On circles

We have to stop running and take our places in the circle and face ourselves in front of each other. That is to say, to face how limited and uninteresting we are. Every one of us has to do this in front of everybody else. At that point, we have grown up. Nothing can let us escape this confrontation…. We have to come to terms with ourselves, with how bad we are, how limited we are, how short our life is.

Louise Bourgeois

I was told not too long ago about a group icebreaker exercise at a conference in which participants were asked to organize themselves along a line measuring two poles of extreme view about climate change: everything’s-fine-business-as-usual, and too-late-now-we’re-fucked. The point of the exercise was to compel people to speak with others in the group and get to know one another better. It was also to highlight how we negotiate our sense of ourselves in respect to other people, according to our values and personal perceptions.  The exercise forces the participants to analyse one another according to the starting proposition, and to dig into the complexity of the beliefs held by oneself and by other people. To analyse, categorise… to tap into that bottomless well of judgment that allows us to manipulate our world so adroitly, and to build entire complex civilisations based on a zillion interconnected calculations.

My own response – and also that of the friend who was telling me about her experience – was to question the premise itself. Why set such an exercise on a group of people who could potentially meet together with great goodwill? What purpose does it serve to ‘keep them in their place’? We agreed: take the two ends of the line, and join them together into a circle. Allow them to move around.

I don’t know much about the use of the circle as a sacred space, but my gut instinct is to respect it, and to resent its misuse. There was much made of the Round Table, but that was a political tool and damn it if Arthur wasn’t still king – he wasn’t that committed to equality. And as for ridicule… well, I guess we can all stoop so low. I know I can; I was taught by the best.

But isn’t that the point of the circle? It symbolises containment. It holds the bad stuff as well as the good, it holds the destructive impulse as well as the creative, which work together – no up without down, no near without far, no joy without anger, no relief without pain. Not for nothing do they call it the circle of life.  How do we cope with the bad stuff? Do we put it over there, at the other side of the room, on the other end of the line? Is it carried around in someone else? Or is it right there in the mirror? It’s really hard to look at that mirror, and not become overwhelmed.

Dear Anhrefn – ever on the ball, ever humble – gave me the gift of this poem a few months back. I’ll just copy the comment in full, as it is a fitting way to end this musing about circles:

I offer you words that are a balm to me, not mine but Louis MacNiece’s. It is a reminder that we are none of us alone, an invitation to ‘join hands’. It is called ‘Wolves’.

I do not want to be reflective any more
Envying and despising unreflective things
Finding pathos in dogs and undeveloped handwriting
And young girls doing their hair and all the castles of sand
Flushed by the children’s bedtime, level with the shore.

The tide comes in and goes out again, I do not want
To be always stressing either its flux or its permanence,
I do not want to be a tragic or philosophic chorus
But to keep my eye only on the nearer future
And after that let the sea flow over us.

Come then all of you, come closer, form a circle,
Join hands and make believe that joined
Hands will keep away the wolves of water
Who howl along our coast. And be it assumed
That no one hears them among the talk and laughter.

I hope there are lines here that purr for you when you pick them up. We must all come closer, join hands and defeat the howling together with our laughter.

2 thoughts on “On circles

  1. Perfect circles of coincidence: this reminds me that I trust too in circles as sacred spaces but also incline to idealise them, to forget that their work is to hold the bad stuff as well, until it all goes around and comes around, transforming. And that you bring back the MacNiece poem as the needed purring answer to the paragraph I’m taking a break from banging my head against writing by reading this …. 😉

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