Tag Archives: service

Druidry, service, exploitation and entitlement

In theory, service is part of the Druid path. However, it is all too easy for things to go wrong around service, taking us either towards exploitative situations, or ones where people develop unreasonable feelings of entitlement. Which way a person goes I think often depends on how they were to start with. People with low self esteem and poor boundaries are easily exploited. People with unhealthily big egos easily develop entitlement issues.

Most places that need volunteers have more that needs doing than there are resources to get the things done. A willing volunteer is often at risk of being asked to do more, and more. If that volunteer can’t hold their boundaries, they can end up working themselves into the ground, burning out, becoming ill. It’s not an acceptable outcome. In some cases, the exploitation can be deliberate, and this tends to happen when there’s someone in the mix who wants power and feels entitled.

When volunteers have entitlement issues, they feel that the work they do (and often they don’t do much) entitles them to certain kinds of treatment. They should be given more power, power over others. They demand unearned respect, resources flow towards them that should not flow towards them. They become more important than the project. Volunteers with entitlement issues drive away or break the volunteers who came to give. They distort projects, sometimes they ruin them.

How do we avoid this happening? I think the key thing is to look at the contract between volunteers, or between volunteers and organisations. Most of the time, that contract is never explored or spoken of, but it exists nonetheless in people’s minds.

A good volunteer comes to the work first and foremost because they believe in it. They are sustained if they have the resources and support to do the work and the feedback to know they are effective and valued. Good volunteers probably want to feel part of something, and they need watching to make sure they aren’t over-burdened. They need respect, taking seriously, and acknowledgement.

An exploiter will withhold information and resources, refuse to praise and encourage, and always ask for more. People who came to give cannot keep giving in such environments. Where a culture of supporting volunteering in the way I’ve suggested above is in place, it’s more obvious when someone is there for a power trip.

The entitled volunteer spends more time talking about how great they are than they spend doing anything. They will use the cause as a platform to raise their own profile. They can be charismatic, confident and apparently very useful indeed which makes spotting them harder, but not impossible. It takes collective willingness not to give power to someone with entitlement issues. If the people around them will not massage their egos, they will eventually give up and move on, but this is not easily achieved. If you are running volunteers, it is worth dropping people with manifest entitlement issues because they will damage the rest of the volunteers to get ahead, and damage any culture you may have been trying to build.

Ask outright what people want from volunteering, and listen carefully to what they tell you.

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Who does the Druid serve?

The call to service is a significant part of the Druid path. Who or what a Druid may serve is a much more personal question. Broadly speaking, land, tribe, gods, nature, ancestors, tradition, spirit and awen would be likely candidates, either in combination or focusing on just the one. How that manifests can be incredibly diverse – serving the land could mean running an organic community allotment. It could mean getting into politics, becoming an activist, planting trees or giving up your car, to suggest a few obvious routes.

Service has to be needed. It’s all too easy to use the idea of service to further our own goals or fuel self-importance. That in itself isn’t entirely a problem – Druidry is not a path of self effacing modesty after all, but if your Druidry gives you a boost in some way, it must also genuinely serve someone else to count as service. The bard as archetype offers a great example here. To be on stage, basking in the adoration of an audience is to get personal benefit from what you do. However, if the audience is inspired and uplifted, if their souls are touched and their hearts healed by what the bard offers, then the bard is serving their community, tradition and the awen and likely a few other things as well.

Service cannot be a flow in one direction only. If you come to give, then something has to nurture you, or you end up drained and defeated, or going mad in other ways. Paths of martyrdom offer their own interesting temptations, and people who are most ostentatiously self-sacrificing can be on the most outrageous of ego trips. Where service is held in a more balanced way, it works better and everyone stays sane.

It is important to look not only at how we serve, but how we are served, and to make sure gratitude flows back where it is needed. The bard on the stage owes greatly to the event organiser, the sound person, the person who taught them to play, the people, stories and landscapes that inspire them. Inspiration, service and gratitude, offering back from what was made, keeps all participants nourished and feeling valued. It keeps people grounded, and also able to give. It means that people whose work is all background get to feel part of the exciting bits. It’s when we start imagining that we are separate and alone, that our service flows purely from us, and people ought to be grateful that a Druid courts problems.

I would, quite simply, be lost without the people who inspire me from day to day. I would be lost without the people who value my work and come back to tell me this so that I understand what I’m doing and why. (Iva broke my heart and fed the fire in my head with this beautiful review of my book, recently) I need the people who give me opportunities to get on stages, sing, run workshops, write books. I need the people who read what I write and ask for more songs. I need the people who get up and do things such that I can go and be in the audience. I need the people who write books and tell stories. And without the people who taught me, this would all be a moot point anyway.

