Unleashing your raw humanity

BLOG: Climate Confessions

Collage of photos of a hotel suite from different angeles
Pierre Hotel, Suite 607 (1991) — Bill Barvin (New York Public Library)

Last weekend, I cried at an academic conference. [i] It’s not normal for me. I look back with part gratitude, part embarrassment. The experience has triggered me to transform how I carry myself in professional spaces. It started off pretty run-of-the-mill…

— by Timothy Stacey

I wake up on a warm, overcast Saturday morning in my soulless chain hotel room. I wash using the nondescript soap fastened to the shower wall. I button up my every-academic Oxford shirt, pull on a pair of chino shorts and Converse shoes, and take a five-minute stroll to the conference centre. After a coffee, I deliver my well-rehearsed talk:

“We’re not as rational as we like to think. The myths and rituals we live by as academics and policymakers are locking in unsustainable practices and locking out alternatives. Think about the myth of the American dream that says we all aspire to a big house with a flashy car. Think about the ritualised process by which we host conversations and police out emotions. We must find alternatives…”

I end to the usual applause, which I numbly brush off as I look into the audience. But then, something weird happens. The next speaker is not an academic but the artist Norah Zuniga Shaw of Livable Futures. Whereas I had stood up and said “we need new rituals”, she gets up and draws this ragtag bunch of academics into a ritual.

Painting depicting human figures in blue; in a circle, moving around a human figure in the center
Ascencion (1913) — Kmetty János

She invites us to cut through our theory-laden minds and feel what climate change is doing to us. She creates an open and playful space in which we are free to express our deepest despair and hope. She plays a loud video of herself performing a banshee. Madly, given the setting, she joins in with the video, filling the room with movement and noise. She invites us to join: “If you want to move, move; if you want to make a sound, make a sound”. I feel an almost overwhelming urge to scream with the full capacity of my lungs. I close my eyes. I take a deep breath. I open my mouth wide. And… 

Nothing. My academic oppressor voice kicks in: “No, I don’t think so Tim. Not here. Not now. You’re still on a fixed contract. Play. The. Game.”

That moment was a revelation to me. I myself epitomised all that I critiqued: in their private lives, academics and policymakers are full of spirit, but when they enter professional spaces, they engage in repertoires that close down that spirit. Max Weber referred to this as the iron cage of capitalist modernity.[ii] But as with so many theorists before and since, he spoke as if, once we have arrived in this new reality, there is no going back. This ignores the way in which we each daily rebuild the bars that imprison us. Clearly, I had a lot of work to do.

That night, over drinks, I meet Marcie from Vinotok, a group that has spent fifty years fighting to save a mountain from mining by building a more-than-human community rich with myths and rituals. She shares what she calls her bumper-sticker slogan: “be more wild than good”. It seems to capture something I’m missing…

In their private lives, academics and policymakers are full of spirit, but when they enter professional spaces, they engage in repertoires that close down that spirit.

Sunday morning, I wake up lighter, somehow more floaty, but also more vulnerable. Like all good ritual spaces, this conference was drawing me into a liminal zone in which the old me was being shed, but the new me was yet to arrive.

And it appears I have overslept too. I throw on my clothes, run out the door, and arrive at the venue at nine O’clock sharp to listen to a keynote from Alastair McIntosh. I had not heard his name before and knew nothing about his story. The experience was profound.

A frolicking, anti-capitalist Quaker, Alastair has the ability to have a room in uproar as he jigs across the floor, only to suddenly switch and, as if from within a Quaker circle, hold us all in uncanny silence. He screamed poetry out of the open windows. He quietly chided academics who build theory without concern for people and places that suffer.

Afterwards, I purchase a copy of Alastair’s Soil and Soul, and go to him with it to tell him of my struggle. I want to, like him, speak passionately about the people and places that I want to save. I want to weave poetry and a burning sense of injustice into my work. But any time my hands reach for the keyboard, the academic-oppressor voice intervenes: “Thou shall not write without a scientific backing for each sentence you formulate!” The other thing to know about Alastair is he’s profoundly deaf. Even when face-to-face, you have to use a microphone, which he controls from an app. This has the effect of making encounters even more intense. He seemed to stare through me as I spoke. Through the makeshift cage, I had welded together while running from my hotel room to his talk that morning. He performs the importance of silent witness. “The thing is”, I continue…

“Stop there. Wait,” he says. He frantically searches through his bag to find a pen. He takes his book from me and asks, “can I mark it?”

