Words Create Worlds.2

Words Create Worlds, Part 2: Rebecca Solnit and Calling Things by their True Names

This is the second essay in the series published in The Badger, Autumn/Winter (10/3/19), Year 5, Volume 2, pages 52-63. Thanks to The Badger for permission to reprint!

“Words create worlds,” said Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.[1]

What we call things creates not just discourse, but reality. The words that we use and the words that we do not use lead us in certain directions and have different effects. Words are not just words, they are tools that shape, and give expression to, reality.

Words are Spiritual & the World is Spiritual

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything that was made, (John 1:1).[2]

Neil Douglas-Klotz renders this from Aramaic as:

            In the very Beginningness

                was, is and will be existing

                the Word-Wisdom of the One,

                the ongoing Word and Sound

                the Message and Conversation

                that has not stopped

                and has never started

                because it is always Now.[3]

Advaita Vedanta of Hinduism also recognizes the importance of the Word, as Nataraja Guru has written in The Word of the Guru: The Life and Teachings of Narayana Guru:

There is nothing to know beyond the Word. The known, knowledge, and the knower meet in one presence in the Word…In never-ending beats, it continues in quantum pulsations of energy, to be calculated in split seconds or in millions of light-years, while new and unknown galaxies leap within the ken adding to wonder that is dumbfounding.[4]

Similarly, Southern Ute mystic, Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow) sees the connection between sound and reality, as he writes, the “true basis for Universal Intelligence is sound. Out of sound comes everything.” It is through perception that creation comes into being. “We are perceivers, and it is in our act of perceiving that vibrations become sounds, smells, feelings and colors. In our act of perceiving, things take form.”[5]

Sun Through Trees Near Sol Duc River, Washington state, D. Kopacz (2019)

Words create our reality and our current reality is in crisis.

Across the world, in many different countries, politicians are rising to power using words of separation rather than words of union. This political crisis is a spiritual crisis because using words to create reality is a spiritual act.

In our book, Becoming Medicine: Pathways of Initiation into a Living Spirituality,[1] Joseph Rael and I felt that we had to include something about the pathway that the world is heading down, a pathway that can lead to a loss of peace, to the start of war. The world is currently on a pathway that is being paved with words of separation: racist words, belittling words, disrespectful words, manipulative words, fundamentalist words, totalitarian words, and fascist words. Common to all of these words is an underlying attempt to recreate a world of separation, isolation, and hate. Joseph has long been committed to world peace and he has worked toward this through the development of his Sound (Peace) Chambers on four continents. In Becoming Medicine we write about Spiritual Democracy (you can download that chapter here), which is the opposite of fundamentalism―it is about opening our hearts to others and seeking to act in such a way that encourages others to open their hearts. Fundamentalism is idolatry―the worship of a fixed thing. Spiritual Democracy is about allowing ourselves to be shaped and continually reshaped by Breath-Matter-Movement, by Wah-Mah-Chi (the Tiwa word for God). I came across Walt Whitman’s concept of Spiritual Democracy in the work of Stephen Herrmann in his book, Spiritual Democracy.

Adopting the big idea of Spiritual Democracy, the realization of oneness of humanity with the universe and all its forces, can help people feel joy, peace, and interconnectedness on an individual basis. It can also inspire us to undertake sacred activism, the channeling of such forces into callings that are compassionate, just, and of equitable heart and conscience, and give us some tools to start solving some of these grave global problems, while uniting people on the planet.[6]

Sun Through Trees, Mt. Muller, Washington State, D. Kopacz (2019)