Every act of creativity exists in a context, there are always other hands that you can’t see, making things possible. Where those flows of inspiration are honoured, where love and appreciation flow along the same lines, life is better, and there is more good stuff.


A call with no answer

The experience of being called gives a sense of purpose and direction to things we might do. The call to serve as a Druid, the call to activism, to writing and other forms of creativity. A sense of having been called to act implies meaning, a whiff of destiny perhaps, an impression of being wanted. And if it works, things flow towards you, opportunities to act and speak. Callings such as these result in people like Philip Carr-Gomm, J K Rowling, Caroline Lucas… callings give you Einstein, and Ghandi. On the darker side, calling can also give you serial killers, tyrants, lunatics.

But mostly not.

Callings are not always answered. They don’t always mean that doors will open, or that what you do will bear fruit any time you can see it. Van Gough spent his life poor, obscure and struggling. Only after death was he taken seriously, and the fame that has since validated his work, was never available to him. While it’s possible to go through life clinging to a belief that at some point, what you do will prove worth it, the longer you go on banging your head against a wall and making little difference, the harder it is to justify.

Just exactly how much does a person have to do to answer a calling? How much success? How much usefulness? How much service? There are no tidy answers to this. When is it fairer to say that the call to serve is really a call of ego, a call to be important? Surely, if we believe in our calling our vision, we should be willing to do the work no matter how unvalued, how ridiculed, how financially compromised it leaves us… surely that’s what a real calling means.

But how do you tell, if the thing driving you is truly a calling, truly purposeful, or if it’s just the desire to be loved and famous? How do you tell if the dream is any good, if most of the feedback you get suggests it has little or no value to anyone? The history of cutting edge creative people is a history full of depression, despair, and too many suicides. The roll call of brilliant people, modern and historical, who did not survive their thirties, is almost unbearable to reflect on. Mozart died young and in poverty, so did Robbie Burns. Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain… too many names. Too many callings that could not be survived, too many people who were truly valued only after they were gone.

How do you tell if a dream is worth giving your life to? When do you say ‘enough’? When does it stop being brave and visionary and start being irresponsible, self indulgent, deluded… And if it is not possible to be great or significant, is it worth showing up, day after day, to be small, modest, a little bit useful sometimes, liked by a few people?

I simply do not know, but this is the rock I break against every few months, pouring hours into work that does not pay, conscious that my most useful economic contribution to my family is as housewife, kidding myself each time that the next project will be the one that really takes off. The next project will be the one where I finally manage to do to something I think holds up. When do dreams become insanity?

I recall a recent interview with Leonard Cohen in which he said it was this or wash dishes, he couldn’t do anything else. But that’s ok because he’s Leonard Cohen and he’s never going to need to find something else to do. But for every Leonard Cohen out there, how many of us are there? The hundreds, thousands of never made the grade, never turned that calling into an answer, those of us who put the best we have into the world, and find that we would indeed be more useful washing dishes. With hindsight, fame and success validates the years of struggle, for some, but for many there is never anything to justify to the world the time we spent on the things we made. The scorn and ridicule this attracts is both reliable and unfunny. I talked about the struggles of the creative life before, and got a comment to the effect that I have a hobby, not a job, and how dare I imagine I was better than someone who earned a living doing mundane things. I’ll probably carry that one with me as long as I live. The assumption of arrogance in my desire to live by doing the thing I do best. A call with no answer.


Druidry and service

The call to service is an important part of modern Druidry. This is not an especially unique feature as most, probably all religions try to instil in followers a duty to do something their people or deity would find useful. We don’t have any clearly laid down ways of giving service as a Druid. You have to find something that fits with your ethical position and your personal philosophy, and do that.

As a community we often do a very poor job of recognising each other’s service. The work put in by volunteers who create and hold together Druid organisations is often overlooked at best. Druid volunteers are often met with demands as though they are paid employees, or as though their gift of service makes it ok to use them. Accusations of only being there in service to your own ego and self importance are also depressingly common and demoralising. So we call people to serve, and when they do so within our own community, we give them a hard time over it, and we stand by in silence while other people give volunteers a hard time. That really ought to change. If you have no other service, consider standing up for those who serve as a good contribution to make. Look after your grove leaders, order organisers, event runners and ritual celebrants. Trust me, most of them need the help and will be grateful and more able for your doing this.

