New Article in The Badger: Words Create Worlds, Part 2 Rebecca Solnit and Calling Things by their True Names

My next article in this series on words creating worlds, fascism, and spirituality is out in The Badger online magazine! It can be found on pages 52 – 60.

This article focuses on Rebecca Solnit’s latest book, Call Them by Their True Names (2019). Here are a few excerpts from the article and accompanying photos from the Olympic Peninsula.

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

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 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.

One of the Crises of the 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.” “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.”[ii]

Sun through the Rain Forest, near Sol Duc River, Olympic Peninsula (D. Kopacz, 2019)

The Deregulation of 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."[iii] 

A Storytelling Work that Matters

"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."[iv]

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, we can create a world of love and peace.

Sun through the Trees, Mt. Muller, Olympic Peninsula

Next issue: Rob Riemen’s To Fight Against This Age: On Fascism and Humanism

Throughout 2019, I will continue to write about some of these topics of how our “words create worlds.” 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.”[v]

[i] Life Between the Trees blog, I first came across a shorter instance of this quote in the Omid Safi reference below.

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

[iii] Ibid., 50.

[iv] Solnit, 184-185.

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

Project from writing group: influential author

I have worked with some other people to start a monthly writing group and this was one of our exercises, to write about an author whose writing you find influential. I’ll include my piece on this below:

Rebecca Solnit is an American author that I only discovered upon moving to New Zealand. The first book of hers that I read was A Field Guide to Getting Lost, it seemed appropriate for me, as I was feeling adrift in my life, having just moved around the world and I was trying to get my bearings. This book examines many different kinds of getting lost, from getting lost in the woods, lost in sex, drugs, and rock and roll, lost in mental illness, losing one’s cultural heritage, getting lost in art, and losing one’s thread in life. Solnit explores these themes in a loose, and rambling manner, sometimes seeming to get lost herself, so that the reader asks, “where is all this leading, if anywhere?”
                She quotes the pre-Socratic philosopher, Meno, “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” She goes on to say that this seems to her the “basic tactical question in life.” “The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation. Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration – how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else (4-5)?” Through studying the various different ways of getting lost, Solnit is secretly exploring the different ways of growing, changing, and transforming one’s self through the engagement in the painful and darker things in life. She often quotes Henry David Thoreau (another reason I like her books), for instance, “Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations,” (15).
                This permission to be lost in order to find oneself, came at a great time for me, as I struggled with my own issues of identity, place, and belonging.  I have long felt an outsider, and yet there are other times that I am very much an insider in certain situations. I have worked to make sense of my life by following a thread that leads sometimes internally, sometimes externally, sometimes through the “inside” of a system, organization, or profession, and sometimes on the “outside.” It was comforting to me to feel that there is a point in getting lost, and that point is growth and transformation.
                Another thing that I like about Solnit’s writing is that she is an idealist, a social activist, a realist, and a naturalist. She has a poetic sense and uses her own subjective experiences along with pursuing and developing ideas that don’t just sit on the shelf, but that engage with the world to create something positive. The next book of hers that I read was Hope In The Dark:  Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. In this book, she outlines a definition of hope, how to keep hope alive, and how to stay positively engaged in life, even when it so often seems like all hope is lost. 
What I like about Solnit’s writing is her embrace of idealism and realism, that when held together comprise paradox. Hope comes from despair, human connection asserts itself in the face of repression and disconnection, and one finds oneself through losing oneself. Other paradoxes that Solnit describes are that the word emergency contains within it the word emerge (12); and that darkness can represent both the creative darkness of the womb and or the terminal darkness of the grave (6). These paradoxes allow for both reality and idealism. Paradox allows for one to act in the world without having to be perfect, it allows for complexity, such as success and defeat both being present in the same action. Solnit argues that the very reasons for despair can also be the justification for engaging in the world.  She defines the word, activist “to mean a particular kind of engagement – and a specific politic:  one that seeks to democratize the world, to share power, to protect difference and complexity, human and otherwise,” (18). 
                Solnit argues 3 points in favour of hope: 1) when looked at historically, many positive changes have occurred already in terms of human rights; 2) change “takes place in more protracted, circuitous, surprising ways than is often acknowledged;” and 3) despair is often a result of misunderstanding change, thinking that only success validates hope, and thinking that activism is the exception rather than the rule of continual engagement in life (pgs. 151-152). 
                I came across Rebecca Solnit’s writing at a very good time for me. Personally, my decisions to move from the US to New Zealand were due to both a pulltowards New Zealand and a push away from the economic and political problems in the US. Moving to another country brought up issues of identity and belonging for me, as well as the familiar question of to what extent am I an insider and to what extent am I an outsider. In addition to the Solnit’s positive messages about the benefits of getting lost and the necessity and reality of hope, she is American in the best sense of the word.  She frequently draws on the best American principles, such as Thoreau’s civil disobedience, love of nature, and opposition to slavery. She also draws on the struggles and victories of many Americans who are unknown to the larger world and history. 
                Solnit also draws on voices of freedom from around the world, such as an unknown person who goes by the name Subcommandante Marcos, a leader of the Zapatista movement in Mexico. Marcos has issued a series of proclamations. An excerpt from the Fourth Declaration of the Lacondon Jungle reads, “A new lie is being sold to us as history. The lie of the defeat of hope, the lie of the defeat of dignity, the lie of the defeat of humanity…In place of humanity, they offer us the stock market index. In place of dignity, they offer us the globalization of misery.  In place of hope, they offer us emptiness. In place of life, they offer us an International of Terror. Against the International of Terror…we must raise an International of Hope. Unity beyond borders, languages, colors, cultures, sexes, strategies and thoughts, of all those who prefer a living humanity. The International of Hope. Not the bureaucracy of hope, not an image inverse to, and thus similar to, what is annihilating us. Not power with a new sign or new clothes. A flower, yes, that flower of hope,” (39-40). To me, Solnit’s writing stands for these universal human rights:  the International of Hope and the flower of hope; the engagement with a “living humanity;” and also the best of American ideals and pragmatism.  Last of all, Solnit argues that the act of writing, itself is an act of hope. She states that writing “is a model for how indirect effect can be, how delayed, how invisible; no one is more hopeful than a writer, no  one is a bigger gambler,” (65).