The Crisis of this Moment is Linguistic

Rebecca Solnit’s Call Them by Their True Names (2018) examines the uses and abuses of language in politics, stating that “one of the crises of this moment is linguistic.” The linguistic crisis confuses us about what is real, what is true, about who we are, and about our relationships with each other and the natural world. “Calling things by their true names,” Solnit writes, “cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness. It’s not all there is to changing the world, but it’s a key step.” Solnit has long been concerned with the use of language and power in her writings on hope, trauma, community, and environment. She writes artful and thoughtful memoir that weaves in the political and the creative spirit. Her writings are not overtly spiritual, but I imagine she would be comfortable with the concept of spiritual democracy as she writes about human rights, human dignity, environment, and on women’s and indigenous rights. Her writing is a form of activism and she encourages us to make the world a better place. She sees that we are currently going down a pathway of brutality and if we do not start calling this pathway by its true name, we risk being swept into deeper brutality. “Once we call it by name, we can start having a real conversation about our priorities and values. Because the revolt against brutality begins with a revolt against the language that hides brutality.”[7]

One of the elements of the current pathway the United States (as well as many other countries across the world) is walking down is a pathway of isolation. Isolation and separation are based on dividing people into the “good and the bad,” those who belong and those who do not, those who have rights and those who do not. Anyone with a sense of history can pick out words and phrases that were used in racist, totalitarian, fascist regimes: “enemy of the people,” “those are some very bad people,” and “send them back.”

Glorious Disconnect

Solnit writes about what she calls a “Glorious Disconnect:”

If you boil the strange soup of contemporary right-wing ideology down to a sort of bouillon cube, you find the idea that things are not connected to other things, that people are not connected to other people, and that they are all better off unconnected.[8]

Solnit points out how this underlying philosophy of disconnection and separation, which results in concrete policies, is also behind the current proliferation of “fake news.” “Taken to its conclusion,” she writes, “this worldview dictates that even facts are freestanding items that the self-made man can manufacture for use as he sees fit.”[9] This worldview influences our interdependence and interrelatedness with each other and the environment. In the mania to deregulate social and environmental protection, she sees the attempt to “deregulate meaning.”

If you begin by denying social and ecological systems, then you end by denying the reality of facts, which are, after all, part of a network of systematic relationships among language, physical reality, and the record, regulated by the rules of evidence, truth, grammar, word meaning, and so forth. You deny the relationship between cause and effect, evidence and conclusion; or, rather, you imagine both as products on the free market that one can produce and consume according to one’s preferences. You deregulate meaning.

. . .

And this is how the ideology of isolation becomes nihilism, trying to kill the planet and most living things on it with a confidence born of total destruction.[10]

This pathway of isolation is rooted in and creates loneliness, in fact, Solnit has an essay entitled, “The Loneliness of Donald Trump.” She writes about this loneliness coming out of power and privilege that insulates and isolates, until,

In the end there is no one else in their world, because when you are not willing to hear how others feel, what others need, when you do not care, you are not willing to acknowledge others’ existence.. . . When you don’t hear others, they become unreal, and you are left in the wasteland of a world with only yourself in it. That surely makes you starving, though you know not for what, if you have ceased to imagine that others exist in any true, deep way.[11]

Gerald Arbuckle, a New Zealander living in Australia who is a Catholic priest and anthropologist, also sees the current crisis of global political and religious fundamentalism as being rooted in loneliness and creating loneliness. His follow-up book to Fundamentalism at Home and Abroad (2017) is Loneliness: Insights for Healing in a Fragmented World (2018). Arbuckle points out that the United States is extreme in its individualism and that the “American Dream” includes contradictory values of competitive utilitarian individualism and egalitarianism. This pits the “rights of the individual” against the “common good.” The founding “myth” of the United States includes this tension between individualism (which when extreme creates isolationism and loneliness) and egalitarianism (which can create community and equality).

Arbuckle draws on his training as a cultural anthropologist to understand how groups function and to diagnose the various forces leading to our current epidemic of loneliness and fundamentalist totalitarianism. He points out how and why people use tactics of scapegoating, splitting and separating people into us and them, into “member” and “stranger.” He also draws on his training as a Catholic priest to point out how we can treat the current epidemic through creating love between neighbors. “The universal call to love one’s neighbor commits us to struggle for the common good. Individualism and individual and corporate greed contradict this imperative,” he points out. He quotes Pope Francis calling for a revolution of tenderness. “A single individual is enough for hope to exist, and that individual can be you. And then there will be another ‘you,’ and another ‘you,’ and it turns into an ‘us.’ . . . When there is an ‘us’ there begins a revolution [of tenderness].”[12]

