I’ve been reading a 17th century Muslim prayer-poem from Morocco entitled ‘The Prayer of the Oppressed.’ In his introduction to the English translation, Hamza Yusuf, a prominent American Muslim teacher and scholar, asks his readers to consider whether they could possibly be ready to wield social power if they’re not ready to accept that there will always be matters over which they are powerless. That gave me pause.
There is so much that I would like to see change in the world, even as I have to admit that there’s also so much of my vision for progressive social and environmental change that I am painfully powerless
It’s not that I’m not hopeful, or don’t see the power in small, subtle shifts or concerted advocacy.
My point is simply that human suffering and vulnerability are real, as is our persistent desire to evade them. Working with feelings of powerlessness and fear is fraught. Yet they creep into our consciousness, sitting at the edges of the stories we tell ourselves about the power of our strategies and tools, waiting to be acknowledged.
My own story is that my parents left their native Syria before I was born, for reasons that were primarily economic. My late father’s grievances, however, ran deeper. He never returned to his home/land, a place now torn apart by the terrible violence of a complex civil war.
The work I do now with Center for Whole Communities is informed by the love of cities and of land that I’ve inherited from my parents. I’ve also inherited the loss and underlying grief that comes along with a dislocation from home/land. I’ve learned that stories about people and land – from urban neighborhoods and farms to parks and preserves – can celebrate that love and connection, or reflect exclusion and pain.
At a recent conference on climate change and cities, the question of ‘managed retreat’ (i.e. communities moving or being moved away from vulnerable coastal areas) came up as an increasingly more likely scenario for policy-makers and local officials to consider. My question in response was “what would ‘ministered retreat’ look like?” By that I mean looking at who will do the work of relocating communities – and what will that work look like? What would it look like to minister to the impact on human lives and relationships that is inevitable in that kind of dislocation from home/land.
I recognize that it isn’t easy to pivot from conversations on the science and policy of climate adaptation to the kind of heart-space that invites the stories of human suffering into our planning and professional practice. To say nothing of the possibility that we might not be able to end such suffering. And yet that is a crucial practice. We need to turn to that suffering, more frequently and with more intention, even as it reminds us of how limited our professional abilities are.
There are practices that can support creating and containing the kind of heart-space that acknowledges the full reality of human experience – from celebration and joy, to grief and pain – and they can be brought into our professional lives and work. CWC’s Whole Thinking Practices were developed with this in mind – namely, to acknowledge and honor difference and tension in human relationships with each other and the land. That’s why I’m committed to listening for community stories that acknowledge and work creatively with that difference and tension in ways that are productive, restorative, and life-affirming. Whether they celebrate connection or commemorate loss, these stories – our stories – remind us that the making and remaking of home/land is a radical act of hope and
Wholeness does not mean perfection; it means embracing brokennessParker Palmer
as an integral part of life.
Where there is perfection there is no story to tell.Ben Okri