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Whenever traveling or living abroad I have chronicled my experiences. This has resulted in a collection of travel essays spanning nine years and five different countries. My most recent blog, ‘The Road to Peace is Paved with Teacups’, narrates my assimilation process into Northern Irish culture and contemporary context. Through monthly essays I reflected on various chapters of (Northern) Irish history and mythology, and how I see those intersecting with my own country’s legacy.

The Bridge Builder and the Warrior

1st of July 2018

In my last piece on language I quoted Elif Shafak who wrote that wars arise over little more than semantics: “In a world beset by mistranslations, there is no use in being resolute about any topic, because it might as well be that even our strongest convictions are caused by a simple misunderstanding.” I hold in high regard such Buddhist equanimity. But not without question. To balance things out, let me dedicate this writing to the opposite movement in me, and juxtapose Shafak’s quote with one from Martin Luther King Jr., who once argued against impartiality in quite unambiguous terms: “The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.”

This is the paradox between the bridge builder and the warrior, one that I embody as my own most poignant inner conflict.

The bridge builder

I am characterised by a genuine interest in the wide range of human expression, a social scientist and philosopher with an ability to hold contrast, darkness, raw emotions, uncertainty and nuance with relative comfort. I spend a fair amount of time in introspection, navigating life on a particularly calibrated moral compass while trying to suspend my judgments and embrace the limits of my knowing. When I was given a tribes colour by people of the Ojibwe Nation, it was purple – colour of all tribes. I am drawn to the apex of the bridge, to hold the middle ground when the field is polarising. My reflex desire is to reach out to and reconcile both sides of a divide, whether it’s encouraging myself to walk the bridge into the wider world, or fighting off bias about two identity groups I have no personal affiliation with. This is why I ended up on a remote hilltop in Northern Ireland, giving months of my life in service to a peace and reconciliation centre in a postwar society. I am a bridge builder, and one of the values I police myself on most vehemently is humility and a dedication to the apprentice’s emptiness – an acknowledgment of my not-knowing, leaving space to be filled. I spend most of my time on the sideline observing, waiting, and soaking and soaking up a never-ending supply of facts and stories.

The warrior

And yet this humility and nuanced understanding have backfired on me in recent months. I swallowed back my knowledge and eager momentum to hone my capacity for patience and generosity, spending nine months voluntarily mopping floors, filling and emptying teapots, and shepherding screaming blindfolded kids around our hilltop. And in that humble role I let important professional opportunities pass me by. Meanwhile, intellectual under-stimulation, a curbing of my personal and professional autonomy, and a tantalising proximity to the work I came here for yet which remains inaccessible, have frustrated my strict discipline of humility to a point where another aspect of me broke through. A readiness to take a stand and declare myself in the world, an unwillingness to wait any longer to be invited into practice by others. A warrior spirit is slamming its fist on the table of my internal dialogue, with a proud certitude and dogged focus on self-actualisation, rebelling against nuance and humility. But a warrior implies an antagonist, and what a paradox that is.

Warriors of Ulster

Of all the words I’ve heard in my time here so far the words that have echoed in me most were about the young men of this country susceptible to recruitment by the still active paramilitary groups, because of a felt sense that they have “missed out on the war”. It rung in my ears not because of some self-righteous nose-wrinkling, but because of an honesty you wouldn’t readily come across in the moralistic circles I live my life amongst. ‘Dulce bellum inexpertis’ (war is sweet to those who haven’t experienced it), said the 15th century Dutch humanist Erasmus in response to the popular glorification of war. I never experienced war – though I doubt I won’t see it in my lifetime – and so there is glorification of the heroic struggle happening inside me. That, too, is why I ended up on a remote hilltop in Northern Ireland, giving months of my life in service to a peace and reconciliation centre in a postwar society. Conflict tourism is a concern in Northern Ireland, with nosy foreigners coming to gape at the wounds and scars of others’ suffering.

The young men’s honesty is this: They spoke directly into the natural fact of life that we are all, at the end of the day, tribalists, big monkeys wanting status, sex and power. The testosterone raging in pubescent boys (and girls) is a biological phenomenon that can’t be suppressed and moralised away without the risk of it resurfacing in dangerously cathartic forms down the line. The drug of revolution and galvanising ideals is potent, and tugs at all the human heartstrings of belonging, purpose, and identity. A fellow volunteer here said “I don’t believe we have a natural propensity for violence, but we do have a natural craving for striving and overcoming.” We live in a dualistic universe, and we as individuals learn and grow in dialectics. We need an antithesis, a counterforce to struggle and grow against, to synthesise into an ever-evolving version of ourselves.