Rialto Beach, Washington state, D. Kopacz (2019)

Doing the Work that Matters

Both Solnit and Arbuckle tells us that our civil society and spiritual values are being degraded and negated. They point out how our current global epidemic of loneliness and totalitarianism is rooted in our use of language and how we use words to create worlds. We have a choice between worldviews of separation and worldviews of union. Making this choice begins with the words we use to describe and create reality. One of our choices is whether we focus on “me” or “we.” ME and WE are actually mirror images of each other, if you place WE over ME, you can see that they both are reflections as in a lake. There is a saying, which I have seen variously attributed, that “When you replace I with We, Illness becomes Wellness.” The words that we use create different stories, and we need to choose whether we want stories of inclusion (we) or stories of exclusion (me). As Rebecca Solnit writes:

The only power adequate to stop tyranny and destruction is civil society, which is the greater majority of us when we remember our power and come together. The job begins with opposition to specific instances of destruction, but it is not ended until we have made deep systemic changes and recommitted ourselves, not just as a revolution, because revolutions don’t last, but as a civil society with values of equality, democracy, inclusion, full participation—a radical e pluribus unum, plus compassion. This work is always, first and last, a storytelling work, or what some of my friends call ‘the battle of the story.’ . . .  To sustain it, people have to believe that the myriad small, incremental actions matter.

. . .

To believe it matters—well, we can’t see the future, but we have the past. Which gives us patterns, models, parallels, principles, and resources; stories of heroism, brilliance, and persistence; and the deep joy to be found in doing the work that matters. With those in hand, we can seize the possibilities and begin to make hopes into actualities.[13]

Doing the work that matters, this is what we are called to do. Joseph Rael reminds us that work is worship, so this work of activism, this work of story, this work of loving our neighbors, is a sacred work that we are called to do and that we are called to put into words so that we can create (instead of a world of hate, separation, and war) a world of love and peace.

Rialto Beach, Washington state, D. Kopacz (2019)

Next:

Worlds Create Worlds.3

Madeleine Albright’s Fascism: A Warning.

Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them.

Throughout 2019 I was writing these Words Create Worlds essays that appeared in The Badger. In working with Joseph Rael, writing our next book, Becoming Medicine: Pathways of Initiation into a Living Spirituality, I felt compelled to write about the responsibility of mystical, visionary, and shamanic experience—that we must work toward “Spiritual Democracy.” At its deepest point, mystical experience leads to an awareness that we are all one and this comes with a responsibility to challenge words of separation which ultimately lead to fascism. Mystical experience is a pathway that leads us to question who we are and gives us a responsibility to use our words wisely to create worlds where we are becoming the medicine that our world needs. As Rumi says, “We are pain and what cures the pain.”[14]


[1] David Kopacz & Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow), Becoming Medicine: Pathways of Initiation into a Living Spirituality. Seattle & Marvel: Condor & Eagle Press, 2020.


[1] Life Between the Trees blog, https://lifebetweenthetrees.com/2012/08/06/words-create-worlds-monday-morning-parable/. I first came across a shorter instance of this quote in the Omid Safi reference below.

[2] John 1:1, The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Edition, Second Catholic Edition. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006.

[3] Neil Douglas-Klotz, Original Meditation: The Aramaic Jesus and the Spirituality of Creation, 42.

[4] Nataraja Guru, The Word of the Guru: The Life and Teachings of Narayana Guru, 75, 78.

[5] Joseph Rael, Sound: Native Teachings + Visionary Art, 2.

[6] Steven Hermann, Spiritual Democracy: The Wisdom of Early American Visionaries for the Journey Forward, xiii.

[7] Rebecca Solnit, Call Them by Their True Names, 4, 1, 4.

[8] Ibid., 43.

[9] Ibid., 43.

[10] Ibid., 50.

[11] Ibid., 13, 15.

