Journeying into and beyond the margins (First draft)
Living in the margins can be an uncomfortable and difficult experience. There’s a sense of vulnerability and uncertainty: a bit like a yacht in a storm with no clear sense of direction or harbour in sight. Sometimes the sense of being in the margins is short – acute – at other times it is chronic, seeming to go on and on.
Here are some initial thoughts on journeying through the margins.
Know that the margins can be deeply spiritual places. ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head’ said Jesus’ (Matthew 8:20). The Beatitudes suggest that those who are poor in spirit, in grief, persecuted and otherwise in the margins are blessed in different ways. I challenge anyone to name a significant Biblical character who has not been on the margins at some point in their lives.
Why are the margins a spiritual place? Partially, perhaps, because being in the margins often (but not always) develops the muscles of compassion within us. When we are feeling on the margins, we may be more aware of and relate to others who are also on the margins.
The margins are often a place of wrestling with difficult thoughts and emotions. I think of the image of Jacob struggling with God; Job and Jesus (in Gethsemane) are others. Daniel Goleman, in his book ‘Destructive Emotions’ talks about the need to vent negative emotions such as hatred, desire, confusion, pride, and jealousy: ‘Feel their force, sense the stir of feelings and the undertow that, if left unchecked, might lead you back into the dark uncontrolled emotions of the original situation’ he says. ‘Only by allowing these feelings some sway can we practice overcoming them and so learn to hold the situation in a new light.’ When we are in the margins, we need to find positive ways of venting our feelings – shouting, hitting pillows, dancing, writing or singing all have a place.
M. Scott Peck says much the same: ‘Problems do not go away. They must be worked through or else they remain, forever a barrier to the growth and development of the spirit.
“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.” (The Road Less Travelled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth)
The margins can also be a place where we begin to understand what crosses we are bound to. I sometimes conduct a meditation in which I ask people to bind two pieces of wood together. One piece they choose themselves; the other – normally a less attractive one – I give to them. As they do so I ask them to reflect on what the second piece of wood may represent in their lives. Often they don’t say, but some relate difficult marriages or relationships, grief and loneliness, disabilities or chronic illnesses. The task, I think, is to find a way of living with our crosses in a creative and hopeful way.
The margins can also be a place where we develop love. If we lose one love – a cherished partner, for example – we will never fully lose that love. But over time, perhaps we can begin to develop other loves – for God or the divine, for others (individually or collectively), for nature or the world as a whole.
What does this all mean in a practical sense?
Personally, I have found ‘Street Wisdom’ a good way of dealing with problems of all sorts, including feeling on the margins. Street Wisdom involves a process of becoming more aware of what is going on around us, and then allowing the street to respond to a question that we may pose. For me, the great advantage of Street Wisdom is that it avoids me trying to over analyse issues and questions in my head – and seeing what is out in the street that resonates with me individually.
Harvey Gilman, a well-known Quaker, advised me to try to have one foot in the centre and one foot in the margins. We are members of many different groups – family, Church, community, work, interest and others. Being on the margins of all of them is not sustainable: it’s good to have at least one area of our lives where we feel reasonably central.
This may come from feeling central to the love of God or the divine, enabling us to pass on that love to others. At times, however, we ourselves may feel marginalised from that love – causing a dark night of the soul, in which we may feel bereft and lost. In such cases we may need the love of others – especially those in the Church – to carry us through.
Another approach is to look at the emotions we associate with feeling on the margins. They may include fear, anger, grief, loneliness and resentment. These emotions are part of us, but they do not define us. They are not greater than us. Try to imagine placing them in a box where we can begin to look at them from a different perspective: what causes them, how do we see them. If they were animals what sort of animal would they be?, what would we like to say to them?. This way, they are still part of us, but they do not dominate us. Often, I find, I need to treat some of these emotions with a good dose of humour.
Lastly, live in the present. So often, our fears of being on the margins are more about the future than the present: what if this goes on all my life? If we stay in the present, we save ourselves a lot of time and trouble worrying about a future that may never be. Conversely, continually imagining that ‘if only’ this or that were different, life would be so much better, prevents us fully engaging with life as it is.
The word vulnerable comes from the same stem as the word for wound. Being on the margins is linked to vulnerability and woundedness. Even if we are healed of our wounds, we may still show the scars of them – just as the resurrected Christ still bore the marks of the cross on his body.
23rd November 2019