The picture is not so very different when a Druid goes out to serve in the wider community. It doesn’t help that every last organisation dependent on volunteers does not have the funding or the human resources to do the job. A willing volunteer will often find the gentle refrains of ‘can you just…’ and ‘we really need…’ slowly takes over their life. How do you say no to the good cause, the much needed intervention? How do you say ‘enough’ in the matter of service? It’s very hard to say ‘no’ when you’re acutely aware of all the things that are going wrong. When you step up as a volunteer in any capacity, you will expose yourself to more stories of all that is awful, and you will suffer, and need to do more. Volunteer burnout is of course one of the reasons that charities and the like are so often short of volunteers.

Serving in a sustainable way sounds like the logical answer, but emotionally it isn’t. Yes, if you want to keep giving you have to stay well. The decision to put you first rather than homeless children, the hungry disabled, the creature threatened with extinction… that’s not an easy choice to make and the more aware you are, the harder it gets. But make that choice you must, because more broken people means more that needs doing, more care that needs pouring into the mixing bowl, and fewer people who can give. Being part of the solution requires us to survive.


Pagan Service

Service, that fine Druid (and others) practice of turning up and giving your best because it’s needed. Service to Gods, land and tribe, not for any personal gain, but because it is the right thing to do. It has to be open hearted and unconditional, or it isn’t service. I’ve been lying awake this morning poking this as an issue, because it so often goes badly for me. I’ll willingly show up to whatever needs doing, pour heart and soul, everything I have into doing the best job I can, and at the end am left bruised, exhausted, and quite often feeling that it wasn’t enough, or that it was somehow an imposition. People who will ask for everything I’m capable of and more, and then belittle, shame and/or push me away for having given that. Doing it freely is one thing, doing it and then being wounded for doing it, is another.

Service needs a context to exist, and that context is all about honourable relationship. It’s all too easy, when someone gives freely, to take that for granted. Much of mainstream culture encourages aggressive, acquisitive, competitive thinking. When that is the norm, the person who gives freely is easily branded as weak, foolish, and fair game for exploitation. If you can get something for nothing out of a person, that makes you clever, by regular standards and it will make you more successful while the person who gives won’t get ahead.

Volunteers make the charitable sector viable. Schools depend on the time, efforts and extra cash parents give. Our national health service gets a lot of mileage out of people who care for sick family members, fundraisers and contributions to medical charities. Politics depends on grass roots folk turning up and giving freely, as do many things that cause communities to exist and be viable. Paganism would not have viable communities, magazines, teaching groups and rituals without volunteers. Everyone wants volunteers, service and generosity, but so often that’s treated with disrespect, and it’s a cultural thing.

It is possible to treat people as though they have a value without giving them money. I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what really makes the difference here, and I think it’s about the place of the volunteer in the community. If you mistreat a volunteer, it is easy to make them feel there’s only a place for them if they turn up to give. If your unconditional service becomes the condition for being present, all kinds of things start to go wrong. The volunteer has less sense of innate worth and an increasing awareness of only having a place in so far as they provide service. What started as an unconditional gift becomes an exceedingly conditional arrangement, where all of the onus is on the person who gives. I have been in organisations that, for a time, pretty much did this deliberately. Eventually this breaks your volunteers.

If someone offers service you can afford to assume there is something important in this, for them. They show up only because they care. People who do not give a shit, do not serve. So they’re passionate about the cause, the space, the community, the person they’ve dedicated to… whatever it may be. It is this passion that makes unconditional service viable. The more serious the person is, the less they will ask for. But that doesn’t make it ok to give nothing in response to service.

We need to recognise that the people who serve love what they are doing. Scope to be in that space, part of that tribe, around the focus of devotion without having to be unconditionally giving stuff all the time makes things a lot more emotionally stable. If we honour those who give, we might try figuring out how to take better care of them.


Feeding your soul

Most of the conversations I’ve had around Druidry lately seem to be based around ideas of service, and what we can give. However, there is a balance to strike, because no one can give endlessly without having something flowing back towards them, as well. Some service is innately rewarding, which makes it a lot easier to sustain, but some of it isn’t. The woes of the world are many, and can be totally overwhelming. The more attention you pay to all the things that need your energy, love and compassion, the more risk you take of burning yourself out, heart and mind. There is so much wrong, so much that needs to be done, and the enormity of that can paralyse a person.

In order to be able to participate in the world, we need to take care of ourselves, too. Feeding your own soul means taking time to do the things that keep you together and inspired. It’s about looking after your heart so you do not get bruised into numb incapacity.