[12] Gerald Arbuckle, Loneliness: Insights for Healing in a Fragmented World, 215-216.

[13] Solnit, 184-185.

[14] Rumi, “We are the mirror as well as the face in it,” The Essential Rumi, trans. Coleman Barks, 106.

2017 in Review

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Copalis Beach, Washington

2017 was a busy year with lots of things coming together and many things nationally and globally falling apart. I added a new piece to my job at the VA this year. I am speaking now, not as a federal employee, but as an independently licensed health care provider. I have a 20% position with the national VA Office of Patient Centered Care & Cultural Transformation as a Whole Health Education Champion. You can learn more about the VA Whole Health program here. This job entails traveling to different VAs throughout the country and learning how to teach the several courses the Office promotes. I traveled to Madison, Minneapolis, Little Rock, Boston, and New Jersey and I will be going to Nashville later this month. I continue working in Primary Care Mental Health Integration at the Primary Care Clinic in Seattle. With the University of Washington I have moved from an Acting role to an Assistant Professor this past year.

I continue my work with Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow), and we are well into the work of our next book which should likely be out later in 2018. Joseph is a continual joy and inspiration to work with and is often sending artwork and ideas for us to use in the next book. We easily have enough material for several more books. Another piece of news is that Walking the Medicine Wheel is being published in Vietnamese! I have yet to see the book, though. This is very important as the land and people of Vietnam and the Vietnam War are intimately intertwined with so many of our veterans’ lives and the history of the United States.

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Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow) walking into his garden dome to perform Arbor Day Ceremony, April, 2017

I did a book tour, of sorts, for Walking the Medicine Wheel: Healing Trauma & PTSD. I made the trip back down under and saw some old friends and made some new ones, too. I took off from Seattle, almost missed my connection in Honolulu and landed in Sydney, Australia on September 13th, 2017. I went there for the biannual Australasian Doctors Health Conference, my fourth time presenting (I blogged earlier about this here). The conference was held at Luna Park, an amusement park in North Sydney with a great view of the city. My mate, Hilton Koppe, and I presented a workshop “The Hero’s Journey of the Healer,” that used Joseph Campbell’s concept of the hero’s journey to look at burnout and mentoring in health care workers. I also presented “Circle Medicine,” bringing together the holistic approaches of the medicine wheel, the VA circle of health, and my earlier work with Re-humanizing Medicine. It was great hanging out with Hilton and co-presenting with him, it was an extra treat when he stopped through Seattle on his way to some conferences in October. Here is a link to one of Hilton’s written pieces.

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View from my hotel in North Sydney, looking out at Luna Park (lit up), the Harbour Bridge, and Sydney.

I was also able to meet Father Gerry Arbuckle, whom I had been corresponding with for a few years via email. As well as being a Catholic priest, he has a PhD in applied cultural anthropology. He is the Co-director of the Refounding and Pastoral Development program. Gerry wrote a book called Humanizing Healthcare Reforms (2013) that I found very helpful in writing my Re-humanizing Medicine book. Gerry was also kind enough to write an endorsement of Walking the Medicine Wheel. His book Fundamentalism: At Home and Abroad is highly relevant to understanding political movements in the United States and throughout the world. I wrote a review of that book that can be found here. Gerry is from New Zealand, originally, and has now lived in Australia for many years. His next book is on loneliness and picks up on themes from his book on fundamentalism. He and I had a great chat, over 4 hours, and I hope we have a chance to meet again before long.

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Berkelouw Books, Sydney

Dr. Asha Chand organised a talk for me at Western Sydney University (see earlier blog on this here). It was great to meet faculty and staff there and have a chance to talk about “Caring for Self & Others” which is an adaptation of Re-humanizing Medicine. My friend, Laura Merritt, in Seattle has done a lot of work with me on putting together a workbook version that I drew on for that presentation. WSU recorded the talk and Asha has said we can share the links to the talk for anyone who is interested:

Caring For Self & Others, Part 1Part 2, Part 3

After Australia, I flew over to Auckland, New Zealand and straight away met up with some of my best friends. I did a talk called “Life After Rehab,” at Buchanan Rehabilitation Centre, where I served as Clinical Director during my time in New Zealand. I also did a book talk at Time Out Books, where a group of us used to meet monthly for the Auckland Holistic Writer’s Group.

