Uprootedness, Simone Weil wrote, is ‘by far the most dangerous malady to which human societies are exposed, for it is a self-propagating one.’ A person who is uprooted feels lost, dis-connected, subject to a perpetual state of un-ease. To have roots, on the other hand, is to have an idea of your identity, to be able to tell your own story about who you are, where you and your family come from, the community to which you belong, and the taste, feel, smell, visual imagery, or the texture of the landscape of your country of birth and where you grew up. To be rooted is a most important need of the human soul. It gives people a sense of belonging, security, identity and self-respect.
To lose your roots is almost tantamount to losing your deepest sense of selfyour identity, your anchor, your self-respect. You will have an aching desire to recover what you have lost. Perhaps someone who you respect will give you a version of your story, and you begin to have faith in this story, a story you have received second-hand, yet it gives you a template for a narrative that you can claim as your own. Any other story that contradicts it will disturb your notion of your history. For you have now been able to construct a schema, a stereotype that brings discomfort, insecurity and conflict once it is challenged.
Imagine people in exile, those who were driven out of their land or who were taken away from their parents. They were deprived of what Simone Weil calls the ‘natural participation in the life of a community’. They might have never seen their own country or only vaguely remember it as a child, but the sense of belonging and ‘emotional ownership’ could still be strong.We may find a yearning to return and visit these places of significance, even though aspects of direct contact from the narrative of our childhood no longer exist or do not exist at all because of circumstances beyond our control. The disruption, the fructure, the erasure of memory in our identity could undermine our feeling of security and self-respect. Our fall-back position is our template, our stereotype which could also entrap and imprison our vista and our capacity to open ourselves to other related narratives.
Interpreting Simone Weil, philosopher Jonathan Glover referred to four particular elements in rootedness: the first is belonging, the second is security, the third is possession of a sense of identity, and the fourth, a sense of self-respect. Recognition of these elements, he argues, can lead to resolution of conflict.
If you have moved to another country where you have lived for most of your life, like I have, what is your identity? I honour the memories of my childhood, my upbringing, my experience of life in my country of birth, and yet I cannot deny that thirty four years of my life in Australia have changed me and broadened my sense of who I am. Having said this, I know where I belong and am aware of my roots, and this gives me the strength to dig into deeper human truths. We begin, of course, with our own schema but we must be prepared to be open to evidence even if it undermines our stereotype. We must be prepared to liberate ourselves from the prison of our own schema, weaken the grip of what Professor Glover calls our ‘single biased narrative’, and be open to correction, if this is warranted.
But first, we have to allow space for dialogue, space to listen to each other’s narratives, rather than impose our own interpretation on the world. With respect and on equal footing, we must engage each other with what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa calls dialogue truth, ‘the truth of experience that’s established through interaction, discussion and debate’. An honest endeavour such as this could lead to healing truth that ‘places facts… in the context of human relationships.’ Conflict and retribution are thus replaced with public acknowledgment of pain and wrong doing, and restoration of the dignity of individuals and communities. The Australian Government’s apology to Indigenous peoples of Australia early this year has done so much in restoring their dignity and has opened the space for dialogue and healing truth.
This reflection inspired by:
Encounter (ABC radio, 21 December 2008)