Sexual Violence and the Culture of Silence

Disclaimer: this article is just one persons’ best attempt to approach the issue of silence around abuse and how to respond to survivors. I am imperfectly muddling through ideas and encourage others to do their own imperfect muddling. I will have undoubtedly missed important stuff. I might have written stuff you don’t agree with. I am not an expert on all survivors. I have observed some things in my own life and in the lives of others – what’s worked, what hasn’t – and this is my best offering at this moment in time. Where I use ‘she’ and ‘her’ this is only for reasons of ‘flow’ in the writing – mentally replace with whatever pronouns are more relevant to the survivor(s) in your life.

Sexual Violence and the Culture of Silence

People seem to not really want to talk about sexual violence. Survivors sometimes avoid talking about it because they are afraid of having difficult feelings triggered and/or fear of shaming (from self, or others). People who have not experienced any sexual trauma might want to avoid talking about it for lots of reasons: existing secondary trauma; fear of being secondarily traumatised; they are uncomfortable with topics which include the word “sexual”; they find it taboo and stressful to talk about; or because they lack the emotional skills to respond. This is all very understandable. In this article, I want to explore what this culture of silence can look or feel like to survivors and what we might do as a society to start challenging this culture of silence surrounding sexual violence. In the second half of this article, I will specifically address those who feel that they simply don’t have the skills to respond to communication about sexual violence and I will try to give them some pointers.

I have noticed that lots of very kind and supportive people will immediately jump to “distracting” a survivor who is in pain. Invite them out! Talk about something else! Change the subject! What about self-care: have you had a bath? Have you eaten? As well-meaning as this might be, it can mirror the silencing and dismissal that survivors have experienced time and time again since the traumatising incident(s): families who brush it under the rug; police who didn’t think it was important to investigate too hard; teachers who didn’t take notice of obvious distress; partners who didn’t recognise how past rape influenced the current relationship, and who never asked. Sometimes everybody seems to be frightened and looking the other way. The silencing of survivors usually begins straight after the incident (or even during) and then continues seemingly unendingly thereafter. Even those who really care for the survivor and want her to be ok can unknowingly perpetuate it. Distractions can be lovely if they are what the survivor wants, but often there is no alternative given because distractions are easier for the supporter than talking about it would be.

I think many people believe that their loved one, who might be in counselling or under mental health care, is receiving support elsewhere and talking to ‘the experts’ about their painful experiences – but this is so often not the case. Some survivors will never disclose to professionals, because of a lack of contact with them or for some other good reason, and even those who do disclose to professionals are often encouraged not to talk about it.

Mental health professionals rarely wish to discuss abuse, even when it is the primary reason for a person’s distress and consequent referral to their service. They are mostly invested in med regimes, mindfulness, or CBT, based on your main ‘diagnosis’. A treatment plan is written and the professional wants to stick to it. Apparently, it isn’t ‘mindful’ to talk about the past, or the reason for your distress, even if you have crippling PTSD. Talking about trauma takes too long, it is too costly, so it is best for these professionals to stick an ineffective plaster on the gaping wound and encourage the person to move on, as forcefully as possible.

Even private or voluntary-sector counsellors, reluctant to “retraumatise” a client, will try and steer the person back into “the now” and away from discussing abuse and trauma. Often this is to “stabilise” the person before they get into any potentially traumatic material. But for somebody who is constantly in a cycle of PTSD responses, stopping them discussing the thing they wish to discuss is itself a re-enactment of the silencing they have experienced as a part of sexual trauma. No person will ever become ‘stabilised’ if their own counsellor is triggering them with subtle or overt suggestion that it would be ‘best’ for them to not talk or think about it. Not talking or thinking about abuse is what many survivors do as part of a response called “dissociation” – where a person cuts off from what happened and tries to ignore it and carry on (even when there is ongoing abuse). Dissociation can cause a person to feel cut off from their own body and identity. It only stops when somebody acknowledges fully and comprehensively their experiences, including abuse or violent incident(s). Not talking about it seems antithetical to this.

When people don’t want the survivor to talk, the survivor is sometimes relieved because who wants to talk about the most distressing event(s) of their life? Easier in some ways to just keep on trudging through daily familiar grind of PTSD, C-PTSD, autoimmune flair-ups, and severe dissociative or panic symptoms (all of which might eventually, indirectly or directly, bring them an early death) than face the very real pain of healing. Silence is what we are used to; it is a familiar, stifling blanket of yuck. Better to please other people, better not to rock the boat, better not to risk feeling ones’ feelings or connecting meaningfully with what trauma has meant for our bodies and lives, better to try and numb it down and accept distractions. Best to cling to that blanket of silencing yuck and stride forwards, rather than risk people seeing that you are underneath the blanket, and you can’t breathe for the stink of the unaired trauma. Sometimes you start to think the stink of unaired trauma is you. So, you pull the blanket tighter. Keep a lid on that smell.

People don’t commonly want to think about the sexual violation of somebody they love – the survivor understands this, because often she doesn’t want to think about it either. But even if she has dissociated and doesn’t want to think or talk about it, her body asserts the trauma again and again in ways that can’t be ignored. She is reminded in dreams, through smells, by the sight of her own body, by everyday feelings or thoughts, by somatisation and pains. She is reminded by jokes, tv, radio. She is reminded by the awkward dismissal/distraction from others, by the news, by her lack of a job due to trauma-induced disability. She is reminded by an out of control triggered reaction to something seemingly innocuous to others. She is reminded by her lack of family support after disclosing, by special occasions, by her isolation, her poverty, by her grappling for self-esteem and fear of rejection, by her disconnect. The body is never truly silent. So, a survivor engages with sexual violence, whether she talks about it or not, whether the people in her life have to think about it or not. This is part of the cruel legacy of sexual abuse and sexual violence on the bodies and minds of survivors.