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View from Te Pane o Horoiwi (Achilles Point), St. Heliers, Auckland, New Zealand

My next stop was somewhere I have never been, but have wanted to travel to: Fiji. I flew into Nadi airport on the Northwest of Viti Levu, caught a short flight to the Southwest, to Suva. Dr. Neeta Ramkumar met me there and she had organised a talk and workshop for me at the University of the South Pacific. The talk was called “The Transformational Power of Stories in Clinical Work, Teaching, and Community Building,” and the following workshop was “Bringing Ancient Traditions of the Hero & the Warrior into Modern Day Life.” I very much enjoyed meeting all the wonderful people of Fiji and the University of South Pacific and felt honored to be able to speak there.

Bringing Ancient Traditions

Finally, I had a bit of a break from the speaking tour and from all the busy socializing with friends. I took a 45 minute boat trip out to Leleluvia Island and just relaxed. I snorkeled twice a day at the reef just off the island. I walked around the island several times and also kayaked around once. Such a beautiful place! I’ll share some of the photos from the trip and I hope you enjoy them!

After Leleluvia, I went back through Suva, hired a car, and drove back to Nadi, seeing the Sri Siva Subramaniya temple (which was scaffolded under construction), but I still walked around and had a nice lunch there. I also stopped for a walk through the Garden of the Sleeping Giant with its orchids prior to heading to the airport, flying back through LAX and to Seattle.

This next year promises to be quite busy again with travel: Nashville, Portland OR, Madison, and back to the Boston area two more times. Joseph Rael and I continue to work toward peace and world peace. As Joseph says, “A lot of people have tried to bring about peace, and it hasn’t worked! But you and I are too far into it to stop now, so we’ll have to keep going.” May you find peace in your heart and in your life this coming year, and may we all have some peace in this world that seems so focused on the opposite of peace at this current point in history.

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South coast of Viti Levu

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Copalis Rock, Washington Pacific Coast

Review of Gerald Arbuckle’s Fundamentalism at Home and Abroad

Gerald Arbuckle is an anthropologist and Catholic priest from New Zealand who lives in Australia. He has written on a variety of topics including bullying, humanizing health care reform, humor, Pope Francis, and his latest book is on varieties of fundamentalism in the modern world.

Fundamentalism cover

In Fundamentalism at Home and Abroad, Gerald Arbuckle brings his understanding of culture as an anthropologist and his perspective as a theologian who sympathizes with the broad-mindedness and inclusiveness of Pope Francis. Recognizing that there is a “global epidemic of fundamentalism both religious and political,” he examines fundamentalism across the world and throughout history, paying particular attention to the rise of fundamentalism in the United States (what he dubs “Trumpism”), Islamic terrorism, the reforms of Pope Benedict, and even “siloism” in health care that creates fragmentation and competition. (28). He views fundamentalism as something all “individuals, cultures, and religions have a capacity for,” and that it is a “form of organized and institutional or civic religious anger in reaction to secularization, political changes and globalization; it often intimidates or coerces people to achieve its ends,” (28). He describes a typical fundamentalist leader as someone who “is a populist, homophobic, charismatic, authoritarian man who likes to bully,” (15). The book is very topical given the current fundamentalist movements across the globe that appear to be breaking out in an “epidemic.”

