“We have to find the humility to be open to experience every single day and to allow ourselves to learn something,” Ms. May wrote in “Enchantment.”
This, she acknowledges, “is easier said than done.”
“Let yourself go past those thoughts that tell you it’s silly or pointless or a waste of time, or you’re far too busy to possibly do this,” Ms. May said during the interview. “Instead give yourself permission to want that in the first place — to crave that contact with the sacred, and that feeling of being able to commune with something that’s bigger than you are.”
Entering a state of wonder is akin to using a muscle, Ms. May said. Put yourself in that mind-set more often and it gradually becomes easier.
the answers she gave to a New Zealand journalist recently about the effects of loneliness and the “beautiful benefits” of solitude. And here’s her blog about how desperately important connection and communication can be in a time of pandemic.
“I know how distracting it can be if you are having an interesting conversation and have to eat and order as well,” she says. “Although I won’t be eating much. But you must order something that you would really like, perhaps duck or prawns; that would make me feel a lot better.” I tell her that I am happy with her vegetarian choices of golden tofu (which she says “sounds lovely”), crispy dumplings and pad Thai.
Infuzions Thai in Cammeray is our venue because of its proximity to a studio where the Balmain-based Dowrick has been recording the audio book for Intimacy and Solitude.As it happens, recording has been completed, so there is plenty of time to move around the largely empty restaurant in search of the best spot for recording and photography.
Dowrick’s vibrantly patterned dress, in what interior designers would call “jewel” colours, blends well with the richly coloured Thai cushions and warm woods. “Lead, Kindly Light,” she jokes, quoting a famous hymn, as we search for the most flattering spot. In addition to being a versatile author of almost 20 fiction and non-fiction books, and a psychotherapist, Dowrick is an interfaith minister who was based at Pitt Street Uniting Church from 2006 to 2017. More recently she has been co-leading “sacred gatherings” at the InnerSpace Centre in Five Dock.
It quickly becomes clear that the meal is secondary to Dowrick, who I have met several times over the years through her publishing work and journalism. She wrote a popular Inner Life column for Good Weekend between 2001 and 2010, and was a regular guest of both Geraldine Doogue and Tony Delroy on ABC radio. These days she contributes opinion pieces to newspapers, primarily on social justice, human rights and ethical issues. And as she is my friend on Facebook, I am also aware of the joy she reaps as a mother and grandparent – and of her “later life” marriage in 2017 to Darwin-based paediatrician and health activist Paul Bauert. (“Because he lives 4000 kilometres from my home, I can continue to evolve my understanding of intimacy as well as solitude!”)
Today, and perhaps always, conversation and ideas interest her. Dowrick is a woman of intense blue eyes, a direct gaze and gently probing questions; she invites confidence and confidences, and indeed becomes the interviewer as much as the subject. It is fortunate that she arrived with her background dossier.
First published in 1991, Intimacy and Solitude was an international bestseller and has been revised and expanded several times since then. The latest edition was sparked by a recognition that the unpredictable events of 2020 had made the book’s message more relevant than ever. It is an encouragement for readers, a message of hope that blends readable case studies with deeply considered but accessible wisdom. Dowrick is convinced that we all have the potential to respond to both familiar and new situations freshly and creatively, especially if we renew our closeness to ourselves and to other people.
Comedian and author Magda Szubanski, musician Clare Bowditch and politician Kristina Keneally are among her raft of fans.
“If the pandemic taught us anything at all, it is that we are utterly and inevitably connected – and not only with this earth on which we wholly depend in all its brilliance, beauty, fearsomenesss and biodiversity,” Dowrick writes in her new 7000-word introductory essay. “COVID-19 showed us plainly that we protect ourselves best by willingly and generously protecting one another – even when separate or ‘distanced’.
“As powerful as those two potent words are individually – intimacy and solitude – they together describe and evoke a steadiness of inner support and resourcefulness that brings more than resilience and inevitably extends beyond ourselves to other people.”
‘My instinct has been unwavering: that not just I, but most of us, want to do at least somewhat better in our connections with others.’
Dowrick says that in addition to interviewing many people for the book, and “surveying screeds of psychological wisdom for the finest ideas”, she reviewed her own rich catalogue of “missteps” as well as what had made life “most worth living”. “My instinct has been unwavering: that not just I, but most of us, want to do at least somewhat better in our connections with others.
