all of who we are

A reflection for a meeting this morning, of a highly complex and demanding committee…

One of the great gifts that working in the prison gave me was the demand to learn to live with complexity. The oh-so-human tendency to categorise people in terms of oppositional binaries – labelling one as good, and the other as bad; one as right, the other as wrong; one as evil and the other as virtuous – falls apart when you sit across the table from someone who has done unspeakable horror, and yet who shows exquisite gentleness in the way they treat a fellow prisoner with mental illness.

My brain breaks every time i go into the prison, from trying to hold the dissonances in place, until i can almost physically feel it cracking until the binaries bleed into each other, and slowly dissolve.

One of the reasons i started studying psychology was to understand why that’s at the core of being human – why we need to define ourselves and others so quickly. It’s a simple reason: the brain is overloaded with sensory input every day, and we need to make shortcuts. Oppositional binaries and broad categories are the easiest way to do it. If we didn’t do that, we would not be able to function effectively. But the pay off is that we function effectively, and inaccurately. We have to compromise.

When i go into the prisons, one of my core tasks is to lead meditation. And i start with a reflection that includes the following words:

In this space and time
all of who we are
is welcome.

You can bring the broken, darkest parts of you
the parts which strive to be beautiful
and those which are nothing but flawed

and put them next to mine.

as together
we let them be shaped
by the presence of love.

[As a diversion, the reason i stay working for the church is because it forces me to do that – to live with complexity – when i would rather do anything but.]

The prison has taught me the gift of owning our complexity and our flawed-ness. Of letting ourselves be more than the story the world knows of us.

We bring to this table we’re meeting around, all of who we are.
This is both our greatest weakness and our greatest strength.

We will have come with priorities
that we might barely be aware of
urgent expectations that we haven’t yet identified
with raw nerves that surface, unbidden
at unexpected moments
with fragilities unacknowledged and unwanted
that we have learnt only sometimes successfully
to mask

This is both our greatest weakness and our greatest strength.

Tied inextricably to those,
we will have come with questions
that don’t yet have words to shape them
we will bring experience that we haven’t yet valued
and knowledge that we take for granted.

This is both our greatest weakness and our greatest strength.

but what will make this a highly functioning committee
what will produce our best work
is if we acknowledge and embrace our own complexity
our incongruities and contradictions
our uncertainties and expectations
if we let them be on the table too.

Let me finish with a prayer or a blessing or a poem that brings that to the table.

In this space,
all of who we are is welcome,
and all of who we are is needed.

so in the silence,
name to yourself what you bring to the table:
your strengths
your failures
your capacity
your weakness

let those things sit alongside all that your neighbour brings.

and let it become part of the gift we can be.