Considering Identity and Culture

“Exploring the world is one of the best ways of exploring the mind, and walking travels both terrains,” (Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust, p. 13).

I was recently talking with someone about culture and trying to figure out how to understand different challenging interactions. I was starting to realize that in any cross-cultural interaction, at least 4 different factors need to be considered, my personality, my culture, the host culture, and also the sub-culture I am interacting with (or the personality of a particular person I am interacting with). 
I have driven myself crazy sometimes, trying to analyze how much each of these different factors is contributing. At other times, I have tried to change my personality to try to “fit” into the culture or sub-culture, which doesn’t really seem to work. 
Realizing that there are so many different factors at play in any interaction does give me a better appreciation of how complex interpersonal and cross-cultural interactions really are, and it gives me pause to not feel as much like I need to “figure it all out,” and to try to let myself understand things as I go along. 
I received a card awhile back that has the following quote on it, “We cannot discover new oceans until we have courage to lose sight of the shore.” I suppose this is kind of the dilemma of my feeling that I need to “figure things out,” that I keep trying to chart the map at the same time that I am exploring the “ocean,” and these are two contradictory things, as one really needs to get lost before one can find something new. The challenge is allowing myself to feel lost for awhile to learn, rather than at the first sense of feeling lost trying to immediately find my place on the map.
I was just reading Emerson’s “The American Scholar,” and there is a section where he talks about how when one is in the midst of an experience, and for a variable time after the experience, that one is blind to the true meaning of it, but that it is only at some undetermined later point that suddenly experience becomes clear, understandable, and also a part of one’s life story:
“The new deed is yet part of life, – remains for a time immersed in our unconscious life. In some contemplative hour, it detaches itself from life like a ripe fruit, to become a thought in the mind.  Instantly, it is raised, transfigured; the corruptible has put on incorruption. Always now it is an object of beauty, however base its origins and neighborhood. Observe, too, the impossibility of antedating this act.  In its grub state, it cannot fly, it cannot shine, – it is a dull grub. But suddenly, without observation, the selfsame thing unfurls beautiful wings, and is an angel of wisdom. So is there no fact, no event, in our private history, which shall not, sooner or later, lose its adhesive inert form, and astonish us by soaring from our body into the empyrean.”
I guess things will always make sense at some point, but this understanding is always a function of the past and not the present experience. What I didn’t expect in moving to New Zealand was that I would spend so much time bumping into myself and finding myself exploring “the mind,” when I really wanted a break from that for awhile and sought to go out and “explore the world.” That is Solnit’s point, and Emerson’s as well, perhaps, that to go out into the world is to explore one’ Self.