The young men also spoke directly from their ancestral legacy. In myth, the four provinces of Ireland were endowed with special gifts. Whereas the other provinces got gifts like storytelling and music, Ulster was endowed with the special gift of war. A fateful gift that was. Both in myth and history, Ulster has been a place of warriors since time immemorial, characterised by a zealous passion for their land, a trait by no means diminished in the Ulster of today. From pre-Christian times where a warrior cutting off his own hand in a mad frenzy of possessiveness to ‘win’ Ulster in a race was to be celebrated throughout the centuries to come by Gaelic earls and kings of Ulster from the O’Neills to the Magennis to the Clanna Ruadraige, up to modern times where his red hand flies defiantly on Loyalist flags who feel themselves as much ‘terrae filii’ (sons of the land) as the Republicans who would see Ulster restored as part of a Gaelic Ireland. But the love of the Ulster warriors for their motherland translated into a fanatical notion of possession of their motherland that keeps them in perpetual strife with each other, whatever ways their divisive identity lines are drawn, to the grief of their mothers, women, children, and the land itself. This is an old, old problem. Once, in the times of the Ulster king Conchobar, the sons of Ulster were cursed for their self-absorbed competitiveness and subsequent disregard and neglect of the motherland they claimed to love so much, by the goddess Macha who avenged the humiliating, unaided, public birth of her twins in the mud by making the Ulster warriors be overcome by the pains of labour whenever they’d need their strength. The latest outburst of war among the sons of Ulster, the Troubles, was the resurfacing of the old pattern. Perhaps their struggle is not so much about ideological differences between two warring clans, who honestly have everything in common from their Christian faith to the love of their land, but a struggle spawned by their misguided relationship with the feminine and the motherland.

The Troubles ended with a general denunciation of violence, and a commitment to finding other means to settle ideological differences. But with coming of age rites of passage having eroded in our contemporary societies, with an ongoing class war caging disadvantaged youth in shortsighted localised mentalities, and with feminine qualities of emotional intelligence and a caring disposition (finally) gaining cultural prevalence in a society that excludes young lads from socialisation into that culture, where do the young lads go with their inborn warrior vitality? What antithesis is still morally justified to strive and overcome in a postwar society? Why the shockingly high rate of suicide among young men in Northern Ireland? Why the spike in paramilitary recruitment among them? Why the radicalisation of marginalised Muslim youth in Europe? Why the rise of populist nationalism across the West? Why the polarisation towards militant rightwing and leftwing politics?

The times we live in

We live in times of great moral conflict. We have island nations facing Armageddon, an unending influx of refugees sitting at the fence of Fort Europa, the lifting of the veil off the ugly face of our centuries-old rape culture pandemic, hate speech modeled by our political leadership and normalised in mainstream discourse, the vast majority of human population under the yoke of poverty and in the iron fist of corporate oligarchy, the invisible marine world (70% of our planet’s surface and the majority of animal biomass) suffocating on our plastics and petrol if not fished up and tossed back dead as by-catch, the Doomsday Clock back to two minutes to midnight with superpowers waving their hydrogen bombs in each other’s faces, as we are freefalling towards the two existential crises facing our world today: nuclear war and anthropogenic climate change. Most of all, understandably, we have a rampant complacency and paralysis. These topics are an instant switch-off for most.

But we can’t look away and hope to love our world into wholeness, wistfully wishing for peace between all things. Not in a world half of whose nature is made up of intrinsic suffering. To cede and over-accommodate to structures enforcing control in the misappropriated name of peace and justice, is to choke our own inner brilliance. I see it here in Northern Ireland on an institutional level, where organisations in the charity sector have cultivated a fearful bureaucracy in compliance with an ever-tightening straight jacket of health & safety regulations, duty of care and liability risk management. In giving in to such external tyranny, the tyranny is transferred on to the inside of the institution, stifling the brilliance of the people that make it up, and sabotaging its own evolution as an organisational entity. Regulations such as these I hear too often used as an excuse for eroding the margin of humanity and life-giving flexibility out of the system. That is a dangerous bridge to build, and here a warrior-rebelliousness is a healthier response, both from the people within the institution to challenge its asphyxiation, and from the institution itself, to be braver and bolder and speak truth to power.

Marianne Williamson wrote “It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us, but our playing small does not serve the world.” “The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.” The hottest place in hell Dr. King spoke of is the regret of failed fulfillment, failed self-actualisation once it’s too late and it’s all over. We must continue to grow into our own and take a stand. As individuals, institutions, and as a global population, we mustn’t fear to shine our brilliant light on the darker corners of the world. So who am I to judge any warrior for taking whichever stand has galvanised their craving hearts? And likewise, who am I to chide the paramount importance of holding the radical centre amidst the divisions in a frantic world? So where does the bridge builder with the warrior heart position herself? Who will the bridge builder allow herself to antagonise, and to whom does the warrior extend a hand?

The synthesis

This Martin Luther King Jr. said also: “Power without love is reckless and abusive. Love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” Adam Kahane likened the navigating of the balance between power and love to the narrow strait Odysseus had to sail between the jagged rocks of Scylla and the whirlpool of Charybdis. I can hold both certitude and humility, I can walk the line between power and love, navigate the strait between the rocks and the whirlpool. The resolution of the paradox of the warrior and the bridge builder is that they are each other’s antithesis, that they are the antagonists in me that evolve each other towards their greater synthesis. And similarly, the warriors of Ulster would do well to dilute their ideological certitude with a healthy dose of humility. And the wishful peacemakers afraid of confrontation would do well to speak out sharply against the errors in the system. Where does the bridge builder with the warrior heart position herself? On the apex of the bridge, where she can hear and be heard by all tribes in the certitude of her synthesis.

Sunset over the Sea of Moyle

Sunset over the Sea of Moyle

Stéphanie Heckman