“A relatively healthy sense of self lets you accept what others can give you, even when it isn’t quite what you yearned for … It’s also dependent on trusting that your life matters – whether or not it is lauded by others. And that you deserve to care for yourself as respectfully and supportively as you would a trusted and cared-for friend.”
Dowrick was born in New Zealand and spent some of her formative years in isolated Maori and Pacific Island communities, where her parents were teaching. Her mother, Mary, died in her late 30s, when Dowrick was eight. It was, of course, a truly terrible experience and not one that she wishes to dwell on overly in an interview.
However, in her book she writes of the loss, which has affected the rest of her life: “Unsurprisingly, I was incapable of much self-care, never mind what ‘independence’ adds up to. I had gained immeasurably from the years of unstinting love my mother could give me when she lived. She was also, in her moral and emotional intelligence, in her creativity and pride in her profession as a gifted teacher and her commitment to service to others, an exceptional example to me.”
In the late 1960s, a lack of career opportunities in New Zealand for a clever and determined young woman led Dowrick to head for London where, with delight, she fell into book publishing (where senior women were still a rarity and her colleagues, mostly men from public schools, addressed each other by their surnames).
Her star rose. At the height of “second wave” feminism, in 1977, she convinced British publishing entrepreneur Naim Attallah to back a groundbreaking feminist imprint, The Women’s Press, and became its first managing director. Writers Janet Frame, Andrea Dworkin, Michele Roberts and Lisa Alther were among those who joined the list and, in 1983, with the Commonwealth publication of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Color Purple, commercial success was added to its cult status.
Shortly afterwards, Dowrick moved to Sydney and had two children, Kezia and Gabriel, in quick succession; her first novel, Running Backwards over Sand, which tells of a journey of self-exploration by a young woman who has lost her mother, was published in 1985. Subsequently, she worked part-time as a publisher at Allen & Unwin and broadened her writing to focus on self-development and further explored spirituality, most particularly through the work of German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (on whom she wrote a PhD thesis that evolved into a book, In the Company of Rilke).
On learning to live with isolation, the author, an “impatient patient” who fell ill for four months and was in hospital for 10 weeks before the pandemic hit, says that while the lockdown was a crisis of communication for social beings it could also offer “an opportunity to consider with fresh interest how we can more thoughtfully support others – receiving with grace and gratitude what they may have to give”.
While many have been feeling “flat”, she says it is important to be more consciously open to receiving, even when what’s coming your way doesn’t quite fit your expectations of how things should be. Like any change, some detachment is needed to see things anew, as is stillness, which is best achieved by not being constantly busy. (“Being busy is for me a psychological defence.”)
“In illness, our world shrinks. In social isolation, our world shrinks. Yet it’s precisely now that our vision must enlarge. Choosing to be the smallest bit more generous, perhaps more tolerant in both directions (giving and receiving), is itself an act of empowerment, an act of self-respect and even love – for ourselves and for all with whom we share this planet.
“When we’re down, our thoughts leap into a future that’s frightening. When we slow down, by contrast, we can experience this moment and – when we can – infuse it with greater vitality and hope. We can surround people and situations with the energies of loving-kindness and care, rather than anxiety or raw terror. And when we do this, we ourselves will benefit.”
The afternoon is slipping away, but Dowrick proposes we move on to coffee and pavlova. She wants to ask me some more questions.
439 Miller St, Cammeray
(02) 9957 1122
Intimacy and Solitude by Stephanie Dowrick is out now from Allen & Unwin.Save
Shona Martyn is Spectrum Editor at The Sydney Morning Herald. She was previously the Publishing Director of HarperCollins, the founding editor of HQ magazine and an editor of Good Weekend.Connect via email.
Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point.
— Blaise Pascal
The heart has its reasons that reason knows not of.
I. Why this review, and why here?
Karen Armstrong is a historian of religion whose erudition and insights have justly earned her great renown. Her books, such as A History of God and The Battle for God establish her as a social philosopher, as well. As such, she is a companion to Jane Jacobs, whose latest book Dark Age Ahead was reviewed in issue 104. The two of them are essential to understanding the present time. They show in both grand outline and detail how culture, politics and economics have interwoven to shape the world we live in at the beginning of the 21st century.