“The kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. Hope in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed,” (Vaclav Havel, Disturbing the Peace).

I love this quote by Havel. I like how it describes hope as a moral choice that is independent of the external situation. It reminds me a little of faith, but not quite the same. Havel’s description seems like more of a choice than faith does. One thing that this quote does, for me, is it preserves the right of the individual to choose what is right and what deserves to be worked for, regardless of the dimension of how likely it is to succeed.

I just finished reading Rebecca Solnit’s book, Hope in the Dark, in which she cites the above quote by Havel. The quote doesn’t appear until page 148, but it seems to inform a thread of Solnit’s argument from the very beginning. “To hope is to gamble. It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty are better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk…Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope,” (Solnit, 4-5).

Another thread in Solnit’s book is of darkness, which is not necessarily the typical way that darkness is thought of. She writes that the “future is dark, with a darkness as much of the womb as of the grave,” (6). This darkness is more of the creative void than the destructive void. It is this embrace of generative uncertainty that also runs through the book. This reminds me of the dark matter of the universe, that unseen substance that physicists can measure that seems to make up all the empty space between things in the universe. I can’t remember for sure, but maybe it is something like 85% of matter in the universe is unseen matter, maybe it is even more than that. But, what is all this dark, unseen matter doing? I like to think that it is somehow invisibly guiding and shaping the tip of the iceberg of matter that we can see. We can bemoan the visible catastrophes, but all is not lost. Just like the iceberg metaphor, Solnit argues for a cognitive restructuring, do we focus on only what is going wrong in the world, or do we focus also on what is going right. Or, even do we focus on how things could have been an even bigger catastrophe than they are?

Solnit introduces the Angel of Alternate History. As compared to the Angel of History, who mostly counts bodies, the Angel of Alternate History focuses on that dark space that surrounds the actual and sees the possible. “The Angel of History says, ‘Terrible,’ but this angel says, ‘Could be worse.’ They are both right, but the latter angel gives us grounds to act,” (76).

Another way of looking at this cognitive re-structuring is that we have to count victories as well as catastrophes in our analysis of the world. Solnit provides criticism of the tendency toward pessimism and catastrophizing of many activists and the Left in the US. She describes such paradoxical victories as the role of Viagra in saving species that were previously used in for increasing sexual potency in Chinese Medicine and how some military bases have inadvertently become safe havens for endangered species.

Another critique Solnit discusses is that of the end of the need for activism, or the desire to “go home,” after the protest. In a way, this mindset looks at attention, awareness, and activism as only being necessary to re-set things or make it happily ever after, and then to turn off awareness and to let go of engagement. Rather, she sees activism as a mode of being, a moral responsibility, that is ongoing, and that one engages in regardless of the “state of the world,” or the “chance to succeed,” to refer back to Havel, again.  The need for engagement never ends.   “Still, I use the term activist to mean a particular kind of engagement – and a specific politic: one that seeks to democratize the world, to share power, to protect difference and complexity, human and otherwise,” (18). “For a long time, I’ve thought that the purpose of activism and art, or at least of mine, is to make a world in which people are producers of meaning, not consumers, and writing this book I now see how this is connected to the politics of hope and to those revolutionary days that are the days of creation of the world,” (115).

