Saturday, 28 August 2010

The Power of Language

Babies are strong and can tolerate conditions that adults can’t. Whilst there’re excellent evolutionary reasons for newborns of all species to be resilient it’s also humbling and touching to hear about the struggle for life and potent maternal instinct of James and Kate Ogg in Australia.

These kinds of events are hailed as miracles in some cultures and such is the relief and gratefulness of the parents and loved ones that it’s entirely understandable. Then believers come along and perceive it all as an act of their god, something that makes many classical theologians depressed: if their god is wholly simple – that is, unaffected and beyond all we can understand – then how would their god get involved in that world? If that involvement occurs then their god is no longer godlike.

Protestant theology, which perceives the bible as their god and their god as intensely interested in them, disagrees which in fact bears a close relationship to how many Pagans function. Many of us have a personal relationship with our gods and they with us. So what might Paganisms response to the powerful evidence of one child’s will to survive be?

Personally, I don’t believe in miracles but this doesn’t prevent me from experiencing intense interest or from being very moved by James’ struggle and becoming even more convinced of the power of physical touch and physical connection to change destiny. I’m aware of only a few Pagan responses to this story and they’re all based in wonder and joy. In some of the replies there’s just a hint – which I, all good midwives, good neonatal nurses and many mothers share – of  “This goes a long way towards further proving that skin-to-skin contact between newborn and mother has enormous consequences.”

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Maternal instinct is frequently correct and is sometimes the difference between life and death. Pagans seem to know that as a scientific and beautiful reality rather than as a miracle.

One or two Pagan responses have given me pause. I doubt any would say they believe in miracles, not one has any ill intent behind their comments, none would dream of using this event to proselytise or judge. But they use a language of poetry which bestows numen and a particular weight to what they say. Just as we respond to specialised medical language or the language of advertising so we respond to the language of ‘Karmic connection’  ‘ a holy gift’ ‘the quiet voice that knows truth’ and so on. That’s why the language of ritual is different from mundane language and it’s why I’ve stopped using what I perceive to be the language of mystery outside of ritual.

Because in this case it makes the mothers of dead babies failures. They didn’t have the karmic connection. Why didn’t the Goddess give them the gift of a live child? Despite hours of skin-to-skin contact and yearning and communication they didn’t bring their dead child back to life, perhaps because they didn’t listen hard enough for or were unworthy of the voice of truth. That is clearly not the intent of people who have used the language of mystery to communicate their feelings and it can’t help but have that effect.

Every mother and father that has had a premature or full term stillbirth or neonatal death will be pitched back into stinging grief by this story. Did they do
enough? Did their child have a chance that they didn’t take? Did they put too much trust in their medical team? How were they deficient? There’s no mother of a dead or disabled child who at some point doesn’t ask herself this, even if she knows that the answer is an unambiguous no. It’s only very recently that mothers were allowed to have anything to do with their dead baby. Imagine our mothers, grandmothers, other older women now wondering if they’d only been allowed to hold their baby, what if, what if. Lets not add things to feel dreadful about.

The kind of attention to pain which concerns itself with unknowing and doubt, semi-consciousness and the unconscious, can be approached most effectively through careful and specialised use of the language of mystery, sometimes through formal ritual and sometimes in less formal shifting of awareness. When we listen to and respond to people in pain this cultural language can be useful but it’s not the language of the everyday. This is why priestesses and priests are trained. It can come naturally but it has to be used carefully. Words have power.

I’ve long had a particular bugbear about the careless use of poetic language, language used to change the writers and the readers consciousness and which marks the person who speaks in this manner as seperate from the poor dumb mundanes; it’s become used by every Pagan to describe brushing their teeth. Life can be tough, tedious and banal which is just as important to our human understanding as joy, peak experiences and excitement; arguably more important to get to grips with and understand. Whilst all of creation is sacred and we are sacred beings living sacredly as part of it, we also have to maintain some perspective and keep our knickers on. Getting breathless about canning pears is a tad hysterical. And using the language of ritual casually and habitually can have unintended but horrendous consequences.


Amanda said...

Wonderful post.

"Whilst all of creation is sacred and we are sacred beings living sacredly as part of it, we also have to maintain some perspective and keep our knickers on. Getting breathless about canning pears is a tad hysterical."

Perhaps people are confusing the idea of "mindfulness" with ritual. I know we all get into trouble by calling our daily habits rituals, and I do get awfully contemplative while washing dishes... but gosh. It's bothersome.

My sister miscarried recently and I found myself absolutely tongue tied when I spoke to her for the first time after the event. We do not share a spiritual path, but even if it were so I do not know what I could have said to her. I am not a mother, I cannot begin to know the pain of losing a child. This is one area that troubles me as I consider continuing on the path to fully involved pagan clergy... will I ever be able to find the "language of mystery" to help with this very particular kind of grief with no knowledge of that relationship myself? My last class on grief covered the topic, of course, but I still feel I am not prepared.

Clare Slaney said...

Thanks Amanda, you've highlighted a number of important issues and given me an excuse to bang on further. I hope to have a post up on a couple of these subjects in a few days.

I hope your sister is feeling better, all the sooner for your love and attention.