Things broke down today. Having led residentials and pilgrimages in the past, I had expected it. But half-way through, not on the penultimate day. Hitting the wall was almost inevitable — here we were, nine of us, miraculously carving out 10 days sandwiched between dizzying travel and professional and personal commitments, thrown together — willingly, even if uncertainly — in a remarkable intellectual, artistic, and geographical space. Despite our relative isolation, the outside world had, to paraphrase Denise Vargas’s ‘Shadow’, manifested its ‘presence in absence’ and in all its complexity for many of us. And the residency is neither a picnic nor a holiday. It was always going to be a place for hard thinking — about the work we do, why we do it, and perhaps most importantly, how we do it and how we bring ourselves fully to it, with all our passions and skills and experiences and biases conscious and unconscious.
‘If—‘, by Rudyard Kipling, the first and only reading we could tackle today, was thus a poem of particular relevance for all of us, even if it didn’t entirely resonate for some of us. Our discussions revolved first around being ‘a Man, my son’, and whether this could speak equally to ‘a Woman, my daughter’, or even more broadly, ‘to a Human, my child’. They then moved on to the poem making a virtue of individualism over the value of the collective or the community or society. Determined self-belief is often necessary in the face of communal doubt, but where do we draw the line? For what? Empire, entrepreneurship, AI? And when? And whom can we trust to tell us? And when they do, what is most effective? Being blunt or being kind?
All of these issues rapidly came to the fore. I was reminded of Chinua Achebe’s masterful novel Things Fall Apart, whose title explicitly references W.B. Yeats’ poem, ‘The Second Coming’:
‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.’
Had we brought out the best in each other, and perhaps, the worst in ourselves? How can we hope to effectuate change if we are unable to be civil at a table? How do we move forward? How do we build? There were lessons in the readings, perhaps, that we needed to return to. The extract from Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness, which we had discussed earlier in the week, could be one example. A man’s denial of torture and rape against a woman in detention in apartheid South Africa had ‘hit at the core of her being, at her integrity, at her identity, and these were all tied up intimately with her experiences, with her memory. Denial subverted her personhood.’
We were not saving the world. Or negotiating a peace treaty. We were simply individuals with very diverse backgrounds and experiences and ways of working and ways of being, trying to come together. And yet unacknowledged slights, perceived or real, hindered our path forward from individual hurt to a collective responsibility. Forgiveness is certainly one element. But more fundamental is a consensus on the rules of engagement, and then a commitment not to violate them. That is where trust begins. And when the work follows.
We sit through the discomfort. And resolve as best as we can. I think we succeed.