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The absence of presence

It has been a challenge to work from home during the COVID-19 lockdown  – no, not any children running around demanding something to eat. For me it is the disconnection from people in a time when physical distancing is the rule. I’ve been advocating the crucial need of appropriate touch for human flourishing for years, and all of a sudden it evaporated into thin, virus-floating air.  Fortunately I work for an organisation that is geared towards distance learning, so that transition was relatively painless. But I noticed how tired I was after our online/ zoom meetings, and even after numerous WhatApp video calls with colleagues, friends and family, I’m getting more reticent to push the video button as lockdown-days are dragging on.

This morning I read a tweet by Gianpiero Petriglieri, associate professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD Business School, and an expert on leadership and learning in the workplace.

It made total sense ~ our bodies are blindfolded. The constant presence of each other’s absence deprives our bodies from sensing and imagining enough. Just listen:

“I spoke to an old therapist friend today, and finally understood why everyone’s so exhausted after the video calls. It’s the plausible deniability of each other’s absence. Our minds tricked into the idea of being together when our bodies feel we’re not. Dissonance is exhausting.

It’s easier being in each other’s presence, or in each other’s absence, than in the constant presence of each other’s absence.

Our bodies process so much context, so much information, in encounters, that meeting on video is being a weird kind of blindfolded. We sense too little and can’t imagine enough. That single deprivation requires a lot of conscious effort.

I am finding Zoom easier if I don’t make eye contact. Then I can mimick a distant presence, which feels more real. If I want intimacy, and we’re apart, I’ll phone. And If I want to say thinking of you, I’ll write.”

                                                         ~ Gianpiero Petriglieri

Centre for useless splendour

I was perched on a stool at a small oak bistro table, drinking a glass of Bartinney Sauvignon Blanc – “wine made on a mountain”. At the table next to me at the wine bar (my favourite when in Stellenbosch) was a group of ten or so students, all dressed in evening wear for the end year ball. Dresses shimmered in hues of silver, lilac, emerald and gold exposing bare backs in the late afternoon sun. The men were more or less unanimously dressed in tight-fitting navy suits hugging gym-trained bodies, with sharp pointed patent leather shoes or “vellies” (informal suede shoes) and colourful socks. The picture that came to mind was like a scene from “Big little lies” – beautiful people living seemingly charming lives in Monterey, California.

Beautiful people living privileged lives while studying at the university – a centre for academic excellence and innovation. But they were brash – loudly ordering one round of champagne after the other, cigarette smoke drifting in the faces of Belgian tourists at another table – hilariously laughing at silly conversation and endlessly posing and re-posing for the one perfect photo to upload onto Instagram, hiding all the little lies. Then finally, they ordered an Uber to take them to the ball, but then grudgingly started walking to the venue when the Uber took too long to arrive in peak traffic.

An hour later I was listening to a memorial lecture in honour of a previous Vice-Chancellor’s legacy of hope. The speaker from Ghana spoke about economic justice, right relationships with God and between people and urged the audience to realise that the time for change is now! But before all these fiery words, the recipients of the bursary fund (mostly black) were introduced – studying in diverse fields like occupational therapy, humanities, social work, theology, animal science, viticulture, food science and law, most of them young people from previously disadvantage communities, most of them perhaps the first of their families to study at a university. What struck me was their composure – serious, quiet, focused.

Off course it’s an unfair comparison for me to make, having no clue of the stories and “little lies” behind the beautiful bodies or composed facades. Off course the contexts differ completely. Off course the university has made enormous strides towards transformation and inclusivity in higher education in the face of the brutal legacies of Apartheid. But what bothered me was the seeming lack of urgency in the demeanour of the group of beautiful students (only white). Off course the occasion did not call for a conversation on social justice, but absent was a sensibility. And I was thinking – a university like this as a centre of academic excellence do not only have the task to produce beautiful young people with competitive degrees, but people, standing in right relationships with each other – the daughter of the farm worker and the son of the farmer equally sensitised to the social and economic injustices of this beloved country, equally primed to make a difference.