Solnit also quotes the Zapatista Subcommandante Marcos throughout the book, who apparently publishes manifestos over the internet. For some reason, I found these to be a kind of eloquent comic relief, not because the content wasn’t serious, maybe even because of the seriousness of the content, but with their ease and fluidity of language and the sense of spontaneity, creativity, and even joy that seems to flow through these declarations. “A new lie is being sold to us as history. The lie of the defeat of hope, the lie of the defeat of dignity, the lie of the defeat of humanity…In place of humanity, they offer us the stock market index. In place of dignity, they offer us the globalization of misery. In place of hope, they offer us emptiness. In place of life, they offer us an International of Terror. Against the International of Terror that neoliberalism represents, we must raise an International of Hope. Unity, beyond borders, languages, colors, cultures, sexes, strategies and thoughts, of all those who prefer a living humanity. The International of Hope. Not the bureaucracy of hope, not an image inverse to, and thus similar to, what is annihilating us. Not power with a new sign or new clothes. A flower, yes, that flower of hope,” (cited, 39-40).

Overall, it seems that Solnit’s argument for hope lies in looking at things differently, refusing to despair, seeking engagement in art, activism, and life, and accepting uncertainty (the darkness that obscures) rather than demanding a certain outcome. This again reminds me of this central Havel quote, which connects a human being to themselves and refuses to let external events dictate whether or not one can hope to make things better or even hope to have one’s own vision of life.

One last thing I’ll touch on here is a small way thing that I find hopeful. As someone who is concerned about the health of the environment, Solnit engages and relates to the natural world and refuses to disconnect from that. After reading Hope in the Dark, I started reading Emerson’s essay, “Nature,” which I don’t think I ever read before. A few thoughts have been coalescing for me. As I sat reading Emerson, drinking a cup of coffee at a cafe, gazing out the open window at the ocean which is right across the street from where we live, I thought, I should really get out into nature more – and it struck me that living on the ocean is perpetually being on the edge of nature, even though this is a pretty happening place, bustling, full of continuous human activity, it is in constant relationship to that great and restless body of water, constantly moving in and out. “The beauty of nature reforms itself in the mind, and not for barren contemplation, but for new creation…The production of a work of art throws a light upon the mystery of humanity,” (Emerson, p. 41, in The American Transcendentalists). Emerson argues that “words are signs of natural facts, particular facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts, and nature is the symbol of spirit,” (42). At first, I was taken aback by this, it seems he is arguing that the natural world and the internal, cognitive and spiritual world are reflections of each other. Oh, ok, that old “as above, so below” congruence between things. Maybe even more. I have read in a couple of different sources now about the finding that there is a 10 hertz electromagnetic current that pulses throughout the Earth and that 10 hertz is also the “dominant (alpha) frequency of the EEG in animals,” (Robert O. Becker, The Body Electric, p. 249, in the chapter, “Breathing with the Earth,” which discusses this concept in depth). What this seems to mean is that living beings contain within them an echo or correspondence with a common electromagnetic current of the Earth. It seems like an instance of “as above, so below,” or maybe, rather, as without, so within.

James Oschman, in Energy Medicine: The Scientific Basis, also writes about this, the Schumann resonance, which “is a unique electromagnetic phenomenon created by the sum of the lightning activity around the world,” (99). The Schumann resonance is 7-10 Hertz in frequency, just like the alpha waves of animal brains. Also, Oschman cites a study of various healers who had their brain activity recorded on EEG and when they went into a “healing state” had activity in the 7.8-8.0 Hertz range (107). Additionally, Oschman cites studies that show that have measured healers whose hands generate electromagnetic fields ranging from 0.3 – 30 Hz, which could be seen to vary around the 10 Hz frequency of alpha brain rhythms and this particular background pulse of the Earth (Oschman, 87). Oschman suggests that a mechanism of various healing modalities is a supportive “therapeutic entrainment,” in which the healer amplifies this electromagnetic rhythm of the Earth and that this is healing by resetting the natural baseline rhythm in the person being worked on. It is easy to imagine that through the daily stresses of life (or even longer term maladaptive patterns of living) that one could lose touch with the natural rhythm of one’s own body, which also corresponds to the natural rhythm of the Earth. Getting back in touch with nature, in this light, could really, truly have a healing effect on one’s biorhythms.

