Tag Archives: alienation

Finding a direction

It’s been clear to me over the last few weeks that one of the underlying problems for me with my creativity, has been a lack of direction. I needed a sense of what the work would be *for*. I’ve long since established that money does not motivate me to write, and most of us in this industry will never make much money anyway. I came to writing as a child, wanting to say something that would make a difference, but that’s far too vague.

It’s been like finding the pieces of a puzzle, and those of you who read posts every day may have noticed the trajectory that’s been developing. I didn’t know there was a trajectory even until a couple of days ago, but sometimes you have to keep doing a thing before it becomes properly conscious and visible.

I’ve made several bardic dedications in the past, and they’ve tended to be about using my skills for the good of the tribe, and the good of the land. I’m returning to this concept with some very specific ideas about what it means in the current climate.

Many of us are alienated from our own bodies. Most of us live in ways that are deeply at odds with what our animal bodies need. We don’t experience those alienated bodies as being in the land, in the seasons, in the soil as a culture. Certainly there are individuals who do, but most people are alienated from their natural mammal selves. Provoked into thinking about this by Becoming Animal by David Abram, I think he’s right and that our treatment of the Earth is only possible because of our deep alienation.

I’ve experienced that alienation – trauma caused a retreat into my head, a dislocation from my feeling self. Stress and anxiety kept me there. I’ve spent years finding my way back towards my own body, and finding my body in the physical realm it inhabits. I can speak to the being lost, and to the process of returning. Dedicating to reconnecting person and planet serves my own journey and healing, but it also means I should have enough insight to be helpful to others.

Having just read a book that has greatly impacted on my life, I am reminded that writing is powerful, and can change things for people. I can’t fix everything, but I can work in a way that supports the idea of all the changes I want to see being possible. It’s a place to stand, and as I’ve managed to write a poem and a song in the last week, I think it’s a place I can work from.

The Hero’s return and alienation

One of the things that struck me when reading Adam Curle Radical Peacemaker (proper review here) is the insights that came out of his work with former prisoners of war after WW2.

Some years ago, I spent a while on a course called The Freedom Program, which helps survivors of domestic abuse get their heads, and lives back on track. One of the things the facilitators said, is that people coming out of domestic abuse situations have the same kinds of symptoms as people coming out of war zones – they were mostly referring to the PTSD side of things, but it may be a relevant thought.

What Adam Curle talks about in his work, is the way in which returning former prisoners experienced alienation from the rest of society, even from their own families. I’ve heard similar things said about soldiers in all kinds of context, and by former soldiers – that going back to people who have no way of understanding what you’ve been through, is alienating. There’s no way to speak of what happened, and the gaping chasm caused by the experience separates the survivor from the ones who have not been there. Based on personal experience and anecdotal evidence, I think the same things can happen to domestic abuse survivors, survivors of any other kind of abuse or violence in any context, and people who are returning after breakdowns in mental health. It may also be true for people coming back after long periods of bodily ill health.

Compare this to Joseph Campbell’s work on The Hero’s Journey, and Martin Shaw’s more recent work developing that narrative. Coming back is part of the journey, and in his books ‘Snowy Tower’ and ‘A Branch from the Lightning Tree’ Martin Shaw talks a lot about how problematic the return is. I think this is all part and parcel of the same thing.

Sometimes we have experiences that are alien to most of the people around us. Somehow, after those experiences, we have to come back and work out how to be part of a community, a functioning member of society. From the outside we may seem ok, may appear to be doing a decent job of it, but the feeling of alienation is something that goes with the return, and is part of the challenge of returning.

What do we do with this? I’m not sure. Be aware that anyone could have made the kind of journey it is difficult to return from. Listen to the stories and make room for them. Acknowledge the differences and the potential for feeling alienated. Don’t assume we know where other people have been or what it means.

Coming back is necessary. Bringing back something of what happened is necessary. The negotiations between the one who returns and the people they return to, can only be handled on an individual basis, and how we do that, as people who are returning, and as people witnessing a return, is something we’ll all have to figure out for ourselves.

Hermit and tribe

There are lots of good reasons for picking solitude and a more solitary life. Not everyone is gregarious by nature. There are lots of introverts in the world, an abundance of folk for whom human contact is not that engaging or delightful, for all kinds of reasons. There are also a lot of things that can push a person into being a hermit, not because they want to be, but because they can see no other way. While I am someone who likes a lot of quiet time, I’ve also had some experience of feeling obliged to be a hermit and I’ve seen a lot of what it does to other people.

1) Poverty. If you can’t afford transport, or suitable clothes, social contact can be difficult. Most normal social activity has a price tag, a person in poverty may not be able to afford a beer at the pub, and can’t step up to buy a round. All of these things are humiliating, and rather than expose the feelings of shame poverty causes, people stop showing up.
2) Geographical isolation. Only pagan in the village can be a real problem. Loss of public transport, rising fuel costs, loss of rural venues, loss of urban venues even – there may not be anywhere you can realistically get to from where you live, and so you become unable to engage socially.
3) Illness. Both mental and physical ill health make it difficult to engage. If you have to constantly explain why you can’t do things, because the limits of your body and mind are not where people expect them to be, that can be depressing, humiliating. Fear of having something go wrong in public can leave many unwell people just afraid to go out, and afraid of being rejected for having something wrong in the first place.
4) Low self-esteem. If you don’t feel you have anything to offer, how can you ask to be part of a tribe? How can you expect people to accept you socially? Assumptions of not being welcome and not being good enough keep people isolated, which reinforces those beliefs.
5) Expecting rejection or other bad outcomes. People with bad histories (and there are a lot of us, perhaps a third of all women) find it hard to trust that social situations will be safe, that they will be welcome and well treated. Fear of anger and aggression, fear of abuse, of rejection, mockery, humiliation etc.
6) Fear of crime. I have met plenty of people who, even though they have not been victims of crime, are so fearful of this as a probability, that they don’t go out much. Instead they stay in watching news and crime laden TV programs that reinforce their beliefs about how dangerous it is out there. Which is ironic because statistically you are more likely to be raped, assaulted, or murdered by someone you knew and trusted, not by a random stranger.
7) Disbelief. If you think there’s nothing out there worth connecting with, nowhere you would fit in and nothing you would enjoy, you won’t even look. Lack of information about other people leads to a belief that you wouldn’t find anyone to engage with reinforced by not going out and finding anyone to engage with.