Otherwise, it only becomes a centre for useless splendour.

Narrative stitch – one woman’s story

The last weeks we have lamented how men in South Africa abuse, rape and murder women and children. In cities vocal protests were held against Gender Based Violence (GBV). And quietly in her studio in Muizenberg an artist has for many years been stitching the stories of womanhood. During these demonstrations, Willemien de Villiers drew a painting of male genitalia (similar to her stitching technique) and wrote on her Facebook page ~ “Serendipity. On this very difficult day for South African women, I found myself painting a diagram of male genitalia. My brushstrokes were gentle as I imagined feminising them, taking away their power to hurt”.  

She wrote this in her blog ~ “Growing up in this completely segregated and separated community, combined with early childhood sexual abuse (maternal grandfather), left me with the gift of hyper vigilance, and a sensitivity to the presence of abuse in others’ lives. Silence is the perpetrators’ best friend, especially in countries where patriarchal systems still rule, as is the case here, in South Africa. Working with reported details of domestic abuse helps me to cope in our violent society. It helps me to heal. While stitching, I feel close to those who’ve suffered abuse. In return, I hope that the finished work will inspire conversation, or a different way of thinking. Will raise awareness” (2016) and later “Often I return to imagery of the female body, and reproductive processes and organs – images of botanical and mammalian wombs that magnetically pull ideas from my mind. What comes first: meaning or making? Maybe I am hoping to stitch all my selves together.”

I am fascinated by the textures and tactility of her stories on textiles.

The honesty and painfulness of her work. The beauty. In a recent article on her work in “Stitch & Illo – every stich tells a story”, she contemplates ~ “I also love the idea that there are always two sides to the finished story or work: the front, and the reverse side. Both are equally valid and beautiful”. Stitching is a calming activity, but can also be violent ~ “ Needles are very sharp and indeed, blood sometimes flows. Whenever I accidentally prick myself, I always let the blood seep into the cloth I’m busy with, adding one more stain to the landscape. Sewing is a process of emotional repair…It is  a form of meditation: a devotional act even.”

She sometimes ponder if her work appeals to men – why men don’t buy her work… Perhaps stitching is a very unique and a very powerful way in which women can tell their stories. And perhaps some men will look and gently trace the stories of women under their fingertips.


The photo is from the Facebook page of Willemien de Villiers Artist on https://www.facebook.com/willemienstudio

Her blog is: https://willemiendevilliers.wordpress.com and also see http://willemiendevilliers.co.za/

not knowing

I think it was Spring.

I think it was a Saturday afternoon, me sitting on the balcony of a friend’s charming apartment in Clarendon Court, a slightly dilapidated Victorian apartment block at the foothills of the Union Buildings. Sunlight filtering through the Jacaranda branches, a glass of white wine tear dropping on an uneven side table.

I was lazily flipping through a book my friend just pulled from his eclectic but fascinating bookshelf (very similar to his circle of friends). It was before I pursued my studies again. It was after an extremely difficult re-settling in South Africa – working in a draining job that I really didn’t want to do anymore. Then I stumbled upon this paragraph ~ the book was “After the ecstacy, the laundry” by Jack Kornfield:

“At the root of suffering is a small heart, frightened to be here, afraid to trust the river of change, to let go in this changing world. This small unopened heart grasps and needs and struggles to control what is unpredictable and unpossessable. But we can never know what will happen. With wisdom we allow this not knowing to become a form of trust.”

Waiting with bated breath on that which we have no idea about, allowing not knowing to become a form of trust. I lived by this maxim for a few years after encountering Jack Kornfield. And then it started fading again, overtaken by plans of action, trying to make a living (…and money) and managing everyday upheavals.

