#30 Letter to Youth

One day someone is going to tell you to believe in yourself, even though you don’t know what that means exactly. After all, in the first place you mightn’t be so sure of what you are, never mind what it means to think of yourself as something to believe in. So here’s a bit of background. You are the last in an unbroken string of human beings stretching back 200,000 years (1). If that seems like a long time, it’s because it is. And here’s the good news; things are better today for human beings than at any other time in the 200,000 years we’ve been around, which is partly why you are something to believe in.

You might be asking, how do I believe in myself? Its a good question, and many of the people who came before you asked a similar one. They didn’t always ask out loud, but as you’ll come to understand, people do a lot of things without being able to say what it is exactly that they’re doing. Often people are trying to make things better for themselves, and for their families and communities as well. The biggest challenge to making things better is change. Because everything is always changing, kind of like the weather.

Now, there are lots of people, the earth is big, and there isn’t one way to do things. Different people have different ways of finding food and building houses, different ways of speaking and even different versions of better. So one thing we’re always working on is ways to be free. The thing to remember is this; no matter how different people seem, everyone has a place. Even you.

Part of your place is where you come from, the rest is where you’re going, in the middle is your adventure. It will cause you some pain to realise that the place you come from is not as good as it could be. That’s part of growing up, its partly why you try to make things better and partly why you are something to believe in. You’re going to have to leave that place. If you’re lucky, the people there will encourage you. One day you will return.

But perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves. You’re young, and there is no need to rush these things. Time will have its way of telling you when to move and in which direction. If you’re ever lost, sit down and listen. Take note of what is calling your attention, gather those fragments together and organise them, which might mean you write them down. Or draw them, or turn them into something that speaks to you. Then let that go, which might mean giving it away, lest you confuse yourself with it. Remember you are the process by which the place you come from turns into the place you’re going, you are not any of the things you find along the way, which is partly why you are something to believe in.

From time to time you might encounter groups of people working together to try and solve particular problems. These are causes; and you might like to get involved. Beware of causes that demand self-sacrifice, which are all causes that believe people are the problem. They are wrong. People are not the problem; people are things to believe in. Which isn’t to say that people should always be believed, because as you’ll come to understand, people are always telling stories. 

As they get older, like people, stories get shorter. Two of the oldest stories are also two of the shortest. They are as follows. First, things were better before. Second, the world is coming to an end. Pay close attention to people who tell such stories, there is a reason they're always told, partly as conditions for improvement, partly as conditions for freedom. See, just like you, freedom is something to believe in. Its not a place, its a process, just like you. Its a way forward, a course negotiated between sets of opposing values, which we call the two hands of our body politic.

The right hand is cautious, it holds onto the past, places freedom in the individual and maintains firm boundaries. The left hand keeps those same boundaries flexible, places freedom in collective responsibility and reaches for the future. Both hands are necessary, each protects the other from its particular tyranny, each reminds the other that neither is the head. We make sure neither writes the word truth with a capital T, nor makes people the problem. Such is the nature of our freedom machine, and it works pretty well.

In fact, much of what you’ll come to know will emerge from dialogue, so it helps to have friends you can believe in. That requires learning to play, and the best way to play is fair. Here’s how it works. All games have rules, even though you mightn’t know exactly what they are. You’ll know when you’ve broken a rule because the person you’re playing with looks at you funny, or maybe even tells it to you straight. That’s okay, learning the rules is part of playing the game. If you notice that someone with whom you’re playing is making up the rules as they go, ensuring only they get to decide who’s playing fair, it might be that person is playing a different game to you, one that only they can win. People like that can’t be trusted. If you notice that someone with whom you’re playing is breaking all of the rules all of the time, it might be because that person is also playing a different game to you, one that involves breaking the rules all the time. People like that can’t be trusted either. If you are either of those people, you will find it hard to make true friends. Either your fiends will be scared of you, or they will want to be you. You’re better off playing fair.

Lastly, things are always more complicated on the ground. Its why people keep their feet there. Its where you’ll be most of the time, stumped by ordinary complexity. Then you should know not only that you have a place but that you have a family too. Even if you don’t. I know that’s confusing. But the most important thing is to find someone in whose eyes you see something of yourself, and in whose fears you see something of your own, and to let that person be vulnerable in your presence to the complexity of on the ground experience. There is love in that, and love is something to believe in, just like you.