What feeds you? What fills your heart with joy and gives you peace and a sense of wonder? What is it that reminds you of all the reasons to keep slogging away against the hard stuff? It’s well worth knowing what’s on your list.

For me, contact with the natural world is a must, and I normally get that by walking. I am fed by contact with other people’s creativity – pretty much any form. The more soulful the creation, the more benefit I derive from it. One of the reasons I don’t like plastic disposable entertainment much is that I do not find it nourishing or sustaining. The intellectual buzz of learning and sharing ideas, the company of good friends, the comfort of bed, the simple pleasures of good food and wine…

While money will facilitate a good deal, as an end in itself it does nothing for me. It has to be a good book, a good film, a good conversation. I’ve grown fussy, because giving over a few hours to something that, in nutritional terms is a bit like licking candy of a dry turd, just doesn’t appeal. I’m too aware of all the other things that need my time and attention to be comfortable throwing away hours on that which is a flimsy surface with nothing underneath, or worse than nothing…. I don’t like the candy enough to be willing to tolerate the turd.

There’s no one true way here. Whatever feeds your soul, for whatever reasons and in whatever way, is the thing you need. No one else has to like it or get it, for it to be true. If your soul food is sadistic or destructive, I have no idea what you do, and I’m pretty sure there are people who can only feed themselves on the pain and misery of others. But for the rest of us, watch out for the candy covered turds. They turn up in bright packages handed over by people who will say ‘you must have this’. Only your own soul food can nourish you, and only you can figure out what that is.


Honouring the dead

Today is the anniversary of the end of the First World War. Here in the UK we will be honouring the soldiers killed in armed conflicts. I’ll be very clear up front: I take no issue with people who are soldiers as a general premise. Individual conduct is a different thing. I am not questioning honouring the war dead in any way (emotive topic after all) but I am questioning the things we don’t do alongside that.

The desire to serve and protect has always brought people to armies. Propaganda and tales of glory, cultural pressure and politically nurtured fear: Honest reasons to defend hearth and home that no individual should be blamed for responding to. Formal drafts and recruitment by force mean that many who have fought and died were not there by choice. Poverty and lack of other opportunities has always been a great army recruiting officer, too. I do not blame anyone for doing what they had to, to survive. Thinking about soldiers dropped into disaster zones, and the way these trained and disciplined people can be mobilised in any emergency… there’s a lot of good work you can do with an army that is not about killing people.

Wars have always been about people in power wanting more power and more resources. If you are obliged to fight to defend your home and way of life, you have every right to do so, but never forget this only happens because some power hungry bastard has started a thing.

War does not just kill soldiers. We do not talk about the medical folk, men and women alike, who died trying to save lives. We do not speak of the men and boys who died in the merchant navy, trying to keep countries supplied with essentials. Their work is no less heroic – and arguably more so because it is simply directed towards preserving life, and often undertaken with no arms or armour.

In the First World War, one fifth of the casualties were civilian. By the end of the 20th century, your typical war inflicted a 90% civilian casualty rate, while wars in the 20th century accounted for some 187 million lives worldwide. (Figures taken from John Keane’s The Life and Death of Democracy). Wars kill off countless animals, both those used to facilitate it, and those who are ‘collateral damage’ alongside their civilian human neighbours. Landscapes and eco systems are destroyed by bombs, alongside culture and heritage. War destroys.

It is simply not enough to honour those who fought and died. We need to start talking about what war actually means, and what it actually costs. The best tribute we could pay to the many victims of war, and especially those who fought, would be to cease this madness. World War One was supposed to be the war to end all wars. It wasn’t. We failed them. We owe our war dead more than that. We owe each other more than that and we owe it to the future. Killing people is not the answer, the ‘collateral damage’ of murdering civilians is not acceptable, and there is no excuse.


The Goddess of Democracy

I’m currently reading John Keane’s “The Life and Death of Democracy”. He starts by pointing out that the original idea for democracy probably didn’t start in Greece, but came from somewhere in what is now Syria, Iran and Iraq. There’s irony. Furthermore, the Greeks had a goddess of democracy: Demokratia.

I suppose it should have been obvious that she would be out there somewhere. The Greeks were polytheistic, they had deities to cover most aspects of life and death, clearly this one should have been in the mix. I wonder why she is so unmentioned? It could be that the idea of democracy being founded so clearly in an unsecular society, is an uncomfortable one. It’s those wise, philosopher Greeks we want as the ancestors of political tradition. It may not be comfortable for many who uphold democracy as the greatest modern good, to find it tangled in with ancient religion. Pagan religion at that.

