I woke this morning haunted by two phrases chasing through my dreams: “We’re here to make the world safe for —” and “We can eliminate all evil,” half-consciousness laying bare the emptiness of such phrases, the mistaken assumptions about who we are, how much power we have, and why we are here in the first place.
When we tell ourselves that we are here to cleanse or perfect something — whether it’s us, the environment, people with different skins, alien cultures, or desperate terrorists — we totally miss the point. Perfection is one of those goals born from the story of separation. As is curing, rather than healing. Or cleansing, rather than embracing.
Last night, I attended an advisory group meeting of the New Day Campaign, a grand multi-faceted community arts and awareness project sourced from deep within the heart and soul of Peter Bruun, a man who is truly living into the New Story. Peter uses the arts as a vehicle to slip past people’s resistance and straight into their inner knowing. His ambition with this project is to shine a light on the stigma that wants to keep mental disturbance and addiction shrouded in darkness, shame, and silence.
At this meeting, Peter said we are all on the spectrum to one degree or another. I pictured the cold prisons of anxiety, depression, bipolar — words we use to talk (or avoid talking) about oh-so-natural human responses to the pain of our separation from each other and ourselves, and from our the very ground of our being, this precious earth.
He also said that, right now, there is too much “us” and “them” in the conversation. His project comes from painful experience and is an embodiment of his knowing that we are all in this together.
I have felt that pain of loneliness and isolation from my body, from my heart and mind, from other people. I have lived with the constant fear, doubt, worry, the dull heaviness of gravity on dark days, my skin too fragile to protect me from all the turbulence out there. It is exhausting.
We are all in everything together. Art has a magical way of tugging gently on the layers that we’ve put between us, starting with the armor shielding us from the world. Until Peter spoke of the spectrum, I had never made that connection. I hadn’t dared to presume that I could relate even to a tenth of what an addict or someone with mania or depression was feeling or experiencing; it seemed presumptuous. Peter showed me that this is also a form of “othering;” I tell myself that person isn’t like me; I think, “There but for the grace of God go I.” It’s a way of keeping someone at arm’s length as if they might be contagious.
At the debut of this project last fall, Peter asked an audience of about 300 to stand if we’ve been touched by, or suffered from, addiction or mental disturbance. Nearly every single person rose. We all stood there, looking around, nodding, appreciating, our stories meeting somewhere over our heads. If so many of us are touched by this, why is it still such a big secret?
There is more to this than shame and moral judgment. There is also a great fear of the unknown. In mythic stories, madness reigns in the Underworld, a shadow realm of dis-integration and death. No wonder we avoid it, in others as well as ourselves. Those whose heroic journeys take them to such places often enlist the help of a guide, someone who has been there before, who might have a foot in both worlds. And the truth is, we are, all of us, on such journeys. None of us can avoid the monsters and dark caverns of the underworld.
The New Day Campaign is more than a call for artists and activists, community leaders and policymakers; it is a call for guides. Shining the light of creative arts and community gathering, with photography, painting, performance, storytelling, music, healing, and ritual, recovering addicts and those touched by loss will guide us to and through the dark places we work so hard to avoid. The experiences of coming together to make art will reveal and bind, challenge and soothe, pierce our hearts and crack our shells.
Together, we will embrace paradox, cut through otherness, slay judgment, and invoke depths of compassion that we rarely allow ourselves to dream of.