In my experience, the only people willing to listen, when a survivor is ready, and on her terms, tend to be (often older) feminists, support staff in rape crisis centres, or other survivors (many of whom are also those same older feminists and support staff in rape crisis centres). This means that it is sometimes/often survivors themselves who risk secondary trauma to do the listening. They do this because they know, keenly, what it is to be trapped in chronic, oppressive silence and/or because they care about those who are trapped by it. But it isn’t fair that these people are the only ones willing or able to do this work. It would be easier on these few individuals if more people were willing to step up and if we took communal responsibility for ending the culture of silence around sexual violence.

“What good does talking do, though?” you might ask? Is it going to help the survivor that much anyway? Will it not just upset them more? It might not be the magic bullet to resolve all trauma issues, and it certainly won’t stop sexual violence from happening in the first place, but it can provide some “air” around the trauma, some space outside of the survivors’ own head, so that they can start asking questions or expressing feelings about the incident(s), which can help. Talking works best if the survivor is not confined to talking in one relationship, to one helpline, or to one support person. Being confined in this way reinforces sexual violence as secret, shameful, as something we shouldn’t really be discussing openly. Additionally, if the survivor has lots of people to talk to, it might not matter so much if one person is unable/unwilling to talk about it because there are other people. A community of caring people can challenge the messages given to a survivor when she is abused, such as: you don’t matter; I will not listen to you; I do not care about you. When lots of people are willing to listen, it provides the kind of environment where it is possible for the survivor to find her own way to healing, whatever that looks like. It breaks the abusive pattern of silence and shame, it tells her she does matter, people will listen to her, and they do care.

Talking also only works if it is something the survivor chooses to do and wants to do. You might put out an offer to talk, but she might not be ready, and this is ok. It is vital that survivors’ boundaries are respected. Being able to be in control of ones’ story and having boundaries respected can also be healing. Just knowing that somebody is willing to hear can also make somebody feel more secure that there is an avenue – an opening, hopefully several openings – if she wants it, when she’s ready.

I think the most common reason why people don’t want to hear survivors’ stories is simply a feeling of lack – of not knowing how to respond to disclosures in a helpful way. If this is your reason, I completely understand: there is no abundance of major studies or discussion about how best to respond survivors’ words and there are no major public health campaigns to guide people. But I am going to try and give you some basic guidance, which I hope provides suggestions for how to give a ‘good enough’ response. Please note, that this is mainly advice to people who have not experienced sexual violence themselves or who no longer feel affected – it can be more complicated if you are yourself in the process of trying to heal trauma and don’t want to be distressed by discussing upsetting things that have happened to you too. But if you are able to listen, but don’t know how to respond, then read on:

Do:

1)      Actually respond. Reacting with silence gives the survivor chance to fill this silence in with messages she might have heard from an abuser or from a culture which shames survivors. She is more likely to think things like “this person thinks I am shameful and disgusting” (as per abuse conditioning) than she is to recognise that you simply feel awkward or are trying to “give space” to her. So, respond. It doesn’t have to be in complicated words. “Oh, that is awful, I am so sad that you have to deal with this” or “I had no idea you were dealing with this, thank you for trusting me, how can I help?” – these are perfectly good responses. They help the person to know you haven’t received the information in a negative way and that you have heard her.

2)      Check in with her for a few days after she’s disclosed – every day if you think it is appropriate to the person. Let her know that you are not scared of talking to her nor of her having more to say about it. If you have something else to do and might be delayed in responding, let her know. Ask “how are you doing?”. If she is not doing well, let her know she can carry on talking about that. Don’t shut her down. Be prepared that she might regret telling you, due to abusive conditioning to be silent. Ask questions about any regrets, be curious, let her know that you are glad she was able to speak about it, and that if she needs to ask you anything about your response she is free to do so.

3)      Express boundaries clearly rather than skirting around them. If you are busy and can’t talk, say so rather than just being emotionally unavailable. You don’t have to be an expert who is always switched on and you don’t have to be there for anybody 24/7. Or you might want to be. Your boundaries are your own and only you know how to set these in each case. Don’t offer a free and open listening ear to somebody you don’t actually like, and don’t want to be around – this isn’t fair on you or the other person. If you become avoidant, the survivor might think it is because of what happened to them rather than that you weren’t interested in friendship in the first place. If you are a survivor yourself and therefore feel unable to talk about it without triggering your own stuff, consider letting her know the broad reason for not wanting to talk about it (if this feels ok and safe for you). It will make her feel less alone, even if you never discuss abuse directly.

4)      Do a bit of homework. Read blogs by survivors. Read public forums on the topic. Read stats and myth busting sheets. Read feminist writing about sexual violence and violence against women. Read about the effects of rape and abuse on men. Join discussion groups. Read a book with related themes in your book group and listen carefully to how people respond. Read twitter hashtags on relevant topics. Generally, get stuck in to understanding the effect of rape and sexual violence on victims, the issues involved, and how different people respond to similar events. But go at your own pace, there is no need to overwhelm yourself because stressed out people struggle to listen anyway.

