for this one.
First, I know this is delicate territory. Hope is sacred. It is not to be trampled. In the midst of suffering hope is essential. It dismisses despair. It dismembers cynicism. It lifts our spirits. And so it helps us think. And for that monumental gift I, too, give thanks for it. And espouse it. With all my heart.
Hope also, though, stops short. It is one step only. It is not the journey. Hope on its own allows worry. It allows fear. And so it allows passivity. If we achieve hope but then sit down (hope does not object to sitting down), we’ve risen from despair, yes, but paradoxically we’ve collapsed into powerlessness . If we only hope, we don’t influence. We say from our seat that we cannot shape the outcome.
In that way when we hope, we are not quite home; we are wandering, still on the edges, looking ahead, desiring but not taking charge. Leaning, not leading.
Early on in its life as a word, ‘hope’ did provide solid ground. It took us all the way home. In Old English, circa 1100 B.C.E., ‘hope’ (‘hopa’) included ‘confidence’ in its three definitions: ‘trust, wishful desire, confidence’. That must have been nice. Back then we could desire and wish for something and take action with confidence.
No longer. 3200 years later ‘hope’ is not so sure of itself. To wit: ’Are you confident things will improve?’ ‘No, but I am hopeful.’
Dale Furtwengler said it this way:
While the technical definition of hope is ‘a feeling of expectation and desire’, the vast majority of us, when using the word hope,
have little expectation and a lot of desire.
Hope hints at imminent set back. It allows us to sway in the wind. It lets us want, but not assume we can form, what happens ahead.
Confidence, on the other hand, lands us on our feet. It says we can contribute to the outcome and are taking charge wherever we have influence. It says we’ve researched the facts. It says we know what others are doing and can trust their contribution, too. And confidence is smart. Smart enough even to resist becoming certainty. It keeps its eyes wide open as it steps.
Confidence strides. Hope hovers. Confidence sings. Hope whispers.
A few years ago I began to question society’s universal reverence for hope. I began to wonder why it was that although it is true that hope ‘springs eternal in the human breast’, it does so hand in hand with oppression and defeat and suffering. In that way achieving hope seemed to me only part of the answer. I saw a problem in the hallowed halls of hope. I sensed that although hope itself is not the problem, stopping at hope is.
For nearly three years I played with this heretical defrocking of hope. I was careful whom I told, which was no one because everyone worships hope. Hope shows up in almost every religion. In Christianity (the religion I know), it is one of the three great virtues. It doesn’t make it to #1, though. Love (agape) does that. But hope is right there next to faith which is prominent enough.
I have emerged from that solitary critique of hope, resolved. I esteem hope, but it is no longer my grail. In the face of suffering I summon it and honour it and then de-mystify it. I regard it as a beginning. But I summon confidence as the full journey.
I now experience hope and confidence as a kind of mother and child. It takes hope to birth confidence. But it does not take confidence to birth hope. Hope comes first. On its own hope is barren. And in the face of human suffering barren may be good enough for survival. But it is not good enough for flourishing. Flourishing requires confidence. As with any child, confidence is the path to the future.
And yet our lore reaches for hope as if it were everything.
Without hope (vision), the people perish.
Proverbs 29:18, The Bible
Yes. And that is vital. But that hope is sufficient if only ‘not perishing’ is our goal. If healing or thriving is our goal, we need to go beyond hope. We need go all the way to confidence.
But confidence takes work, work that comes from a still place, a being place, a focused place, a, yes, hopeful place. But work nevertheless. Confidence takes getting up, noticing where we have influence, and acting on it.
Of course there are lots of things in life we cannot influence at all. For those things hope on its own is perfect. I am fine only hoping that a meteor bypasses earth today. Or that fewer women than yesterday get raped. Or that there is no drought in eastern New Mexico.
But otherwise, when I do have influence (and that is far more often than any of us dares admit), I thank hope and then get beyond it. I reach for confidence by assessing what I can do.
The other day I was wondering what might happen if, when faced with human suffering, we were first to embrace hope and then, just as an experiment, ask ourselves:
What could I start doing right now
that would give me confidence in the face of this suffering?
Regardless, I think we can consider this addition to Proverbs:
With confidence the people flourish.
We are different – from each other.
I know it is cosier to think we are the same, but we’re not. It also is politically energising to think we are the same. We certainly organise, caucus, march, and draw a circle around 'us' as if we were. And we write books about 'our' 'collective' histories and victories and traumas and triumphs. The same as 'each other' we assert. We are women, so we are the same. We are black, so the same. We are Trans, or liberal, or over 65, or working class, or Flemish – the same. We even concoct elaborate diagnostic tools to assess us, categorise us, label us and shove us into rooms of sameness, explaining everything about us. These ones are the same as each other. And these are the same. And these are the same. There. What a relief. Now I know who you are.
No. I don’t. You and I are different. Inside that appearance of sameness, we are almost entirely different from each other. As Homo sapiens we are the same, of course, up to a point. But even inside that sapiens sameness we diverge in so many directions and at so many depths and with so many nuances we would keel over counting them.
I know. Every evolutionary sociologist will tell you we are hard-wired to belong, to get into groups and defend our sameness. And we probably are. It makes sense: if my group needs food and territory and so does yours and there is only so much of it to go around, I’ll cling to my apparent sameness of identity and face you off. Fair enough.
But even then I am not actually the same as the others in my hungry gang. We see sameness among us, but it isn’t there. We build loyalty on it as if it were. And that keeps us phalanxed when the ‘yous’ try to kill us. But the sameness was illusory all along.
I think this matters. Not just because it is what is real, and it matters that we see what is real. Which it does. But because to the extent that you see me as the same as you, you are likely to require me to think the same as you. And that is long-term indescribably more dangerous to our deep species-survival than the rival hungry clan advancing towards us.
We’ve gotten this far, you might argue; asserting sameness seems to work. Why risk dismantling it? Because, I would say, of the mess we’ve created on that very survival journey. Look at it. Look at the trail of homicides, genocides, suicides, ceticides and ecocides we’ve laid. Mostly look at the ‘concepticides’ that led to all of that carnage in the first place. Every one of those strewn pathways goes back to untrue-assumption-ridden, samey thinking, conformist, belonging thinking that stops new ideas before they get started and explains exactly why our history 'repeats itself'.
Facing this fact frees us. You get to be entirely you, and I me. We also get never again to be disappointed in each other for failing to be like each other. Instead, we get truly to see each other. For who we are. And for what we really think.
I like these questions: If you were not trying to be the 'same as', who would you be? How 'different' are you?
Who are you anyway?