But the Soul, it is a Country (2)

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
– Samuel Becket.

Is it possible to discover resources and attitudes that can help to enter the world of soul which is the land of self-making? What can we place before us as the aim of this journey that encourages us to overcome our fear of its demands?

One thing is absolutely clear. We can only go there if we choose to go there. We cannot be forced or cajoled. This is the first basic lesson taught to students learning how to work with the ideas of Joseph Beuys. They create artistic forms because they know that to enter the realm of soul, we need boundaries; but as individuals we already have our own container which is our inner self. This container is necessary because when we embark on this conversation with ourselves, we may encounter feelings which frighten and shock. Only if we know we are having these feelings in a kind of inner workshop, not to be acted on but rather to learn from, can we cope with going to that dark place without fear of becoming destructive or being overwhelmed. It is possible as well to invite into this country, which is our soul, trusted people who become talking partners in what Hanna Arndt called the conversation with yourself. These people may be long dead authors, poets, painters and thinkers; it often includes makers of contemporary culture both high and low, chance remarks or wisdom gleaned from the life around us. Nothing we encounter in our everyday life is excluded in our bid to understand ourselves.

In his poem The Duino Elegies, Rilke calls us the wasters of sorrows. The sorrows we seem to waste most are not the most dramatic but the most homely. Sometimes catastrophe catapults us into the land of soul, and we may be forced to engage. But what of the everyday sorrows of life? Deep sadness at the failure of a friendship or a colleagueship, regret at something we should have done but failed to do, shame at what we have done which is unbearable to own up to. All this not in the setting of tyranny like that of Sophie Scholl or in the high drama of a serious accident or illness; but in the seemingly calm setting of our everyday life. Often, we may travel into the realm of soul to try and understand these personal dramas; but because they seem so small and petty we then feel foolish that they can so upset us and we close down the process. But these failures and losses are not only the significant events of our lives, when they are not resolved, they are also profoundly wounding. Taking them seriously and understanding how they happened is both healing and the beginning of wisdom. So, it seems that one of the most important guides to entering the land of soul is to realise there is no hierarchy, no sense that some things are worth our deep engagement and others are not. Getting over it and not minding could be replaced with struggling more with each other in a bid for a more honest relationship with those around us.

I recently asked someone close to me how she had persevered with her journey into the land of soul despite its rigours and demands. She told me that she was so aware of the pain she was causing by not trying to understand herself that she resolved to move beyond her fear and keep going. She felt fear but she also felt compassion and that warmed that seemingly frightful country into a place of love and insight.

When I used to teach foundation students in an art school, they told me that their greatest problem was that they were not allowed ever to be upset, lost or serious. They were encouraged by everything and everyone around them to cheer up and to respond to every sadness and uncomfortable feeling with some kind of distraction. They must be happy. If you must always be happy then you must never take risks or question what is around you because to do that is to inevitably be lost and to stumble, to fail. This paralysed their capacity to meet either themselves or each other: it paralyzed their capacity to develop their own work.

But the realm of the soul has a very different relationship with failure. This means to go there it is necessary to give up this picture of ourselves as healthy only when we are sovereign and life is going well. Samuel Becket said of every endeavour: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

Often what looks like failure by one set of principles is actually the beginning of new life. Depression, when explored, can be the door to discovering we are in the wrong place. When we endure them with courage and resilience, difficult emotions can lead us to understanding and insight: why a friendship or a working relationship broke down, why we behaved badly or did nothing when we could have acted. We then cease to feel the victims of our lives and their circumstances. Instead our everyday dramas become an alchemical workshop that we can enter and explore so that we can understand ourselves and our world better. Out of this can come new wisdom and feeling of agency. The young people at my art school were being taught that to be uncertain or sad or troubled was to fail. They chose instead to embrace the difficult and to give failure its place, to show it is necessary for development and not a life ending catastrophe.

When my friend told me that it was compassion that had made her stay in process, she also told me that she had had a close relationship with someone who could not do this. His search for security made his life not easier and less frightening; it turned it into an anxious imprisonment, because he was trying to control the uncontrollable. My friend chose to stay in process because she dreaded that anxious imprisonment which turns every challenge into an alien thing instead of the very thing we need to call up our true potential. I wondered how this choice made her feel, and I wondered too whether that feeling might be the key to enduring and breaking through our fear?

If we accept that we are in a constant state of change and growth, we can stop trying to get to a static safe ground. Then we start to feel at home in embracing and learning to live in movement. If we take Beckett’s advice not to want to succeed but rather to fail and try again and fail better, then we can give up all the energy we waste hiding from each other. We can discover that what I have felt you have felt, as I have failed you have failed, and we can concentrate on learning and creating new forms out of our failures. There is no scientific proof that compels us to live this way. The proof is in how it makes us feel about ourselves and our lives, how it empowers us to find our voice and make our contribution. My friend, who described her decision to endure despite her fear, said that no matter how frightening it was, she would never give up. She felt too alive, too connected with her deepest self and with her friends and colleagues ever to return to the greyness that she felt when she was avoiding the questions her life was asking her.

Every time I have experienced failure when working with people or building friendships, it has been fear of this process that has caused us to fail. If we cannot work with ourselves and each other, our social and working lives will be sabotaged, because our common enterprise is poisoned by our need to hide our true agendas. We may find that we are engaged in a kind of drama, but it is what Adrienne Rich calls a dreary, bickering drama. She describes this as the counterpoint to what can happen between two people or a group of people, which can be the most interesting thing in life. This will only happen if those involved in the conversation have first agreed to embark on their own journey into the land of the soul. If two people, or a group of people, have committed to this kind of personal honesty, then what at first seems frightening becomes the source of life and joy. For Adrienne Rich, we cannot really speak of love if we are not willing to work in this way.

I think of my friend feeling such joy and connection when she made friends with her fears and losses and gave them meaning. It is as if the dreary every day and our sense of ordinariness and disappointed idealism was suddenly transformed and revealed in its true radiance. This is why it is worth treading this hard and challenging path; because it makes our lives vivid and focused. Furthermore our relationships with ourselves and each other mean that our endeavours can be built on the secure foundations of evolving self-knowledge and love. It is worth going this way because in striving ceaselessly to know ourselves and each other, we can become co-workers in building the future, with an inexhaustible commitment, forged in the alchemical workshop of our soul. It is worth going this way because when we connect to our inner source and to the truth it wants to reveal, we understand that success is not the old story we have been told; rather, it is the courage and the ability to fail, the ability to fail and to learn and still never to give up failing again, but failing better.

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