beyond fight or flight

“it is significant that during WW2 the amount of mental illness plummeted” – an acquaintance, in an email exchange yesterday.

We hadn’t been in touch for months – not for the whole duration of my horrible depression – but since we were debating welfare, I was open about how my recent experiences had challenged my perspective and made me more compassionate towards others. The observation about WWII was his response. It rankled.

Whether or not it was true (for a given value of “true” – how do we define mental illness now compared with how we defined it in the 1940s? How was it recorded then? How is it recorded now?), it plays to the idea that depression is a malaise of the privileged, that all we really need to do is pull our socks up, show some backbone, and imbibe a bit of the ‘Blitz spirit’.

Sure, in some ways, there is privilege involved in addressing mental health issues: when you have to struggle every day for physical subsistence, mental and emotional and spiritual needs are pushed back. Although the poorest and most vulnerable in our society suffer from mental illnesses, most of them have at least some basic provision for food and housing, creating time and space for them to tend to their other illnesses.

This does not, however, mean that we should ignore any problem that is not immediately life-threatening (and depression can be life-threatening). Nor does it mean that a state of war causes a reduction in mental illnesses (the acquaintance in question failed to provide any sources to back up the claim about WWII, but after a little digging I found that the assumption was questionable at best).


Dig for Victory leaflet from the British Library


The ‘Blitz spirit’ might have helped – having a good support network or a sense of cameraderie and common purpose can help a great deal in preventing or recovering from depression. But what this really tells us is that we need more than just our physical needs to be met: we need community and connection, work which is meaningful to us and valued by others. And why should this be more readily available in wartime than in peace?

If more and more of us are struggling with poor mental health, it is not because we are growing a nation of ‘soft’ or ‘entitled’ people, unable to cope with the demands placed on previous generations; it is because we are privileged to live in a time when we actually have a chance to heal these chronic, life-destroying illnesses, instead of hiding them or pushing them aside to deal with natural and man-made disasters. If I owe my wartime ancestors anything, it is self-care, the self-care they were denied. And that self-care finds its fullest expression in creating a better world – the sustainable, cooperative communities and ecologies so derided by people who hark back to the ‘Blitz spirit’ as some golden age of Britishness, but which grow from the same seeds of camaraderie and common purpose.

IET police station crops

community corn outside the Todmorden police station – courtesy of Incredible Edible


So put that in your wartime pipe and smoke it.


the least we can do

Such a strange time to be writing, poised on the centenary of the outbreak of WWI – “the war to end all wars” – with war raging all round the edges of Europe.  The most shocking, most polarising conflict is taking place in Gaza where, as I write, a fragile ceasefire is in the process of collapsing.

We are so far removed from the horrors of this war – those of us who don’t have to fear for the safety of their loved ones in the conflict zone – and yet it fills our waking hours.  We are so far removed that some of us have (unwittingly) shared photographs of the bodies of dead children captioned with “please watch, the world needs to see” – only to discover that these are the dead children of other conflicts, killed by other wars; “interchangeable dead arabs” as one commentator chillingly observed.  Sensationalism has its own agenda; it does not answer to the name of peace.

Yesterday I broke a golden rule: not to engage in debate on Israel and Palestine online.  Not because I don’t see the value of debate – I passionately do – but because the difficulty in sustaining an honourable conversation on this intractable conflict is inflated a hundredfold by the distancing effects of typing words onto a screen.  And the difficulty in sustaining an honourable conversation on this topic troubles me as deeply as any other aspect of this conflict.

If we, who are so far removed from the horrors of this war, are not able to talk about it with some degree of respect for one another’s views, what hope can there be for those who are trapped in that reality?  What hope for peace?

It may seem easy to assume that our actions – all our online bickering and sensationalist images – don’t matter.  The horror of war is so overwhelming, and we feel so utterly helpless in its wake; why not vent our despair, our rage, our utter incomprehension that humanity is capable of inflicting these atrocities upon itself?  But our actions do matter.  Each voice in this global conversation has a small part to play.  The more voices there are for balance, openness and honourable debate, the greater will be the contribution to a culture in which real solutions can be examined and considered.