5)      Get support for yourself if you feel traumatised by the information you have been told about somebody else’s life. You could give rape crisis a call, get some counselling for yourself, or talk to a trusted friend or faith leader. It is important to take care of yourself and we must all collectively heal from the pain of sexual violence. Remember that survivors had no choice in being traumatised and you had no choice that you were born into a world where people you love are inevitably traumatised and need to talk about it, even if nothing happened to you directly. We all need to grieve and to heal from the disastrous effects of violence in our lives. It might also bring up issues from your own past that you had forgotten or not thought about for a while. Take care of yourself and remember that you matter.

Don’t:

1)      Try not to give ‘stock’ answers such as ‘I believe you’ or ‘it’s not your fault’ without first listening to whether or not the survivor expected disbelief or blame. It can be a bit jarring if somebody tells you that they ‘believe you’ when you didn’t for a second think that they wouldn’t. Lots of survivors do expect disbelief or feel guilt – but this is not universal. Additionally, the survivor might have spent a long time assessing your trustworthiness before she opened up to you – so although she might not expect belief in general, she might expect it from you specifically. Rather than using words to convey these things, try using behaviour. You show belief if you take a survivor seriously, ask her how she feels, ask what action she wants taken, offer support in this action. You can show that you don’t blame her by expressing your sorrow that she was hurt and being on her side. There’s no need to say these things in words, unless she directly asks you about them.

2)      Don’t assume that if this happened a long time ago she must have spoken to others before you about it – she might not have done. Also, don’t assume that the person doesn’t need a strong response because it happened long ago. For her it might feel like she is reliving it every day. In that sense, it is still recent for her. “Oh, how dare he have hurt you? I’m so sorry”, or “oh no, how do you feel? can I help?” are good kinds of responses no matter when the trauma happened.

3)      Respond in line with your general character. Don’t suddenly go all “PC” social worker on them if you usually use expletives and are direct. On the other hand, if you are a bit of a PC social work type, then you do you. If you don’t, she will notice the discrepancy and feel like your relationship has changed somehow. Be normal, whatever normal is for you.

4)      Don’t dismiss survivors whose responses to abuse do not fit in with your preconceived worldview <– this is a very important sentence, so maybe read it again and think about how this might apply to you and what you expect responses to abuse to be like. Responses to abuse are varied and wide-ranging. Try not to judge people for what they do, or have done, to survive – now or in the past.

5)      Don’t expect that if somebody knows (intellectually) that the messages of the perpetrator were abusive/untrue that such messages will not have been absorbed or believed by the survivor. Even those with an analysis of abuse before they are abused are often unprepared for how insidious the messages of the perpetrator can be and the effects of that on their body and feelings.

6)      Don’t treat the survivor as though she “broken” or “damaged” and don’t act like her saviour. She is likely to scan for changes in your attitude or beliefs about her following talking about sexual violence because it is a personal thing to share and can feel risky. She is a survivor and a strong person to have gotten through the event(s) and to be actively working on healing by talking about it. Give her the respect she deserves and show her that you think she’s flipping awesome.

To end on a positive note: Do-bi-do-bi-do-bi-do (that was a little song for you, in celebration of you being the sort of person who cares about the wellbeing of survivors). Best of luck in challenging the culture of silence and in all your sharing and listening and responding.

Night and Day Among the Tombs

There is a story in the New Testament which I think lots of people find uncomfortable because it involves Jesus sending demons into some unsuspecting pigs and them jumping off a cliff to their death, as a result. Sounds pretty brutal. But it is one of my favourite Gospel stories.

It all starts (as so many of my favourites do) with a man in the wilderness. He lives “among the tombs and on the mountains” and “was always howling and bruising himself with stones”. His wilderness is literal and emotional. He self-harms almost constantly, is outcast from mainstream society, wandering around with no community, and people had often tried to restrain him “with shackles and chains”. He has been in a prolonged state of mental, social, and emotional distress. In first century Palestine, such behaviour was widely considered to be a result of possession by demons. In the UK in 2018 most would call it mental illness (and more specifically would call it dissociative identity disorder, as we learn more about him..). But it doesn’t really matter what you call it: he is not feeling ok, and he is profoundly distressed.

A part of this man does not want to be healed. Self-destruction must have been playing an important role in coping with what he was dealing with. In fact, when Jesus tries to heal him (using his own cultural and religious ‘demon’ terminology) the man initially shouts, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me”. I can relate to him here, and suspect that many people can. In the past, if somebody had been kind to me or tried to ‘heal’ me when I was hell bent on self-destruction, I would have told them to get lost, too. But Jesus persists. He says, “What is your name?”

Jesus realises that in order to help, he needs to recognise, to name, to know him. And then, there is progress. The man says, “My name is Legion; for we are many”. The man is splintered into many parts and so has chosen a name which expresses this: Legion. A legion is also the name for 100 Roman soldiers. This man is in battle with something profound, and his identity is split into a whole army of people to aid him in this fight. Perhaps his howling and bruising is because of inner conflict between his splintered parts. But what I find incredibly poignant about his name is that it relates not just to any army, but to the Roman army. 

Jesus and his fellow Jews were living under the oppressive regime of the Roman empire. The name Legion might signify that the root of this person’s suffering – his inner demons – was Roman oppression or violence. Perhaps he had suffered trauma at the hands of the Romans, or perhaps the Romans had enabled some terrible trauma or disaster with which the man continued to suffer internally. It is well known that people can experience a splintering of identity when faced with overwhelming trauma, especially when that trauma has occurred from a very young age with no other support. Who knows what this man had faced at the hands of the Roman empire?