Maybe all this might seem far-fetched to you, but it is what sprang to my mind as I was reading Emerson and his argument that nature is a symbol of the spirit. The transcendentalists refused to buy into the split between mind and body and the individual and the natural or social environment. Another way of stating this could be that nature and spirit both share a common origin, both are in relation and communication with each other, and both enhance each other. Nature and spirit are reflections of one another. Rather than a separation between mind and body, or individual and environment, there is a resonance between all the different things that we divide from each other and with our intellects imagine as separate. Lately, when I feel particularly out of synch in my life, I have been imaging this great, pulsing rhythm of the Earth and looking for the echo of it in my self. I find this comforting, even hope-inducing.

The Benefits of Being Lost

The Benefits of Being Lost
I just finished reading Rebecca Solnit’s book, A Field Guide To Getting Lost, and it deals with some themes I have been thinking about lately. Her book is a series of loose meditations on different aspects of becoming lost and of what a person can find out about themselves in the process. Whether it is about getting lost in the wilderness, being an immigrant, losing oneself in a time or place, losing oneself in sex, drugs, and rock and roll, suicide, or about various species of animal going extinct or coming back from the edge of extinction, the book explores the inevitability, costs, and consequences of becoming lost.

What I have been thinking about, and probably why I was drawn to the book, is about choosing to move to a new country for the experience of it and then finding the experience really challenging.

On the one hand I am daily excited and really enthused by the clinical work I am doing. New Zealand, Auckland, at least, is a place of immigrants and immigrants all have stories of leaving, losing, and finding.

This week, I met with a client from Central Africa, and another from North Africa. I had a Maori client who felt that one of his medications, the one that he said worked the best for his psychosis was also associated with a curse that caused him to “stargaze.” I met with a Pacific Island woman and her family and looked at the reasons why she had stopped most of her medication, what the medications were supposed to do, and how we might come up with some compromise of medications that would treat her psychosis, but would have acceptable side effects. I met with a New Zealand European client and her family and discussed her reasons for stopping her medication, that she felt the medications controlled her (and she was on a combination of sedating medications that I never would put someone on) and how she felt she couldn’t travel like her friends were doing, because of the restrictions of being on medication (sedation, need to be on it or become psychotic, the logistics of trying to get prescriptions abroad). With her, we looked at how sometimes when you accept your limitations, they actually limit you in your life less. That is quite a paradox. With the woman from Central Africa, she came from a lifetime of war and lawlessness and it will be quite a challenge to figure out if her paranoia, which has at times crossed over into psychosis, is really a reaction to her past trauma and her recent relocation to a country in which she doesn’t speak the language, or if she is really developing a psychotic mental illness. Another client spoke about how they would be alone here in New Zealand, or they would be alone if they moved to the country where their spouse was working, and they would be alone if they moved back to their country of origin.

On the other the hand, I realized that this is the worst job I have worked in as I look back at the seven jobs I have previously had since graduating residency. The orientation has been terrible. The mismatch between my expectations & the jobs expectations and how the structure of the job seems to do everything it can to frustrate meeting expectations. I feel like I am working hard all day long, but that I am pulled in so many different directions that at the end of the day I am exhausted and feel like I haven’t hardly done anything.


The Benefits of Being Lost


I understand, logically, that wanting to do something completely different means that I will not be doing the same old, comfortable thing. But sometimes, this all seems a bit ridiculous and I long for the good old days when I had some control over my professional life and I could feel good about getting some work done in a day.

I haven’t made the case yet for the necessity of becoming lost at times throughout one’s life, the need for that seems pretty obvious, at least to me. I understand the saying, that if nothing is lost, nothing is gained. However, many of the above clinical stories show some of the dangers of becoming lost and staying lost. I suppose psychosis, from a psychological perspective, is another way of becoming lost, losing touch with reality and getting stuck in a self-referential world in which one’s fears become self-fulfilling prophecies.

What Solnit’s book helped me to see is a deeper understanding of the double-edged sword of getting lost. I don’t think she really looks so much at the reasons why getting lost is necessary in life. It just seems like a given in the book. What the book does look at is the hard work and energy that goes into becoming lost in the first place and then in making sense of it in the second place. It is a serious book, but not a hopeless one. The book seems to honor the need and the process and the benefits of being lost without becoming too Pollyannaish or “therapeutic.”

