Esther Perel is a therapist who specializes in the vibrancy of sexuality and living a full life. Recently I heard her explain her background and it gave me an insight into what is most important in turbulent times.
Esther grew up, post World War Two, in a ghetto in Belgium inhabited only by Holocaust survivors. Living amongst them, she noticed there were two groups of people.
There were those who were barely alive – Esther called these people those who were simply “surviving”.
Then there were those who were fully alive – she called them “thriving”.
Everyone in her ‘hood had been through the brutalities of the war, had lost unimaginable losses and human dignities.
But it was the ones who were alive who were in touch with what Esther calls their “erotic intelligence” who were the ones she saw as thriving.
Their erotic intelligence allowed them to take in life, with all their senses and in all its fullness.
As I listened to Esther describe these two kinds of people, I had a strong remembering come rushing back at me from my distant past. My mother too had been a World War Two survivor. I had never heard this kind of distinction before between those who were fully alive vs those who were barely alive, although of course Viktor Frankl does touch on this distinction in his own memoir of the war in Man’s Search for Meaning.
But it is Esther’s distinction that made me understand more what my mother was a stand for. I received a deeper appreciation for the legacy she left behind when she died last year.
My mother was someone Esther would have seen as one of the fully alive ones. My mother lost her connection with her family, her village and her ancestors because of the war and was forced to leave her village at a young age. I had always looked at this as the great pain and the great cost of war. It has even given me a focus for the whole of my career as a peacemaker.
Although that is still true, as I listened to Esther’s story recently, my own story got extended – it grew larger.
All of a sudden, I got something new. I got something more deeply & profoundly.
It came rushing at me as a water comes pouring over rocks.
My mother was so full of life, so thankful to be alive. She was daring & didn’t play it safe. She loved people up, she laughed & danced and yes, felt pain deeply.
I can see now that her aliveness was the fruit of suffering. I see now how my own commitment to life grows out of what she taught me! Before I could only see the sorrow and now I see the harvest as well.
Here we are at another war. It presents as a war on germs – but really we are also losing our habitat, other species, each other.
We are in a great decline.
The question that arises for me, in this context, is a juicy one. It’s a question that allows for an embracing of life, and that is:
How will I choose to live and to be – in this context?
This is an important inquiry that can reconstruct our lives. It’s the questions of the ages – How then, shall you live?
No matter the outer circumstance, I choose life. I choose pleasure. I choose desire.
Like Esther herself, I want to be a stand for embracing the erotic in life, whether it shows up in the shadows of the deaths of our past, present or future.
Can embracing erotic intelligence give us more of the taste of joy?
As we hang off the cliff – can we reach for the juicy fruit on the mountain side?
Archives for May 2020
My daughter is home from Amsterdam as the COVID crisis comes into its 3rd month in Europe. Perhaps she may be able to return soon, and her time there has certainly given me a new awareness and respect for what the Dutch are up to!
So, it was with interest that I read that the city of Amsterdam is adopting a model of economic renewal to bring them back out of impacts of COVID.
The model is called “doughnut economics.”
Amsterdam will be the first city in the world to adopt this doughnut economics model to guide its public policy and planning decisions, so will also be an experiment to watch and possibly to expect our city to adopt!
Doughnut economics is a concept created by Oxford University economist Kate Raworth, based on her 2017 book of the same name (Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist). It is an economic model that attempts to balance the needs of people without harming the environment.
“When suddenly we have to care about climate, health, and jobs and housing and care and communities, is there a framework around that can help us with all of that?” Raworth says. “Yes there is” she says and “it is ready to go.”
Raworth has created a model to provide Amsterdam with a “city portrait” showing where basic needs are not being met and “planetary boundaries” overshot. It’s pretty exciting stuff, as critics of mainstream economics have been around for a long time (eg. Hazel Henderson, Marilyn Waring). Raworth is starting to make inroads into the mainstream though and that’s exciting!
Check out more about Raworth, Amsterdam and doughnut economics here.
Recently, I started thinking we are like a bunch of porcupines walking around with our bellies up, poking into each other inadvertently as we all try to make sense of what is going on the world and in our little slice of it.
The image of the porcupine for human relations is one I’ve had for a long time. I have often thought that people who presented to the world as cranky or “prickly” in some way, have a soft underbelly. That image helps me in my work as well, as I strive to remember that even the most obstreperous individuals have a core of caring within them (however deeply buried).
This image also has allowed me to persevere until I could make a connection with that soft underbelly in some way. I need a connection to be able to do the mediation work that I do. I’m not always successful in the relating, but this image keeps me focused on the right thing –that each of us has deep sensitivities that may not show on the outside, but none the less exist and are very real.
During the time of COVID, I’ve started to see so many of us turn into some variant of a porcupine. People are more sensitive, more apt to become frustrated, more likely to avoid or misinterpret. I credit the COVID context, as our whole species feels fear together and emotions are contagious.
These porcupines are also turning our bellies upward. We are all over-exposed – doing things we are not used to doing, cut off from each other and social interaction and physical touch, worried about and impacted by all manner of horror from finances to health to losing access to food.
These are real fears and, for some of us, realities.
What is the antidote? I wish I had a quick one, and I don’t. What I do know for sure is that the soft underbelly exists and that I need to remind myself of my own first. If I can remember that my little tummy needs tending and mending and healing, that I am sensitive and soft and caring, that my heart is open for business, the rest falls into place from there.
So, I was pleasantly surprised when I stumbled across this video by the lovely Elizabeth Gilbert talking about porcupines! Have a look! See what she says! So good!
Wishing you lots of love for your own tender bellies and for those porcupines out there that you love!