Greek democracy was seriously flawed in that it entirely disenfranchised women from practical participation in the overtly democratic bits. But, women could be priestesses, oracles and goddesses, and if you postulate that those presences intermingled with politics, women suddenly don’t seem quite so marginalised. Not a perfect scenario, but a less flawed one. Greek democracy also depended on slavery, and there are no excuses there.

To what extent does democracy still depend on slavery, though? We call it other things, but wage slavery locks many into long hours for little gain, the fruit of their labours largely enjoyed by others. We depend also on those hidden workers in distant lands who work for a pittance in dangerous conditions so that we can have the cheap merchandise our economy thrives on. That too is a form of slavery, and before we grumble too much about the Greeks, we need to tackle the monstrous inequalities our own systems generate. We still have a political elite, for the greater part moneyed, well connected, and coming from an increasingly narrow bandwidth of political, law and media training. We still have dynasties of ruling families, especially in America.

I do wonder though, about Demokratia and the implications of seeing democracy as a goddess. If that was your world view, you would see participation in democracy as a sacred act. Corruption and apathy would become crimes against deity. Every word spoken would have serious implications, and that sense of the Gods listening might keep a person focused on their sacred duty to serve.

I doubt the Greeks would recognise what we have now in terms of democracy. Such a small percentage of our population actually participates, for a start. The good of the majority hardly enters the equation, much less the good of all. And of course for those nature worshipping ancient Greeks, our political disregard for the natural world would have seemed like nothing short of madness. I’m entirely with them on that – it is insane and suicidal, and yet we continue to put short term economic gains before the viability of our home and planet.

I wonder what it would be like to live in a democracy where politicians took their words and work seriously as acts of service. Where a consciousness of higher purpose kept people on their toes. That doesn’t have to be about any specific religion, you could do it just as well from a place of humanistic atheism. The point is the quality of the service given, the much needed sense of humbleness now sorely lacking in public life, and people who step up to give, rather than to take. Imagine around that, too, a culture where having an excess at the expense of your neighbours would be unthinkable. A culture in which to hold ostentatious wealth while others go hungry would be the most shameful thing imaginable. So many modern politicians claim to be Christians, but it’s funny, I don’t remember Jesus saying ‘Screw the poor and remember the bottom line’ even once. Some genuine Christian values (compassion, love thy neighbour etc) would not go amiss, rather than this modern lip service to religion so often coupled with a total disregard for its most basic tenets.

The modern gods of Democracy have names, too. We call them Dollar and Pound, Free Market, GDP and Growth. These we worship, and these we sacrifice to. We sacrifice the lives of our poor, and the future of our children, to these deities. For a culture that claims not to be polytheistic and riddled with superstition, we are surprisingly devout followers of the gods of economy. We trust in Free Market to solve our every problem and handle our every need. Future generations may look back at our simplistic faith and roll their eyes. The Greeks may have been a good deal wiser than us when they chose Demokratia as their goddess, rather than money.


A call to service

Many people talk about Paganism in terms of calling and service. There is a tension between the desire to be served by people who do that freely, and the need of those who work to also be able to afford to eat. To avoid getting bogged down in the money debate, I’ll just say that teachers, doctors, nurses, priests and politicians get paid, and that’s supposedly a calling and a service too.

What does it mean to serve? It suggests something a bit worthy and po-faced, if you aren’t careful. Paganism is not, and has never been about martyrdom. A situation where we are all supposed to nobly sacrifice ourselves for each other clearly isn’t sustainable. You can only have that kind of service where there are people whose job it is to be ‘fallen’ and in need of rescue and reform. A ‘goodness’ that depends on other people being in a mess is not something to aspire to, because to have that as the normal or desirable state of things is just… wrong.

What does that leave us? Sometimes for me, Druid service is painful and challenging. If people are suffering I tend to move towards rather than away, and there are days when that breaks my heart and makes me cry, and that’s fine. That’s life. I won’t do it if I think all I’m doing is wallowing in the misery; that does not serve. It’s easy to fall into that trap, too. Pain is not a measurement of service. Often, life throws up things that cannot be fixed, at least, not by me. Rescuing people is simply not an option most of the time, and therefore cannot be a measure of service either.

I’m reflecting a lot on a recent conversation with someone who said she felt she ought to serve, but she wanted to be paddling her feet in the water. What struck me then and stayed with me, is that this is no less important. There is a huge value in play, in laughter and lightness, in joy and unwinding a bit. The people who bring the happy things, sing the songs and lure you into the stream for a gentler few hours, also serve. Perhaps happiness is a better measure of service.