“Of course”, I assure him. He underlines the first, short sentence of chapter one: “I must start where I stand”. And then, once more, he simply stares into my eyes. My lips begin to tremble. Tears start building at the edge of my eyes. I place my hand to my chest and let out a kitten-like, quakering thank you”. I turn and walk swiftly away, sobbing.

It was as if I was being given permission, even called upon, to let a part of me live that I had all but suffocated.

I must start where I stand.

Shortly after, I am discussing the experience with Sophie Gibson of Story Commons. She pushes me gently, “if you don’t mind my saying, when I heard your talk yesterday, and about the people you’re working with, I thought: ‘He’s wasting his time with those policy people’. They’re going to kill you.” I assure her that I have the strength to go on. But who will assure me?

A little later, I encounter KT from Vinotok. “Don’t make me cry again”, I warn her. “Why not cry?” she retorts with earnest, open turquoise eyes. Suddenly, I feel myself surrounded by witches, all of them able to see a soul within me that I have hidden so well that even I can no longer see it. Part of me feels overlooked. They are looking through the layers that I have come to know as me: the clothing, the accent, the modicum of career success. It’s as if the person they are looking at is just over my shoulder. But I also feel deeply exposed. I’m desperate to be released from their gaze for fear of the unknown person they’re calling forth.

What a Human Being Is (c.1910) — Hilma Af Klint

On the train ride home, I felt a poem form in my mind that spoke to my fears of what might happen next:

After the revelation

I’m putting back my life
Piece by piece.
I’m sitting on the edge
Of my hotel bed
Staring blankly at the wall.

I’m reassembling the layers -
One step at a time -
That keep me and the world from mixing
I’m staring at my train ticket
Failing to envisage the journey ahead
Telling my brain to register the time.

I’m gently reapplying
That water-skin layer
That keeps my soul from getting out.
I’m doing up the buttons of my everyman Oxford shirt.

I’m going through the motions
That make me what they see.
I’m looking in the mirror
Assuring myself I look the part.

I’m feeling tears glacially sliding down my cheek.
Despairing at the inhumanity of being human.

I’m incrementally erasing the feelings
That momentarily made me real.
I’m drying off the tears,
Opening the door

The show must go on.

It seemed a new voice was emerging from within. “I must honour this experience” it said. “I must be true to this event”. “I cannot allow myself, two years from now, to be right back where I was two days ago”.

Of course, that other me keeps rearing his head. As I said, I remain, in part, embarrassed by all that unfolded. But that is why now, while the embodied memory of the revelation remains, I must put this commitment in writing: going forward, I will try to slowly unravel the layers that separate me from the world I am trying to change, and to bring others with me on that journey. Consider this an invitation to join me.

Rationalised people of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your cage.

[i] The conference, entitled Myth, Ritual, and Practice for the Age of Ecological Catastrophe was the 7th annual conference of The European Forum for the Study of Religion and the Environment. It was organized by the brilliant and tenacious Jonathan Schorsch, with support from the charming Michael Lesley, both of the University of Potsdam.

[ii] Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Routledge Classics. 1922. Reprint, London ; New York: Routledge, 2001, pp.123-4

Climate Confessions is a monthly blog series in which Timothy Stacey reveals the “religious repertoires” associated with sustainability in various sectors. From the myths of great floods that dominate in Dutch politics to the rituals of reconnecting with other humans and the other-than-human found among activists, each month, Tim invites you into the repertoires that lurk beneath the surface, shaping sustainability in an otherwise secular world. For more formal reflections, see Tim’s peer-reviewed research: www.uu.nl/staff/TJStacey/Publications. To discuss how repertoires might transform your practice, get in touch t.j.stacey@uu.nl