By Alastair McIntosh
I’d like to explore the spiritual condition that so many of us find ourselves to be in as we survey the world today. I want to ask, is this a time to shut down the inner life? To recoil from tackling the drivers of war, poverty, prejudice and climate change?
Or is the calling of these times to throw ourselves into the life of the world like we’ve maybe never done before? Not as a hubristic frenzy such as activism can sometimes be. Not a shouty splashing in the shallow end of the pool. But as a diving into depth. A learning to breathe, under water, like Sulak Sivaraska the “engaged Buddhist” once taught me: “Remember to breathe.”
Those of you who know my work as a Scottish writer and activist – with land reform, with rural and urban poverty, with environmental protection and with nonviolence (including speaking often at military staff colleges) – will know that my concern is with sustaining action in the world while neither burning out nor selling out.
We’re living in a planetary dying time for vulnerable people, plant an animal species. How can we walk through that Valley of the Shadow of Death, and yet find joy and meaning? Is it possible that deeper consciousness can be our calling at this stage in the evolution of the planet?
The spiritual speaker, Brian D. McLaren, says of this in his Forewordto the US edition of my book, Poacher’s Pilgrimage: An Island Journey, “As I read, I felt that I had been led to holy ground.” As I ponder that notion, I recall a mini-pilgrimage I led last month back to my home village on the Isle of Lewis (one of the islands of the Outer Hebrides in Scotland that are home to some of the most remote and spectacular scenery in the world. They host an astonishing range of mysterious structures – stone circles, beehive dwellings, holy wells and ‘temples’ from the Celtic era).
It was with a group of village leaders from West Papua Province in the Indonesian eastern half of New Guinea. I took them to some old dry stone ruins at the tip of a long inlet of the sea where we used to gather shellfish when I was a boy.
The tide was low, and so we gathered cockles and mussels as we walked. It was an amazing experience. The Papuans said that this was just what they’d do with guests to their island villages.
As we made our fire and cooked them in a huge pot that one of our village women had brought, we talked about the ruins all around us. Evelyn said how one of her great great grannies had lived in this house. These stone thatched houses were known locally as black houses. “It’s the first time a meal will have been served in this black house for a very long time,” she said, musing.
Then Shonny talked about the Highland Clearances. How we were rarely told about our history as children. How the landlord, from his seat as Governor of the Barbados while it was still a slave colony in the early 1800s, had issued orders for the island’s southern pastures to be rented out to commercial sheep farmers. The people were cruelly evicted by these rapacious property developers.
Rendered homeless, they sheltered under upturned boats. Many died from poverty and illness. One of the families in those waves of “clearances” were called Smith. Shonny could trace his forebears, and Evelyn was nodding too, indeed, probably half of our village would have been nodding, so many of them able to cast a line back to that evicted family or others like them.
Today, said Shonny, one of his distant cousins of that Smith line no longer lives in a black house. Instead, he occupies the White House. You can picture the Papuans’ faces as the ruins spoke their story.
In so many places of the world, poor people are likewise being evicted from their ancestral lands. The lessons to be learned are written not just in hollow ruins, but as I try to show in Poacher’s Pilgrimage, in deep parts of our minds.
Why do so many Americans who claim Scots-Irish descent feel the need to “Make America Great Again”? My belief, is that there are things we carry in us that history hasn’t dealt with. Our psychological and spiritual history. Our psychohistory.
Just as individuals might undertake psychotherapy to make sense of suffering, so we need to do our cultural psychotherapy. We need to look back intergenerationally, and re-member what has been dismembered, re-vision how things could be, and re-claim what is necessary to transform the world.
Where might this leave such as The Donald? Or The Donald in each one of us?
I am not equipped to address his father’s lineage. But looking at his mother’s side, some of us in the villages have sat around and talked about it. Mary Anne Macleod was born in 1912 and raised 8 miles away from our village. They young Donald John also had a Hebridean nanny. Something in him knows how to connect with people in the avuncular ways of the village.
But, and here’s the big but, he wasn’t raised within the basket of a living village community. He didn’t have those youthful edges knocked off in the usual course of village work and relationships. We’ve counted no fewer than seven levels of cultural trauma that afflicted his mother’s generation, helping to drive mass emigration to America. I’ve named only one of them here. And then there was the religion. A religion that, in the village, has its own very human ways of softening its hard edges. But lifted out of context, a hard line evangelism with a binary worldview of the Damned and the Elect…well…you maybe get a wall with Mexico, that runs right down through the mind.
My friends, between the Friday night lecture and the Saturday morning workshop we’ll explore what it might mean to do embark upon this cultural psychotherapy, and re-ground the indigenous that once belonged to us all.
But here’s something very important. This is not about bashing Donald Trump or people like him. Neither is this about wallowing in the chosen traumas of our historical wounds. Rather, this is about the growth of understanding.
The bottom line is touching base with the prodigal in us all. Spiritual activism is about confronting tough realities, but through the power of love. For the healing of the nations.
Alastair McIntosh is an honorary professor at the University of Glasgow and a pioneer of modern Scottish land reform. He is the author of several books including Spiritual Activism: Leadership as Service (UIT Cambridge Ltd.:2015) and Poacher’s Pilgrimage: An Island Journey (Birlinn Publishers: 2016).