What happens next is nothing short of miraculous, even if you don’t believe in literal miracles: the man asks Jesus to send his inner demons not out of the country but into some pigs who were feeding nearby. It might seem like an odd request, but seemingly not to Jesus, who complies. Asking for his demons to be sent into pigs is very significant, since Jewish people don’t eat pigs, but Romans do. I think that Jesus performs the ritual asked of him because it symbolises something important: sending the inner demons the man was carrying – which had splintered him so extensively – into what was feeding his oppressors. Importantly, Jesus doesn’t send inner demons/splintering into the Roman army itself (which would probably only have caused more trauma and suffering and was not what the man asked for…) but rather into that which was feeding their regime.

To bring it to a more universal example, if we were to heal somebody of inner demons caused by sexual violence using the same pattern, we would send them not into the perpetrator(s) but into the things which sustain the violence of abusers: objectification, dehumanisation, isolation, greed, power-over, exploitation, selfishness, and, in many cases, patriarchy. Perhaps the story is encouraging us to request that which “feeds” violence to be sent off the edge of a very tall cliff. I think the story also encourages us to replace self-destruction with destruction of that which feeds oppression. How this happens in reality is for each of us to discern, and to ask for. I believe that Jesus already knows each of us by name, he is just waiting for our instruction.

Later, people came to see what had happened, and “saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind”. And then it says “and they [the people] were afraid”.

It can scare people when you stop destroying yourself, and choose not to take direct revenge. Replacing self-destruction with destroying what fed your abuse is not what people expect to happen and it can make people uncomfortable. But it also makes people curious – after all, the people in Jesus’ story did come along to see what had happened. Sometimes being afraid means you are about to do something really brave, so perhaps some of them could feel the stirrings of what might be possible if they did the same thing. I hope so. 

 

Shabbat: Wilderness in the Week

Two weeks ago today I began observing a technology Sabbath. It started out as just a convenient way to catch a break from social media, the news, and my phone, but as I deeply experienced the Sabbath I began to appreciate both the reality of my connection to information technology, and the full meaning and purpose of the Sabbath day.

The first couple of hours of each Sabbath have required a great deal of mental adjustment. For just over 24 hrs I cannot take pictures of cute things my cat does, tell somebody about a thought I have, organise anything, ask people to hang out with whom I have no established plans, watch netflix, or browse the web. My hand or mind automatically reaches for the location of my phone (which is usually within a metre of me at all times) an incredible number of times within the first couple of hours, highlighting just how much I use it. I realise I have become dependent on instant communication with other people or google, and reach for these before I have even given myself a chance to think about something or resolve it using the resources around me.

phone

One Sabbath, in lieu of Google maps, I had to find and use an A-Z map of my city for the first time ever. I checked the supermarkets, the garage, the post office, the library, the newsagents, and three charity shops before finding a dated A-Z in the fourth charity shop I looked in. We are now so dependent on the internet to find our way that some folk didn’t know what I was referring to when I asked for an A-Z and others looked at me as though I had taken a wrong turn out of the 90s and should probably go back there.

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates” (Exodus 20: 8-10)

The ten commandments state that the Sabbath is to be kept holy which means: no work. Although my Sabbath began not as a ‘no tech’ day rather than a ‘no work’ day, the two have very quickly come to mean the same thing. Most of my work is generated online and by mobile phone – this is where I am contacted by those who want me to do something,  either as part of joint projects or favours for friends. Many of my colleagues and/or friends don’t know my actual address and wouldn’t call round unannounced even if they did. When I put away my phone and laptop, and after the initial discomfort of being truly alone, I enter a state of bliss because I know that for just over 24 hrs the demands for my time and attention will stop.  And it is not just direct demands from other people that stop – the pressure I put on myself to stay connected, keep talking, reply immediately goes, too. I am with myself and God, with no distractions.

 

peace.jpeg

Giving myself a true rest from the demands of life means that I am more able to show up for what I have in the week because I know that the day of rest is there, waiting for me, every single week.

So far, both Sabbaths have involved lots of reading, praying, and daydreaming. I have tapped into a skill I thought I had long-ago lost: the ability to get completely absorbed by a book. This is not a skill I mysteriously lost sometime around aged 15, as I had imagined. Rather, the internet has had me so hooked that I have been unable to concentrate on a book for longer that a few minutes. With internet access I read for five or ten (or two) minutes and then compulsively check my social media accounts, my phone, my whatsapp, etc. There is no way to enter ‘the flow’ of reading a book in these circumstances. Perhaps this call to observe the Sabbath is part of God’s call to lose that addiction.

There is something wild about a technology Sabbath in the 21st century. Unplugging and unwinding brings us back to a place of relying on the space around us for sustenance, information, restoration, entertainment, and relaxation. Without the steady humming of electricity through laptop screens and the compulsive thumbing of phone screens, I am more able to hear the small whisper of God and God’s movement in space and time.

flowers

I think the Sabbath was an incredibly beautiful gift. It is a built-in time of wilderness each week where we can meet God without distraction, think without having to act, and check in with what’s true rather than what is pragmatic. Part of the gift of the Sabbath is that it is commanded, which takes the responsibility from us. We can throw our hands up to our boss, our friends, ourselves and say “God commanded it: that’s why!” If it were an optional bonus, then it would be much harder for those who want to observe it to do so – and I think God probably knew this this very well about us.

