There are things that burn me now
Which turn golden when I am happy.
Do you see the mystery of our pain?
That we bear poverty
And are able to sing and dream sweet things
Ben Okri (2022) ‘An African Elegy’
It is a humbling thing to be seen as a role model for so many counsellors and psychotherapists, and my unwavering respect to all those who follow, who support, who read my work and get my words. I do not find this path easy though, hence why I can sometimes find myself wanting to hide away on the South Coast, my hood up, taking a slow jog along the seafront, the salty sea breeze pelting my face on autumn mornings like this one.
When I hear people say they want to be like me, I worry for them. And in a different way, when I am asked how I got to the point I am at now, I fear for the answer I have to give. The reasons for this is that this path upwards has been, and at times continues to be, an incredibly painful one. Being a hero, being a role model, being an ally, is not a flight of fancy coated in perfect poise, blue eyes and blonde hair. It is the gritty, near biblical, definitely alchemical journey through the depths of despair, reaching inwards to find that resource or wellspring, from where strength arises, from whence power grows.
This blog is therefore a symbolic honouring of this process. A presentation of the pain out of which goodness grows.
I have seen your greatness
The strength of your will
What it took for you to get this far
Is what will take you further still
Lemn Sissay (2023)
An endurance of suffering is something which has been written about as the route towards wholeness from the times of the Ancients. Within most cultures, contained within so many myths, from the Bible to the story of Orpheus and Euridice, or from The Alchemist to The Hunger Games, tales of those who we will come to revere, whose metaphors inspire us to be more than we are right now, they abound and inspire us with their bravery, their psychological challenges and changes, and their eventual successes.
Being a role model is not borne out of the narcissistic need to be the best. In many ways it is birthed out of the deep-seated desire to do what is right in the face of injustice. From that non-violent stubbornness remaining seated at the back of the bus, to the bearing of the white blouses and the marching on parliament, to the riots which led to the birth of pride, that so many fights for justice and equality come from otherness, separateness, and injustice is not uncommon.
Each of us enacts Persephone in soul, a maiden in a field of narcissi or poppies, lulled drowsy with innocence and pretty comforts until we are dragged off and pulled down by Hades, our intact natural consciousness violated and opened to the perspective of death. Once this has happened–through a suicidal despair, through a sudden fall from a smooth-rising career, through an invisible depression in whose grip we struggle vainly–then Persephone reigns in the soul and we see life through her darker eye.
Hillman (2018, p. 208)
Those of you who know me personally will understand just how much popular culture means to me. I am a geek in the whitest of meanings of said phrase, and I make no apologies for having read comics, graphic novels, picture magazines (as they were originally called at their inception), written by some of the greatest literary names and others since I was a child. Stories of heroes, tales of those who fought the good fight against impossible odds have moved me and moulded me. Two of my favourite more recent heroes being Bishop of the X-Men, and the incredible Blade, the DayWalker. In fact, seeing that first major Marvel movie, Blade, starring Wesley Snipes, on screen had more of an impact upon me than I could never have imagined. A black superhero, a warrior, flawed, almost broken, who comes back from near the dead to save the day. Stories of the fall and rise of the hero have always drawn me inwards to their centre (and throw in a great soundtrack and I’m a fan for life!).
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Ulysses – Lord Alfred Tennyson (2007)
The victories that I have had so far are therefore built as much upon pain and suffering as they are upon anything imagined by those who sit outside and observe my position, my works and my life. These hold echoes of the sadness and loneliness of a Tennyson, borne out of the isolation and the separateness of a Sissay, and crafted from the shadow journey modelled by a Hillman. Meaning the successes I have now, and my ability to deliver those through a lens where my anger is honed and focused for the good, has been crafted out of life’s blacksmith’s forge, beaten by life’s trials under the oppressors hammer, melted by the heat of hell fire, plunged in icy waters of awakening. A process ongoing and never ending, an alchemy both painful and wisdom returning.
Can’t you see it? But that’s what
Heroes do: they come through in spite of all that blockage,
All those obstacles thrown in the path of the self-liberated.
That way the symbol would be tainted and would fail
To be a beacon and a sign that it is possible
To be black and to be great.
Ben Okri ‘Obama’(2022)
Hillman, J. (2018). The dream and the underworld (1st Editio). Avon.
Okri, B. (2022). A Fire in my Head. Apollo.
Sissay, L. (2023). Let the light pour in. Cannongate Books.
Tennyson, A. L. (2007). Alfred Lord Tennyson: Selected Poems. Penguin Classics.