Solnit mentions the early 1980s post-punk band from Manchester, England, Joy Division. There is a page or two devoted to the band, the environment their music grew out of, and the atmosphere that the music created. This last week, I went to see the bass player from Joy Division, Peter Hook, and a new band of young punks, recreate the album Unknown Pleasures, for its 30th anniversary. The other two original band members weren’t there. I wasn’t sure what to expect of the show. On one hand, I didn’t want to have an experience that lessened the original album and band, but on the other hand, I was really curious to hear what it would be like and to experience that music, that I had listened to over and over as a teenager, performed live. The technical sound of the music was incredible, it had the old effect I remember from the past of a dangerous and powerful current and how it has the effect of opening up strange, wonderful, and unsettling places within myself. (Although I think Cries and Whispers, honestly, at least in my memory, did better covers of Interzone and Day of the Lords). Listening to this music born in Manchester, that I had lost myself in while in my basement room in the Midwest of the United States, performed in Auckland, New Zealand, was amazing and unsettling.

Solnit writes in her book about book that she had conceptualized but had never written. It reminded me of the writing I had done on Joy Division, as well as other topics, for a book I had planned. The idea for the book was to look at the lives and work of people who had experienced some form of trauma in their lives and then addressed trauma in some way in their creative work. The chapter on Joy Division was to be called, “Trauma and Transformation in Punk Rock.” As I was recently thinking about this, I realized that I was working with some of the same themes about the dangers and benefits of becoming lost. I realize that the work I had done was not lost, because I am still working on the themes. I remember a Carl Jung quote that said something like, people don’t work on many themes in their lives, rather, they work on one theme from different perspectives.

The ways in which I currently feel lost are that I am having trouble seeing how I fit into the larger system of health care in New Zealand. The clinical work is challenging and rewarding, but how the community mental health centre I am working in will come through its own transition and what role I will play there is a big question. I have never had this much difficulty adjusting to a job. Many days I feel like the structure and system of the job is designed to prevent me from doing the clinical work that I know how to do.

I realize that the place I am working is in chaos and transition, but the overall New Zealand health system also seems lost in a way. Of the 50 spots for psychiatric trainees in the country, only 10 spots were filled last year. This year, the district health board I work for only has one new psychiatric trainee starting for the year, out of 10 positions. 40% of all physicians in New Zealand are from overseas. New Zealand is experiencing a steady brain drain of physicians going to Australia where they easily make 30% more for the same work which is probably not in a setting of continual strain and loss of staff. Even if my specific job sorted out, I would be unsettled by these larger trends. I knew of some of these issues before I arrived here, but I had no idea how dire the situation was. It seemed like this would also be an opportunity for creative ways of working and providing care, but the system seems incredibly apathetic and has incredible inertia that seems difficult to shift.

This reminds me, in a way of the US financial crisis, in which the people who seem least able to solve the crisis are the people in charge, because they are the ones who are the architects of the crisis. As Einstein said, you can’t solve a problem using the same tools you used to create the problem. You have to lose the old tools and step into the unknown of developing new tools. To an outsider, the situation the New Zealand health care system is in looks critical. While people get upset about little things with the system, no one seems to be revamping the whole system.

One thing that I am frustrated to have lost is the canvas on which to work – in my private practice, I could change things and develop new things as the need or mood would arise. Now, I have to ask permission from a system that is often apathetic and unresponsive. I have had a few experiences of putting a lot of energy into something that either goes nowhere, or the plug is pulled on. I am used to being a creative, hard-working, and conscientious person and sometimes these things seem to be either not culturally appropriate, or at least not supported within the local system. These are things that I know I can’t change or ignore within myself. The current system where I am working seems to require a tremendous amount of energy to function and in its functioning it seems to put energy into trying to make the system not function. I often feel like I am spinning my wheels and putting in a lot of energy with very little to show for it at the end of the day. I am also spending a tremendous amount of energy trying to figure out what is the local culture of the mental health centre (which almost everyone in and out of it admits is not functioning well) and what is the culture of the larger New Zealand health care system.

My observation about a dimensional difference between the United States and New Zealand is that in the United States, work is often very systematized and there are policies, procedures, and protocols. This is something that I have seen the dark side of in that the humanness of the individual physician and patient is often lost to the needs of the functioning of the system. Scientific, “evidence-based” medicine, also plays into this dehumanization and overly technical systematization of the doctor-patient relationship. The good thing in the United States is that things get done effectively and efficiently. The question is whether the things that are getting done are doing any good.

