Apple Trees, Mental Health and Reconciliation
This blog is contributed by Reconcilers Together Programme Support Officer, Bathsheba Wells Dion.
Last week was Mental Health Awareness Week. This is an annual event run by the Mental Health Foundation, and since 2001 its themes have covered everything from stress to body image, alcohol to relationships. In a society in which 1 in 4 adults and 1 in 10 young people will experience a mental health issue each year, it has never been more important to have open conversations about mental illness, and how we care for our emotional and psychological wellbeing.
As someone with a history of mental ill health, I have been reflecting a lot recently on how this intersects with reconciliation. If reconciliation is about restoring broken relationships, what do we do when what is broken is the relationship to ourselves? A frequent response to this is self-care. The underlying idea is that we should practice extending the same hospitality and compassion to ourselves that we would to a friend or a relative. There’s a Martin Luther King Jr. quote which is sometimes used to illustrate this:
Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.
At first glance, the message may seem to be fairly simple. In response to society’s pressures to achieve and conform, in response to the fear inspired by things like climate destruction and global injustice, the reaction is to focus on things closer to home. In many ways this can be a good and healthy approach, teaching us to have perspective: we cannot change the world, but we can all do our own small part to make the world around us better.
The problem comes when this approach isolates the things that we do from the consequences they have. This may mean freeing ourselves to do things because they are good in themselves, not because of any ulterior motive or sense of obligation, but it reduces reconciliation with ourselves and with others to an acceptance of the way that things are now.
This reading of the quote neglects the imagery that King is using. He is not talking about some of the more contemporary, introspective expressions of self-care. There is something particular about the reference of apple trees.
Apple trees take years to grow. They require careful cultivation to produce fruit which the person planting them may not get to enjoy. Through the image of planting seeds, King describes an action reaching farther into the future than we are able to see. Far from advocating that people isolate their actions from their consequences, or their individual happiness from the wider world, King is fully alive to the implications of his work. He is not accepting the ‘known’ future, but by working with the expectation of a future and the expectation of success, he is issuing a stark challenge to everything that we are told is ‘known’ and expected. Reconciliation is not about accepting the way that things are: it is about imagining the possible future of how things could be.
At the risk of reading slightly too much into this apple tree metaphor, apples are self-incompatible. This means that they cannot supply their own pollen or be pollinated by other trees of the same variety. I don’t know if King knew or was deliberately referencing to this fact, but it seems to me that this taps into something important at the heart of reconciliation with ourselves, and the way that this interacts with our reconciliation with others.
When it comes to supporting our mental health – both repairing hurt and cultivating flourishing – one of the crucial components of this is a sense of purpose. To establish a sense of emotional and psychological wellbeing, people need to feel that they have value and that their actions matter. Self-care can be a radical act of defiance against situations which do not want you to flourish or succeed, but when it divorces individual happiness from wider society and structures it is actually hampering people’s wellbeing and preventing them from reconciling with themselves and others.
I think what we can learn from this Martin Luther King Jr. quote, and from the research into wellbeing and mental health, is that what we do cannot be divorced from the society and the structures of which we are a part. Our inner, personal reconciliation cannot be disconnected from our reconciliation with other people and between communities. Because so often stress, anxiety and poor mental health can be natural responses to the injustice and inequality that we see around us.
Reconciliation is not something I pursue in spite of my experience of mental illness and the emotional challenges: it is something that I do because of them. Reconciliation is the way to mental wellbeing, not by retreating into ourselves but by transforming the ways in which we relate to other people, the way we engage within our own community and between those around us. The best way to promote mental wellbeing is to go to the heart of the problem, creating healthier communities, restoring lost connections to the environment and providing new ways of engaging with conflict. This is not only about identifying the issues around us which need to be transformed, but also the ways in which we are (knowingly or not) complicit in systems which perpetrate injustices. Repairing ourselves, reconciling with our flaws, building connections with the people around us and the planet we inhabit: all of those are part and parcel of the same process.
I believe there is also something powerful about refusing to turn our backs on the systems, situations and injustices which cause us stress. During our module at Corrymeela, we looked at the Gospel narrative of the Gerasene man possessed by demons (this appears in Mark 5, Matthew 8 and Luke 8). A man is said to be possessed by demons, and so is chained and tormented by the people in his community. Jesus frees him from his possession, but refuses to let the man join Jesus when he leaves that place. Instead, Jesus tells him to stay with the people who had so tortured him when he was ‘possessed’. He is told to stay and share his account of the great things God has done for him.
This is a striking exploration of the process of marginalisation and oppression, one that I feel is relevant to the question of reconciliation and mental health. Just as the Gospel warns that we should not let the hyperbolic descriptions of the ‘demonic’ man distract us from the cruelty with which he has been treated by his community, so treating the symptoms of mental health – while crucial in its own right – should not distract us from the underlying causes.
As I said, this does not mean that we should not take care of ourselves. At our most recent Journey of Hope module with Rose Castle and Place for Hope in Carlisle, we touched upon host-guest dynamics not only with other people but also within ourselves. Within this risky, challenging and often emotionally draining business of reconciliation, how we host ourselves and make time to care for our own wellbeing is a crucial question. We just need to remember that reconciling with ourselves isn’t separate from this wider, holistic process of reconciling with other people and communities.
And we need to remember that the act of planting our seeds is important, but we need to keep in mind the fruit that they will bear decades from now.
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Views expressed by individuals are not necessarily the views of Reconcilers Together.