Trying to predict, trying to control, trying to possess. A few years went by…

Then re-reading the words of Maxine Sheets-Johnstone while writing my previous blog ~ to draw back “from an easy, ready-made everyday language and our turning first of all to experience itself”; to “bracket” our natural attitude towards the world and “thereby meet an experience as if for the first time”, a process where everyday judgements, beliefs and reactions are put aside, as well as “everyday habits of languaging experience”; to move experience itself to the foreground and listen to its interior dynamics, with the body as the foundation of experience…triggered the memory of the experience of sitting on the balcony, haphazardly reading Jack Kornfield. The memory had to ferment before I could write again…

I do not have a clear vision for my future. I struggle to imagine the next five years of my life (the tyranny of Facebook slogans and self-help books). Perhaps it’s to do with growing older. Perhaps it’s okay not to have a clue. Perhaps it’s a form of wisdom. Perhaps I should allow this not knowing to become a form of trust.

Note: I shall explore the connection between not knowing and bracketing within narrative therapy (and theology) in the next blog.

Black, White, Red & Yellow

We are made of goodness. We are made for love. We are made for friendliness. We are made for togetherness. We are made for all of the beautiful things that you and I know. We are made to tell the world there are no outsiders. All are welcome: black, white, red, yellow, rich, poor, educated, not educated, male, female, gay, straight, all, all, all. We all belong to his family, this human family, God’s family.”

 – Desmond Tutu

It was immensely satisfying to be intimately involved in the opening of the Black, White, Red & Yellow Art Exhibition this week on the colourful life of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. I grew up in a household during the Apartheid years where Tutu was considered to be the devil. I grew up learning to fear the Other – the things and people that were different and strange. He was even vilified in the propaganda press as the anti-Christ. This because of his stance against the evils of Apartheid society and his support of economic and cultural sanctions against the government of the day. Post-1994, after the first democratic election in South Africa, he continued speaking truth to power, and because of that, he was often side-lined and urged to be quiet.

I also grew up hating “the Otherness” of myself. It was a long journey to undo the hate, fear, judging and moralism of my youth. Seeking a place to belong, in my own body and amongst other bodies in this world, I read the words of Desmond Tutu somewhere in the 1990s, writing that it would be unlikely that Christ would be on the side of those that ostracise people based on their race, gender or sexual orientation, making them aliens, banning them from the household of God. Little did I know that years later I would defend my doctorate in the Netherlands with him on the stage and his daughter standing by my side.

Desmond Tutu played a crucial part in my journey to un-fear and un-hate, to find a place of belonging and acceptance ~ to become more human. Along the way, in some sense I became a stranger in my family and an Other in the church. But I do belong ~ with the black, white, red, yellow, rich, poor, educated, not educated, male, female, gay, straight, all, all, all. We all belong to his family, this human family.


“Richard, Marlene & Vincent”: Photo credit/ copyright: Jacob Meiring

Paul Germond and Steve de Cruchy, “Aliens in the household of God. Homosexuality and Christian Faith in South Africa” (1997).

Staying true to the truths of experience

Maxine Sheets-Johnstone is an astounding thinker and writer – in short, a most remarkable woman. Her field of study is the philosophy of Biology/Anthropology and the philosophy of Mind/Body, which basically studies the nature and relationship of the mind to the body.  Her insights are influential in dance therapy, as she explores the dynamics of movement, language and meaning-making – insights that also deeply influenced my ideas on the body and how we make meaning. There exist a profound challenge in “languaging” dynamic experience (see my previous blog ~ https://bodytheology.co.za/2019/07/11/the-lost-language-of-bodies/ ) and in meeting that challenge, we should “be true to the truths of the experience”. In theology we often tend to devaluate the experiences we live, to subvert it to the authority of the church, its dogmas and then use Scripture to humiliate people and ridicule their  “dynamic experiences”  – forgetting that all the words in Scripture are a struggling effort to put into language of what was experienced dynamically – and that this is a process that is still ongoing.

