~ Ajoy Datta [London, UK]
When I was asked to write this reflection, Omid Safi’s work which brings together love and justice came to mind. He says we often find our own suffering difficult to deal with, so when it comes to the suffering of others, our hearts tend to harden. Omid writes:
To love God, we must love humanity.
To love humanity, we have to address the conditions in which we live.
The dignity of human beings matters.
Structures and institutions matter.
['Justice is Love, Embodied' from onbeing.org]
The Covid pandemic has revealed more clearly how unjust some of our structures and institutions are. Although our government (in the UK) have reminded us that ‘we are all in this together’, a scan of statistics reveals that we are not. Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities and health professionals have suffered disproportionately, as have poorer areas of the country, as have the old and vulnerable, and not just because they were old and vulnerable. Poor communities without decent housing and limited internet have suffered more in lockdown whilst home schooling and domestic chores have fallen primarily on the shoulders of women.
This has provided the context for individuals and groups to express their suffering in response to trends revealed by the pandemic: racial inequality, poverty, and climate breakdown, amongst others. In some cases, groups have expressed themselves with deep visceral conviction – including anger and rage – which, sadly, has turned some people away from their message.
Being in a state of love means acknowledging that there is a place for rage - the cry of the unheard – in society. It means not walking away from such cries as Mevlana points out:
A dragon was devouring a bear
a lion-hearted soul
Heard its cry
and rescued it
Someone asked the brave soul
Why did you come
When everyone ran away?
I heard his cry
and saw his sorrow
[Masnavi II, 1932–56, trans. Omid Safi]
There is lots we can all do to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters (and other sentient beings) ‘out there’ in other communities, other countries, who are experiencing pain and suffering (beyond providing monetary support). But I’d like to reflect on what we might do ‘in here’ in this beloved Threshold community.
One source of suffering ‘out there’ is the assumptions that people make about others. We are as vulnerable to this ‘in here’ as we are ‘out there’. It’s easy to assign roles (or stereotypes) to others and make judgements about whom we think they (and we) are, based on aspects of their identity. So, can we see others (including ourselves) as fully human, multi-dimensional, with light and dark, suspend judgement based on pre-conceptions and surface level characteristics, and remain curious about others?
Can we stand with, and listen to, those who are experiencing pain, and help them to ‘bear witness’? Kristi Pikiewicz writes in Psychology Today: ‘Bearing witness is a term that, used in psychology, refers to sharing our experiences with others, most notably in the communication to others of traumatic experiences.’ This can help those who are suffering to process their experience, to obtain empathy and support, to lighten their emotional load and obtain catharsis.
Being love might mean speaking difficult truths, but also being humble enough to know that one’s truth is just one perspective. Are we able to properly manage the boundary between our inner world – our feelings and convictions – and our external realities in the ‘here and now’? Or will we retreat from it, hope the issues disappear and potentially cause longer term pain for all concerned?
When we are experiencing frustration, sadness, anger, anxiety or uncertainty, are we able to stay with it, be compassionate towards ourselves (and each other), to bring these parts of ourselves out of the shadow and into the light, to stay grounded and be open to what is and what might emerge? Or will we try to sanitise our feelings, push them away or act out on them, by, say, withdrawing?
When someone might be experiencing and expressing difficulty in the group, there might be a tendency to individualise it and suggest it is ‘their’ problem. The onus is often on the individual to educate the group about the difficulties they are facing. However, other people in the group might be experiencing the same issue and for various reasons be unwilling to share. The one expressing difficulty might serve as a ‘sponge’ for a particular type of feeling that may be present in the group more widely. Are we able to reflect on the underlying issue as a group rather than locating the issue in an individual?
And finally, how are we to know who might be experiencing pain and difficulty? How might the difficulties that people are experiencing be brought to the surface and addressed? People might ‘discharge’ difficult feelings with friends informally and in private (so-called ‘hidden transcripts’). However, these rarely help improve the situation. What groups need is containment, in the form of a legitimate forum, which involves people bringing to the surface their feelings where they can be contained and discussed. But for this to happen, individuals in a group need to trust each other, which in turn requires time, patience and an element of courage to take a risk, so ultimately, they have the freedom to open their hearts to each other.
The world ‘out there’ can be a difficult place, but our community ‘in here’ is not necessarily immune to some of the dynamics at play. But just as the world shapes what happens in our community, what happens in our community can in turn shape the world… May it be love…
~ Ajoy is a London-based Mevlevi Dervish. He is a researcher, writer, and consultant in the international development sector with an interest in groups and organisations and how they change.