 

oh well

 

Jesus was challenged about his disciples picking corn on the Sabbath and he said, “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” (Mark 2: 27) . Jesus understood that Sabbath was a gift from God for the good of human beings. He only advocated breaking Sabbath due to physical need: “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat.” (Mark 2: 25). Need sometimes necessitates breaking a commandment because, ultimately, commandments are there for the good of human beings.

When the Law is interpreted through the love of God, it simply gives us space to breath, and a structure to hold us as we navigate what it means for our lives.

space to breathe.png

 

It is now nearly 7.15pm, which gives me just over an hour until the Sabbath begins. I will go to the shops for food now before the lighting of the candle, before sinking in to God’s gift of rest. Have a blessed and restful Shabbat and see you out the other side, refreshed and ready to plug in for another six days.

 

unplugged

 

 

Prophariats in the Wilderness

In the wilderness, comfort and sustenance often elude people: we are materially unanchored and must rely on personal or communal resilience and resourcefulness to survive. A wilderness can feel barren. But wildernesses can also hold potential for growth and change. In many spiritual traditions, the wilderness is where people find themselves or their purpose, organise outside of oppressive ‘secure’ territories, and/or to birth new movements and ways of being. Examples include: Mohammed (PBUH)’s retreat to caves, where he received the Quran; Jesus’ retreat to the wilderness and mountainsides to pray both before and during his ministry; John the Baptist as a prophetic voice crying out in the desert, making way for a new movement; Moses receiving the ten commandments on a mountain, in the wilderness. Wilderness contains the potential to fuel revolutions of human thought and organisation. This article explores wildernesses experienced by those in the ‘precariat class’, of which I am a member, and argues for greater acknowledgement of our unity and potential to transform our territory.

The word ‘precariat’ is forged from ‘precarious’ and ‘proletariat’ to describe a growing class of people living in conditions of financial and social precarity/insecurity. Precariats are a mixture of underemployed, insecurely employed, unemployed, excluded from the workforce, casual workers, and low paid workers. Unlike the traditional working class, precariats do not (yet) have a sense of class unity or organisation. The precariat class includes: people with no qualifications working zero-hour contracts in the service industries; graduates (mainly from working class backgrounds) getting by on benefits and/or freelance work; disabled people who have been pushed out of the workforce because they are not able to produce work consistently enough for businesses to profit; part-time, low-paid workers; those who volunteer for community groups, or care for children and elderly relatives full-time; and those who occupy more than one of these groups. Often, precariat sub-groups don’t mix socially, are geographically dispersed, and might have diverse political views (or lack of). But nevertheless they inhabit many of the same wildernesses, which I will explore in this article.

Western culture is filled with messages that the more productive and/or materially wealthy a person the greater their worth. This can create a sense of helplessness, worthlessness, anger, and fear among the precariat who are often underemployed, underpaid/unpaid, in material poverty, and unable to find a way out. But early humans were in a near-constant state of precarity. It was here, in this precarious wilderness, that some of the greatest leaps in human evolution took place. If precarity was once the mother of invention, then what of the precariat? Rather than a ‘dangerous’ class, as suggested by Guy Standing, might precariats be prophets and innovators? The shadow selves of some precariats have led them to follow ‘false-prophets’ such as nationalism and militarism. But what if precariats acknowledged their unique power and worth as a prophetic voice crying out in the wilderness? A voice for life-giving innovation and pro-social change? By firstly identifying the common wilderness of precariats we can begin to see what threatens us, and what we can do about it.

Precarity evokes both personal and social wildernesses. The most obvious wilderness that the precariat experience is financial. When we try to make ends meet between pay checks or benefits payments and amid employer or DWP inefficiency or benefit sanctions, we experience periods of nil income. These are the times we go without food and/or fuel, feed our children and elderly before ourselves, rely on food banks or friends to sustain us, borrow money from others (often themselves precariats – putting strain on relationships), steal food from work or supermarket chains, or take out pay day loans. Most of these I have done myself, and have seen others do – this is not just a good guess. We find ways to keep ourselves and our loved ones afloat in a sea of insecurity. We have fallen between the cracks and been pushed outside of ‘secure’ territories. Sometimes this is literal: we become homeless because of defaults on rent or bills. Sometimes it is psychological: we experience existential or emotional insecurity. This is especially the case for people who were raised to expect some level of security by observing the lives of their parents and grandparents.

Younger people from traditional working class backgrounds increasingly grow up into a double wilderness: they do not have the cultural knowledge, social capital, or confidence to enter traditionally middle class graduate occupations, but the working class occupations of their parents have been devalued by zero-hours contracts, insecurity, lack of paid apprenticeships, and alluring (but devaluing and unrealistic) promises of “social mobility”. At the opposite end of the scale, previously working class occupations now require college or university training which is incredibly expensive to obtain. Additionally, an increasing number of working class young people have degrees and thus are considered ‘overqualified’ when they attempt to secure employment in the professions of their parents. For example, it is very difficult to get a job in a supermarket with a degree on your CV. But those with traditional working class backgrounds (and, indeed, lower middle class backgrounds) are raised to consider occupation an ‘existentially significant’ identity.  When conditioned to equate who you are with what you “do” and what you “do” doesn’t fit the templates you were raised with, it is difficult to know who you are. Existential wilderness is a very uncomfortable place emotionally and it can create intolerable levels of stress and frustration.