These dynamic experiences refer to the “complex diversity of feelings and thoughts that exceed the bounds of everyday language because they are experienced dynamically”. Maxine encourages us to find ways that “demands our drawing back from an easy, ready-made everyday language and our turning first of all to experience itself”. To be able to do this, we have to “bracket” our natural attitude towards the world and “thereby meet an experience as if for the first time”. The  notion of bracketing as a process where everyday judgements, beliefs and reactions are put aside, as well as “everyday habits of languaging experience”; in doing this, experience itself is moved to the foreground and we can listen to its interior dynamics. We must be slow in putting words to what we experience. And first listen.

Maxine emphasises the need to first experience the dynamics before trying to describe or name them. She continues that “names are indeed lacking not only because everyday language is basically deficient with respect to dynamics, but because names cannot do justice to dynamics”. Emotions have a double dynamic in the sense that they “move through us in distinctive ways and move us to move in distinctive ways”. We experience cognitive emotions in feeling fear, sadness and delight, where a “felt dynamic moves through our bodies and moves us to move — or not to move — in an affectively unique manner”.  The body is the foundation of experience and this testifies “to the rich and complex dimensions of bodily being”. That is why it remains crucial to explore “the living realities of corporeal life and of understanding in the deepest sense in each instance what it means to be the bodies we are”.

the lost language of bodies

We make meaning through storytelling

We tell stories through language

We form language through words

But what we say far exceeds words, language and stories.

That’s why I formed the idea of the “embodied sensing of meaning”.

But even this remains a vague and merely academic notion if it doesn’t capture what we say and do not say

The unsaid

The space between what we experience, and what we put into words.

The space beyond words

Beyond language

I’m still trying to put this idea into unreliable words

Trying to taste the right words

In therapy I would encourage clients to “find the words that work

The words that are as close as possible to the experience

As close to the bone

Of pain, of joy, of vulnerability, of desperation, of hope, of trauma

To find the language of your body

But we use words so randomly




Not caring where they fall

What they say

Who they hit

We lost the ability

To role a little stone word in our mouth

Around our tongue

And say it only after we tasted

Its shape, its form, its texture, its meaning

It reminds me of that striking title of that beautiful book

The lost language of cranes

The lost language of bodies

Note: In the next few blogs I shall unpack the connection between the body, words, language, what we say and how we make meaning

The enigmatic and slightly crazy doctor Reich

Why were the Nazi’s, the 1950s American government, and two Catholic Popes so afraid of Wilhelm Reich? I must admit, he looks a bit crazy, an intense stare in his eyes and wild hair like Albert Einstein, but even Einstein rejected his inventions, the “orgone accumulator” (for harnessing orgone energy) and his “cloudbuster” (for seeding clouds), as ludicrous. Reich had a nervous breakdown and eventually died in 1957 in an American prison. Twenty years after the Nazi’s burned his books, Reich’s books and equipment were burned and destroyed on instruction of the United States Food Administration. Why were they so afraid?

In short, he claimed that better orgasms could cure many ills of society. Okay, it sounds silly, but then it also speaks of bodies, or more accurately – desiring bodies. Reich, also called the “Jewish pornographer” by the Nazi’s dedicated his life “to exploring the nature of the orgasm and taking a radical ‘hands-on’ approach to psychoanalysis to treat both mind and body… Ten years after his death, the slogan of the 1960s counter-culture ‘Make Love Not War’ summed up his philosophy in just four words” (David Bramwell). He wanted nothing less than a sexual revolution, one which could liberate us from the uptight, aggressive authoritarianism of politics and state. Reich was baptised “the godfather of the sexual revolution“. He coined the phrase in the 1930s in order to illustrate his belief that a true political revolution would be possible only once sexual repression was overthrown. In 1936 he published his book, “Die Sexualität im Kulturkampf” ( later published in English as “The Sexual Revolution”), with a subtitle “for the socialist restructuring of humans”,

He was born in Austria, studied medicine, raised through the psychoanalytical ranks, became a star pupil of Sigmund Freud and then fell out with Freud – over orgasms. For Freud the libido was an unruly beast. Reich believed the opposite, perceiving the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s as a direct result of repressed sexual desire, sublimated into hatred and war (Christopher Turner). For Reich the body language adopted by those in the military says all we need to know about sexual, psychological and emotional repression – stiff controlled body movements, tight pelvis, rigid jaw, unquestioning obedience and stifled emotions. Reich saw fascism as the ‘frenzy of sexual cripples’. To him bigotry, violence and hatred all stem from a longing for love (Bramwell). What matters is how much we can let ourselves go during sex to achieve full-body orgasm.