Most of these become self-perpetuating, and can take a person to a place of feeling anxious about having to deal with other people. Once we start to see human contact as threatening, unrewarding or impossible, we tie ourselves in to cycles of behaviour and disengagement guaranteed to reinforce the perception. I think there are many facets of our culture that help to perpetuate this. These fears are not crazy or irrational, it is important to note that every last one of them is well founded.

1) We denigrate poor people and uphold concepts of expensive chic, reinforcing the idea that to be and look poor, is to be unacceptable.
2) We don’t have a good public transport network, and the cars much of our planning decisions were based on are getting too expensive to run.
3) We have rising rates of mental illness, and a culture that is not tolerant of, nor reliably kind to people in difficulty.
4) We don’t have all-inclusive tribes. Membership of anything social depends on activity, and at least on actively showing up.
5) Our culture, TV led, says its ok to rubbish and ridicule people, to shout them down, humiliate, harass and otherwise behave in shitty ways. A few episodes of the soap opera of your choice, or any reality tv show where judges rubbish people as entertainment, will teach you this.
6) While violent crime between strangers is on the decrease, domestic abuse exists at a monumental scale. The irony is we’d probably be safer going to the pub than staying at home, statistically speaking.
7) And what is there, to go out for? Where are those tribes and communities we might belong to if only we made it out the door? Mostly they don’t exist, for all of the above reasons.

This is not about individual failing, this is a crisis of culture. No, I don’t have any answers.


We’ve seen violence, looting, burning and mayhem not only in London, but also Bristol, Birmingham, Nottingham, Manchester and Liverpool. “Mindless criminality’ is a phrase that has been offered a few times by way of explanation. Which is no explanation at all. Sat in a quiet corner of the UK, I’m not directly affected, but so many people are, or must be fearful this morning that they too will be caught up. Others, no doubt, are looking at the TV footage and feeling an urge to get their piece.

Civilizations are made up of individuals. They only work so long as enough people co-operate with the systems, institutions, laws and habits that the civilization purports to uphold. In my occasional posts about the idea of quiet revolution, I keep saying that if there are enough people who want a thing, change will happen. But what we’re seeing here isn’t coherent protest or revolution, it’s theft, arson and violence. The homes and property of ordinary people are coming under attack, as the ordinary people themselves. Whatever else is going on here, the people out rioting clearly don’t have much empathy for others or much concern for their communities, or even their own futures.

As a country, we are in financial crisis. Services are being cut all over. Mounting a police response on the scale these riots require, is going to cost a fortune. We are all going to have to pay for that. Damage to homes and businesses is damage to jobs, incomes, communities, futures. Some of us will pay for that more than others, but we will all pay. Part of the problem is that our rioters have no sense of their own involvement, their own relationship with community and state and they probably have no thought for the consequences.

There are a lot of issues underpinning what’s happening here. Loss of hope, lack of opportunity, poverty, lack of work, a materialist culture that stokes demand but can’t pay people to buy what they are told they must have. Lack of social engagement. Widespread isolation. If people feel engaged with each other, if they have meaningful relationships that inspire care and a sense of belonging, they don’t go out and burn each other’s cars. Disenfranchisement is a word that springs to mind.

The people on the streets did not spontaneously wake up at the weekend and decide, out of nowhere, to be destructive and irresponsible. Every single one of them has been through a process, a life, a series of experiences that have brought them to this point and made that action seem like a good idea. That’s something we ignore at our peril. And if the media reporting is much to go by, for every rioter, there are hordes of quieter, but no less angry people. The Metropolitan Police are appealing for people to clear the streets so they can sort out the ‘criminal element’. I fear they are missing the point a bit. Why are all those non-violent folk also on the streets, witnessing but not participating? Why are they taking the risk? What is motivating them? Those interviewed talk about racism, social breakdown, loss of opportunities. The quiet people are angry too. They might not be going to join in the looting spree, but there are a lot of troubled, frustrated people out there empathising with the rioters. They too have been through a series of experiences that have brought them to this point.

Over the weekend, listening to radio reports about the financial crisis, I heard a lot of people questioning the very concepts on which our current, capitalist system is based. We have built a system that is entirely about winners and losers. We’ve gone for competition, not co-operation.  Buy now, pay later. We have an advertising industry that sells us fear, greed, social anxiety and a sense of never being good enough, so that we spend money we don’t have on products we don’t need. We have a government paying a fortune on war that can’t house and care for its poorest people. This is not working.

We need radical change.

Rioting and violence are not answers to social problems, but they are symptoms of despair and alienation. We are not going to make those underlying problems go away just by arresting a few people, labelling the problem as ‘criminality’ and trying to sweep the causes under the collective carpet. I am absolutely opposed to violence. But we have to recognise that what is happening on the streets of our cities, is happening for reasons. Lots of reasons, none of them good. We are all part of this. How we get out of it, I have no idea, but inspired, and inspiring leadership would be very welcome right now, not the language of dismissal or attempts to diminish the wider social issues underpinning this.