The next time you feel tempted to pass comment on a war raging far away from your lived experience, pause to consider your reaction: is it inflammatory, emotional?  Is your comment a genuine contribution to a conversation?  My intention here is not to stifle debate – on the contrary, I would be happier if we were all talking about these problems as openly as possible – but to encourage real conversation, in which we can listen to and learn from one another.  In the name of peace, this is the very least that we can do.

[This post was inspired by bish’s thought-provoking comments on seeking peace.]


Peace in Crisis

Deep within the still centre of my being
May I find peace.
Silently within the quiet of the Grove
May I share peace.
Gently (or powerfully) within the greater circle of humankind
May I radiate peace.

In recent months, the centre of my being has been anything but still.  In fact, since taking on the Peace Pages for The Druid Network, every single one of my carefully-thought-through beliefs about peace and pacifism have been shattered by experience.  I still hold the same beliefs, but the journey through despair and disillusionment to re-enchantment has been unutterably hard.  After searching for ways to write about it all with some kind of credible intellectual detachment, today overwhelmed me with the imperative to simply write – from the shattered soul; from the place of re-enchantment.  Be gentle with me, dear readers…

When armed men broke into the UN base in Bor where my partner had been staying, and massacred refugees who were sheltering in the last place they could find any kind of safety, what shocked me most was my reaction.  Anger seems too tame a word.  It took several days and over 70 miles of continuous walking (thanks to a well-timed solitary hike) before I could safely acknowledge the feelings it invoked – because I wanted those men dead.  Not killed, but disappeared, vanished from existence: a blot on the face of the universe, removed.  And I knew in my bones that it was wrong, that violence begets violence; the cycle has to stop somewhere and, as a druid, that somewhere should be within me.  Yet the centre of my being was a maelstrom of conflict.  What a failure I felt, faltering at the first test, completely unable to “radiate peace” when conflict came.

So I found myself standing in the middle of experience, looking out at my impossible ideals, wondering: how do I get from here to there?

Searching for answers has taken me deep into the darkness – which is also the cauldron of potential, though it is not always easy to see that at the time (it is dark in there).  Six weeks of walking, thinking, reading, railing at the universe, listening, opening my heart and screaming out my rage all led to a remarkable experience last weekend.  Journeying on a guided meditation, I finally found peace – paradoxical as it may seem – in the knowledge that all of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.  I cannot make sense of all the violence that has touched the lives of those I love, however indirectly; nor can I turn away from the knowledge of atrocities inflicted on my fellow humans even now, thanks to my partner’s humanitarian career (he hasn’t made it any easier by taking a new job on the edge of an ISIS-controlled area…).  But I can find peace in understanding that these experiences are part of the ongoing story of humanity, and in the acceptance that I am the author of my own part in this story.  Blessed with a privileged, peaceful existence, I had been spared the challenge of exploring what it truly means to choose peace: its power, and its demands.

Peace – to borrow a working definition – is the space we give ourselves between provocation and reaction, where we find the freedom to choose.  Understanding peace as a choice allows us to acknowledge the rage, pain, fear, frustration and the desire to lash out or fight back that is provoked in us when something happens to break our world apart, because what ultimately matters is not what we feel but how we choose to act upon those feelings.

Until last week, I had been avoiding druid ritual, convinced that my inability to find peace “within the [non-existent] still centre of my being” signalled utter failure to walk this path with any integrity.  But, in embracing the raging torrent of emotions that burst forth in the wake of all these experiences, I have finally faced the darkness, and I have chosen peace, with eyes wide open to the world.

muddy boots and mistletoe: a midwinter renewal

The solstice arrived with high winter drama, storms, blackouts and floods across the country – everywhere, it seemed, except for where I went.  I was in the South again, and on the 22nd December I walked up to the Long Man of Wilmington under brilliantly clear Sussex skies, to celebrate the end of the longest night on the South Downs.  Members of the Anderida Gorsedd brought home-made mead, bread and cakes to share around the circle, and after a windswept ceremony we each took home a sprig of mistletoe cut with a golden sickle.  A druid cliché – yet in context, an act of such beauty and celebration; the warm light of the risen sun caught the golden echo of the blade, and the sacred herb of air was shared out with all its connotations of love and celebration.  This was ritual as poetry in the world of acts.  Back in gentle, sheltered Merseyside, I hung the mistletoe from the lintel with a green ribbon, and reflected on the cycle of the sun just past.