When people experience the stress of existential wilderness, they respond to it in a multitude of ways. Some simply struggle – between insecure part-time jobs and odd-jobs, unsure of their income more than a few weeks in advance, or else subsisting on zero hour contracts and/or benefits. Some will seek to gain the cultural knowledge to one day break through into a traditional occupation but ultimately cannot give up their low-paid work to find better-paid work, get voluntary experience, or re-train. Others become angry and disengaged – using this energy either to fight for social reform or else to blame the nearest scapegoat – such as white British people blaming “immigrants”. Many become ill in body or mind.

Those who are long-term sick and disabled people are an ever-expanding precariat group. Insecure, low-paid conditions are making sick people sicker, rendering disabled people less able to work when pay is not high enough to cover disability costs, and are disabling previously abled people. This creates an expanding group of people who rely on welfare benefits because they are not able to engage with the type of work available to them. Benefits for disabled and chronically ill people are also increasingly insecure: most people are reassessed for benefit eligibility yearly and are under constant threat of their income being removed if they are not able to adequately jump through bureaucratic hoops to prove they are “sick enough”. Most private landlords will not accept people on unemployment benefits, including disabled people, and social housing is scarce. The ultimate outcome for many of this group is further decline in health and, sometimes, death. The wilderness of those on disability benefits is often one of isolation, loneliness, and feeling unfulfilled.

For many who are unemployed, underemployed, or struggling with unseen financial burdens, the wilderness of isolation results in a chronic lack of affection and camaraderie. Precariats do not receive positive feedback from our surrounding culture about our value or worth – which can create a feeling of rejection and isolation. This can can lead to anger, resentment, depression, anxiety, stress, and so much more. The precariat is not the only class group to feel these things – traditional working class folk and middle class people might experience these emotions for different reasons. But with lack of time and/or resources to engage with community or raise a family, or a lack of workplace contact, the precariat class is at particular risk of not having their needs for human contact, joint industry, and affection met.

The existence of the growing precariat class also has major implications for society as a whole. The number of graduates who have taken out government loans to pay for education and then remain in/enter the precariat class means that those loans will never be paid back. It also means that people with a high level of ability are not contributing in a way which is concurrent with their abilities – a loss to the progress of society and culture. There are not enough people filling traditional working class roles due to their chronic monetary and cultural devaluation. Those who end up in these (ever scarcer) jobs often feel angry, undervalued, and stressed by having to take on multiple jobs to make ends meet, and/or are immigrant workers exploited for extremely low wages because they have no other choice i.e. no access to welfare benefits. All of these social ‘gaps’ deepen a sense of wilderness surrounding the precariat class.

Since precarity is going nowhere fast, how can precariats effectively deal with chronic stress and enter a place of prophecy, innovation, and pro-social challenge to the status quo? How do we resist blaming the nearest easy scapegoat? The most common precariat scapegoats – immigrants, millennials, disabled people – are often members of the precariat class themselves; we need solidarity between sub-groups of precariat, not hostility. Precariats are disenfranchised by materially wealthier classes and have the lowest amount of time, energy, social capital or resources to challenge government or big business policies which oppress and exploit us. Although holding the government and big business to account would be an appropriate target for our anger, it is not always achievable for everybody in our class group – so we need a more holistic and multi-pronged approach.

Firstly, we find new, affirmative ways to talk about our precarious lives. One way to do this is to validate each other’s occupations. Even if that occupation is to stay alive. Even if it is claiming benefits and doing cash in hand work on the side. Even if it is working four jobs which are not deemed culturally valuable. Even if it is raising our children or caring for our old or ill people. We defiantly describe ourselves as hard working, which so many of us are. We find new words for what we “do” – even if what we do is unpaid, sporadic, or underpaid – to retain a sense of existential identity. We speak our truths without shame. We challenge those who suggest that security makes one’s life more meaningful than precarity; we stress the innovation we use in order to feed, clothe, and entertain ourselves. We don’t ‘roll over’ to untenable situations or fail to challenge a system which keeps so many in poverty, but we do hold our industry up to the light – as valuable and worthy.  We describe our unpaid unemployment activities as work. We continue to uphold each other’s labour as worthy and we unite in refusal of the narrative that some occupations and people are worth more than others. Without some industry people cannot sustain their lives – anybody who would counter this by saying that claiming benefits is not ‘work’ have not been through the benefits system lately.

Secondly, we need to fight for community spaces, or create them here in the wilderness. In each others’ homes, church halls, libraries, community centres, we can organise ourselves to create ‘office space’ for those doing freelance or unpaid work. These spaces will allow otherwise isolated workers to be around others, connect, and get their need for affection and camaraderie met. Those working multiple jobs could benefit from having a free meal cooked for them once a week – thus reducing financial and occupational burdens and social isolation. Those subsisting on benefits could benefit from a free meal to maintain nutritional and social well-being. Those who feel underemployed could organise to cook for others who are overemployed or unable. Freelancers and sporadic workers could use time between jobs to fundraise the food money, or to enlist the sponsorship of socially conscious wealthier folk. Innovating in the wilderness makes sure that we care for each others’ and our own needs so that we can continue to survive outside of secure territories. Part of this survival is to establish a firm basis of human contact, affection, and nourishment for each other – separately from traditional work spaces – so that isolated people do not fall through the cracks. We are unique in the diversity of our levels of time and energy to create these environments and can use this to our advantage.