He rejected the ‘talking cure’. For Reich, treatment had to transcend words. He broke the golden rule of psychoanalysis – never touch a patient – and developed physical manipulation techniques to enable emotional release. These techniques stemmed from his belief that unresolved conflict leaves a remnant of muscular tension; and as muscles attach to tendons, which attach to bones, the growing skeletal system of a child is fenced in by the patterns of tension from unresolved conflict. Thus, the psychological history of a person is present not just in the mind, as Freud and Jung believed, but in the body too (Bramwell).

He fled Nazi Germany for Norway under a false name, then to Sweden and eventually to America. In 1947, Harper’s magazine introduced Reich to mainstream Americans as the leader of “a new cult of sex and anarchy” that was blooming along the west coast where bohemians lived in shacks. The Food and Drug Administration began investigating Reich for making fraudulent claims and spent nearly $2m investigating and prosecuting Reich. He became the scapegoat for the new morality, was imprisoned and died 8 months into his sentencing.

As recently as April 2019, ex Pope Benedictus Benedict XVI, blamed the sexual revolution for the suffering in Catholic moral theology, rendering the Church defenceless against changes in society and leading to “homosexual cliques” in seminaries (see my previous blog https://bodytheology.co.za/2019/05/10/talking-about-a-revolution/). It seems as if there is a disconnect between church and the body, especially a body that desires. We also live in societies where we are becoming more afraid to touch. Bodies need healthy and appropriate touch to flourish – and the needs of bodies should also be embraced in way we do therapy.

During the 1968 student revolution, Reich’s words were written in graffiti on walls. In Berlin copies of his “The Mass Psychology of Fascism” were hurled at police and at the University of Frankfurt, students were advised to “Read Reich and Act Accordingly”. I see signs of fascism. We should read Reich again.

What is the purpose of my human?

I enjoy the way in which Hannah Gatsby, the stand-up comedian from Australia subverts comedy as a genre to create her own truth. She then moves away from silly vulgarity and cheap tricks, and makes herself completely vulnerable – and then in between she still makes people laugh. She was very close to her grandmother and relates how “Grandma always used to say, “Ah, well, it’s all part of the soup. Too late to take the onions out now” when making mistakes. “I had to deal with too many onions as a kid, growing up gay in a state where homosexuality was illegal. And with that thought, I could see how tightly wrapped in the tendrils of my own internalized shame I was. And with that, I thought about all my traumas: the violence, the abuse, my rape. And with all that cluster of thinking, a thought, a question, kept popping into my mind to which I had no answer: What is the purpose of my human?”

 I first took note of Hannah in her Netflix show, Nanette (which made her so famous that she couldn’t follow through on her plan to quit stand-up comedy). “Now, many have argued that “Nanette” is not a comedy show. And while I can agree “Nanette” is definitely not a comedy show, those people are still wrong — because they have framed their argument as a way of saying I failed to do comedy. I did not fail to do comedy. I took everything I knew about comedy — all the tricks, the tools, the know-how — I took all that, and with it, I broke comedy. You cannot break comedy with comedy if you fail at comedy. Flaccid be thy hammer.” That was not my point. The point was not simply to break comedy. The point was to break comedy so I could rebuild it and reshape it, reform it into something that could better hold everything I needed to share, and that is what I meant when I said I quit comedy.