When I chose the title of this blog originally, I hoped to capture an idea of interconnectedness – a sense that I am a druid always and anyway, whether debating philosophy in pubs, tending to the herbs in our little yard, arguing with the Today programme while still in my pyjamas or taking a moment to watch the sun rise over the far shore of the Mersey on my morning commute.  Yet increasingly, over the months, it seemed to reflect something else: my ambivalence and reticence, a tendency to separate the mundane and the spiritual aspects of my life.

A lot has changed in the six months since I started blogging.  Inspired to take a more active role within the druid community, I have found myself responsible for the peace pages on the website of The Druid Network – a learning curve which I feel I am only just beginning to negotiate.  Close to my heart, the cause of peace is coaxing me to set aside my careful neutrality and take a stand for what I truly believe to be right.

Though I have never consciously hidden my beliefs, this year has been a gradual process of opening them up to shared celebration and support.  Even my mother, who used to blame any computer glitch on “those weird druid websites” I visited, gave me a silver triskele as a solstice gift, urging me to open it before Christmas because it was connected with my “weird stuff.”

So the new year begins (a few days late) with a renewal of this blog – a title to carry the magic of that midwinter ritual through the months to come, as the sun moves North across the sky.  The summer solstice will find me in Anglesey, preparing to start training as Awenydd.  In the meantime, this blog will bring together my attempts to coordinate a druid expression of peace, in the face of increasingly alarming jingoism from our government; a page of book reviews that seem not quite druidic enough to make the more obvious websites, but still of definite druidic interest; and adventure.  Definitely adventure.

May your solar year be bright with inspiration!

the poppy

pavement poppyIn Britain, once the field poppies have faded with the summer, the paper poppies start blooming from lapels.  Predictable controversies fill any empty-looking column inches as newspapers argue back-and-forth about whether and when our public figures should pin their remembrance to their chest.  A young girl looks down from a hundred billboards, asking us to wear a poppy for her father; the emotional impact all the stronger for what has been suggested and not said.

The further we move from living memory of their Flanders inspiration, the more powerful the symbol of these flowers seems to have become; these days, we are urged to wear them in honour of soldiers still serving and soldiers still dying, because “the war to end all wars” did nothing of the kind.

When I worked in Westminster, around this time of year I remember seeing a huge advert in the underground station: BAE systems announcing they were “proud to support our troops.”  I am sure they are, as individuals, but I am just as sure that the company profits outrageously from the conflicts in which these troops lose life and limb.  Yet this kind of jingoism and hypocrisy is more palatable than my pacifist ambivalence, in the first weeks of November.

In my lifetime, there hasn’t been a single war fought by this country which I agreed with or believed was necessary.  I understand the sacrifices made by our armed forces in these conflicts and I would never, ever suggest that they should not receive our support if hurt or injured – but I would feel deeply conflicted and hypocritical if I included these conflicts in my understanding of Remembrance.  I donate to the British Legion with mixed feelings; soldiers and ex-soldiers should not have to rely on our charity.  The government should provide.  But the government is systematically dismantling the welfare system on which these injured personnel – and many others – rely.  I wonder if that thought crossed the minds of our ministers as they laid their wreaths this morning.

Over the past few years, I have watched the word “hero” manoeuvred into synonymy with “soldier”.  Many soldiers were and are doubtlessly heroic; but so, in their time, were conscientious objectors, aid workers, journalists, nurses…  Recognising the heroism of others, those who work to build peace, does not detract from the heroism of soldiers.  But restricting the word “hero” to mean “someone who has served with the military and been wounded in action” does, I think, belittle the more important meaning of the word.  Heroism is conduct, regardless of profession.

Very soon there will be no-one left alive who remembers the world wars.  The majority of families will have lost their living link to a time when our country was under real threat.  It is an ideal almost unimaginable in our past.  Peace should be the focus of Remembrance; peace hard-won by generations past, who fought in the hope that their children would never have to live through such a war again.  Yet as the last few soldiers of the First World War leave us, the first stirrings of “the old lie” begin to rise again, unchallenged, in the discourse about war: Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori.  It’s the line we all learned by heart at school; I suppose I should take some cold comfort in the fact that these peaceful times allow us to forget its provenance and real significance.

For as long as my grandparents’ generation are alive, I will wear a red poppy for the past, to show that I honour their experiences.  But I will always wear white for the future.