Thirdly, unfair wages and poor working conditions are a public health issue. We need to keep saying this at every level of society, especially when dealing with those who remain in secure territories. If we have the time and energy to sit on patient boards at GP surgeries/hospitals then we can raise it here; we can write to our MP, no matter how hasty or time-pressured the email, as long as it states the basic idea; if we are writers then we write about it; we can broadcast the realities of precariat life online to as broad or narrow an audience as we like, anonymously if we like; we can scrawl it on a t-shirt in permanent ink and wear it to our places of worship or in the pub. Additionally, we can request wages from charities and the third sector for our unpaid work; we can join local campaigns for a universal income, the living wage, and/or for paid apprenticeships; and if we don’t have time or energy for any of this, then we can hopefully rely on others of our class, other wilderness wanderers, to help us out.

Finally, we can support young people from working class backgrounds who are increasingly entering the precariat class.We can stop pressurising young people to live up to the standards of yesterday and accept that it is increasingly difficult for young people from working class backgrounds to live in ‘secure’ territory. We make the wilderness feel as secure as possible. A sense of pride in one’s own life and a feeling of connection with others is vital to health and happiness and will help young people to continue striving for vocational and existential goals, even when they are not being valued by wider culture. If we can instil a sense of existential security in our precariat young people, no matter what they end up “doing”, then we might save them years of stress, health issues, and anxiety. If we can be equally proud of our seasonal workers, freelancers, unpaid community workers, unpaid street sweepers, part-time care workers, zero-hours Asda workers, occasional performers, recreational dancers, readers, music enthusiasts, disabled self-care extraordinaires, odd-jobbers, and prolific dreamers, as we are of our electricians, builders, and secretaries, then this will go a long way to ensuring the future health of the precariat class.  This isn’t to say we give up on campaigning for better wages and job and welfare security, but it is to be realistic about protecting the well being of future generations in the current climate.

We can be prophariats in the wilderness – prophets and innovators from the precariat class who, in not being secure, threaten security. The threat will not be via violent revolution, nor voting for nationalist leaders, but by embracing the facts of our lives and surviving, together; by claiming our wilderness territories as homes in which we eat, connect, and flourish, in the face of all that would threaten our survival. Dogged determination to support each other’s right to life even if we do not dance to the tune of the exploitative class’s song might one day shut down their club. Then we will be the ‘secure’ ones: innovative in the face of precarity and ready to take humanity forward into a new evolutionary era where nobody is pushed out, devalued, or left behind.

The Void of Dissociation

One of the most striking and difficult things to witness in the faces of those immersed in the horrors of war and violence, especially children, is the often-visible impression of disconnect and dissociation. When the pain and shock of what has happened or is happening pushes somebody into a state of complete terror, the mind short circuits, and stops the body and brain from processing any information. You can see this happening on people’s faces and the way in which they hold their bodies. Many people can remember the face of the small Syrian boy in the back of an ambulance after a bombing raid on his home, which was shown on news channels, and was deeply affecting.

Dissociation is often necessary so that a person can survive terrifying experiences, but it means that memories are stored out of awareness, often in the body, and can be very difficult to accept as part of one’s experience going forward. The disconnect can destroy a sense of narrative and self. Aspects of dissociated trauma can break through at unexpected moments, causing a person to feel out of control all over again. When people dissociate, it is not just from the bad experiences they are having, or have had, it is from everything: it can make it difficult to experience or process care or love and can make connection to others, or belonging in a community, challenging. Processing dissociated experiences takes a lot of hard work and often requires skilled empaths to help through the often painful, scary process of re-connection, sometimes years later.

Dissociation is more than a wilderness, it is a total void. In this void one loses a sense of time, space, feeling, or meaning. It is a void which can repeatedly assert itself long after a traumatic event, disrupting life-as-normal, and acting like a black-hole – unexpectedly drawing in and disintegrating all light and life in response to events which seem innocuous but remind the body of some aspect of the original trauma. Dissociation creates a time-bomb of trauma waiting to go off. Defusing this bomb is hard to achieve; rebuilding ones life after it inwardly explodes can be a very painful process.

I think that one of the most important things a person can do for those who have recently experienced the traumas of war, or any other violence in their lives, is to be there in the immediate aftermath, consistently offering love and acceptance. Even if people do not process loving responses straight away, they might process them eventually, creating counter-explosions of love, relief, and gratitude.  When people begin to integrate traumatic experiences, they might also remember love and acceptance in the aftermath, too. Reconnecting with a sense of love and safety can bring a resilience and strength which enables people to move through trauma and begin to live in a more connected-up way again.

I was cared for at my grandma’s in the wake of very traumatic experiences in my childhood. She didn’t know about the trauma I had experienced, but her natural default was to feed me, care about me, hang out with me; I was loved. I didn’t process this love fully until years later. It helped me with healing, even though as it was happening I couldn’t process it.

We don’t have to be therapists or empaths to do this work of love. Sending aid or aid money to refugee camps, supporting local projects in camps or war zones, volunteering with NGOs who are serving refugee populations, or extending genuine welcome to refugees, asylum seekers, and survivors of violence in our own communities, adds up to a loving communal response.

The difficult thing about being in Calais recently was knowing how refugees there are being treated by police. The loving response shown by INGOs like Help Refugees and Care4Calais is real and important, but traumatised people continue to experience abuse at the hands of a European police force. Loving response at best counterbalances immediate ongoing trauma, rather than offering true sanctuary from the trauma refugees have already escaped. Therefore, part of a loving response is also to use passport privilege to challenge ongoing traumatisation of refugees on our borders — via public outcry, awareness-raising, and lobbying.