Bewildering Stories is very happy to have published articles and reviews in non-fiction. Our fiction has frequently featured alternate history and alternate futures. We now find ourselves at a historical juncture that many science-fiction writers have foreseen or alluded to but, I suggest, have not fully understood. They and we need to know what our history really is and what alternatives it proposes. It behooves us to listen intently to Jane Jacobs and Karen Armstrong.
II. What is fundamentalism?
[ for III. The history of fundamentalism see the entire article]
Armstrong traces the history of three fundamentalist movements:
in Judaism, especially in the state of Israel;
in Islam, first in Egypt among the Sunnis and then in Iran, among the Shi’ites;
and, finally, in American Protestantism.]
A. A general description
The best summary can be found in Karen Armstrong’s own “New Preface,” written a month or two after September 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks — “made for television” — on the centers of American economic and military power changed nothing in the conclusions of the first edition, published the year before; they only confirmed Karen Armstrong’s worst fears: a worldwide cultural rift is headed — in my terms — toward a global civil war. At best it is being fought in the realms of culture, politics and economics; at worst it spills over onto battlefields.
Karen Armstrong doesn’t like the term “fundamentalism.” It originated in the United States in the early 20th century, and its use has only recently spread to include more than some forms of American Protestantism. The term implies that fundamentalism is a monolithic reactionary movement and is similar in all religions.
Fundamentalism is not monolithic: it is as faction-ridden as any religion. And it is only vaguely similar between religions: the Jewish and Moslem versions emphasize observance and practice; Christianity is unique in emphasizing adherence to formal doctrine. Nor is fundamentalism reactionary: “The term also gives the impression that fundamentalists are inherently conservative and wedded to the past, whereas their ideas are essentially modern and highly innovative” (p. xii).
But Armstrong admits that the term has been consecrated by usage; we’re stuck with it. It is a “militant piety” that has emerged in every major religious tradition. She summarizes the definition proposed by the eminent scholars Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby: “[Fundamentalisms] are embattled forms of spirituality, which have emerged as a response to a perceived crisis. They are engaged in a conflict with enemies whose secularist policies and beliefs seem inimical to religion itself” (p. xiii).
The fundamentalist world view implies some corollaries. Fundamentalists…see their struggle not as one of conventional politics but as a cosmic war between good and evil;fear annihilation;affirm their identity by selecting doctrines and practices from the past;often withdraw from mainstream society and create a counterculture;absorb the pragmatic rationalism of modernity;create an ideology and action plan under the guidance of charismatic leaders;
eventually fight back and attempt to resacralize a skeptical world.
Armstrong sums up the confrontation:
Even the most peaceful and law-abiding are perplexing, because they seem so adamantly opposed to many of the most positive values of modern society. Fundamentalists have no time for democracy, pluralism, religious toleration, peacekeeping, free speech, or the separation of church and state (p. xi).
B. The fundamentalist rationale
Why would anyone embrace such authoritarian thinking? For reasons that seemed good at the time: “This battle for God was an attempt to fill the void at the heart of a society based on scientific rationalism” (p. 370).
“Human beings find it almost impossible to live without a sense that, despite the distressing evidence to the contrary, life has ultimate meaning and value” (p. 135). Mythos — mythology and its cults — provides that meaning; it basically answers the question “why.” Logos — rationalism and science — answers the question “how.” Logos may heal the body but only mythos can heal the spirit.
In the pre-modern world, both mythology and rationalism were mutually indispensable. In our time, logos has become predominant and, according to an epigram of Jean-Paul Sartre’s that Armstrong is fond of citing, it has left a “God-shaped hole” in modern consciousness. And that “hole” is going to be filled somehow.
A similar philosophical adaptation has happened before. In the Axial Age of 700-200 BCE, trade began to replace agriculture as a prime source of wealth. The pagan fertility gods became irrelevant to people who were gaining a wider knowledge of the world. Ever practical, humanity replaced the old, local gods with the world religions we know today.
Now we are living in a Second Axial Age, where science has been added to land and trade as a prime source of wealth. And the old religions must once again redefine themselves and adapt lest they be discarded as irrelevant