What is perhaps most useful in the book is in understanding how “we” (each and every one of us) can so easily turn to this ideology as a way of simplifying the world and resorting to black and white categories based on separation of the larger whole into smaller sub-parts. While it is useful to understand “others” fundamentalism as a response to cultural trauma and disorientation, it is more important to seek out our own fundamentalism. The sense of us vs. them paves the way for subtle discrimination all the way to self-righteous violence and genocide. Viewing fundamentalism as a reaction to cultural trauma and cultural disorientation, Arbuckle sees fundamentalists as “boundary setters” who oppose “openness and choice,” (9). He also describes suppression of dissent, even of moderate opposing views (such as we see with the stereotypical demonization of the media by fundamentalists). Arbuckle sees a spectrum of violence that can begin with a manipulation of facts on one end and physical violence against people at the other end. He describes the common fundamentalist tendency toward paranoia (which a psychological perspective understands as a projection of fantasies about one’s own unconscious on to another group).

In response to cultural trauma, Gerald Arbuckle describes four different possible reactions or solutions (75).

  • escape into an unreal golden age or utopian past
  • chronic paralysis
  • seeking to refound or reform the culture in light of changing circumstances
  • fundamentalist movements

We see all four of these responses “at home and abroad.” Many in the United States feel paralyzed, many escape into glorifying the past, but the fundamentalist movements are the most dangerous and are the primary focus of the book. Arbuckle does describe an alternative to fundamentalism: refounding narratives are positive solutions to cultural trauma that draw on the founding beliefs of a culture while adapting those beliefs to changing times.

Refounding is a process of storytelling whereby imaginative leaders are able to inspire people collaboratively to rearticulate the founding mythology of an institution and apply it to contemporary needs through creative dialogue with the world. The purpose of refounding narratives is to find a positive way out of trauma by allowing people to reenter the sacred time of their founding with imaginative leaders who are able to rearticulate the founding mythology in narratives adapted to the changing world. (93).

By mythology, Arbuckle does not mean something that is false, but rather a story that makes emotional sense of the past. The difference between a refounding narrative and a fundamentalist solution to cultural trauma is that the fundamentalist response is “closed to dialogue and…dissent” (94). The fundamentalist response is strident, closed, rigid, and aggressive, whereas a refounding narrative is creative, collaborative, open, and ultimately regenerative. There is a great deal of similarity in Arbuckle’s description of refounding narratives and the hero’s journey that Joseph Campbell described, in which an individual and culture separates from traditions that are no longer adaptive, transforms into a new identity (by getting in touch with the “sacred time”), and then returns back to society, bringing personal and cultural transformation. Whereas a refounding narrative creates new meaning and new modes of being while incorporating the essence of the past, fundamentalist reactions are based on “ideological necrophilia,” the “blind fixation on dead ideas,” so that there is nothing new, only an aggressive attempt to recreate a past that may or may not have even existed in reality (78).

Gerald Arbuckle describes, in his last chapter, a number of antidotes or responses to fundamentalism, what he calls pastoral responses. A few of these follow.

  • We are all in danger of becoming fundamentalists.
  • Have a sense of humor. As Arbuckle amusingly points out “there is not much fun in fundamentalism” (155)
  • We need to be aware of the dynamics of prejudice and discrimination.
  • Receive without prejudice migrants and parishoners from cultures different from our own as Christ would wish.
  • Be alert: Ideology is a prejudice that is integral to all fundamentalist movements.
  • Cultivate the art of dialogue, which is the antidote to fundamentalism.
  • Remember, violence in all its forms, for example terrorism and bullying, is contrary to the Gospel.

Arbuckle Head Shot

Gerald Arbuckle provides a much-needed discussion of the cultural and religious roots of fundamentalism (both our own and other’s) as a response to cultural trauma and disorientation. He calls for us to be open and inclusive and to engage in refounding narrative of continually returning to the “sacred time” of the mythological roots of our cultures and histories and be continually adapting these to the present moment. Particularly for Americans it is of utmost importance to be aware of fundamentalist movements within the United States that can foster violence against ourselves as well as others. If fundamentalism functions through this separation of groups into self/other, then perhaps the antidote is to see us as all connected and all related, that, after all, is one of the founding narratives of this country of immigrants. We must use the same eyes to look at ourselves as we use to look at fundamentalism abroad. As Pope Francis encourages us, we should strive to be builders of bridges, not walls.

 

“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel” (Pope Francis, in Arbuckle, xi).