If I have one regret it’s that I “heard” instead of “listened” to someone talking about tree paeonies. About eleven years ago I was working in a garden center in Cambridge and among the customers were the gardeners and head gardeners from all of the colleges.
These were mostly older men who had learned their craft with their hands not by going to college. They learned from being first the general boy, then an under gardener, then finally becoming head gardener, all the time accruing knowledge and skill from observing and from being taught. These were men and women who felt the death of a plant when they got it wrong and had the courage to go on adapting their own behaviour so that in future the same thing wouldn’t happen again. To the true gardener the death of a plant feels like a personal wound.
One day one of the gardeners was talking to me and as we walked past a display of paeony grafts he commented that the labeling was wrong. When I asked what he meant he pointed to the label and told me “they don’t need full sun.” Having only had a little experience in growing them I was eager to learn and let him “educate” me on the truth about paeonies. He explained that people looked at tree paeonies as being difficult to grow, that they were temperamental, that they were delicate. He, on the other hand, grew them in deep shade and though they didn’t have as any blooms they flowered nonetheless and could be used to make difficult spaces beautiful. At the time it felt like hidden knowledge, a way to be seen as more skillful, a way to please my clients and to garden in ways that would astound. All of these were my needs at that moment, after all I was starting out in my career having worked under other people for a long time, so I heard the words, changed my practices, but what I didn’t do was listen to what was really being said. While he was completely correct in is assertion that tree paeonies will grow in deep shade the question is not “will they” but rather “should we as gardeners plant them there?”
A tree paeony that is grown in shade will flower, but, unlike it’s sister growing in the sun it will become rangey in it’s growth habit, it will flower less, in short it will become less than it was born to be. It is the difference between survival and flourishing. It’s not for the paeony’s benefit that it grows in shade but for the gardener’s. In being forced to survive not flourish it is the gardener’s ego that is fed and not the paeony’s need to flower and produce seed. For years I have forced plants to jump through hoops, to perform where they were not supposed to perform so that I as gardener might be marvelled at, and all thanks to the fact I heard that gardener but didn’t listen to him.
The same is true for humans. The premise upon which western societies have expanded has been to go out into the world and where we find other humans force them to become like us. We have seen them as things that aren’t flourishing but that can be forced to change and grow according to our will. That one human could look at another and believe that is a tragedy, but that a nation could do it to another? There are no words sufficient for that.
If we a truly honest look at the expansion of our race across the globe, all of the technology, all of the ideas become dust when we see the consequences of our actions. Europeans came to the continent we now call America and took people who were living quite happily but differently to us and like that paeony placed them in the category “can be planted in shade”.
But what do I mean by shade? Surely the advances that western civilization brought were a good thing. We bought western medicine, technology, we gave them governments, medicine, and education didn’t we? All of this is of course true but to those claims I counter with the question “weren’t they doing perfectly well without them?” You see it is the conceit, like that of the gardener, that says “because you are different you must be less and in forcing you to be different you become better.” Yes we as Europeans offered a great deal that could be seen as positive but I still ask was it necessary. At the time we began to invade these shores we were competing for resources to out do our neighbours. If we are honest the subjugation of the true peoples of this continent had less to do bring the gift of civilization and a lot more to do with the vanity of kings and greed of merchants. The peoples of what are now the Americas and Canada were doing perfectly well, it’s just that Europeans felt they were entitled and the church said “you are”.
Sad to tell this greed and vanity is endemic in the western mind. Tracing it back through history we can see it not as a shining positive but rather as an indoctrination that has its roots in religion. Look at the history of Europe. Christianity didn’t grow from a doctrine of peace. Instead it was born from fear and suppression. The church taught people to be afraid of death and filled their head with the fear of eternal pain if they didn’t agree or join the programme. As you plot the growth of the church you see the same thing. A powerful man is converted to the faith, then his people, then the old temples and old ways are suppressed and forbidden. Another tribe, another region, another country falls and is told it’s old ways were wicked and that salvation comes from conformity, not only of action but of thought and belief. All knees bent towards Rome and the Pope, all minds were turned against themselves and taught to be ashamed of their content living as they had been. They were taught that to live in the shade for the glory of a pope was better than to live in their true nature.
If this seems a little far fetched take a look at the treatment of women. For the Celtic woman meeting a missionary there was a complete reversal of her fortunes. Where once she had the ability to lead a tribe, to be a priestess, to be a merchant, to be seen as the greatest among her people, the church reduced her to the status of property. As the church moved through the societies it came into contact with it reduced those members who didn’t fit as means for personal gain. It took matriarchies and changed them to patriarchies, it took the healer who successfully used the plants of the field and told the sick that it was faith not knowledge that would heal them, it taught people to be ashamed of what they had been and taught them to remain ashamed but hopeful of something better once they had died. It taught that unless you were male, powerful, and Christian you were nothing.
As with any thought process over time, if the people in power keep speaking long enough, it becomes accepted truth. Reality shifts to where the subjugated no longer question why their personal freedoms have been taken away and instead accept it as their lot in life. That the levels of suicide and depression are so high amongst the people who were first here are so high isn’t surprising. Like the Vikings, the Celts, the Africans, etc. that the church has come into contact with the native people on these shores and conditioned them to believe that they are less than acceptable and that they have no worth unless they conform. Modern science and psychiatry has a term for this process on an individual basis and that’s “Stockholm syndrome. Where a person becomes so battered by the person seeking to control and oppress them they sympathize with them and accept their reality as truth. The trouble is that the underlying nature of the person will always fight back and this, to my mind, is where the idea of guilt has become such a powerful tool. Depression and potentially suicide are the fruits of guilt not something beautiful.