Not the happiness we have at other people’s expense, the pleasure taken in dominating and consuming but the happiness of that which is shared between people. The warmth and the giggles. Real things done. To put good things into the world, to add beauty and colour, to challenge the domination of the ordinary; that is good service. Healing is not just about stitching the wounds together, it is about getting to be more than scar tissue and stories about what went wrong. Service is about the good stuff, the things that enrich and enable. None of that walking on your knees, repenting stuff, just putting what you love into the world, so that other people have that too.

Serve with your songs and your dreams, with the brightest, craziest things you can be wilfully naïve about, with the deliberate triumph of hope over experience. Serve with laughter and in play, with warmth and a determination to focus on the bits that are worth having. You will break your heart sometimes, that’s inevitable, but it is your joy that makes service sustainable and meaningful, not your willingness to suffer for a cause.


Speaking for others

Cat raised the issue yesterday that she is clear about only being able to speak for herself. That sharing of personal experience is very much intrinsic to what Cat does, but at the same time because she’s a prominent Pagan and Druid, there’s every likelihood other people will hear her words as being typical of, or on behalf of others. As she says, that’s not something you get a lot of control over. Trying to imagine ‘the reader’ with the many faces and opinions, all the places those words might go – well, that’s one way to drive yourself slowly round the bend, but inevitably that too becomes part of the job.

There are ways though, in which speaking for other people can be a meaningful act of service. It depends on a number of factors – depth of personal experience, emotional intelligence, linguistic skill and having a bunch of people who could do with some words. Generally speaking this is not a service the Druid community will call for, thanks to most of us having the skills to talk our own talk. Now and then my being able to wrap language around an experience seems to be useful for other people, but it’s more a dialogue than a service, I feel. I’m learning as much as I’m dishing out, if not more. However, out there in the rest of the world, speaking for others has a lot more relevance.

I spent two terms on something called The Freedom Program – it’s a structured, self help based course for women recovering from domestic abuse. It explains the mechanisms of abuse, enabling victims to understand how they got to where they are and avoid returning to abusive relationships. Abuse is a process, very few people get hit on the first date because most women would have the sense to get the hell away from that. There’s a slow and deliberate erosion of self, self esteem, confidence and sanity that enables the physical abuse, although the psychological impact is probably the more damaging bit. Women come out of that dazed, confused, demoralised, deeply wounded and struggling to explain themselves. Many go back to their abuser, or find another one. Frequently, said women are also faced with disbelief and hostile systems when they are at their most vulnerable and fragile. I say ‘they’ but I was there too.

I’ve always been good with words, and comfortable attaching language to experience and emotion. I’m able to think logically about feelings and to articulate that. So, given the framework of the Freedom Program, I started talking, slowly, painfully about what had happened to me. I learned a thing: Other women found this useful. They were able to say ‘me too!’ or ‘I know what that feels like’, and ‘that was it.’ In telling my own story, I was, week by week, providing additional language with which other women became able to tell their stories too, or at least say ‘I was there’ and not have to delve into revelation whilst still being able to get some catharsis out of sharing. A minority of women on that course had missed out at school, lacked confidence in their own cleverness, but through the sessions became more able to speak, to hear their own voices, recognise their own strength. It was powerful stuff.

Sometimes speaking for yourself is such a raw and painful activity, that it can be a relief to have someone else say it and be able to go ‘me too’ and that be enough. Sometimes the language needed to put experience into words isn’t available to a person, and being given the words to make sense of the experience is very helpful. Talking cures abound in counselling, but if you don’t have the breadth of language and the confidence to match words to feelings, that kind of talking therapy is pretty hard to make any use of.

There are times when speaking for other people is all about self assertion, self importance and disempowering the person whose voice you have squashed. That’s not the whole story. Most people out there don’t have much of a language for talking about emotional experience, much less religious experience. The soul yearning will be no less present, but with no means of expression, it’s much easier to ignore it and turn to some short term remedy that doesn’t help. However much we speak for ourselves, it’s worth having an eye to the potential to be speaking for others, because that speech can be a process of endowing others with language, terms of reference and narrative structures in which they can then go on to talk about their own things.

Having been there, it is the most humbling sort of process, when a lost and stumbling person starts to pick up the words you have spoken, and rearranges them to tell their own story, where before they could not. That can break your heart, in the best possible way.