In New Zealand, there seems to be more of an Old World who you know instead of what you know. The “system” seems to function on the basis of individual relationships more than on policy and protocol. I have tried to banish the 4 P’s from my vocabulary: policy, procedure, protocol, and process. Things seem to be done the way they are done or the way they have been done and if there is a deviation from this, there is often a sense of floundering in the abyss, rather than an organized approach to system development and change. There is a manual that I see on a shelf at work entitled, CAOS. I fantasize that it is the English spelling of the word, “chaos,” but I haven’t worked up the nerve to look at the manual to see if it is for creating chaos or managing chaos.


The Benefits of Being Lost


New Zealanders really seem to despise anything negative being said about their country. There is the phenomenon of the “tall poppy” and “cultural cringe,” here. The “tall poppy” refers to New Zealanders trying to tear down anyone who dares to do something out of the ordinary or to stand above the crowd. Presumably this comes from a culture that is very collectivist and group oriented. The effect is a culture that creates mediocrity rather than fosters individual self-expression and creativity. I was reading an interview with Jemaine from Flight of the Conchords, and he was talking about “cultural cringe,” which is similar phenomenon, in which anyone who becomes popular or does better than others at something evokes a cringe and negative reaction from the culture. For instance, he says his popularity in the United States is dismissed as “Americans are idiots, so he can’t be that good.” I wonder if I am running into some of this attitude here as well. I know that there is a stereotype of Americans being clueless, self-centered know-it-alls, and I try to be sensitive to this, but I also know that it won’t work for me to try to be apathetic and mediocre.

In some ways, New Zealand seems like a culture that has lost its external referents, but hasn’t found itself. There is an official policy of Bi-culturalism here, based on the Treaty of Waitangi, which recognizes the countries responsibility to maintain Maori culture, the people who were the first human beings to colonize New Zealand. However, I have come across some comments that the New Zealand Europeans either don’t have a culture, or that their cultural identity is still with the UK more than with themselves. There have been debates in the newspaper whether or not New Zealand should become a republic after the current Queen of England is gone. Many of the arguments for keeping the monarchy over New Zealand seem to arise from a desire to be defined from someone and someplace else.

A friend of mine was talking about when her ancestors came to New Zealand in the mid-1800s and how her identity and much of New Zealand’s identity is still from the UK. I found it interesting that her relatives had come to New Zealand decades before many of my relatives, and yet I had a more of an identity as an American than she did as a New Zealander.

The Benefits of Being Lost


There are many ways that cultures work through being thrown in contact with each other. History shows that cultural interaction tends to enrich a culture more than any drive toward cultural purity or superiority does. The enriching interactions of different peoples and different ideas seem to be far more leavening than a lot of a single ingredient. (In fact genocide or discrimination seems to be how many of the single ingredient recipes work out). People seem to have different attitudes towards difference. Some don’t want one food to touch another on their plate, whereas others find mixing everything up to be more enjoyable.

The mixing of peoples and cultures is one form of change and this change is an inevitability. New Zealand is importing 40% of its physicians and that will change the culture of the medical system here. New Zealand, maybe more than any other place colonized by Europeans, is founded on a contract and treaty, that is still living, between two very different cultures, the Maori and the European colonists. Now New Zealand is opening up to refugees from all over the world and also many immigrants from Asia and the Pacific Islands. There are now more Pacific Islanders in Auckland than on some of the original islands. The United States went through the typical colonial exploitation of native peoples and is now struggling to make sense of the influx of Latino immigrants and Latino culture.

How this mixing, in New Zealand and the United States, and intermingling is handled will determine what is lost and what is gained. You cannot go to another country without losing something and gaining something. Similarly, a country cannot have an influx of new immigrants without changing in some way, and all change entails loss and gain. Maybe it is each individual’s and culture’s attitudes toward loss that determines the outcome of cultural interactions and the change that inevitably comes from it. On an individual level, maybe one’s attitudes toward loss and being lost determine what will eventually be found.


The Benefits of Being Lost