Let’s be honest the church loves the idea of guilt. Every sermon is based on the spreading of it. We sit and listen to words that reinforce the idea that we are flawed and imperfect. We are indoctrinated to believe that God alone is perfect and that we should feel shame for thinking or behaving as individuals. “Confession is good for the soul” is a phrase which is too readily thrown about. Look at any church and you will see the hive mentality in action. Those people who dare to be different, who dare not to behave exactly like the others, are pushed to the margins or out of the door with a shaking of the head and the book we should all accept as ultimate truth is used to bolster our mistreatment of the individual. In fact guilt has nothing to do with the individual being a failure. Guilt is purely a means by which people are forced to live outside of their true nature. The preacher is not improving a person by showing them how to feel guilty but instead enslaving and destroying them. It is not the person missionized to that is improved but instead its a salve to the ego of the missionary that they are a “good” Christian and a better person.
Historically the European and “Western” society have seen the religion as a tool not for the betterment of mankind but rather as a means to control individual thinking. The church like any other monarchy is not willing to risk its destruction by allowing people to think for themselves. A look at the behaviour, psychology, and methods used by the ruling families of the Roman empire are so similar to the way in which the Catholic church has and does work that it can’t be coincidence. The models are just too similar. By extension whenever the church has split and divided it has carried that sense of entitlement with it. The church does not seek to serve, it seeks to control the minds and hearts of men and to plant them as it chooses not according to their nature.
How we break this pattern is a difficult one. The first step, to my mind, is to see the church and by extension society for what it is, unnatural. When we lose the idea that our belief system and culture is the only model we can allow the people captured by it to thrive. Instead of insisting that ours is the only model of worth what if we were to say instead “look at what we have to offer and take what feels good to you”? Western civilization does have a lot to offer but so do other cultures. No one culture should be seen as being better just different and of equal value to all the others. In trying to do that we as societies must lose our dependance on the church and how it tells us we “must” be, choosing instead to live according to our nature. The Roman empire fell a very long time ago and for all the roads and civilization it brought it was always, always for the benefit of the city of Rome not for the people it brought those roads to. The same is true for the church. In the end the coffers are filled and to hell with anyone who rejects it. Literally.
There is a parable that no Christian has ever been able to give me a satisfying answer to. It runs something like this. A missionary is arrives in a village and begins to tell the people of the love of god and the beauty of heaven. He tells them the miracles that Christ performed, the way that people over the centuries have found happiness and gained heaven through accepting Christ as their saviour and god. He speaks for many hours and is passionate in everything he says. He tells the people how wonderful heaven is and how terrible hell would be. How for those who choose to reject god there is a burning pit of fire and no escape from the pain and suffering. All the time he is talking one old man sits quietly nodding at the words but saying nothing. At the end, after many hours of speaking the missionary sits down and sees the old man still sitting quietly. He goes over and asks him “are you ready to accept Christ as your personal lord and saviour?” The old man nods and says “I have no choice.” So the missionary prays with him, gives him the words of profession of faith, takes him to the river and baptizes him. All the people follow the old man’s example and confess their sins, receive baptism, and pull down their sacred grove building a church on the spot. The missionary spends many months teaching the people and finding a young man who seems to understand well he trains him to be priest for the people. Once all this is done the missionary packs his things and prepares to leave. Standing at the edge of the village he shakes the hand of the old man and congratulates him on becoming a good person and asks him to pray for his success with the next village he goes to. The old man says nothing but instead draws a knife,stabs the missionary to death and walks slowly to the center of the village. The young priest comes to him and asks him to confess his guilt. The old man confesses without emotion and when asked why he would do it to someone who brought wonderful things to the people he spoke quietly. “The man I killed brought knowledge. He taught me of a god who condemned me to eternal pain if I didn’t do what he said. He taught me to fear hell, which I hadn’t heard of before he came. He brought the knowledge to my people that they were damned. If the missionary hadn’t come to my village my people would have attained heaven because by his own rules we were considered innocent in our ignorance. Where we once worshipped freely we now give what we have to a man in a far distant country who is our leader. He has never met us, doesn’t know our names, doesn’t say thank you for the money we send him, and the young man who is now your leader tells us that it’s our duty to do so as good people. He took away our freedoms, our heaven, and has made us poorer. You will kill me for killing him because he was a good man but all I ask is why he would tell us if heaven was ours without knowing and having to change who we were. It is too late for you my village, but I couldn’t let him do the same to another village.
The church used my parents to indoctrinate me that I am sinful. My own father and mother destroyed my right to heaven by teaching me to feel guilt. Why would anyone do that to another human being? My own depression and guilt has always come from the church and not from being taught to rejoice in who I actually am and in the same way too first nations everywhere have suffered the same. We are not citizens working for the glory of Rome and the church needs to remember that. We are not yours to pervert and destroy for being perfect as we are. The wages of sin may be death but the wages of religion are depression and suicide for those who refuse to conform and pervert their true selves. How is that a legacy that the church can be proud of?
A paeony by its nature should be grown in the sun not the shade and though it will bloom in shade it will always be meagre and distorted. If it is forced to grow in shade it will never achieve its full beauty.