This is how she subverted comedy. This is how we can break the dominant, disempowering narratives in our lives. As I watched her TED talk, I was astonished how much of what she said, echoed the dynamics of narrative therapy – and once again underlined the power of storytelling. Just listen to some snippets of her story and her struggle to find a way out of her trauma through a cohesive narrative and through comedy:

“I first tried my hand at stand-up comedy in my late 20s, and despite being a pathologically shy virtual mute with low self-esteem who’d never held a microphone before, I knew as soon as I walked and stood in front of the audience, I knew, before I’d even landed my first joke, I knew that I really liked stand-up, and stand-up really liked me. But for the life of me, I couldn’t work out why. Why is it I could be so good at doing something I was so bad at?

“But you need more than just jokes to be able to cut it as a professional comedian. You need to be able to walk that fine line between being charming and disarming. And I discovered the most effective way to generate the amount of charm I needed to offset my disarming personality was through not jokes but stories. So my stand-up routines are filled with stories: stories about growing up, my coming out story, stories about the abuse I’ve copped for being not only a woman but a big woman and a masculine-of-center woman. If you watch my work online, check the comments out below for examples of abuse (Laughter).”

“Now, about a year before Grandma died, I was formally diagnosed with autism. Now for me, that was mostly good news. I always thought that I couldn’t sort my life out like a normal person because I was depressed and anxious. But it turns out I was depressed and anxious because I couldn’t sort my life out like a normal person, because I was not a normal person, and I didn’t know it. Now, this is not to say I still don’t struggle. Every day is a bit of a struggle, to be honest. But at least now I know what my struggle is, and getting to the starting line of normal is not it. My struggle is not to escape the storm. My struggle is to find the eye of the storm as best I can. “

“Diagnosis gave me a framework on which to hang bits of me I could never understand. My misfit suddenly had a fit, and for a while, I got giddy with a newfound confidence I had in my thinking. But after Grandma died, that confidence took a dive, because thinking is how I grieve. And in that grief of thought, I could suddenly see with so much clarity just how profoundly isolated I was and always had been. What was the purpose of my human?

This is such an awkward and at the same time such a brilliant question- what is the purpose of my human? No matter all the onions in our soup, we have to make meaning of our lives – of our being here.

“I began to think a lot about how autism and PTSD have so much in common. And I started to worry, because I had both. Could I ever untangle them? I’d always been told that the way out of trauma was through a cohesive narrative. I had a cohesive narrative, but I was still at the mercy of my traumas. They’re all part of my soup, but the onions still stung. And at that point, I realized that I’d been telling my stories for laughs. I’d been trimming away the darkness, cutting away the pain and holding on to my trauma for the comfort of my audience. I was connecting other people through laughs, yet I remained profoundly disconnected. What was the purpose of my human? I did not have an answer, but I had an idea. I had an idea to tell my truth, all of it, not to share laughs but to share the literal, visceral pain of my trauma. And I thought the best way to do that would be through a comedy show.”

See the TED talk of Hannah Gatsby on: https://www.ted.com/talks/hannah_gadsby_three_ideas_three_contradictions_or_not?language=en

Interview ~ a theology from the body

A theology from the body is a more democratic way of doing theology – making meaning through stories and through the body – as opposed to a moralistic way of doing theology prescribing how we should live in our bodies and ignoring how people experience living life in their bodies.

This is an interview made by the very creative team of Blackhole Productions, in Afrikaans nogal. For those of you who do not understand this expressive language, perhaps you would get a sense of who I am. In the interview I explore my thoughts on the body and theology, a moralistic way of looking at embodiment, and my discomfort in approaching the body from an ethical perspective. In my own research, I prefer a much wider scope, placing inquiries about the body within theological anthropology, doing theology from the body, through storytelling and within the larger question of what it means to be human. It touches upon the differences between a theology of the body (Roman Catholic) and body theology (Reformed), which I will explore further in the blogs on the sexual revolution and the enigmatic Wilhelm Reich.

Oh, and to watch the video, please follow this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yweR3AgzH2o