Its Pretty Big  (2018)

Its Pretty Big (2018)

(1) This line references a quote by Dr Jordan B Peterson. The full quote is ‘you are the last in an unbroken string of successful reproducers dating back 3.5 billion years.’ That line, along with Dr Peterson’s delineation of the psychological significance of paternal resurrection as mythological trope has been of profound significance for me in my own understanding of culture and identity.

Personal Note #7 "Don Quixote"

You can listen to this letter here or on iTunes or Stitcher.

Today I’m in Arnhem Land, in a town of a thousand people, in what was formerly a high school science lab. Now its home to a three metre square frame of welded rebar shaped like a turtle, resting atop a pair of old bicycle wheels. Its shell is a layer of steel mesh that will soon house three hundred plastic bottles and three hundred LED lights. Tomorrow it will be joined by a fish, currently a few hundred meters away in a metal workshop run by kind men with rough hands who call themselves Buffalo Boys. The sculptures are a community art project aimed at addressing the critical issue of litter. Next month, at the town festival, they'll be part of a nighttime parade down the main road. Next week, having completed all of my placement hours, I’ll be a fully fledged Art Therapist. Which begs the question, 'How on earth did I get here?'

I was born a python snake in a rocky part of Africa.

After high school I struggled to keep up with a world that was bigger than I expected. Three years into a Law degree I was barely treading water, tormented by a future that was leaving me behind. 

Though I enjoyed the company of others, from an early age I felt better off alone. It was something about my nature.

Too proud to ask for help I found ways to stay still - mainly drugs and alcohol. Also bitterness and resentment for life’s broken promises. I disguised those feelings in a claim to know better than the small minded expectations of a world I didn’t need.

One day I met a turtle. We had a lot in common. She had a beautiful shell that made me feel safe and protected. For a while we followed the sun together. 

I found a balm in her beating heart. The most powerful drug I’d ever taken.

But she migrated a great distance to lay her eggs. Which was devastating for me. I tried to make her stay but the only way I knew was constriction. 

After she left I felt tightness everywhere. My skin began to crack and dry and then it came off altogether. Underneath I was sensitive to every touch. 

It was the fiercest pain I’d ever known. A darkness so thick I could barely breathe. When I closed my eyes I’d see daemons scratching at my chest. So I made my skin into a hard shell and crawled inside.

I wore that shell everywhere, added every skin I shed. I longed to be a turtle. But of course, I was a snake.

I started out at law school learning common law and torts,
Then spent some time with bankers and learned to read reports.
I spent some time with hippies and learned to stretch and play,
I spent some time with Buddhists and learned the silent way.
I spent some time with artists, made meaning with my hands,
I spent some time with activists and learned to make demands.
I spent some time with clowns and learned to play the fool,
I spent some time with handymen and learned to use their tools.
I spent some time with teachers and learned to set more goals,
In the time I spent with preachers, I learned about my soul.
I spent some time in therapy and found a way to heal,
Sometimes I still have trouble - discerning what is real.
I still don’t feel quite worthy, of love’s divine embrace,
I haven’t ceased my striving to make something in its place.
Nor have I stopped from searching for a balm to heal my sores,
But boy am I more interesting than I ever was before!

Now my shell’s grown heavy and I have half a mind to set it down. But when you’ve been a turtle for so long, a snake is quite the adjustment.

So I wrote myself a note.

Its to anyone who’s listening, in a crisis of their own,
If you’re stranded in uncertainty and feeling so alone.
If it seems as though you’re drowning and you don’t know what is real,
If darkness is the colour of everything you feel.
Know that you are capable of rising to this task,
Start by thinking of yourself as someone you can ask.
All it takes is one small step don’t worry bout the end,
Consider it a mystery what waits around the bend.
With every step you’ll feel more brave the daemons will grow small,
Eventually they’ll disappear, they won’t be there at all.
And looking down you’ll realise your feet are on dry land,
And the daemons in your nightmares are now gold dust in your hands.
Then you’ll have a story and your eyes will fill with tears
As you tell the people gathered how on earth you made it here.

Postscripts

Next week I’ll be telling new stories. Starting with that of the Buffalo Boys.

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