If we profess to love those on our borders, and have the privilege of citizenship, then we must campaign for change as hard as we would if it were a family member or friend being treated this way.

And if we seek healing and peace for all, we must still be there — with love, acceptance, and offers of belonging — years later: when the bombs have stopped falling in peoples’ home countries, when the news stories have stopped, when tyrannical regimes have (hopefully) fallen; when victims might have more space and safety to process what happened to them. We have a responsibility to create communities in which people know they are not alone, and they are seen for all that they are, that they belong, and are safe. Such communities are our only hope of healing both our local and global communities, so that we can inhabit a world in which God’s reign of love is a reality for all.

Being, left out in the cold

On of the most inhumane conditions to leave somebody in is extreme coldness. When a person is extremely cold, their body begins to shut down, and their mind goes blank. This blankness can shut down desire, love, pain, or anything which is not directly concerned with basic preservation – anything which is not the continuing beating of the heart and the continuing functioning of other vital organs. We all know that being cold creates a situation in which the only thing a person can truly think about is how cold they are. It endangers people into making decisions they wouldn’t make if they were warm — accepting situations which they might not otherwise accept, in order to preserve their life.

help refugees cold

When I am cold, I find it very difficult to pray because my body is so tense.

It is difficult to feel open and receptive to the universe when one’s body is contracting in an attempt to stave off the inescapable physical anguish of the freezing cold. That is why soaking somebody and putting them in a fridge or freezer is often used as a method of torture by regimes and governments.

When I am emotionally upset, I cover myself with blankets and the duvet. It is a natural human response to want to be surrounded in warmth when bad things have happened.

Often, refugees have fled situations of extreme violence and war. Many are traumatised and need a lot of good, long duvet days, to say the least. Instead, they are left out in the cold, desperate, and re-traumatised by the slow torture of freezing in a country which could provide for them, but instead chooses to steal their sleeping bags, destroy their tents, and tear-gas them.

I cannot bear to think of how many people in Calais in the last few days, in sub-zero temperatures, have either died from the cold, gotten illness which will cause them to die eventually, have gone to desperate measures to stay warm, have had their trauma deepened, or have lost hope. When so many people care and are sending sleeping bags, clothes and tents, but they are stolen by the police, it is especially cruel. Stopping one group of people from experiencing the literal and emotional warmth which comes from receiving nurture from another group is to deny both sets of people their humanity and to impose an extra layer of coldness on those who are endangered.

We must cry out, repeatedly, until the powers of this world are so tortured by our cry that they can no longer continue. It is already getting too late in the day. The sun is down. The wind is biting. We must feel the moral chill in the air and set our souls ablaze for justice.

Entering the wilderness, or trapped in the dark…?

On departure from the ferry at Calais one of the first things we saw was this:

These two barbed wire fences are designed to keep refugees from getting onto lorries and boats from Calais to the UK. Further up from this there is a third layer of barbed wire on the floor between the two fences. The site of the old ‘Jungle’ camp, once home to thousands of refugees, now lies beyond these fences. The fences stretch on for a couple of miles by my reckoning. Notice the flood lights, the cold weather, the overcast skies. Later, we saw debris from where people had been living strewn across the side of the road; groups of young men huddled around fires staving off the cold and damp.

I am struck by the vast distance there is between choosing to enter a wilderness space, and being trapped in one. Our passports were checked at the border, and our car searched, but our passage was smooth because we had the “right” passport, because by chance we were born into a situation of relative privilege.

For many of the refugees here, Calais is more of a trap than a wilderness place. The displacement is not chosen, this is not a journey of enlightenment but of fleeing violence and war. It is more like the journey Jesus made as a child when his family fled to Egypt to escape tyrannical King Herod, than it is like Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness as an adult. Most people here are  traumatised and desperate to be reunited with family or start a new life in the UK.

Nevertheless, it is a wilderness of sorts. Calais is for many people a bleak place, far from home, cold, and dangerous, where refugees have to trust in the grace of strangers for survival. There is an end-of-the-world type feeling cloaking the whole town, dystopian images never far away, and eerie emptiness created by the absent-presence of people living in hiding from the sight of locals and police.

“…he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him” (Mark 1:13)

On the cross somebody taunts Jesus saying, “save yourself! If you are the son of God, come down from the cross!”. But sometimes people are trapped, like Jesus was. They cannot come down from their crosses, God does not swoop down like superman and make things right, oppressive regimes injure and kill God’s people every day. We have to trust in resurrections of all kinds, even when the world appears irretrievably cloaked in darkness.  We have to trust in angels and accidental saints – messengers of light – to minister to us in these wilderness places and we have to pray that when children of God are forced into these spaces, we can become those messengers of light ourselves.

calais light interfaith sun

In a prison cell, the mind will latch on to glimmers of light – a smile, a song drifting through the walls. At the end of times, whether literal or metaphorical, the forces of dark and light meet. The cross meets the resurrection.  Let us hope that the light shining in the darkness shall not be overcome by the sinister forces at work in Calais. Let us see God with and in those who are trapped by borders, barbed wire, and brutality. Let us pray for resurrection, for forgiveness of those who have taken part in the inhumanity here, and for those who are trapped here to be held in the light.

“In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1: 4-5)